Spyro Reignited Trilogy - Developer Toys for Bob's Love Letter to Spyro Fansby Kirby Yablonski
Last week Activision was kind enough to fly us to down to California to check out the studio for developer Toys for Bob and see their upcoming game the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. It was not your normal preview event though, as we got to spend time with various individuals listening to how they made the remastered Spyro trilogy. What was evident during these presentations was the passion and commitment Toys for Bob have to make the game not only faithful to the original, but turning it into a game that would feel, sound, and look, like it was indeed made for the current generation of consoles.
Our time allowed us to learn a lot in terms of the work and tools they have used to develop the Spyro Reignited Trilogy. We had the chance to sit and talk with Paul Yan, Chief Creative Officer and Co-Studio Head, Josh Nadelberg, Art Director, Stephan Vankov, Music Producer and Peter Kavic, Sr. Producer. If there was one thing that stands out from my time with all these people, it is that Toys for Bob has created a game that stands on three pillars: Original Intent, Fun Memories, and Faithful Gameplay.
The first pillar, Original Intent, is best described as how Toys for Bob wanted to discover what the original intent and/or idea of what the game was meant to be. They actually took time to visit the original developers, Insomniac, and talk to those who may have worked on the development for Spyro. They also made the effort to track down and speak to as many people as they could who may not be at Insomniac anymore, but who worked on the project at that time. Toys for Bob noted that when the original games were made, there were definite limitations in technology when compared to today's consoles, and that this may have been an issue in terms of the original intent of the game given what they could do on the original PlayStation at that time. Insomniac has not been involved directly with the development of the game, and haven't had a say in any of the design choices per se, but Toys for Bob wanted to get their input and show them that they were putting a lot of love and respect into the game, something they believe they have demonstrated to the many of the original team.
Toys for Bob asked if Insomniac if they had any original assets, but they did not, but what they did have was lots of written documentation of what they were doing when making the original Spyro game(s). We were shown some original drawings, on graph paper, of actual level designs, and what they were hoping to make. It was also noted how during the conceptualization and development stage, that the first Spyro game was called project "Pete" and that Spyro was actually called Pierre at first. Add to this fact that Pierre was not the Spyro we know now, as he was to be a rebellious prankster like dragon. It's pretty interesting to see all the original documentation, including sketches of what they originally intended Spyro (Pierre) to look like, including facial expressions. One of the more amazing facts is that the original Spyro game model has less polygons than one of the reignited Spyro's eyeballs. Yes, you read that right, one single eyeball.
The next pillar, Fun Memories, is more of a person-oriented pillar. There is an active community of gamers who are fans of the original, and who want a remaster. The crew at Toys for Bob have had a lot of discussions about why Spyro is important to individual people and what the character, and the franchise, means to them. It was this pillar that really drove the dev-team to make sure the Reignited Trilogy was made right, as it will most likely affect memories of the original game for those who have an attachment, in one way or another, to it. In essence, it is like the game is a time capsule, as the experience could bring back so many memories of why this game means something. I had a chance to see some of the fan mail, and although we are not able to really talk about it, one quote from a fan resonated with me, and it said "Thank you for reigniting my childhood". It says a lot in one small statement.
The final pillar, Faithful Gameplay, is pretty much self-explanatory; however, there is a lot more to what it takes to do this then one might realize. One of the main goals within this pillar is to make sure that the Reignited Trilogy is balanced between modernizing it to the current generation of consoles while still allowing fans who play it to feel like they are playing the original (e.g. people's memories of such).
One such tool that allowed them to capture the feeling of the all the original games was using an in-house tool they built called "SpyroScope". This allowed them to the game in emulation mode while capturing real-time technical data. This data would interpret such things as how high Spyro jumps, how fast he moves along certain paths, what frames characters are at during animations, and much more. This data was then then transported to the current game's graphics engine, and the level designers then worked around this one to one data analysis. It was at this point that it really hit me how much work Toys for Bob was putting into this ‘remaster', as they were actually porting over gameplay dynamics and structure from one place to another, making it a true port of the gameplay mechanics for the game. It wasn't just a new ‘coat of paint'. This should allow fans of the original to feel how the game's mechanics in the modern version accurately mirror those of the original.
