Creating Skylanders

Read a Q&A with the lead character artist on the video game Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure

Dec 15, 2011 | By Kelli Plasket
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I-Wei Huang is a character artist.
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I-Wei Huang is a character artist.

I-Wei Huang has been an artist at video game developer Toys for Bob for ten years. He served as the lead character artist on Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure (Available now for Nintendo Wii/3DS, Xbox 360, PlayStation3 and Windows/Mac. Read our review here). The role required Huang to create colorful action characters that worked as both a physical toy and inside the virtual world of a video game. TFK chatted with Huang to learn more about his job—and about his award-winning side projects creating steam-powered robots.

TFK:

You are the lead character artist behind the Skylanders. What did that involve for you?

I-WEI HUANG:

I helped create all the [Skylander] characters with [Toys for Bob] studio head Paul Ritchie. I drew a bunch of characters and tried to refine them to a point where it felt like a really good video-game character, as well as a really good toy. Then we started prototyping and eventually we [created] over 30 characters that are both toys and in-game characters.

TFK:

What are some of the most important tools on your job?

Huang's design for Spyro (left) and the final game toy (right)
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Huang's design for Spyro (left) and the final game toy (right)

HUANG:

Creativity. As far as the real tools are concerned, almost everything is done on the computer. Initially, we had made clay models [of the characters] in small quantities, hand painting each toy by hand, but over time we moved on to a process where it is prototyped by a toy engineering company. So most of my job now is drawing on the computer. I model the characters, which is basically like working with clay but within the computer, adding the textures and everything. So I guess the best tool is the computer.

TFK:

You created brand-new characters for the Skylanders game. Did you have a favorite character to design?

HUANG:

No, because they all have personal meaning to me. Each one of them has been a long road. It’s never the case where I just draw a character and we say “Hey, let’s make this into a character and a toy, and let’s make millions of these.” Each toy goes through an evolution. You start out with something really simple on a piece of paper, and then you slowly work on trying to define [features]. One thing that I am very happy about is that we have a huge variety of characters. That’s so that each person has a favorite. I just can’t pick myself.

Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is available now across platforms
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Skylanders: Spyro's Adventure is available now across platforms

TFK:
Skylanders is new in that it has this physical, interactive toy element with the game. Was that something new to you—designing both a physical and digital character—and how did that make your job different?

HUANG:

It’s definitely a new experience. I’ve been working in the video-game industry for over a decade. You do everything on a computer. I love having something physical that you can actually touch. You end up making so many characters on the computer that you can never touch—they just look real. But now with these toys, you’ll be able to touch them and feel them. It’s a magical experience for me.

TFK:
What were your interests as a kid: art, engineering, science?

HUANG:

All of the above. I spent a lot of time as a kid drawing and playing with clay, and I also spent a lot of time reading [about] animals and insects. I just really loved to find out how things worked. I was just naturally curious and liked to draw.

TFK:

One of your hobbies now is designing and building steam-powered robots. What inspired the idea?

I-Wei's Steam Walker robot was an award winner at RoboGames 2006
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I-Wei's Steam Walker robot was an award winner at RoboGames 2006

HUANG:

Once you start working on the computer, you stop getting your fingernails dirty. I really missed that. I like to tinker with my hands. I love the idea of Steampunk, which is this genre of movies and stories and stuff based on old Victorian technology, but in an alternate universe. I spent a lot of energy learning exactly how a steam engine works to the point where I was drawing up pretty detailed drawings and thinking, “You know, I think this would work.” That’s when I started tinkering with and started building these steam-powered robots.

TFK:

How do the robots work?

HUANG:

The idea of steam-power is actually really simple in its basic form. If you make tea, or cook, and you see steam, you know it is water when it’s boiled. If you cover up where the steam comes out, it’s going to build up pressure to a certain point where it starts to push something out. If you channel that into a cylinder of an engine, you can push the cylinder in and out with steam [to power it].

To learn more about Huang’s bots, watch the video below.

TFK:

How does working on these engineering projects on the side help with your job?

HUANG:
I always say that having visual problem-solving skills is really important. It has helped me quite a bit in [working on Skylanders]. It’s like one of those math problems—if you put it on paper, it’s hard to understand, but as soon as you draw it out, it’s much easier. I think over the years I’ve developed the ability to problem-solve in my head and visualize [the solution] before even putting it down on paper.