Inventors Scott Pease and Jeff Swenty on how video games helped them design the hit toy brand Snap Ships
Snap Ships inventors Scott Pease and Jeff Swenty on building modular toys, pitching to PlayMonster… And how the brand may look in 2030.
Scott and Jeff… Pleasure to meet you – love a double interview! It’s up to you how you answer: take it in turns; jump in when I’m in your ballpark – whatever! So… The obvious question: what were your favourite toys and games growing up?
Scott: I’m a child of the ’80s, so for me it’s G.I. Joe. The amount of detail and playability in that line is staggering. I also love reading about the care and creativity that Larry Hama and others put into developing the lore and story.
Jeff: I’m a similar age, and when I was younger I really loved the old Starcom toys. They were all space-themed vehicles that interacted in different ways. Cargo pods would spring open and everything was posable. They represented the excitement and adventure of space and got me into sci-fi at a young age.
So you’re a similar age… And how do the two of you know each other? What’s your background?
Scott: I helped run a game studio named Neversoft for Activision for 15 years. We developed the original Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater franchise – nine games – and Guitar Hero from Guitar Hero 3 onward. Jeff joined the studio as the Motion Capture Director in 2005. We worked closely on all kinds of games and bonded over our love of cinematic storytelling and narrative.
Ah! Okay! Got on well at work…
Scott: Right. Then in 2014, after working on Call of Duty: Ghosts, Neversoft merged into another studio, and I took the opportunity to retire from AAA video games. Jeff continues to work on the Call of Duty franchise to this day.
Jeff: We both love inventing, tinkering, and coming up with creative new concepts. We feed off each other’s energy and have had a blast iterating on Snap Ships.
In what way did working on games like Call of Duty and Guitar Hero prepare you to become toy designers?
Scott: There are many aspects of our video games that are toy-like – for example, the Create-A-Skater mode in our Tony Hawk games… Features that let players express themselves and make something unique. In many ways, Snap Ships are the same thing, but for sci-fi toys in the physical world.
And I should ask – for those that haven’t seen Snap Ships yet – how would you describe them?
Scott: Snap Ships is a modular building system for making awesome space ships that hold up to action play. Snap Ships isn’t about the ship on the front of the box – it’s about being creative and using our pieces to create or customise YOUR dream star ship. And since the blocks you build with are so detailed, the resulting models looks AWESOME on the table.
They really do! Lovely Adam Hocherman let me build a small one on the stand in New York. After about 30 seconds, I felt like a genius!
Ha! Well, a lot of people look at Snap Ships and don’t even realise they’re modular – they think they’re specifically designed toys. But then you show them how they disassemble, and can be endlessly rebuilt into creative new configurations – that’s the “wow” moment.
Jeff: For me Snap Ships is really about the freedom to make a unique ship that looks as detailed and ‘real’ as a bespoke toy. Having a ship creation toy that is as good looking as it is rugged is really exciting.
Rugged… Great word. I’m going to come back to that because I hijacked an answer – Scott, you were telling me how working on video games helps?
Scott: Yes! I was going to say that, in video games, playtesting and iteration are everything… Getting your game in front of people, seeing how they respond – what they like, what they find confusing, and then refining the game over and over. This process served us well with Snap Ships – through many conventions and Maker Faires, we put our prototypes in the hands of kids and adults and learned how to make the toy better as a result.
Presumably you had to ask yourselves, quite early on, where a new building-block toy would sit alongside LEGO and so on… To what degree was that a factor?
Scott: Our first goal was to create a construction-toy system where every piece was detailed and unique – not blocks, but true “hero” pieces. And because the pieces are bigger and more three dimensional than LEGO, it’s also lighting fast to build and rebuild.
Maybe I’ll stick in a product shot here so people appreciate the detail…
Jeff: Also, I think LEGO can be pretty intimidating to just sit down with and start creating. Making the ‘proper’ build is super satisfying in a model building sort of way… Which I think is valuable and fun! In regard to the three-dimensionality of Snap Ships, and ease of experimentation, Scott totally called it. Building a lot of different builds quickly is easy, and hopefully as a result it encourages people to build lots of different ships!
Yes; my feeling with Snap Ships was I could immediately build freestyle, really play with the ship, then break it apart and start over! Whereas with LEGO – which I do absolutely love – I’m building to instructions, it’s too fragile to play with – and I don’t want to take it apart!
Scott: Exactly. LEGO bricks are awesome, but sometimes they can feel like super detailed “model” kits – thousands of pieces, hundreds of steps. And if you build the BatMobile, it’s hard to break it apart and build a whole lot of different things – at least not without a ton of time and effort…
Snap Ships, by contrast, are built with experimentation in mind. In fact, sometimes it’s hard to stop fiddling with a model because it’s so quick and easy to keep trying new pieces, looking for the perfect design.
Yes! Quite so – you keep adding on, and it’s very satisfying because they sound so great clicking together. They also feel very robust – or rugged, Jeff, to use your word. So what was your process, from first thought to final design?
