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Disney Infinity: The challenges of straddling the line between physical and virtual play

Some of my fondest childhood playtime memories involve epic fantasy wars waged between G.I. Joes, Transformers, Matchbox cars, and Star Wars figures. These improbable franchise crossovers are the stuff of youthful fantasizing everywhere. The playing pieces change from generation to generation, but the appeal bringing together favorite characters from different universes remains the same. In an era that has seen interactive entertainment evolve significantly, and a successful marriage of physical toys and virtual worlds thanks to properties like Activision’s Skylanders franchise, it was only a matter of time before someone got the bright idea of pairing those long-remembered epic battles of yesteryear with the new-fangled joys of video games.

Fortunately for the kid in all of us, it’s Disney that got there first.

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Building A Better Toy Box

Disney Infinity is the product of a multi-year collaboration between Avalanche Studios, the developer behind many of Disney’s more recent movie tie-in games, and the entertainment enterprise’s animation division, led by former Pixar chief John Lasseter. If you read Anthony’s report yesterday, then you already know that Infinity is equal parts SkylandersLittleBigPlanet, and Minecraft. Physical toys serve double-duty as kid-friendly memory cards that store character information, but there’s also a significant content creation component in the game’s Toy Box mode. It’s an astonishingly ambitious set of bullet points that describe Infinity‘s myriad features, but it’s easy enough to grasp for those of us who remember bygone days of dumping out the toy box to stage an epic crossover.

“[With Disney Infinity], we wanted to emulate the way kids play, and so we needed to give you a lot of technological power to do that,” Avalanche CEO John Blackburn told us in an interview yesterday. The initial idea for the new endeavor actually came from the studio’s Toy Story 3 game, a well-received movie tie-in that scored points with critics for its Toybox mode, which allowed players to create full levels of their own, complete with a lineup of player-designated characters and missions. Completing objectives in the game would unlock more toys to play and design with in Toybox, resulting in a very satisfying feedback loop.

“We really felt when we did that one that we had found something that really resonated with people. Just seeing the way our own families played the game after the game was made, [we realized that] there was something kind of new and different here. It was creative gameplay, but it also had a deep moveset along with it, so it really allowed you to play in different ways. If you’re a customizer, you could do that. If you wanted to play more action gameplay, you could do that. That whole concept of buying which toys you want to bring into your world, we just felt like that was a cool paradigm,” Blackburn explained.

Avalanche was working on a follow-up that would elaborate on some of the successful ideas at play in Toy Story 3 when Disney Interactive co-president John Pleasants joined the company. It was Pleasants who pointed at the work that Activision was doing with Skylanders and suggested that Avalanche think more along the line of building a platform. From there, Disney Infinity was born.

“It was a really natural thing for us to go, ‘Look, if we can think about this as a platform for all of our franchises at Disney [it could be huge].’ Disney had been hesitant to do this in the past, but we haven’t had… an idea that the creative leaders of the company could get behind. We realized that the toys are the way to do this. We do it at theme parks, and it works to bring all the characters together there,” Blackburn said. “This was a way to support more properties by making everything into a toy and letting them support each other, and then they can kind of come into this Toy Box mode together. This was fall 2010 that we were doing this, and so we started to design virtual toys back then.”

In the years that followed, Avalanche worked quietly to build this loose set of ideas into the package that was at last revealed yesterday. The idea that started as a Toy Story 3 follow-up is now very much the sort of platform that Pleasants envisioned. Player profiles will be connected across all platforms that Infinity can be played on by the Disney ID infrastructure, while character progression data is stored with the action figures. The toys also double as gateways into the different franchise-specific Playsets, each of which offer roughly 4-6 hours of play, and up to 10 or more for the serious completionists.

Delivering Infinity In A Finite Space

Infinity will launch with three Playsets plus the Toy Box ready for anyone to access, but the disc contains more content than that. Avalanche is very much aware of the issues that gamers have with on-disc DLC, but it’s unavoidable with Disney Infinity. “We will have other expansion packs and more figurines that you can actually buy. Those will unlock that content off of the disc, so there’s no download associated with it. A lot of our consumers are not connected to the network with their devices in their homes, so we needed a way to make sure you could actually get that content so it’s actually stored on the disc already,” Blackburn explained.
The bigger challenge that Disney and Avalanche face is carrying player content across platforms from different manufacturers. The profile tied to your Disney ID is analogous to similar services maintained by other publishers, such as Electronic Arts’ Origin or Ubisoft’s Uplay. There have been some advances in the direction of true cross-platform play, notably with EA’s CloudCompete allowing for progression in Need for Speed: Most Wanted to carry between different paltforms, but these are details that still need to be worked out for Infinity.

