Released later this year, Disney Infinity is the boldest video game product yet from the house of Mickey.
Incorporating a versatile video game and a line of Disney figurines that you can use to access content in-game, Infinity is the first time that Disney’s myriad characters have come together under one banner.
It will go into direct competition with Activision’s hugely popular Skylanders franchise, and Disney hope to have the edge by using its most famous faces – such as The Incredibles, Captain Jack Sparrow and the just announced Lone Ranger – and allowing players to create their own adventures in the toy-box mode. Developed by Avalanche software and overseen by Disney’s top brass, Infinity is a huge undertaking.
We talk to John Vignocchi, Disney Interactive’s executive producer, about the challenge, risk and reward of such a project.
TH: This is a hugely ambitious project, tell me about some of the pressure rested on Avalanche to deliver on Disney’s ambition with Infinity.
It’s the first time Disney has allowed its franchises to interact in such a way. What’s it like being the first group of artists allowed to do that?
It has been an honour for the talented team at Avalanche Software to bring together all of the Disney characters into one central game experience.
Avalanche has consistently displayed a level of understanding of what it means to be “Disney” to the organisation over the years, with Toy Story 3 and Cars 2 video games as shining examples. They have lovingly crafted fun and authentic game play experiences with some of the most popular characters inside Disney and were the obvious choice to take on this hugely ambitious project.
Are there certain rules you have to abide by in relation to the characters interacting with each other, or is it fair game?
The concept behind Disney Infinity is that these are not the characters themselves, but rather TOY versions of your favourite Disney characters… And just like in real life, it is up to your imagination how you can play. There is no wrong way to play with your toys!
Did you have input from the original animation teams when devising Infinity and its art style?
During the initial ideation period on Disney Infinity, the team at Avalanche worked closely with the team at Pixar Animation Studios. Together they helped create the unique “toy” art style that each character represents.
Once the general look and proportions of the characters were nailed down, the team began to work directly with the likes of Jerry Bruckheimer, Tim Burton and others to bring our most popular characters to life in this new and unique “toy-ettique” art style.
While it has been a coordination challenge to work with each of these talents over the years because schedules are so busy, it has truly been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for all involved.
Does the Toy Box mode draw on the mode of the same name from the Toy Story 3 game?
Absolutely. During the ideation phase for Disney Infinity, we were planning on building this platform that allowed kids to jump from one Disney game to the other. That was the initial concept for Infinity. We always knew that we wanted to support online multiplayer however, but rather than have a lobby system where kids would wait for their friends to join in, the team at Avalanche literally created a virtual “sandbox” for kids to play in…
Even during our early focus group tests, we started to notice that kids loved just playing with various gadgets that we placed on the ground in this virtual sandbox.
It just seemed natural to the team that the way we would evolve the famous “Toy Box” mode from the Toy Story 3 game would be to let kids create and customise their world and even build their own games using logic toys.
I understand that each different play set will have distinct types of gameplay (racing for Cars, action for The Incredibles etc.) how did you go about building an engine that could accommodate that versatility but ensure the individual elements were still up to scratch?
It comes down to Avalanche’s amazingly powerful “Octane” engine that powers Disney Infinity. The engine has been iterated on for over ten years and features a powerful lossless animation system that lets our modelling and animation team create character rigs that can translate to a variety of different skeletons.
This power engine is what allows characters like Mike Wazowski and Mr. Incredible ride Bullseye from Toy Story, or hold Captain Jack Sparrow’s sword and have it look correct in-game.
From a character mechanics standpoint, during the ideation phase, the play set team defines the characters and game mechanics that they would like to see inside the game.
The character team, which has intimate knowledge of the movie sets and mechanics of the 30+ characters inside of Infinity, then heads off and begins working on making these characters feel truly special inside of the game. Once ready, they are handed back to the team for integration into their Play Set.
Toy Box mode looks like Infinity’s biggest draw. Is this where you expect your audience to spend most of its time?
It really depends on the type of player. In testing Disney Infinity, we see that when boys are playing by themselves they tend to enjoy the Play Set experience wherein we tell an original story in an open-world setting. Multiplayer though? They love playing inside of the Toy Box due to the imaginative nature of this game mode.
Especially fun is watching two kids collaboratively build inside of this mode, creating amazing castles or race tracks. Of course with boys, eventually it all ends in chaos.
Interestingly enough, in sessions where I have observed girls, they are taking a lot of interest inside of Infinity’s Toy Box mode. They treat it like a virtual doll house where they use the world as a creative canvas to tell their own stories with Disney characters.
Given the target audience for Toy Box, you somehow need to have the flexibility of a kid’s imagination twinned with an accessible creation tool. How on Earth do you do that?
An area of development that Avalanche consistently excels is what we call “onboarding” or teaching kids how to play. Disney Infinity’s toy box mode has been in development since we started the project back in 2010 and making sure that the game has a level of accessibility and the breadth and depth to capture a child’s imagination has been a task that the team has taken very seriously with lots and lots of testing over the years.
Toybox mode in Disney Infinity (DISNEY)
Obviously you have a wealth of content to approach, from Mickey Mouse to Marvel to Star Wars. Is there any danger of the platform becoming TOO bloated and unmanageable?
Having access to Disney’s wealth of content is part of the fun, but it is also an amazing opportunity. Disney Infinity has a three-pronged approach. First, it is a platform designed to grow over time, not only in scale but also with the actual players themselves.
Second, the IPs that we have selected now and in the future are designed to attract and sustain players inside the game’s ecosystem. Lastly, our hope is that we can get fans to the platform via affinity for one Disney property (such as “Pirates of the Caribbean”) and be willing to try another that they may not have been attracted to in the past, rather than purchase a video game from a different publisher. This is part of the reason we have put so much effort into making the Play Sets so special.
Comparisons to Activision’s Skylanders are inevitable. Can the market sustain two such product lines?
We believe so. The connected toys category is still growing at a rapid pace. Our products are similar in that we have toys, but the similarities stop there. It comes down to software execution. Disney Infinity is an open-world gaming platform where the world’s most favourite characters come to play. It supports original, true-to-property experiences in an open world setting via our Play Sets and gives players the tools to customise their own worlds and even build games via our Toy Box mode.
It also supports online multiplayer and lets players download and play with user generated content. After gamers play Disney Infinity, it becomes readily apparent to them that what Disney is offering with Infinity is a significantly different product than our competitors.
There is always the concern that building play-sets can get very expensive for consumers. How do you approach the balancing act of selling the toys and making a great game in its own right?
With our Play Set packs, it really comes down to consumer value. We believe that offering kids three collectible toys and the ability to access a brand new 6-7 hour gaming experience complete with unique game mechanics and brand new virtual toys is great value.
With the closure of LucasArts and cancellation of titles like Star Wars 1313, Disney Interactive’s strategy has clearly shifted recently. Is Infinity going to be your primary focus from now on?
For those of us working on Disney Infinity and, of course, the amazingly talented team at Avalanche, the answer is yes. That being said, Disney Mobile will still crank out great games like Where’s My Water and Temple Run: Oz, while Playdom will continue to focus on social titles like Gardens of Time and Avengers Alliance and more.
You’re launching a very big project late into the console generation, if and when you move onto the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, will the relevant technologies and figures be easily transferrable?
We designed Disney Infinity to be a long term platform for the Walt Disney company that is scalable in a variety of ways. So in a word: “Yes!”
Disney Infinity is released for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS and PC on 23 August