How they make the toys for Skylanders, Disney Infinity and Shovel Knight

01 Feb 2016
Author:  cerebcerdas
Posted under: News

We explore the manufacturing process behind some of the most popular game/toy crossovers.

Bringing toys to life may be a relatively new business. But business is booming. Video game sections of retailers are now full of toys. Skylanders, Disney Infinity, amiibo, and new this year, LEGO Dimensions, all offer figures that work in conjunction with their video game software. These games now represent a $4 billion market, and they’re already some of the most successful in video game history.

But creating, manufacturing and shipping these figures isn’t an easy process. Designing, selling and shipping video games has its own host of problems, and adding the toy component means working on an additional lengthy timeline that often stretches for years before the figures ever reach store shelves.

There’s also the design process to consider and making sure the toy not only works with what the artists wants, but also fits within factory regulations and safety standards. It can’t just look cool.

The toys first have to make it through months of production, tests that include sustaining freezing cold, being dropped from high surfaces and being ripped apart. And in some cases, even being attacked by Asian gypsy moths.

Enter the dragon

The phenomenon that is Skylanders started in 2011 and came out of Activision’s Toys for Bob studio. The franchise essentially created the toys-to-life market, and Skylanders represents over $3 billion of the market, selling over 250 million toys and making it the eleventh best-selling video game franchise of all time.

And it all started with a portal.

“The first time we saw a toy coming to life on a portal, it was one of those moments that was incredibly magical,” says Josh Taub, senior vice president of product management at Activision. “Everyone in the room smiled and, fundamentally, believed we had something.”

Toys for Bob spent the next three years working on the first version of Skylanders.


Tree Rex from Skylanders

“It’s like one of those things you see and think, ‘Oh! Of course. Like, why wouldn’t this have happened earlier? Because it’s two things that you love, right?” Taub says. “It’s games and toys coming together.”

A typical Skylanders game takes about two years of development time with the toys having a lot of early up-front design work. The team not only has to create the characters, but also how they work in game — the powers, the upgrade paths, the base configurations and the element types.

“You’re making firm decisions on characters 12 to 14 months before the game’s released,” Taub says. “Because you have to go through a very in-depth process of getting prototypes into the system, making sure they look like they did in design, making sure they have a good feel in the hand, to cut tools … and then start to propose for end use and production.”

The design process for a line of figures can take six months to a year, with the prototype and production stage taking an additional six months to a year. The characters that Activision released in 2015 kicked off back in early 2014, and the company is already through most of the toy design process for 2016.


Eruptor from Skylanders

That’s quite a bit of lead time for a toy that generally sells for $13 retail.

Each year also brings new complications to the process. Skylanders: Giants, which came out in 2012, required new tool sets, and 2015’s Skylanders: SuperChargers introduced vehicles.

The design teams have 3-D printers in their offices and start with printed prototypes. The teams then work with production facilities to first create working prototypes and figure out the finer details and textures for the figures, like Tree Rex’s tree bark, or Ninjini’s swords or the wheels and grills on the SuperCharger cars.

“That process takes time and back and forth, because what you think may be great sometimes is but sometimes requires a lot of iteration,” says Taub.

Someone checks every toy that comes off the line against the original to make sure the quality is consistent for every figure of each character — from prototyping to final production.


Stealth Elf from Skylanders

And while five years ago it may have seemed crazy that retailers would dedicate shelf space in their video game sections to toys, the initial reaction from retailers was nothing but excitement, according to Taub.

It took some education — both on the part of Activision and the retailers — to figure out how to do it. But for retailers, it also meant having a product that kept bringing people back into stores to buy new toys over and over again, as opposed to coming in once for a game release.

That also brings other challenges, including toy availability and the longer lead time needed to produce toys compared to the time needed to produce discs. There’s the fact that they are physically different — toys as displayed on pegs as opposed to game discs on a shelf — but it’s also a different business model, and Skylanders is a year-round business.


Jet-Vac from Skylanders

“Once you make a game and press a disc, you’re putting the disc out to the level of demand,” Taub says. “But when you’re making toys, you’re releasing toys all year-round, and that production cycle continues all the way through the year and sometimes into the next year.”

Skylanders has managed to create a new segment of the gaming industry, but it’s also topped the toy industry. Over 250 million Skylanders toys have sold worldwide, outselling even the top action figure lines in North America and Europe for the past four years.

“Sitting outside my office there’s a wall of every toy we’ve ever made,” says Taub. “… And you stand in front of the wall and you realize that every one of the toys goes through the highest level of care and that the team is so passionate about what they’re creating for each of the kids who’s going to wind up with their favorite toy in the season,” Taub says. “And that’s continued all the way through today.”


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