“What we’re trying to do is make this as seamless as possible for the consumer, and [the platform holders] have all gotten on board with sharing the data that we can store to the physical toy. [This includes] the level of that toy, how much experience it has, and the economy that goes along with it. You can [improve your character] on any platform and then take the progress back and forth on the toy. When you get back on your primary device and you hook in your Disney ID, we then resolve what the latest state is of those things. So we can share basic information back and forth on the physical toys,” Blackburn said.

Dealing with created worlds and minigames across multiple platforms in Infinity‘s Toy Box mode is much trickier, but Blackburn explained that Avalanche is set on going bigger than just shared character data. “Right now we are trying to work [more cross-platform support] out with the hardware manufacturers,” he said. “A lot of them are willing to allow us to go back and forth to PC right now. It’s almost as if PC is like Switzerland. The problem with that becomes almost like laundering content through Switzerland. There’s technically no reason why we can’t do that right now, but we need to make sure all the platform manufacturers are comfortable with how we’re handling that content.”

To Infinity… And Beyond!

There are bigger question marks about the mobile execution of Disney Infinity. Blackburn shied away from answering any question relating to a possible PlayStation Vita release and he spoke only in general terms about how the game might look on other mobile platforms. “We’re definitely optimizing the mobile experience for both the timeframe that users usually play on the device as well as the [touch-based control scheme]. It’s not exactly like a character management sort of thing, but it is something that allows you to play with those unlocked toys that you’ve acquired in your collection and then make the transference of economy and experience meaningful,” he said.

Portable play aside, touchscreens create some interesting possibilities on the creation side of things. Blackburn even said outright that Infinity‘s user-generated content controls “works better on a point and click interface.” The Wii U is already confirmed as a supported launch platform, and the GamePad’s touch interace will indeed be used in world creation, but Microsoft’s SmartGlass and Sony’s PS Vita, which has the ability to double as a touch-enabled PlayStation 3 controller on certain games, present similar opportunities. Even Apple’s iPad is in the mix, as Blackburn confirms that the second-gen iOS tablet and its successors can all support the console/PC version of Infinity.

The June launch promises to deliver an elaborate, multi-faceted on-disc experience in Infinity, but it’s also only a starting point. “I totally want Marvel and Star Wars to be in here,” Blackburn said, referring to the two relatively recent Disney acquisitions. “As a developer, yes, I would love that, but those discussion are actually going on at a higher level in the company. There hasn’t been a decision made on that yet. There are so many possibilities with all the different characters from both of those franchises, it would be awesome to be able to have that.”

Beyond that, there’s also the creation aspect of the game. It’s a really cool thing to put your action figure down on a USB-powered pad and have it suddenly appear in your video game, but even cooler is the possibility of creating something – say, your Pirates of the Caribbean sailing ship – and then spending a little money to buy a physical replica of your virtual creation. MakerBot and similar technology is already capable of making that a reality, and it’s an avenue that Avalanche wants to explore.

“There’s been some pretty interesting discussion and some pretty cool technologies that we’ve looked at,” Blackburn said. “Right now, it is not in the plan, but I think that it is a very fertile area that we could go into.”

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Hands-on with ‘Disney Infinity:’ combining toys, imagination, and the bizarre