Scott: Snap Ships started as a boardgame concept with the core idea of constructible spaceships. I knew Jeff was a 3D-printing mastermind, so I showed him an early concept and he started making “pieces” for the game right away. As the concept matured, we became more enamoured with the look and feel of the building system – so we jettisoned the game part.
Love it! So Jeff, your 3D know-how helped the concept evolve?
Jeff: Well – the advent of reliable consumer 3D printers was a key factor. Having a box in the garage that can create complex and detailed pieces meant there was no excuse for not creating as many different pieces that worked in the snap system as possible. It took many years of iterations, but being able to take our prototypes to live events like Maker Faires, and put them in front of everyday people to see how they responded, was critical.
Many YEARS of iterations?! How’s it changed? Not a boardgame aside?
Scott: We worked through at least three different connection systems. First it was magnets, which felt great, but were too costly – and dangerous. Then multiple “snap” iterations until we happened upon the dual material idea… Jeff would print the outer shell of the pieces on his 3D printer, and I would print the softer inner “cores” on mine. It literally took years of refinement. The concept phase started in mid 2015. We signed with PlayMonster at the end of 2018 and the toys launched in 2020.
Jeff: When PlayMonster jumped on board, I think they recognised we’d invented a building system that just kind of “worked”, and simply needed some refinement for manufacturing.
Wonderful. While we’re on that, then, how did you come to pitch to PlayMonster? How did that go?
Scott: We got lucky – a designer at PlayMonster saw a video about us that Tested posted. Soon after, we flew to Wisconsin to show the prototypes in person. I remember dumping a big bucket of parts on the conference table for their designers to examine. Then we went off on a tour of the office with the CEO, and when we came back the design team had built a whole fleet of awesome looking space ships…
Ha! They built a fleet; I love it! If that video’s online, maybe we’ll link to that… And what did PlayMonster do next? What suggestions did they make to refine the design?
Back then Snap Ships was more of a “system” of pieces. PlayMonster took over to help flesh out the factions, re-design the pieces to fit certain builds and significantly level up the whole line. Their designers are FANTASTIC. They really get sci-fi, and made sure the line could be manufactured effectively, and ensured the quality of the core connection was maintained.
What’s next for you in terms of toys and games?
Scott: We’re all-in on Snap Ships. We love the universe and we think there’s unlimited expansion opportunities. Fans are already asking for new pieces, new connection types, and new kits so they can build robots and mechs and other sci-fi vehicles with our system. We hope to keep them busy!
And if I was going to ask each of you one question you’d not answered before what would be the question?
Scott: What will Snap Ships look like in 2030? Mostly the same – awesome building blocks for quickly building toy spaceships… BUT after you complete a toy build, you’ll look down to ‘scan’ the ship with your AR contact lenses, and then be able to ‘land’ a life-sized virtual version of THAT ship in your yard that looks 100% real. You’ll walk around your massive creation, feel the hum of the engine, inspect the weapons, and examine its rich details. You’ll deploy the boarding ladder, climb up into the cockpit, prep for takeoff, and blast off into a totally real-feeling space adventure.
Oh my GOD, I am totally into that! Brilliant answer. And Jeff?
What is my go to breakfast cereal? I don’t eat breakfast cereal… So… None?
Okay. That’s a less-brilliant answer…
Jeff: Then… What is my favourite book about a doomed polar exploration? That would be easy: ‘Endurance’ the story of Ernest Shackleton’s harrowing journey. It’s a truly inspiring tale of what man is capable of.
Well, how odd you say that! I’m looking to find out more about Shackleton. I was going to watch the Kenneth Branagh miniseries. Okay! Anything else before we wrap up?
Jeff: What am I most excited for in a future Snap Ships product? AR and VR, baby! As a life-long gamer, I love the new things VR allows me to do and experience. Mixing Snap Ships into that? Amazing!
Brilliant! Gentlemen, this is been every bit as much fun as I imagined it might be. Let me finish off by asking one final question… What are the most interesting things in your offices or on your desks?
Jeff: Ooooh… Good question. Let me think…
Scott: I’m surrounded by game prototypes and failed experiments! One of my prized possessions, though, is an autographed Tony Hawk skateboard that Tony gave me when we shipped the first Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater game. THPS for life!
Jeff: I used to make stained wood pixel art pieces… My prized one is a stained wood Mario mushroom signed by Satoru Iwata – president of Nintendo. Also, the thing that really got me into 3D printing was the desire to scratch build replicas of old tanks by modelling each piece and printing them. So my bookshelves have a number of one-tenth scale replicas… My latest one is a Panzer 3 that ended up being about 1,200 individually printed pieces!
Knockout! End image. Sign off, eat cake! Thank you so much for making time chaps – I hope we meet at a toy fair someday. I can’t wait to land a virtual ship on the PlayMonster stand!
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