Lo-Ping Interviews: Jason Ilano, Signal Studios.

By Lo-Ping - Mon Aug 08, 9:32 am

By Gavin G.

Today I sit down with Jason Ilano from Signal Studios to discuss Toy Soldiers and the upcoming sequel: Toy Soldiers: Cold War. So let’s get cracking!

Alright, to get us started why don’t you tell us what you’ve done and are currently doing at Signal Studios?

Currently I’m the game director for the Toy Soldiers franchise, but I was one of the original members of Signal Studios and initially started off as the animation guy. Signal was started by three people, I then came on three months later and that’s when we started getting into the pre-production of the first game. On that game I was basically the only animator, we did get a little bit of help in the middle of the project but again from when you’re on a team of four, by the end of the first project we finished with eight people  obviously that’s a small team so we have to do alot of things. I orignally started with animation and ended up doing some design and gameplay scripting, technical art, things like that

In the second game I’m continuing on with the animation but now that we have more people I sort of directed the animation of the game and then moved on to this role of directing the entire game.

I think it’s time to ask a couple of the questions we had submitted by fans of the site. First off Murphy’s Law asks: I found the first Toy Soldiers game to be a bit frustrating / temperamental on the control side. What changes are you (if any) to the control scheme are you making to allow for more customization rather than a few preset configurations for southpaw?

We don’t exactly have completely customizable controls because, that tends to get a little confusing so we do have more optinos this time around.  We have normal controls (up is up, down is down, ect) Inverted, normal Southpaw (analog sticks switched), and inverted southpaw. Then we have each of those modes seperate for each mode be it cursor, actually controlling an emplacement, driving a tank, flying a jet, flying a helicopter, or controlling the commando. We gave the option to switch the schemes on just about everything you can control so we can give some of the people more options.

Lonesome Whislte asks: Will you be including an offline System Link (LAN) mode with Cold War?

Unfortunately no, there is no offline system link but there is co-op via split-screen and over Xbox Live.

In behind the scenes documentaries of developers and movie studios you always notice lots of qwirky toys and action figures crowding desks.  Given that you guys make games about, y’know, toys,  is your office overflowing with any fun stuff originally aquired for “research”? 

Just about every game company that i’ve worked at or been to has done that, it’s research but there are alot of people here with crowded desks. Transformers, GI Joes, alot of the classic stuff because we’ve got a few people here who are true collectors. Video game action figures, toy guns toy tanks, remote control helicopters. My desk is pretty bare but if you walk around the studio you will see alot of toys, including a model of one of our actual soldiers from the first game.

Which character is it?

We gave away a few of these statues in promotions for the first game, it’s a ten-inch figure of one of our German officers so he’s got his sword, pistol, and eagle helmet on. You’d recognise him from the main menu of the first Toy Soldiers.

Yeah I loved that guy, always taking potshots at nothing. The units with little quirky animations fast became my favorite in the original.

One of the big things in the first game was getting that across, it is an action game but we also wanted to keep it light-hearted and the beauty about Toy Soldiers is we can play up the Toy aspect of the things but still keep you in the action, sort of like “how can we keep this sense of bad-ass feeling in alot of them, so there’s little touches here and there.

Was the original Toy Soldiers always a hybrid Tower Defense game or was there something different planned in the beginning?

Well in the very early stages it was pretty much a normal tower defense game, we knew we wanted to have a unique visual style and so that’s where the toy diorama idea came from. The other reason was since we’d chosen World War 1 which was a brutal war, kind of depressing, and I think adding the toy feel to it actually helps bring that down a little bit.

So it started as a strict tower defense game and we went into it thinking that we would make a very high quality and visually unique TD game. We started prototyping our 3D environment until one day we were like “Let’s try using this machine gun.” with the level 1 machine gun, to actually jump in and use it as though you were playing a first or third person shooter. So one of our tenets at Signal is to rapidly prototype stuff and get it in the game, that’s how we work, it’s a very involving and organic process where we put stuff in the game, play with it, and see how it feels.

Anyway, we got that machine gun working (I think it was the level one German machine gun) and it was so awesome to gun down the other soldiers while actually using the gun. It sort of evolved from there from us thinking “this is way too fun not to do with everything”. So we added it to everything in the game, all the emplacements, vehicles,the sniper tower, to sort of push the interaction that you don’t see in most tower defense games. In a normal TD game you just set up your defenses and then watch, which can be cool, even in Toy Soldiers, but why not give the user the ability to get in there and get in the action themselves?

