It’s sometimes quite astonishing to think it, but when huge games like Destiny, Watch Dogs and Call of Duty grab the headlines and are fixated upon by millions of adult and adolescent gamers, the likes of Skylanders and relative newcomer Disney Infinity have managed to become two behemoths in the games market for children. They aren’t as likely to feature in Game of the Year lists or garner as much critical acclaim, but with their physical toys that compliment the games themselves, they’re able to make money hand over fist.
With Trap Team the fourth entry in the Skylanders series, the core gameplay mechanics have already been matured and honed. It’s well tuned to offer fairly simplistic action adventuring that should be quite easy to grasp for children, as they do battle with the various bad guys that they encounter. On top of that, there’s a vibrant art style that fits the often quite outlandish character design to a tee, and this goes hand in hand with the witty banter of the game’s NPCs as they give you your objectives and act out the cutscenes.
Of course, the main hook of the series has always been the manner in which the physical character models are able to interact with the game itself. Trap Team introduces a new set of characters to play as, adding Trap Masters to the huge list of models from previous games, and it’s as simple as plonking a model onto the Traptanium Portal and seeing them load up into the game.
Yes, there’s another new portal to acquire, but it’s necessary for the gameplay of trapping enemies and capturing them in crystalline Trapstone keys, adding a second, digital group of characters to play as – the evil sheep is quite fun, for example. You can then quickly hop back and forth to the villain as a kind of tag team, and also pick from all those who you’ve captured in the Villain Vault.
However, what could be the most remarkable part of Trap Team is that it’s set to truly arrive on both iOS and Android based tablets for the first time. This isn’t a cut down tablet-specific thing, but the full game with all of the levels and support for all of the characters and models by way of bluetooth accessories. If you thought Skylanders was already a huge franchise, then the potential market just got even bigger.
While Toys for Bob are handling the main console version, Vicarious Vision, who tackled Swap Force last year, are taking on the tablet version. Speaking to Karthik Bala, Vicarious’ CEO, he revealed, “We’ve worked with Toys for Bob since the beginning of the franchise, and we’ve actually been collaborators as studios since before either one of us were part of Activision. So we’ve worked with them for a long time, and TFB has used VV’s engine technology and tools for, boy, ten years maybe? It’s been a long time!
“So we’ve done all of the core technology for Skylanders and continue to develop that, and the way we work as teams, even the Swap Force team for example, the tools are designed to really give the content creators a tremendous amount of freedom and not have to worry about the hardware at all.”
While tablets have been in millions of homes since before the Skylanders series first came out, it’s only really now that the technology is capable of handling the full and unadulterated game. Part of this comes on the graphics side of things, where the minimum requirements exclude some older and more ubiquitous tablets, with the iPad 3 and Nexus 7 2013 providing the baseline. While the graphics will scale, when running on a Retina iPad Mini, the game really does look like it can rival the Xbox 360 and PS3 in terms of graphics, outside of a few framerate hitches here and there.
“This is the full console version, completely uncompromised and on iPads, on Android tablets as well as Fire OS,” explained Karthik. “It’s something that fans have been asking for as well […] and so we really wanted to do this, but we sort of had to wait a little while until the hardware caught up to that vision, and as you know, tablets are refreshing every year and getting more and more powerful. So that’s part of the equation in terms of waiting for the devices to be more powerful, but then the other part is how are we going to bring the 200 million toys that are already out there to life on tablets.”
Whether those toys are old or new, the solution to the second problem comes in the form of the Bluetooth Traptanium Portal, which uses the low power specification so that it can run off batteries for extended lengths of time and almost seamlessly connect to the tablet. On one side you’ve got a little slot so that it can act as a tablet stand, but turn that Traptanium Portal over, though, and you’ll find a little Bluetooth 4.0 controller nestled inside it, which can be used instead of touch inputs. It’s got all the buttons you would expect from a console controller, with twin analogue sticks, a D-Pad, face buttons and even two pairs of shoulder buttons. While it’s quite lightweight, it felt quite bashable and like a fairly decent bit of kit overall.
Karthik said, “We wanted to have you not going out and looking for controllers, so everything you need is going to be in the box, which is really important,” adding that, “The Red Octane team, that worked on the Guitar Hero controllers and peripherals, helped design the portal and the toys. We designed the controller with a few things in mind. We wanted it to be really robust and durable and kind of kid proof, it’s designed to be a little bit smaller for kid hands, and also portability. This is actually the first ever Bluetooth Low Energy controller coming out on the market, and it allows us to seamlessly pair across iOS, Android and Amazon Fire OS.
The only problem I can really see here is that these both run off plain AAA batteries, which feels quite archaic. I’d personally have expected to see USB charging ports for built in rechargeable batteries, but actually encountered screwed on battery covers – apparently to pander to child safety laws – which are bound to be quite annoying for parents that then have to dig out a screw driver every time the batteries run out. Thankfully, the BLE spec should let you get around 8 hours or more of play.
That point aside, the way the game works on tablets is nearly perfect. While you’ll buy a starter pack to get that portal and a few starting characters, the app itself is a free download and includes a trial level and characters. Once you connect it to a portal, the whole game unlocks for you, with characters and levels downloaded in the background up to a size limit you can determine. As soon as you disconnect that portal, the two built in digital characters return and you can continue to play on the go. Similarly, you can play with digital touch controls or the physical controller and even do co-op with a second 3rd party controller.
Having that ability to play co-op is quite a vital part to the game, as Karthik said, “It’s like Transformers and He-Man and all these action figures you grew up with as a kid, and now this is the equivalent of that for this new generation. It has a huge impact with kids and with parent, and a lot of our developers including myself have young kids who we play Skylanders with, and that parent-child co-op play is a big deal. So when you have that interaction and emotional connection to the franchise, it’s an important part of your childhood, so we take it quite seriously in that respect.”
It hits home just how big games like Skylanders are for kids these days, but also just how many children are growing up playing on tablets – Karthik mentioned at one point how many kids will be more accustomed to playing “on glass” than with a controller. With Skylanders seemingly able to make the jump to tablet with ease, it surely can’t be long before we see tablets trapping more games like this behind their glassy screens.