How 3D printing brings 'Skylanders' to life

Toys for Bob's Skylanders franchise isn't the only "toys to life" game in town anymore and Paul Reiche, co-founder and studio head, is well aware of the deep-pocketed competition. "We recognize that we've got Disney with Infinity and Nintendo with Amiibo and, you know, they have entered into this world with their own products. And it's really our job to make sure that, through innovation, we're leaders," he says. The franchise, which lets players control virtual versions of their RFID-equipped figurines in-game, was the first to successfully merge physical toys and video gaming as part of a new crossover entertainment category. Given that penchant for innovation, it's no surprise that the studio has now fully embraced 3D printing as a means of streamlining its in-house creative process.

It was during the development phase for Skylanders: Giants in 2012 that Toys for Bob began experimenting with 3D printing. "We noticed that the price [of 3D printers] was rapidly dropping down actually into our budgets for video games," says Reiche of the studio's decision to embrace the maker tech. "We started out buying a fairly expensive machine by our standards, printing out color versions of our toys."

The idea behind this investment, Reiche says, was so that he and I-Wei Huang, the lead character and toy designer, could get a real sense of how their two-dimensional drawings would fare as fleshed-out 3D models. Apart from giving the creative duo more freedom to experiment and quickly iterate on designs, the tech was also helpful in determining what character poses would fit properly within the constraints of retail packaging (e.g., adjusting the grip of a character's weapon and stance).

But it wasn't long before the studio scrapped that particular color 3D-printing process due to the fragility of the printed models. The material, Huang explains, was too brittle and often the models would break easily. And so, Toys for Bob ditched it in favor of a more reliable (and colorless) Objet Eden printer for Skylanders character prototyping. "The next generation of 3D printers went beyond this sort of grainy, but colored surface and became very high-resolution, rigid plastic rubber," says Reiche. "We could make durable toys; make things that look really close to final in terms of the quality of the surfacing."

"The MakerBot we just started using. It will help us prototype early stages really well and just kind of define the size. It doesn't have the detail levels that the Objet [printer] has," says Huang.

More commercial 3D printers, used for lower-quality character iterations, were added to the mix later. "The Objet printer is what we use the most," says Huang. "It's super-high resolution. The MakerBot we just started using. It will help us prototype early stages really well and just kind of define the size. It doesn't have the detail levels that the Objet [printer] has." The efficiency gain, it seems, is worth it. Whereas before, it would take Huang at least four weeks to see his creations made into physical models, the inclusion of 3D printing means he can see results in-studio in about four hours. That quick turnover time means he can continue to tweak minor things like detailing for gloves or leather patterns.

"Before we started 3D printing, the process took a long time. Basically, we would draw a character. We'd have a toy team to kind of help us model it ... and also prototype the actual physical toys. And that could take months and months of work before we'd actually see anything back," says Huang.

Now, however, Huang feels freed up to experiment more with the many characters that inhabit the world of Skylanders. "As soon as a character is finalized on paper, we start modeling and instantly we can print something overnight after the model's done. We can try different detail levels, expressions and stuff like that ... different poses." That flexibility even extends to the number of Skylanders that can be 3D printed at once, as Huang says up to five Giants or 10 core, regular-sized characters can be made on one tray within the Objet printer.

"I would love to have a 3D printer that can do everything, but it's not something that we can develop here. We're using consumer machines," says Huang.

3D printing may have made the creative process more efficient for Huang and Reiche, but it's not without its headaches. Occasionally, print head malfunctions can cause the printed models to appear melted or irregular in parts. There's also the matter of material limitations. Since a typical Skylanders figurine is made up of more than just plastic, Toys for Bob would have to invest in either a bespoke 3D printer or purchase a multi-material industrial 3D printer to achieve a model with near-final production quality.

While 3D printers of that latter variety do exist, their costs (i.e., that printer and materials) can prove prohibitive. The Objet1000, for example, works with a variety of materials (about 100-plus) and can print using up to 14 of those at a time in one model. It's that type of 3D printer that Toys for Bob would need to fully realize a final production-quality Skylanders model, except the cost of something on that scale easily rises above the half-million dollar mark. So, for now at least, it's not a financially feasible option.

"I would love to have a 3D printer that can do everything, but it's not something that we can develop here," says Huang. "We're using consumer machines."

If there's one inevitability surrounding 3D printing that Huang believes in, it's that in the not-too-distant future, kids will be able to make their own Skylanders figurines (and other toys) at home. The idea isn't as far-fetched as it sounds, either. Already, companies like Hasbro and Sesame Workshop are making CAD files available for consumers to download and print out their own figurines. That Toys for Bob would follow suit with Skylanders is a no-brainer, according to Huang. It's simply a matter of the technology improving to the point of mass adoption. "With 3D printers becoming more popular, eventually one day it will probably be mainstream," Huang says. "You know it just makes sense. You'll have a 3D printer at home just like you do an ink jet printer."