Interview: Todd McFarlane Talks ‘Assassin’s Creed 3′ Toys

Today, Ubisoft announced that they were partnering with McFarlane Toys to bring “Assassin’s Creed 3’s” Connor and Haytham into the world as 6″ figures. The duo, who are being offered up as the first series in a possible ongoing line of toys are the latest game to toy project for McFarlane Toys who have in the past brought characters from the “Halo” and “Metal Gear Solid” universes to toy shelves across the country.

The company’s founder–comic writer, artist, and businessman–Todd McFarlane, spoke to us by phone recently about working with Ubisoft, the perils and pitfalls of working with game companies when they’re protective of their characters, and some of his dream projects from other games and comic companies.

“Ubisoft has obviously done a tremendous job in expanding the brand,” right, McFarlane tells me when I ask about the appeal of the “Assassin’s Creed” license for his company. “Expanding the brand” may be the most business speak that McFarlane uses during the entirety of our chat–he’s a boisterous speaker who loves to talk about the process and ins and outs of getting toys made. McFarlane is no stranger to expanding his own brand, having evolved his independent comic “Spawn” from the early days of Image Comics to a successful line of toys even when production on the comic had slowed down.

He’s also worked regularly with film companies to bring the likes of Snake Plissken, Jason Voorhees (he’s sitting on my shelf at home), Freddy Krueger and more to specialty shops over the years while also cranking out regular releases of toys based on real-life figures like athletes and musicians.

When it comes to “Assassin’s Creed,” though, McFarlane, beyond the business end of getting the license for a popular property, was attracted to the distinctive white-on-red look of the Assassins’ uniforms. “There’s a lot more detail to them than you sort of see at first blush from a distance. Even with a black coat, there’s all sorts of cool patina patterns and etchings, and all of that is just stuff that’s right down our alley.” Beyond that, the individual assassins–from Connor all the way back to Altair–had so many initial concepts that were tried out before reaching their final design, that some of these alternate ideas could prove to be a treasure trove to a toy company looking for alternates visually distinct takes on the same characters. “Between what you’ve seen in the concept, you could keep this thing going for a while just doing Assassins from the past, present and future.”

McFarlane says that among his team of sculptors, there are plenty of fans of the series who’ve been aching to get their hands on the Assassins and start making them something solid in the real world. Ubisoft has offered McFarlane’s company a great deal of latitude in bringing them concepts, ultimately going with Connor’s father Haytham, Connor himself, and the “Tyranny of George Washington” DLC version of the character as the vanguard for the line. Don’t go expecting Scuba Gear Connor anytime soon–McFarlane was careful to add that McFarlane Toys and Ubisoft are taking a deliberate approach to how they roll out the figures, starting with some familiar designs and seeing those click with fans.

When I asked if we’d see evil George Washington as part of the line, McFarlane offers that it’s really a matter of how fans respond to this first set. If they like them, then perhaps his company and Ubisoft will get more ambitious and release other characters from “Assassin’s Creed 3″ and its extended universe. “We always start off with a series one and if it does okay, we go on with a series two… You just keep going until the consumer says ’uncle.'” He goes back to the original release of Kenner’s “Star Wars” toys which famously expanded beyond the key characters out to peripheral and background characters.

“I think that we have some of the best sculptors in the business,” McFarlane boasts, and not unfairly. His team has been able to take the intricate details of a Spartan’s armor from “Halo: Reach” and give it the same attention as the stitched-together face of “Child’s Play’s” possessed doll, Chucky without taking a hit to the ultimate craftsmanship of the figure. Part of that comes from the resources they’re working from. McFarlane says that previously, they would have to use a photo for reference, but when it comes to game-related toys in particular, the availability of 3D digital reference has made creating these figures that much easier. “It doesn’t mean then that the resolution that you’re using or that the data from the wireframe is compatible with making a complete, easy transition to toys, but it gives us a hell of a silhouette and a hell of a skeleton and the proportions more than anything else that people are used to seeing.”

McFarlane says that in the past, not every company has been as accessible as say 343 Industries or Ubisoft in terms of handing over assets, some partners working with a little bit of a “fear factor” according to McFarlane. “’What if we give you our data and a disgruntled employee takes it and puts it all over the Internet?’ There’s always that component that you have to deal with.” He says that he’s heard some horror stories over his 20 years of making toys because describes Ubisoft as a dream partner for the “Assassin’s Creed 3″ figures. In his own experience, he’s come across studios who’ve tied the release of the toys to the release of the game, holding back on designs of boss characters that hadn’t yet been completely figured out–which can be a problem when it takes between 9 and 11 months for a finished toy to go from the initial design to the hands of the consumer.

McFarlane’s team uses that extra time to add extra detail to their toys–not necessarily new detail, but visual details that might not be readily apparent to the average gamer playing “Assassin’s Creed 3″ on their HD TV. He says that he can’t decide if it’s a blessing or a curse that these figures are plastic and will likely spend most of their lives on shelves, untouched–“Given that it’s static, it better look good in that stationary pose,” he adds, saying that characters in motion in games can hide some sins thanks to the angle of the camera and lighting.

When I ask what game franchise he’d like to get his hands on, McFarlane expands the scope a bit, saying that his dream has always been to get a shot at at least one figure from any new, big IP. He’d love to get his hands on one “Star Wars” character or his version of “Spider-Man” or the Todd McFarlane Toys “Batman.” He says he’s not looking to be greedy as one of the small guys, he just wants to give the major licenses held by the big boys a shot to show what his team can do.

McFarlane Toys’ first series of “Assassin’s Creed 3″ figures, featuring Haytham and Connor, will be available at all major retailers, priced between $14.99 and $16.99 this summer.

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