An Interview with Bakugan Designer Michael Lee
When I attended the 2019 Bakugan Invitational Tournament, I got the opportunity to sit down with Michael Lee, one of the designers for the Bakugan toy line. We talked about the challenges of creating “advanced marbles”, the upcoming Armored Alliance line of products, and more.
THE GEEKIARY: You guys talked in the presentation about how you wanted to build better marbles. What goes into the process of designing them? Because they’re animals, but they fold into balls. That’s got to be a pretty challenging process.
MICHAEL LEE: Right, yeah. A lot of this is backwards engineering because we’re constrained to one form factor. So all the Bakugan are the same diameter when they’re closed – 36mm. So from there, we have to work backwards as like, “Okay, how do we make a humanoid character fold into a ball? How do we make a dragon-style character fold into a ball?”
So, on the upfront, there’s a lot of us working with our inventor teams in Japan, trying to figure out these cool mechanisms. Once we kind of get that laid out, then we start working with our entertainment teams to come up with the cool animation character designs. And then we skim those onto the toy.
So it’s a very rich brand, where it’s not one-sided where Toy’s doing their thing, Entertainment’s doing their thing. We have the toy working in tandem with the card game working in tandem with the entertainment. So everything through the design process needs to be lock-step. Because if someone’s off-sync from one another, something’s not gonna align, something’s gonna fall through, and it’s not gonna work out in the end.
So there’s a lot of pre-emptive work where on my side – the toy design side – I work with the team to develop the range of characters that we want to feature for Toy for that year – what type of character types we want to design. And then from there, we create these block mechanisms that you saw in that presentation – that one example where it’s very abstract, it doesn’t look like a character at that point. It’s just like, “oh, that kind of looks like a dragon,” or, “that looks like a knight”.
And then we work in tandem with our entertainment partners to create the cool aesthetics that brings that character to life. And then we then translate that to the toy, and then start building out the world with the trading card game and doing the card art and bringing everything to life as one package.
THE GEEKIARY: So it basically starts with the toys –
MICHAEL LEE: Yeah.
THE GEEKIARY: – and then goes to the other stuff.
MICHAEL LEE: Exactly. The brand’s definitely toy-focused, and from there we start to branch off and figure out how everything else fits and works around the inner world.
THE GEEKIARY: So how much freedom do you guys get with coming up with the designs? Like, pretty much anything goes, or…?
MICHAEL LEE: Well, I think we definitely go through our decision approval processes where things do get vetted out. We have to make sure that the teams align with the assortment of characters that we’re doing. But the great thing is that we’re doing so many toys each year – not including the color variations, just with Core and Ultra combined, we’re doing over, like, 16 character designs. Which is quite a bit. And then once you start layering in all the color variations, you just see how everything exponentially multiplies.
Because of that, I think we have a little more creative freedom where it’s like, “Oh, I really want this sort of character in there, I’m gonna try to work it in, see if I can get it in there.” And most of the time, it does go through. So there is definitely a lot of creative leeway with the brand to kind of- it’s like, “Oh, I think this sort of character archetype would make an amazing toy but also be cool for the show, let’s try to work it in,” and then the team then works to figure out all the logistics and everything behind that.
THE GEEKIARY: What are some of the design differences between the variations? Because they would have to be different enough that you would want people to have both of them or multiples –
MICHAEL LEE: That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it, yeah. Again, going back to it, these are, in the end, balls, right? In closed form. So the challenge that we had for this season – season 2 – is taking what we’ve built on in the first season, which was the big relaunch of Bakugan where we innovated with the Ultra Bakugan – those are our jumping Bakugan, the ones with the leap-open activation. That was the new hook. That was the new innovation brought to Bakugan then.
For the second season, we’re like, “Okay, where do we go next to evolve the brand from a toy perspective, game perspective, and entertainment perspective?” And where we netted out was the Bakugear. So that’s, like, these accessories that you put onto your Ultra Bakugan; they pop open, you have peg-on accessories.
So taking a play pattern out of, like, more of a traditional action figure playbook, where you have all these accessories, where you’re able to customize your characters. But at the same time creating a new layer in the game for both the toy battling and the trading card game, where – with these new elements – it brings in a new strategy that you play with your Bakugan. And allows for more creative freedom to figure out how you want to play with your Bakugan.
THE GEEKIARY: Where do you guys get your design influences from? Because there’s a dragon, there’s a three-headed dog looking one. Seems like a lot of mythological influence. Do you guys have specific creatures that you are really desperate to be, like, “This needs to be a Bakugan”?
MICHAEL LEE: I think everyone has, like, their own creature types that they think, “It’ll be amazing to have this sort of creature in there,” and that’s – again, back to the creative freedom, where we’re doing so many character designs in a year, it’s like, “Okay, I think we can fit that in.” And then that’s where the entertainment team really runs with it. It’s like, “Okay, how do we feature this sort of character archetype into the show? How does it fit within a certain faction, its certain brawler?”
There’s really – for us, when we’re designing these characters – it’s really blue sky on that front. We’re not really held to any standards. Obviously we want to preserve our core characters – the main Bakugan, the ones that the fans have come to love. But we also want to introduce new types of characters that are, in the toy perspective, look way different than what we’ve done before and make cool character designs.
THE GEEKIARY: How much Physics is involved with getting a little ball to spring open and turn into an animal?
