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Disney Infinity is a real game changer for the Mouse House, delivering top quality fun for gamers & non-gamers alike

Disney Infinity is a real game changer for the Mouse House, delivering top quality fun for gamers & non-gamers alike

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The gamers at JimHillMedia.com -- Alice, Shelly and myself -- have spent the past few days exploring the world of Disney Infinity. This new Disney Interactive release game came out on August 18th. But the game is so robust that it deserved a few days to get an accurate sense of the entire experience.

Alice, Shelly and myself had been interested in the title since John Lasseter gave the first public debut exclusively for D23 members in January. In fact we had spent time following the progress on the game over the big summer conventions. The E3 in Los Angeles and the San Diego Comic Con showcased the progress that Disney Interactive had made. From month to month there were improvements in control, physics, graphics and new features as well.

John Lasseter onstage at the El Capitan at the Disney Infinity introductory
media event. Photo by Alice Hill

For those that just want to find out if the game was worth the hype I could give you a one sentence review: Disney Infinity was very good and worth buying. Experienced gamers that expected to see a rehash of elements from other titles might be surprised by the actual content.

Make no mistake, this game was influenced by a myriad of titles much more well known to players, specifically the Lego games, Minecraft, Skylanders and Little Big Planet. Each of those games was known for their distinct gameplay and ability for players to build and create their own worlds.

Disney Infinity did manage to capture many elements from the aforementioned games but it also made that experience more accessible to audiences. Instead of having players create environments with a set of landscaping and painting tools as in Minecraft or Little Big Planet, they could collect pre-built set pieces, textures and accessory packs in Disney Infinity. Audiences could assemble the pieces in any number of ways and stack them on top of one another, they could not however break larger pieces up into small components and do any fine detail.

The tools in Disney Infinity were like an introduction to level building games. For example, players could make a racetrack complete with banked curves and loops but set in, around and through the Fantasyland castle. They could then race around this track as one of the characters from Cars, or as a Disney character driving inside a car from Autopia.

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In the Lego games players could combine weapons, vehicles and character accessories to build new gaming experiences. In Disney Infinity players could do similar things as well. For example players could grant Sulley from Monsters University the speed of Dash from the Incredibles using a booster pack. Booster packs were sold separately and could be stacked to grant any character additional abilities. Players could then place their hyperactive Sulley inside the ride vehicle from the Dumbo the Flying Elephant and add missile launchers to the side for a makeshift strike fighter. Players were free to fly around their newly created level shooting at friends or opponents.

This all may sound sacrilegious to long-time Disney fans but gamers had come to expect this type of creative freedom in their sandbox titles. The figure collecting aspect of Infinity was pulled from the Activision-Blizzard game Skylanders however the nuances in gameplay were quite different. Skylanders played more like an action RPG. The game allowed players to gain experience through combat and missions and help their character grow and evolve. Character customization was a feature in Skylanders. Disney Infinity did save the level progress on individual characters, making them slightly faster or more durable in combat. It did not allow players to change the appearance, colors and textures on their models though. 

Each game world in Disney Infinity was different than Skylanders and changed the basic way the game was played. Instead of an action RPG Disney Infinity could be an action, sim and even racing game depending on which set the player was using.

If Disney Infinity suffered from one thing it would be the ad campaigns, they did not do the gameplay justice. There had been a heavy focus on the character cameos and "Toybox" levels in the commercials. The Toybox was a virtual landscape that players could add themes to, create and shape their own unique experiences in. It gave players the ability to do things that couldn't be possible in the real world, essentially bringing their toys to life. Gamers could build floating islands, working puzzles and even opponents that fought back. Gamers could also have friends play within these environments in 2-player or online modes. The Toybox could appeal very strongly to gamers that enjoyed the same things that made the Toy Story 3 or Banjo Kazooie games great.

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But not every gamer was interested in just building experiences. That was why Disney Interactive included fully realized game stages known as the Playset for each franchise. The Playset was created from the traditional formula of levels and stages with a narrative, missions and a clear objective.

Disney Infinity was not just about building and creating but also about actually taking a central role in these worlds. The details for each stage were lifted from the parks, animation and film legacy. Speaking with the developers at the public showings they said that Disney allowed them to incorporate supporting details from their vast library without objection, so long as it fit the theme of the game. These details included audio cues and music from individual franchises. The game featured voice actors that tried to recreate the nuances of the characters they were based on. Some voices were well done while others were not as convincing.

The starter set allowed for players to explore Metroville from the Incredibles, the islands from Pirates of the Caribbean or Monsters University. Players in the PotC levels could see elements from the classic dark ride right away and as they got further into the world they could see a mix of elements from the movies as well as new locations created just for the game. A variation of the epic Hans Zimmer music underscored the levels. It helped frame the sword fights and action sequences as it had in the films. The music would then slow down to a soft shanty while exploring a port, or rhythmic, tribal-almost-Incan song for exotic locations. The free spirited mini games would switch genres to zydeco. The level of detail in the musical queues followed every Playset.