One aspect of Toy Soldiers that made for both an exciting and dreaded battle was the cool creative bosses (damned 3-stage robot…). Are there any discarded concepts or perhaps a weird beginning to something that evolved into a used concept you can tell us about?

Like I said earlier, our process is very organic, gameplay elements usually evolve through testing and brainstorming, all that good stuff, and like I said even the idea of using a turret was initially a small idea that eventually became the largest part of the game. There certainly were alot of discarded things that we wish we could have put into the first game, the cool thing about World War 1 was there was a LOT of weird sh*t, there was a lot of weird technology pitched in the middle of this atmosphere of “how can we make better weaponry?”. Pretty much every unit in the game has a real-life counterpart. Unfortunately we did have to discard many things during the first game but now we get to bring back the ideas and use them in Cold War, a long wishlist of things we wanted to do the first time around but just didn’t have the time or manpower.

Were any voice actors hired for the original game or are the random cries of enemies in the distance Signal Studios employees? Has this changed in Cold War?
[Laughs] They weren’t us, although that would have been really cool! Our sound guy, Kyle, handled all the foley and V/O in the first game. Voiceover work tends to be a luxury that only really is done by the big budget titles but we were lucky enough to get those little bits of chatter, screams and such, that I think Kyle might have done by himself or got a couple of guys to volunteer but we were more lucky to get more V/O stuff this time around with Cold War. I think if you play it you’ll notice more of it, there’s com chatter when you call in barrages and on the turrets there’s more actual voice acting with the guys yelling at each other or egging each other on to get in the fight.

Over the development process of the first game, did you grow fond of a certain player unit or enemy type? 

I did end up having some personal favorites by the end of the first game. The Creepers, those little guys pushing the almost Flintstone tanks, because they’re so funny, I had so much fun animating them and I still giggle when I see them. Like I said earlier, that’s based off of a real-life thing, though we did play with the scale a little bit in the first game and continue to kind of do it in the second one as it helps play up the toy aspect of things. As far as enemy units they’re my favorite.

Second-favorite is the Uber-babies, the little tanks that spawn from the Uber Tank that run around the map smashing things and ram into each other, and again, they were based off of an actual concept. So yeah, I think I tend to like the things that are so odd because it’s amazing to me to think that they had real-life counterparts.

As far as turrets go, the massive level 3 German artillery gun “Big Bertha” because, again, the real-life version is so fascinating. In fact that’s one of the unit’s that’s not far off from real life, actually in relation to the soldiers manning it the real Big Bertha cannons were even bigger.

The little touches of the game made it for me, from the advertisement loading screens to the level one machine gunner we mentioned taking useless potshots at the enemy, Will any units or specific jokes carry over into the new game? 

I don’t think anything specifically carried over from the first game because thematically they’re very different but we still strive to put those same touches that made the game so unique and infuse fun humor. I don’t think there are any specific things that have made a direct cross-over into the second game but there definatly are a few animations like celebratory dances, there’s still plenty of the same kind of humor in there and for sure we brought back the cool toy packaging/propaganda loading screens. I think that sense of humor is a large part of what makes Toy Soldiers what it is.

Any fan moments that stand out?

I’ve been to a few trade shows now, E3 and PAX. After the first game out just talking to the fans about it was so thrilling because we all worked really hard and became really attached to this project, so when you talk to the fans and see how much they enjoyed the game and how much it entertained them it’s always a big rush. Sometimes I’d find myself talking to the fans that actually completed the first game 100% which I find just amazing because I didn’t really expect that many people to do it. I did alot of the difficulty tuning in the first game so tha-

Oh so you’re the one to blame…

[Laughs] Which I know that some people found to be a little difficult which, alright, I understand. But the thinks like the Ration tickets and the sub-objectives, I was part of the team that came up with those and balanced those. If you thought those were hard you should have seen the ones that were cut from the game!

We had some great ones, there was one Ration ticket where we wanted you to take a howitzer shell in Shell-Cam and hit a bi-plane while it was in the air. We actually did it, we tested it out and made for sure it was do-able but in the end our creative director flat-out said “No, it’s too difficult”

I find the completionists in the first one very awesome because to get 100% requires alot of dedication, it just boggles my mind when I meet one, I just want to shake their hand and tell them how awesome they are because that’s insane.