Cheap, plastic crap. That's the first thing I thought when Activision first introduced Skylanders to the press. After all, this was the same company that had foisted millions of plastic guitars, drum sets, and skateboards on us. Only this time they were hitting below the belt and trying to drag kids into as well. "Heathens!" I silently fumed. "Visigoths! It'll never work! You can't put a price on imagination!" But as it turns out, I was completely wrong. You can put a price on imagination, as long as you create a great product. Skylanders managed to hit the crossover point perfectly, providing both a toy that kids want to play with and cram into their backpack, and a video game that lets you zap that same character into it, Tron-style. It's pure wish-fulfillment on a tangible level. Which reminds me: Disney, if you ever create a Tron playset for Disney Infinity, I'm in for life. 
Yes, that's right, a Jeff Bridges or Bruce Boxleitner-inspired little plastic toy can buy me cheap. But first let me back up and say that when Disney Infinity was first announced, I had the same knee-jerk reaction that much of the gaming press did: Oh, they're ripping off Skylanders. Since that announcement back in January, I hadn't paid much attention to the game until an event that Disney hosted just before E3, allowing us to finally get our hands on the game. And yes, they might have aped Skylanders in a fairly direct manner, the Toy Box element they have added to it is extremely impressive. Plus, as a former Disney employee (I worked at Walt Disney World back in 1992 at Disney/MGM Studios), I know how nuts people go for anything with the word "Disney" on it. Which means Disney could probably market these figures as standalone toys and they would do a brisk business, especially since the sculpts are fantastic.
But, there's actually a robust game here. After a brief moment playing in the Toy Box, I'm ready to join the (new) plastic revolution.
What you know. Disney Infinity is actually two halves of a complete game. There are Playsets that give you self-contained adventures containing only the characters from those worlds in them: Monsters Inc. for example will come with Sully and Mike, and you can add other characters from that realm as they come out. These will have true-to-property missions and experiences in them, and if you try and put a character from another world - let's say Tonto from the upcoming The Lone Ranger - on the Infinity Base while you have the Incredibles playset loaded, you'll get a message telling you that character isn't available in this playset. But the game will tell you that you can take them into the Toy Box if you want. On the other hand, if you drop someone like Syndrome onto the base while you have the Incredibles playset loaded, he'll appear in the game and you can control him.
Power-up plastic. The playsets themselves offer a fair amount of gameplay, and you can use Power Discs as well to augment your characters in them. These are thin, clear plastic discs that you place under your character on the Base to have them deal more damage, and so on. There are also boosters that work in the Toy Boy, giving you access to unique items and vehicles, like Carl's cane from Up. Some of these discs can change the environment, like adding a new sky, and the orange-rimmed ones represent rare items that you can use while in Toy Box mode. Basically, the easiest way to keep things straight between Playsets and Toy Box is: no crossover in Playsets. You won't see characters from one realm interacting with characters or environments from another while you're in the Playsets, that only happens in the Toy Box.
Swap meet. Playset gameplay will depend on what character you have loaded up, and most of the missions we saw were right out of the movies connected to these characters. For instance, in The Incredibles the characters were facing a robot that was wreaking havoc downtown. Depending on who you had on the Infinity Base, you could control Mr. Incredible, Elastigal, Dash, or Violet. There was some platforming involved, some vehicular action (Mr. Incredible rides a pretty nifty hoverboard), and action that you would expect in an Incredibles universe. Some of the quests are timed, and while we didn't get to spend a ton of time with them, they offer up enough content to face value to make it interesting, and the fact that you can swap in/out characters from that world should add some replay value.
Toy Story. Where things really get weird is in the Toy Box mode, which allows you to do nearly anything. Not only can you combine architecture, environment, and items from different Disney worlds, you can put them down wherever you want. It's like a Disney Imagineer merged with a copy of Minecraft. Not only can you place those objects, even stacking them on top of each other, but you can change their behavior. We built a rudimentary soccer match inside a stadium, adding cardboard cutout crowds that can be made to cheer wildly on command. You can drop in a soccer ball, and set behavior for the goals in the game, and even add scripted events like confetti and fireworks for each goal scored. That's just scratching the surface of what you can do in Infinity, and according to one of the developers at the show, they created their own version of Mario Kart back at the office, remade inside this game.
Planes, trains, and automobiles. Which brings us back to the vehicles that are part of the game as well, including living mounts. At first it was a bit strange to see Mr. Incredible piloting a Recognizer, or changing the sky to an underwater  atmosphere at the touch of a button, but right as your brain says "What the..." it also says "Whoa. I want that." Toy Box will be a massive messy place, no doubt, but you'll be able to upload your creations, and hopefully Disney will be curating those and offering up the best of the best for download. 

Disney Infinity has adopted a near caricature look for their characters, which applies itself nicely to the Pixar properties, although it makes the live-action characters extremely cartoony. This is actually a good thing, because as appealing as movies like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Lone Ranger can be, people die in those flicks and these are toys meant for kids of all ages. That cartoon look adds a degree of separation that we're fine with. The toy sculpts themselves are extremely well-made, and they would look at home on your bookshelf, or next to your game console. People might buy these without ever playing the video game. That means more plastic stuff for Disney to sell, and if they can find a way to make these figures as collectible as the Disney trading pins and vinyls have been, watch out cash cow.
It was easy, and unfair, to be dismissive of Skylanders, but the success of that game has given rise to a whole new genre of gaming that combines real-world toys with in-game versions of the same. A few years back, this would sound like science fiction, but now it's here as video gaming fact. Disney Infinity looks to make a powerful connection between toys and video games, combining fun and collectibility, especially in the fantastical Toy Box mode. No more mint in package, folks. You have to open these to play with them in both worlds. 

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