Robot maker brings Skylanders toys to life (try not to hate him)

Tree Rex and Stealth Elf
Tree Rex and Stealth Elf are two of the characters/toys that I-Wei Huang created for the Skylanders games. If you have a young gamer in the house, there's a good chance they'll be on your gift list this holiday.

If your children are begging you ... and begging you some more ... to buy them the new "Skylanders Giants" video game and, more importantly, the many toys that go with it, then you have one man to thank. Or perhaps blame.

His name is I-Wei Huang (aka CrabFu) and he is a renowned robot maker, artist and tinkerer extraordinaire. But these days he is, perhaps, best known as the creator behind the 40-plus collectible toys that go with the enormously popular Skylanders video games.

Huang's official title is Director of Characters and Toys at Toys for Bob, the game development company that brought us last year's surprise hit "Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure" as well as the just-launched sequel "Skylanders Giants." 

If you have children who love video games, then surely you are well aware of the Skylanders franchise — because the original game and now the sequel are nothing short of pure child toy-making/marketing genius. That is, Skylanders has managed to merge the world of physical toys with the world of video gaming in a way that is utterly engaging and absolutely fun for kiddies (of all ages) ... if perhaps a little hard on the adult wallet.

The gist of the phenomenon is this: the Skylanders video games (available for most all of the gaming machines) are bright, humor-filled action/role-playing titles that task players with using various colorful characters (the Skylanders themselves) to fight off a host of baddies trying to take over the soaring world of Skylands.

I-Wei Huang
Tinkerer, artist and robot-maker I-Wei Huang created the toys your children are begging you for right now.

But the twist here is that the characters in the games are also real-world toys. And these physical toys appear to be sucked from our world right into the game world ... where they are then brought to digital life.

Thanks to the magic worked by the RFID chip embedded in the bottom of each toy, the player simply places their Skylander figure on the Portal of Power (a plastic peripheral that comes with the games). An animated version of that character is then whisked into the game.

But what really sends this tech over the top is the fact that the character's experiences in the game are stored on the matching toy's RFID chip. That means kids can take their Skylander toy with them to a friend's house and then pop that toy onto their friend's Portal and into their friend's Skylanders game where it will still have all of its own unique game stats and upgrades in tact.

As I said, it's a toy ... it's a video game ... it's genius. But no small part of that genius is the design of the toys themselves.

Huang — who has made the rounds of internet fame for creating robots and various steam-powered machines that are big on personality — has brought that talent for conveying personality to the Skylanders line of figurines. (For a look at some his robotic creations, check out the following History Channel video.)

Whether it's the bark-skinned giant Tree Rex or the feathered birdman Jet-Vac, Huang's Skylanders are cute, tough and full of charisma. And as my own 5-year-old will attest, they are enormously enjoyable to play with — both as part of the game and on their own.

Not only is it a joy to watch my son light up as these characters spring to life on our TV screen, in his hands and especially in his imagination, since two people can play "Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure" and now "Skylanders Giants" together, I've been able to join him in the fun too.

Alas, the downside here is that the Skylanders games have been known to inspire a bad case of the "I wants!" in youngsters. Sure, they can play these games with only the three toys that come with the starter packs (priced at $75). But your child is bound to want more (and more) of these cool figurines — which run roughly $15 a pop — so they can unlock additional portions of the game and so they can build out their toy collection. 

Of course, that's what birthdays and holidays (and bribery) are for.

I recently had a chance to interview the man behind the beloved Skylanders toys by e-mail. Huang talked toy making, robots and giving characters real character. Here's what he had to say.

"Skylanders Spyro’s Adventure"  and of course the toys  have been an enormous success. What do you think the appeal is? Why are people so taken with this game/toy hybrid?

Huang: I think that we’ve made some really compelling characters, and the toys are well made, and the game is really fun for the entire family — all of which contributed to the success of Skylanders. We want it to feel magical for kids, letting them play the way kids like to play with their toys.

How many characters have you created for the Skylanders franchise so far?

Huang: There are 48 unique Skylanders characters to date, excluding the variants, special editions, and new poses. And then there are about 200 enemies and NPC’s (non playable characters) in the game.

Can you tell me about the process you go through when you create a character? Where do you draw your initial inspirations from and how does that become a physical toy?