In addition to that, as far as fan moments go, I always found it great to see the parent-child combos that would come up and talk to us. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, ect, they come up and talk about how much fun they had playing the game together which really excites me because, as I said before, we really wanted to keep it lighthearted but also action-packed enough to interest the hardcore player while keeping it so everyone can play it.

There’s no blood, no over-the top violence, it’s like how we played with our toys and blowing them to kingdom-come but pretend-style. We wanna keep that alive in the second game for sure and this time we’ve got Co-Op which, like I said, is pretty sweet. Recently at the trade shows we’ve taken Cold War and had public demos so we got to see the same parent child combos playing the same game together, getting to see them having so much fun is defiantly rewarding.

We touched on it earlier but will Rations make a return in Cold War is some way? Obviously the idea of Rations themselves is very WW1-centered but will they be reborn in some way?

Yes they are but this time around they’re called Decorations to give them a more modern Cold-War feel.  There are two sub-objectives per level that reward Decorations and as you earn them you build up a collection of medals, similar to how you had the footlocker where all of your ration ticket rewards would show up once completed.

They’re not nearly as difficult as they were last time around but now we also have Challenges which are more sort of like a running tally of things like Machine Gun kills for example, you get 50 kills using a machine gun and you get a Challenge level 1 challenge, then when you hit 100 kills you get level 2 of that, if you’ve played Call of Duty it’s similar to what they had

You mean Challenges?

I think they might actually have been called Challenges too, yeah… [laughs] We really want to put alot of replayability into the game and we find that these sub-objectives and challenges really help to play that up, along with things like our new Mini-games. There are alot more reasons to compete on the leaderboards this time around.

One of things we found in the last game was people really love that leaderboard stuff, they enjoy climbing up and getting a higher score so this time we kept all the stat-tracking from the first game and put even more in to give people more reasons and ways to climb the leaderboards, to the point where the game even calls up a sort of mini-leaderboard in-game that shows you how you’ve done compared to your friends and the top players in the world in terms of score or stats.

When did the spark that would become Cold War happen? Were you always intending on doing more Toy Soliders games during the development of the original or was the decision made a few months after release?

I think we all really loved the idea of doing more Toy Soldiers, I think the really great thing about TS is it can be anything, y’know they’re toys. Downloadable content on the first game gave us a chance to play with some of the ideas like the 3-stage robot you mentioned earlier, playing with the P51 Mustang, the old metal UFOs, things like that.

Cold War was a choice we made because one of the reasons we picked World War 1 for the first game was the war itself wasn’t represented well in games, we wanted to keep doing something unique and the Cold War hadn’t been represented much in games at the time. It’s got a little bit of alternate history to it, if you play it you’ll notice it’s more geared towards if the Cold War had actually broken out into real battles and skirmishes. Another main reason was we wanted to bring things more into the modern era while keeping it unique so going with the CW and the general 80′s theme really helped that out.

Call of Duty: Black Ops came out after the inception of Cold War, when Black Ops was announced were were all like “Ahhh…”, but y’know it’s cool because it’s a totally different game .

Well I have a flame-bait tabloid-esque headline for the interview now at least, “Toy Soldiers Doesn’t rip off Black Ops?”, ha ha

[Laughs] I love Black Ops, it’s a great game. See how I put that in there? And it’s totally true.

Let’s talk about the Commandos. The box art of the game shows a Cold War staredown between an American and a Russian commando that has a very distinct feel of Rambo giving Ivan Drago the stink-eye. It looks cool obviously but was there ever a time when the *mumble*-mbo-like character was going to be affiliated with any other 80′s action heroes? Were we close to having a K-mart version of Dutch Schaefer?

It’s funny because obviously our commando bears a striking resemblance to somebody as does our Russian commando. They’re a barrage in the game,  so they’re sort of a hero unit that is air-dropped into the map sort of like The Outfit or care packages in the newer CoD games.

There’s that name again, it’s almost like i’ve heard it before

We love our Call of Duty! But yeah they’re these brief power-ups that you get for 30 to 60 seconds. We’ve got the an AC-130, a nuclear bomb, an artillery barrage, and of course the Commandos. So when we were designing them we chose these sort of iconic 80′s figures, I think the ‘commando’ likeness resonates well, it’s very obviously an 80′s thing and an obvious homage to our favorite action movies of the decade.

