Creating figurines that look distinctly like the original characters but also match each other was a mammoth design task.
Disney Infinity is well named; its scope appears to be almost unlimited.
While at first glance it looks like the Walt Disney Company trying to copy Activision's phenomenal success with Skylanders with collectible Disney figurines that unlock in-game content when placed on a special electronic base, there is actually a lot more going on.
First, this is not a single game, but more a gaming platform or hub. Within the unified experience of infinity, players will be able to explore franchise-specific game worlds, such as Monsters Inc. or Pirates of the Caribbean, but will also be able to unlock characters, building blocks, vehicles, upgrades and more to use in a free-for-all sandbox known as Toybox Mode.
An impressively large cast of characters is planned.
Last week after the announcement I had the chance to speak with John Blackburn, the General Manager of Avalanche, the game studio creating Infinity. His team has been working on the project for two and a half years, and when the finished product is launched in mid-2013 it will be closer to three years. Clearly this is a big project.
Blackburn explained that it grew out of the free-form toybox mode in the Toy Story 3 tie-in game. "With Toy Story 3 Toybox Mode, the idea was the emulate the way that a child plays with toys and tells a story," he said. "When the guys at Pixar played it with their kids, they all said, we really get it, and they started to develop a sense of trust in what you can do in a video game and still be respectful of the characters."
This building trust led to Disney's John Lasseter giving Blackburn and his team the go-ahead to develop a new game, which was originally going to be a Toy Story game sequel featuring only Buzz Lightyear. "We decided to think big and make a whole platform, which could fit with any new film that we decided to make a game for," Blackburn explained. "The only way this could work is if the characters were unified, and looked designed to be together."
Like Skylanders, Infinity is built around real-world toys, figurines of many well-loved Disney characters. Rather than being a mish-mash of styles, Blackburn and his team worked closely with Pixar and Disney to develop a unique visual style across the whole range.
"We started off with a huge exploration, hundreds of different styles," Blackburn recalled. "Like, if you imagine something like the Vinylmation range of collectible figures, where the form really overpowers the character, all the way to the other end of the scale where it looks very close to the original character with little stylisation. We settled on wanting about 60% toward the character side of that continuum - more true to character than to form."
"Every once in a while we'd just get a character right - we'd say, yes, that! That's what these things should look like! I think Mr incredible was the first one where we said, yeah, that's it, that's how they should look. We'd then go through a process where we'd go through and try to reduce the amount of detail in each character, and try to describe that character with as few lines as possible. Start with a strong V from the chest to the waist, exaggerate the feet because they're meant to be toys, and exaggerate the hands."
Blackburn explained that initially it was an extremely time consuming process. "We probably went through 20 iterations on those early characters, back and forth with the production designers, until we nailed a style we liked," he said. "On the later characters we just started phoning it in, because we could see how they would fit into the existing style."
The result is, in a word, cool. The figures are sleek, drawn from smooth, simple lines, but also look distinctly like the characters they are meant to be. The three characters in the starter kit are Sully from Monsters Inc, Captain Jack Sparrow from Pirates of the Caribbean, and Mr Incredible from The Incredibles, and when they are lined up they really go together well. It's a remarkable achievement in art and design.
They are also, and I am sure Disney is counting on this, very attractive in their own right, and sure to be a hit even with collectors who don't play video games. You can easily imagine them sitting on a collector's shelves, never going near a game console.
The figurines are then re-created in digital form inside the game, identical to their physical counterparts. Again, like Skylanders, you play with a character by placing it on the base unit. On its own, this will give the player control of that character in Toybox Mode, and you can place two figurines to play two characters in split-screen, as well as up to four players online.
There are also plastic tiles called Playset pieces, which are also placed on the base unit. Instead of a character, these will unlock an entire game world. Only the appropriate characters can enter these Playsets, but playing through these stand-alone games will unlock new items for your Toybox. Blackburn explained that a new franchise being added to the game would typically be launched with a starter kit, such as two characters and an appropriate Playset piece. "For initial starter pack, containing Sully, Jack Sparrow, and Mr Incredible, we made that one Playset piece work for all three worlds," he said. "It's a special case."
Another type of piece that can interact with the base unit are circular pieces called Power Discs. These are stacked under your character's base, and can include upgrades like jetpacks, vehicles, and special powers. "The Power Discs don't come with the figures," Blackburn said. "They come in two-disc blind packs, so you don't know which discs you're getting. The idea behind it is that it's like trading cards."
The full extent of Disney Infinity has not yet been unveiled, but it is a gigantic digital world that is only going to get bigger. Blackburn talked about the scope of the project in terms of characters and abilities. "We wanted a really rich move set, and there are lots of mechanics - different ways to fly, what your characters can hold in their hands, different types of combat, riding horses, riding bikes, driving vehicles - we've got a tonne of stuff in there. Our idea is that each new Playset will bring really cool, unique toys into your Toybox."
"The cool thing is that in the Infinity initial launch, Jack Sparrow can't swim, but if we add swimming in a future update, then Jack Sparrow will be able to swim. We'll add that functionality to all of the figures that we've made. The spreadsheet we have right now that goes through every different ability of every character and then multiplies that across every character - every time we add a new gameplay mechanic, we have to add it to every character, and every time we add a new character, we add every gameplay mechanic to it - it's growing pretty large. We have great tools, though, so we're not afraid of adding new mechanics in the future."
The Toybox mode is what has fans most excited. Due to the diversity of the properties available for Infinity at launch - the full range has not been announced, but we already know about Monsters, Pirates, Incredibles, Cars, Toy Story, and more - there will be a very side range of playing styles available. In Toybox mode, you will able to take snap-together tiles and build castles, race tracks, and more, all in four player co-op.
Infinity has been slated for a June release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, PC, and mobile devices, so we still have a long wait and probably a lot of teased-out announcements before we know the entire launch line-up, but so far it is off to an impressive start. Far more than just the Skylanders rip-off that it appears to be at first glance, it will incorporate building and sharing, and extremely creative open-world gameplay, as well as tightly-focussed specific-property adventures.
If the quality of the collectible figures is any indication, this should be a hit.
- James "DexX" Dominguez
DexX is on Twitter: @jamesjdominguez