How to Rebuild a Fan-Favorite Series with Spyro Reignited Trilogy

There are many different ways to bring back a classic, with the standard version being to take the original game and hammer on the code until it works on a modern machine.  Nightdive Studios, for example, has done amazing work presenting games like Turok or System Shock to modern machines, with minimal updates to details like draw distance, resolution and framerate.  The NES and SNES Mini use the original ROMs to preserve the past as close to pixel-perfect as possible, while Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy completely rebuilt the games from scratch to look like it was made for the current generation.  Spyro Reignited Trilogy is taking the same path as Crash did to revive its past and that’s a job that brings with it a huge amount of decisions.  I recently got to spend the day at Toys For Bob, talking with the developers and hearing about all the details that went into building a complete reconstruction of one of the PS1’s most popular series.

Toys For Bob is located in a converted aircraft hanger in the same complex where Mythbusters used to be based out of.  The studio is on a the second of two floors, with windows everywhere letting in the sunlight and steel beams running beneath the high arched roof.  Spyro art is just about everywhere, except where showcases are packed full of Skylanders toys ranging from fully-packaged final versions to grey test models.  The left side of the studio is tiki-themed while the right is pirate, complete with a crow’s nest sticking up into the ceiling and rope ladders that are far too tempting to climb on.  It’s a working studio and functioning business but there’s been a lot of work put into making the place fun and comfortable.

The first stop of the day was with Stephan Vankov, who’s in charge of remastering the music.  This is a little more complicated than busting out the old audio files and hosing them down, instead involving completely re-writing the music in multiple styles.  Stewart Copeland (the same Stewart Copeland as the original drummer for The Police) did fantastic work on all three of the original games but not all of it was recorded in stereo, and there are ways to play with the music so it’s not just the same tune looping until you finish the level.  The first step was to break down the music into its component parts, finding the melodies of each instrument and figuring out which was just something replicated on a keyboard (very little) and which were the original instruments (most of it).  A good chunk of the research went into finding the original musical library a sample of an obscure instrument might have come from, then reintegrating it into the updated version of the song.  It’s a lot of work across over 125 tracks covering three games worth of audio, made all the more challenging by taking about 30 minutes per track to export.

Which wouldn’t be that bad if the tracks only needed to be done once, but music is an iterative process involving constant tweaking.  Topping it off, there are multiple versions of each tune.  The standard version is the one for Spyro running around doing Spyro-stuff, while a dragon at rest gets a more ambient version of the track.  Charging Spyro gets extra bass and percussion to accompany the gallop, and when inside a cave or building the track gains a little reverb as if it’s bouncing off the walls.  Finally the main version of the song has an alternate that switches with the base to help avoid too much repetition on the longer levels.  At five versions of each track plus the original PS1 version, which you can hop into the menu and switch to at any time, that’s a huge amount of music even if each song is only two to three minutes long.  Thankfully a little automation came to the rescue, letting the day’s work be exported at night, but it wasn’t unusual to come in and find the previous day’s work still finishing up in the morning.

Taking things out of order, the fourth and final visit of the morning was with art director Josh Nadelberg.  A huge part of Spyro Reignited was reimagining everything, whether it’s the level art or character detailing.   It’s possible to have modeled a Spyro where you can see every scale but that kind of obsessive detailing leads to visual clutter.  Spyro’s cleaner design is not only easier to read, it avoids the possibility of jitter when the level of detail changes.  This is inspired in no small part by animated movies, which are more concerned with form, shape, and design rather than cramming the screen with the distraction of excessive detailing.  That doesn’t mean things can’t be added, though, such as Sparx getting a more detailed model.  He’s gone from being Spyro’s flying health indicator to a character in his own right, with different moods depending on his health level.  Yellow is perky and happy, taking a hit down to blue leaves him a bit droopy and jittery, while the green sees him listless and sad.  Plus giving Sparx legs means he becomes more expressive just by something as simple as a wave.

The artistic redesign gets almost entirely out of hand with the Elder Dragons from Spyro 1, because they were initially a small handful of models with little variation.  They’re now all individual characters with traits specific to their class.  The Peacekeepers are big warriors, the Dreamweavers are related to nighttime in a huge variety of ways, while the Artisans are different types of artists.  Some of the art that couldn’t be shared had dragons based on Bob Ross and a fantastic Andy Warhol, and I only got to hear about the Prince dragon.  Even ignoring the designs that didn’t make it into the game, though, there are still 700 or so characters including Elder Dragons, baby dragons, enemies in all shapes and sizes, and the fodder animals Spyro turns into butterflies to feed to Sparx.  More than just design, though, the characters all have animations that reinforce their personality.  It looks like a huge amount of work for a character that might get ten seconds of speech but the result is a world that extends out far beyond Spyro’s adventures.