Huang: I’d say that most of my inspiration actually comes from nature; influences from the natural world, prehistoric to the microscopic. Natural history has the most amazing designs; I often use them for reference. Even though the characters are very stylized and often silly, I try to maintain a certain degree of anatomical credibility to each character in order to make them feel more real and believable.

I start by sketching a ton of different ideas, coming up with compelling characters that the 10 year old in me would have loved. I work closely with Toys for Bob’s Head of Studio, Paul Reiche, on almost all of the sketches and character ideas. It’s actually rare that the first design would ultimately turn into a Skylander; it’s usually lots of iterations. And at times, Paul and I would fly down to Activision with our designs to get their feedback as well.

Can you give me an example of one or two of the characters you created for "Skylanders: Giants" and tell me where the inspiration for their design came from?


Huang: Tree Rex was the first Giant that I tackled. He was a result of my attempt to make a big tree into a giant warrior. I wanted the Giants to feel massive and strong, so I started with a tree. We all understand that a tree is big and heavy, so it already feels like a Giant. Then I brought the character out of the tree, and included some painted wooden armor, to make him feel and look like a capable warrior.

Zap is a water dragon; he is a mix of an electric eel, basilisk lizard, and some elements of a dragon with amphibian feet. He also has steampunk chest armor and tanks, to give him that extra pop.

If you were to boil it down, what is the key to making a great Skylanders character?

Huang: I think it's creating characters that kids would like, making them simple and easy to understand, but with a special and unusual element to them. Of course, the toy and the way the character looks is just half of the battle. The game need to be really fun and each character must have unique and fun game play. Luckily, the amazing team here at Toys for Bob can deliver a really fun and unique experience for each character, one in which our fans have come to expect.

Do you have a favorite or a few favorite characters among your creations? If so, which ones and why?

Huang: No, I really don't. I've consciously made sure that the characters are as varied as possible so that any kid could pick out a favorite just by looking at the toys. But all of the Skylanders are my creations, so it's hard to pick favorites.

Some of the first Skylanders had little to no iterations, helping to define the entire look of the Skylanders world, including Stealth Elf, Bash, Chop Chop, and Trigger Happy. I guess these guys will always have a special spot in my heart as the original team that started it all. But they’re all special to me in some unique way.

I get asked this question probably the most, and I always turn the question around… which is your favorite? My favorite is not important, but I love to hear which characters other fans are drawn to, and I love being surprised by the answer. Some big, macho grown men love the cutest little characters, and some little girls love the more aggressive and edgy characters. I think it might tell a little something about themselves.

Can you tell me about the new characters in Skylander Giants? I understand they are, well, giants. Did you approach their creation differently in any way? Were there any new challenges you faced with the new characters?

Huang: Yes, I had to think about them a little differently. They obviously needed to be really large, and feel much more powerful than normal-sized Skylanders; and therefore, the giants went through much more iterations and exploration. The amount of detail and paint operations on the giant toys were much more extensive than a normal-sized Skylander, so the giants took a lot more time and energy to create.

Has your work with robots influenced your work on the Skylanders games? Is there any crossover between your toy designing and your robot design?

Huang: Yes, old technology brings a certain amount of comfort and charm, which I love. With Skylanders being set in a fantasy world, we use a lot of magical powers, yet much of the magic actually powers some of the world’s “technologies,” which I think are perhaps steam powered.

Some of the Arkyian designs are based on something that looks like a royal armor, something that also feels very steampunk. The trolls have low-tech robots and machines that you fight against, which are also very steampunk. I think my hobby in steam-powered robots made me very aware of mechanical designs of the Victorian era, and many Skylanders characters and vehicles have this steampunk look and feel to them.

In a couple of the online videos about your work with robots, you mention that creating things with "personality" is an important aspect of what you do. Can you tell me what you mean and how that plays out in your work with Skylanders?

Huang: My passion is creating characters and the illusion of life. It’s hard for me to draw or make anything without having some element of personality in them. It's vital that the Skylanders have lots of personality, from the toy level all the way down to the game.

And there must be enough variety for any fan to have at least a few unique Skylanders that they really like, hopefully a few that they love too. That is something I try to infuse in my work, as well as my hobby. If you smile while looking at one of these creations, my job is done. 

Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.