MICHAEL LEE: Oh, man. What we’ve been talking about, that’s the fun side of things. That’s the whole creative aspect. Then you have the flip side of the coin, once we come up with those cool designs, is, okay great. Now we have to get this to be, you know, mass-produced, manufacturable on a mass-production scale, be safe – because the Bakugan have magnets in them, so we have to make sure that we’re adhering to all the safety guideline protocols.
So there’s a lot of post-work in terms of making sure – like, we’re working really closely with our engineering counterparts overseas in China and Hong Kong to make sure that every toy that we produce, every Bakugan is safe for kids, things function well. Especially for the Ultra Bakugan, there’s a certain way that we want them to land, so like spring tensions have to be tuned to the right springiness, per se, right, to get it to land.
And some of our Core Bakugan – and the Core Bakugan are the more basic ones that just pop open on the Bakucores – those have almost 20 individual moving plastic pieces. And then you have all the pins and all the springs and all the screws and all the fasteners that go into it. So every little part that goes into a ball is scrutinized, because we have to pass all the safety tests where things can’t break away at a certain pound.
And with each of these, like you said, each of the balls, no two are alike. So once we debug one design, the warnings from that one doesn’t necessarily apply to another design, because they’re like, this one jumps the other way, or this one has a totally different form factor. So each one is its own new challenge, and I find that to be part of the fun – like problem-solving.
THE GEEKIARY: How long, approximately, does it take from design to completion?
MICHAEL LEE: For a typical toy brand, it’s usually – like, on the shorter end, the average is like a year, year and a half. But for us, we’re working pretty far in advance because of the entertainment element, too. We work on a different timeline compared to the animation team. We tend to work a little bit faster. So we’re working, like, a season or two out from where we’re at now.
THE GEEKIARY: So you’re already planning the next round?
MICHAEL LEE: See the future.
THE GEEKIARY: This is not so much about the brand, but what made you want to be a toy designer?
MICHAEL LEE: That’s a very good question. It might be a little bit cliche, but my background- Like, I was never always into art and design, but I was an avid die-cast car collector back in middle school. So, you know how middle school, that point of your life, you’re doing a lot of career-pathing projects? My mom found out about a college here in LA that offers a four-year degree in toy design specifically. So my background – I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts specifically in toy design.
So I graduated from Otis College of Art and Design, which is locally here in LA, close to LAX. They’re one of only two schools in the world, I guess, that offers a bachelors degree specifically in toy design. So I’ve had my eye on that since middle school. And the reason being is because I used to go to different collector conventions and meet designers there and I’m like, “Oh, there’s someone actually designing the toys. How do I do that?” So Otis was the only place that I applied to and the rest is history.
THE GEEKIARY: How long have you been with Spin Master?
MICHAEL LEE: I started off here as an intern in junior year of college. So full-time, I’ve been here seven and a half years, but with the internship and, you know, freelance contract work that I did during school, over eight years now.
THE GEEKIARY: Do you like it?
MICHAEL LEE: I love it. Great team, great camaraderie, it’s an amazing place to work. It’s a very creative-driven company, so it’s a lot of great innovation put into the toys, a lot of “blue sky” concepts that, you know, might never see the light of day at other toy companies. So it’s a very entrepreneurial company, very fun to work with.
THE GEEKIARY: Do you work specifically just on Bakugan or do you work on other stuff?
MICHAEL LEE: So Bakugan is my baby right now. I’ve been working on Bakugan since the relaunch of Bakugan Battle Planet, which launched this year . I’ve been working on Bakugan for about four years now. So that kind of gives you an idea, too, how far in advance we work on some of this stuff.
THE GEEKIARY: So what it’s like for you to do a weekend like this, where you get to meet the people that are, like, the biggest fans?
MICHAEL LEE: It’s unreal. Because working day-to-day – like, I was mentioning the engineering elements, all of the very technical-driven elements, trying to meet different cost standards, all these vigorous things – you kind of get tunnel vision. It’s like, okay, I need to go through this, this, this, this. It’s like, okay, great, great, great.
You know, I enjoy it. It’s fun. But seeing this – seeing the end product being enjoyed by the users and the fans, it’s really rewarding. This is what makes me happy about- It’s like, “Great, they appreciate that tiny little detail I put – I’m glad someone noticed that.”
THE GEEKIARY: Yeah, I was sitting at the table, and everyone was talking about how detailed they are. That’s pretty impressive, considering how small everything is.
MICHAEL LEE: Right, and we listen to these guys, too. It’s like, okay, this is what the fans are saying. How can we implement them to the toy, and seeing them notice little nuances it’s like, okay, cool. Glad that they’re catching onto that.
THE GEEKIARY: What, from this new line of toys, are you most excited for fans to get?
MICHAEL LEE: I’m really excited about the new element of Bakugear. So not just from a toy perspective. From a toy perspective, they’re great. You have these magnetic-activated transforming parts that armor up your Bakugan into these even bigger creatures. For me, and from what I’m seeing from this event so far, is just the overwhelming appreciation for the new game mechanics that we’ve built into it with the Bakugear.
So we have new, different card types for our trading card game with the Bakugear cards. We’re bringing in dual faction cards. So just seeing the fans and the Bakugan card appreciating the new game mechanics. I love seeing them looking at the cards. I see the gears cranking in their heads, like, “How does this card interact with this?” and coming up with new strategies.
I think that’s what’s really exciting for me, is just seeing that new layer that we’ve added on, building off of that great foundation that we built last year.
I’d like to thank Michael, again, for taking the time to speak to me. And you can look forward to more good stuff out of Spin Master when I visit the New York Toy Fair 2020 in February!
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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