The second stop on the day’s adventure was with Studio Head Paul Yan, who got to talk about Spyro’s origins.  When starting the project they visited Insomniac Games looking for whatever original assets they could get, and while that quest turned up dry on the digital front there were several binders filled with production info available.  While most of what was in the binders were notes on design, there were pages of hand-drawn maps on graph paper that were, to be perfectly clear, utterly amazing to see.  It’s not so much that they were stunning examples of mechanical draftsmanship, although they were quite nice in that regard, but rather being able to see and hold these original maps brought the work and history of development to life in a way that’s hard to describe.  So much of the design had to be on paper because the turnaround between “Let’s change this” and seeing how it actually played out could be four to five hours, necessitating being very sure that it was a good idea.  There was also a document from 1996, back when the game that would become Spyro was a shooter called Dragon Game, “a realistic 3D short-range shooting game”.  Another piece of art was from around a little later when the dragon was named Pierre.  “Once upon a time there was a small green dragon and his name was Pierre.  Pierre was only a young dragon, just 113 years old.  Now since Pierre was just getting his fire power he liked to play tricks on people with his fire.  After he got out of school he would go into the forest and sneak up on people that were fishing or picking apples or digging a hole and he would go “Whoom!” and fire them right in the bum.  The people would go running saying “Pierre, you are a silly, mean dragon!””  Pierre’s design is bigger and tougher than Spyro turned out to be, but personality-wise modeled a bit more on Bart Simpson even as the story skewed a little younger than the adventure it turned into.

Once finished with the thrill of seeing these documents (and wishing I was allowed to take pictures of them) it was time to talk about how it all related to Spyro Reignited.  One of the goals of the upgrade wasn’t just to hit the “make pretty” button but rather to figure out what Spyro might have looked like if Insomniac had the extra 20 years of experience and better tools to realize its vision.  Fortunately the people who worked on Spyro are still available to answer questions, and they were happy to talk.  It’s not that anyone at Insomniac is involved in or overseeing the project, but rather that learning from the original designers what the intent was has an incredible amount of value when updating their work.  A good example would be in terms of draw-distance, which was a focus for Insomniac and impressive for the PS1 at the time but even so faded out after a fairly short distance.  Now the worlds can look like they go out forever even if the levels are the same size they always were, and that’s a significant change to the look of the games while also remaining true to the original intent of Spyro‘s development team.

Another aspect that took some work was Spyro’s model, which was originally based on the box art rather than in-game design.  As it turns out the that art was from the marketing side rather than development, and it doesn’t look significantly different from regular-Spyro until someone like Ted Price, who knows better than anyone what’s important to the design, is persuaded to point out the differences.  Chest too puffed, nostrils too high, crest all wrong, etc.  A few more revisions and a properly-Spyro Spyro came out, young, a little rebellions, and deeply expressive.  The last big example of change guided by original intent was the cut-scenes, which have been punched up with vastly improved cinematography to sell the idea or gag rather than being recreated as a one-to-one remake.

While the binders holding the original design and discussions with Spyro’s creators went a long way towards clarifying Reignited‘s direction, Toys For Bob was still left without any digital assets to work with and this is where emulation came to the rescue.   Spyroscope is a tool that plugs into an emulator to export Spyro‘s level information, including wire-frame world geometry plus indicators for enemies and items.  With it a developer can play Spyro in one window and see an overhead view in the other, with markers updating in realtime and a menu keeping track of far more data than I was able to wrap my head around.  The tool exports a huge amount of information allowing precise level recreation, including gem placement, world size, enemy movement, etc.  It also keeps track of Spyro’s physics so momentum, jump height, angle of tilt and any number of other important traits combine to allow a recreation of movement that feels like it should.  In another meeting later it was mentioned that the movement data was a good base to work on but having full camera control means that a jump that looks just right from Spyro’s original angle of view feels very different from another.  It took a lot of tweaking to get the movement right even with all the original data available at a frame-by-frame level.

The third stop of the day with Peter Kavic ties in neatly to the end of Paul Yan’s presentation, plus comments from every other stop in the tour, and that’s about why Toys For Bob is taking such pains to be true to the original vision of what Spyro once was.  The people working on the game are Spyro fans to the point that artists and animators called dibs on favorite characters while others had levels they absolutely had to be allowed to work on.  There’s a huge amount of passion for Spyro due to how the games were a big part of so many of their gaming histories, and they’re very aware how many people outside the studio are looking forward to the game and feel the same way.  One of the slides showed a collection of Spyro tattoos ranging from a cartoon of the thief carrying an egg to an incredibly detailed scene that took over almost the entirety of one guy’s upper arm.  There was also a board with fan mail pinned to it where people talk about their time with Spyro and the effect it had on them.  One of the features of the weekly Monday-morning meeting, in fact, involves sharing letters and online stories from Spyro fans.  It’s a way to not only energize the development process but also stay connected with the idea that this is a game that means something to people.  Making a new game doesn’t have this kind of feedback because the fans don’t know what to expect, but Spyro Reignited is well known so people are excited and letting Toys For Bob know in a very direct, clear way.  All the updates and changes have at their heart a faithfulness to the original because it matters to so many people.

And with that, the day was half done.  Lunch was tasty, there was a super-adorable petting zoo featuring many of the animals Spyro rams or incinerates to feed their butterfly-souls to Sparx for health, and then it was on to playing a selection of levels to see how the last several hours of presentation plays out (which you can read about over here.)  It was great to hang out with everyone at Toys For Bob but the main takeaway from the day’s event wasn’t just the sheer volume of work that went into building Spyro Reignited Trilogy but how much passion the studio has for its project and making the people who will play it happy.  It’s hard to imagine Spyro being in better hands, and maybe if we’re all lucky and everything works out just right, it’s worth hoping the studio can show what it can do if given a chance at creating an all-new adventure for the little purple dragon.