Nobody has bigger franchises than Disney and Pixar, but big franchise video games are a mixed blessing for any company. On one hand, the worst game with Toy Story attached will probably sell reasonably well. On the other, does the most lauded animation studio in the world really want its A-list characters starring in endless, B-movie sequels?
Disney Infinity is the company’s swing-for-the-fences attempt to raise the bar on their video game franchises, and it’s a platform of audacious scope. In Infinity, players will be able to mix characters from all of Disney’s franchises in a completely editable open-world game that supports up to four players online. (Think Minecraft with Jack Sparrow building alongside Buzz Lightyear.) At the same time, Infinity integrates Play Sets, which are 4-to-6-hour standalone games, driven by clear objectives and narratives, each taking place within a particular Disney universe. Each of these Play Sets includes real, physical toys (figurines, objects, and disc-based power-ups), which are unlocked in Infinity through an RFID dongle.
A skeptic would point to the popularity of Minecraft and the addictive figurine collecting behind Skylanders and conclude this is a sure thing for Disney—in fact, one might reason that they had to create Infinity just to keep up with the market. But you can’t underestimate the risk or the potential here. Disney may have 10 or 20 games in the pike for Infinity, but if Infinity flops, where does all that work go?
"I don’t think it’s just fulfilling expectations," Avalanche Software GM John Blackburn tells Co.Design. "The real why behind Disney Infinity is, from a business standpoint, we needed to do something that would allow us to consistently increase the quality of each one of the games we made for all games we made in the future."
It’s a valid point. While Disney has developed and purchased a few video game companies of their own (Avalanche Studios itself was a 2005 acquisition), their interactive titles are constantly juggled by external development studios. The effect is inconsistency. When you go into the theater to see a Pixar film, you know it’s going to be worthy of four stars, but "Disney" games made by various studios across the world don’t even muster a "D" average on Metacritic. With Infinity, Disney is assumably spreading a single, reliable, lock-and-key engine across the product line. And the characters themselves, despite coming from vastly different films and being rendered on lower resolution graphics, share a unified look created by developers and studio animators.
"If you think about Mr. Incredible, he has really tiny feet and ankles [which can’t work in games]. We tried to take characters to the most simplistic form we could and still maintain their essence," Blackburn explains. "A lot of our characters look very different from the [movie] build character if you put them side by side. But when you see them alone without that other reference in mind, you say, ‘Oh that’s Mr. Incredible!’"
The promise of consistency was equally as appealing for the physical figurines as well. Just as multiple developers make Disney games, so too do multiple manufacturers handle Disney toy production through movie licensing agreements. Infinity isn’t just a Skylanders clone; it’s an opportunity to justify a new line of toys under the roof of the flagship.
"Right off the bat, when we pitched this idea to John Lasseter as something that was going to go across the franchise properties, we pitched it as virtual toys," Blackburn says. "John was the one who said, I want real toys, too. I want this cool collectible thing—it could be our definitive toy line."
Disney Infinity will launch later this year for every platform under the sun—Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, PC, and even iOS. The mobile experience will be modified for quicker, lighter-weight gameplay, but a player will only need to unlock characters once to have them on any system they own. Bigger picture, Infinity is a fascinating approach to increasing the value of digital goods. With physical figures at their core, the company most notorious for staggering VHS and DVD releases may have tapped a way to negotiate exciting, limited-time virtual releases in a market that’s beyond-saturated with "exclusive" DLC. Depending on their manufacturing runs, any game character could become an instant collector’s item, rather than just another ad on Xbox Live.
And if you believe in conspiracy theories, consider the grander possibilities. Disney just announced that they’re spending $1 billion to bring RFID into their parks. Does that mean a child could bring their collection of Infinity toys to be scanned at various checkpoints in Disney World to unlock even more content in their game? Could an Infinity player experience totally unique aspects to Disney World? Technically speaking, yes, that sort of groundbreaking cross-pollination is absolutely possible. To infinity and beyond, indeed.