Given the work that has been done to preserve the gameplay, there is another area or two that can't be ignored, and that is the Art Direction and Sound (music).
Toys for Bob knew the environments needed updating, but there was another area that needed a lot of work, and that was the characters. There were some challenges to Spyro that had to be addressed, and it was surprising to see how the final version resulted. When high-rezing what they thought should be the current Spyro, they originally went with a little more lifelike look, including such things as scales; however, as the development process went on, they took a different approach making Spyro look more stylized. It really became about the form, shape and design, and all the current media shows a very good looking Spyro that is modern, but yet has the charm of the original.
As there are many dragons for Spyro to meet, and do tasks for over the three games, there was a lot of work to be done. In the original game, most of the dragons were the same model, but just skinned differently. What Toys for Bob did is make each dragon an individual, something that can be remembered for not only their part in the story, but what the look like too (e.g. size, shape, features, etc.). Each dragon is designed to reflect what part of the story they have with Spyro at a particular time. For example, there is a dragon named Lucas, and his role is to unveil a secret area in the game. If you look closely at the inside of this dragon's wings, you will see a map on it, which reflects his role in the game.
When I asked how many characters in total they redesigned for the Reignited Trilogy, the response was over 700 characters. Yes, over 700 characters have been updated for this modern version of the franchise. From the bigger characters right down to the smaller background characters (e.g. rats scurrying across the grass or sand) to all the NPCs, each one has been redesigned, and Toys for Bob says that they all have their own personalities (e.g. how they move, look, or even talk). The goal for them in redesigning all the characters was that they really wanted to get it right for the fans, as they are the ones who most likely to remember who the characters are, what they say, and how they have their own roles in the game's story.
This finally leads to the games audio, specifically the in-game music. What was prevalent in this area is that they wanted to give fans options. You can play the three games listening to the original soundtrack of each or you can play the game with the new modernized soundtrack. In terms of the latter, you also have the option to play with a dynamic or non-dynamic modern soundtrack. Let me explain.
If you've played any of the later Skylander games, you will have experienced of a dynamic soundtrack. The music changes depending on what you are doing in any given level. For the Reignited Trilogy, you'll find there are four variations in terms of the dynamic music, including the Base Variation, Idle Variation, Charge Variation and the Inside variation. These effects or changes in music relate to your actions, so if you are idle, you'll hear a distinct change in the music as you just sit there, but if you are charging at enemies, the music picks up tempo, or changes all together, to highlight the speed that Spyro gets and the excitement of action. Your environment can even change the music's sound, and this was evident when in a cave, you could hear how the music had a slight reverb to it.
The sound team found it quite challenging to track down samples of the original instruments, that were used in the original game, which they needed to modernize the older music. At times they'd have to go through a library of up to 80 distinct sounds to find the one sound that matched what they heard in the original game. Much of the old music was also lower quality and mono, given the hardware available at the time. The work to remaster and modernize the music is very evident though, as hearing the original soundtrack and then the Reignited version was very evident given the just how much better is sounded. And for the purists out there, the music will be in stereo while the sound effects will be surround sound.
Although we had hands on time with the game, including Dino Town, a remastered level that hasn't been unveiled, I can say that it truly looks like, and plays like, a modern platform game, That being said, I am not focusing this article on my time with it. Why you ask? Well, it's not because it's a bad game, in contrary, I can't wait the play the final version given my time with it and how polished it felt. I want this article to focus on how much time, energy, and in some ways the love and respect, that has gone into the making the Reignited Trilogy.
Prior to the opportunity to speak directly with Toys for Bob I had only seen videos of the game, and I didn't see the game in person. Now that I have played it, and I reflect upon what was told to us about the process of making this game, I can honestly say that at this point in time, fans of the franchise are in for a treat. The amount of respect Toys for Bob has for those who love the franchise is very notable. I can't say enough how much more admiration I have gained for Toys for Bob (not that I didn't have any), given what they have done to remake the Spyro Trilogy, bringing it into the modern era, all the while maintaining the core gameplay that fans of the franchise should remember while also giving it a chance to be played by a brand new audience on the current generation of consoles.