When it came to inspiration, obviously Rambo was one of them, Commando, Red Dawn, Red Scorpion, all the over-the-top 80′s action flicks that most of us grew up with, although there are quite a few people not old enough to know what the Cold War was now but there are still some guys around here that still remember what the 80′s were all about so we have alot to draw from there.

Another part of the inspiration is the kind of toy. In the first game we were working with tin soldiers that kids would put alot of work into and set up in this dioramas and they invoked a certain feeling of nostalgia. We wanted to keep that sense but to keep with the new theme we drew from action figures, like GI Joe obviously, the toys we played with as kids in the 80′s.

How was the sweet card-based delivery method for the Commando born? 

Once we created the commando character one of our animators who is also a great artist decided to do a quick photoshop of the commando inside a package so he looked very much like a in box action figure, when he showed it off we were like “That’s sweet, we’ve got to get this in the game.” so now when you call in the Commando barrage he drops into the map still in his box and pops out ready to go.

The music of the original Toy Soldiers was an amazing blend of aged songs that breathed life into the concept of the game, was it any more difficult or simpler to compile a soundtrack for a Cold War game, when pop culture’s perception of a Cold War soundtrack entails many very expensive songs?

While I personally didn’t have a ton to do with the soundtrack, we’ve got some great guys who handle the sound and music. Since we decided to focus on an 80′s theme there was plenty of source material to draw but like you said it would be too cost-prohibitive to go out and license all of these iconic songs, it would be great but way too expensive. We sort of took these songs that we though were appropriate to the time period like Danger Zone.

*Insert Archer reference here*

Gotta love Danger Zone! So we gathered these songs together, handed them off to the music guys and they came up with a soundtrack that’s in the same vein. You can play the game and get this sense that if you weren’t really listening you could hear the theme from Top Gun.

I half-expect the soundtrack to consist entirely of power ballads now.

Power-rock ballads man, what else do you need to get you pumped up to kill some Russi-COMMIES… Commies.

The original Toy Soldiers got a Facebook-linked war map and a browser-based mini game on Facebook proper to introduce the aspect of social gaming to the mix, will this be continued in any meaningful way in Cold War?

That is something I actually can’t comment on right now but… keep an eye open for something. I think it was a really cool idea, honestly not as fully-developed as it could have been but we really like the idea of the interconnected thing and keeping people involved with Toy Soldiers even outside the Xbox game itself.

Any new features you CAN tell us about?

Well that’s the thing, you may have noticed earlier but I tend to want to launch into my spiels whenever I talk about something from the game, after E3 and PAX having me talking to so many people all the time I can’t help myself from saying all I can say to anyone that will listen.

Spiel away. 

Survival Mode is back! In the first game you had to unlock it but now it’s playable from the start and it has a Co-Op mode as well. It might be my favorite way to play up there with campaign co-op as we disabled AI targeting so it really is up to you and your partner to use your units.

We’ve also added something called General Mode. When we talked to people who played the first game that had completed it without ever actually using a unit, they played it like a strict tower-defense game and just plopped down units, and I was like “totally missed the point but still impressive” so this time around we’ve tailor-made a mode for them.

While it sounds counter-intuitive I was play-testing it not too long ago and it works quite well, I obviously still like regular Tower Defense games so it was a fun and fresh experience in the game.

We’ve also added a feature called Wave List rewind. Some of the levels in the first game became a little punishing because if you lost you had to go all the way back to the beginning, and some of the levels are hitting 20-25 minutes long. We address this by creating Wave List Rewind which saves your progress at the start of each wave of enemies. If you’re having a hard time and you realize your strategy is wrong you can go back to any of the waves you have completed and the game remembers how much money and what turrets you had at that time. Now you don’t have to start all over again, it also helps for the perfectionists as well.

I know if that had been in the first game I would have added about three more hours of gameplay just from me rewinding to change the fact that I’d finish the level with ONE hit point gone. 

Exactly, so things are alot better now that you have the chance to roll back and change your strategy.

We really tried to address whatever issues people had with the first game, be it difficulty or features that they wanted like controlling a soldier which is the foundation of why the Commando exists, or Co-Op. We do love our fans!
Well I want to thank you very much for sitting down to do this interview!

No problem, thanks for having me.

And you, dear reader, can expect to be able to get Toy Soldiers on August 17th only on Xbox Live.

I may be a little biased but trust me, it’s a really fun game.

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