For Monsters University the '80s inspired pop ballads that framed the college experience of Mike and Sulley were recreated as background themes on the stages. Players could travel between Roar Omega Roar, Jaws Theta Chi, Oozma Kappa and the other fraternities while rocking out to power ballads that never really were.

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Every Toybox was richly themed, so much so that it made me wonder if some of the designers were not moonlighting as Imagineers. These artists and programmers had crafted a world that supported the suspension of disbelief created in the opening moments of the game. The players were not really taking on the roles of Jack Sparrow or Davy Jones for example. They were instead controlling toys in the likeness of Sparrow and Jones using the "Spirit of Imagination."

There was violence in some of the Playsets but it was "pretend violence." The sword fights in Pirates of the Caribbean never drew blood and the flintlock pistols were always capped with a red safety tip. Gore was nonexistent as defeated opponents simply fell apart like broken action figures.

There was still a sense of awe and scale within each Playset. When players took to the high seas in PotC they were rolling with the enormous swells on the ocean and as far as the eye could see it was all free to explore. It rekindled memories from the AAA game blockbusters Assassins Creed and Uncharted but now for a younger crowd.

SPOILER ALERT: There were even naval battles on the high seas, where players could switch artillery and target multiple ships with the aid of a partner. The epic seagoing battles would have made the film producers proud. It was then that I wondered why the commercials did not sell gamers on the actual gameplay of Infinity instead of just the Toybox.

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The stages in the Playsets were as well done as those in the Lego titles. In fact they had a bit more to offer considering there were three complete Playsets in the starter set, each with over a half-dozen hours worth of unique gameplay stories and side missions.

When players were wandering around the campus of Monsters U there were telltale signs that this was a living, breathing school. Monsters carried textbooks and hurried from class to class, bulletin boards were plastered with ads, parties, and job offers. Bikes were locked to bike racks and the orange leaves of the fall semester littered the campus. As far as the eye could see players were in the world of Monsters U.

The same sense of scale and awe was in Metroville and every expansion set released so far. The wild west in the Lone Ranger, Radiator Springs from Cars could not have been done better. When players were in the world, they were really IN the world. To help reinforce the theme each Playset could only be explored by the characters from that particular franchise.

Those hoping to drive around Metroville as Lightning McQueen or have the Lone Ranger visit Monsters University would be sorely disappointed. The game detected which characters were in play and would not allow gamers to switch them for an incompatible character in any Playset. The game did allow players to swap out for other compatible characters on the fly.

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Why was this important? It forced the game to stay true to the narrative. Objectives in each game were suited for each character type. The hack and slash gameplay of PotC would not have worked within the racing world of Cars. Conversely the Cars would be at a loss if they had to scale buildings and fight the robots in Metroville.

The separation of each Toybox world also meant that returning to each world would be a unique experience. Players were rewarded with items for the Toybox for exploring each Playset, completing side missions and mini games.

The ability to swap out for compatible characters could even resolve conflicts in the real world. Let's say that two kids wanted to play as Captain Jack Sparrow in the same PotC Playset or Toybox. In other games they had to take turns playing as the hero but if they both had the same figure then there wasn't a problem for Infinity. The game worked just as well with two of the same character as it did with one, or even four of the same character if friends joined in online.

The Playsets did highlight a weakness with the game however. The sets that were built around a fast-paced IP, like Pirates, Cars or the Lone Ranger, translated well to an action experiences. Those that were rooted in drama or comedy, like Monsters University, had a harder time engaging players. Disney Interactive struggled to add gameplay elements and it showed. Giving Mike and Sulley a toilet paper-launching gun and scooter were attempts to liven up an otherwise bland Playset. The studio would have to consider the benefits of using a fan favorite character instead of adapting a franchise that lent itself to actual gameplay for future expansions.

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Those that wanted to play with all of their toys and virtual items outside of the Playset could do that in the Toybox mode. Mixing and matching items unlocked by the game was one of the highlights of the Toybox. All of the available Disney properties, with the exception of Marvel and Star Wars, were represented here. Theme packs could be unlocked that allowed players to dress up vehicles in the Playset or change the entire world of the Toybox. Elements from each Playset level could be pulled into the Toybox. The virtual environment could then have a global theme applied to it. A retro videogame theme for example could pixelate the sky and clouds in the Toybox. Textures would seem blocky, as if they had been built from the world of Wreck-it-Ralph. The music in the Toybox would even change to mimic the trendy 8-bit "chiptunes."

The Toybox was not a static world either. Non-playable pedestrian characters wandered throughout and could be dressed up like classic Disney heroes and villains using costume upgrades. Guards from Tangled could fight side by side with robots sent by Syndrome. Pedestrians dressed like Winnie the Pooh or Muppet characters could be seen wandering around the Toybox as well. Players could stick to canon and build a faithful reproduction of a Disney Parks landmark using only matching pieces. Or they could really let their imagination run wild. A waterside on top of a pirate ship that rocketed players into a saloon? This was possible but there was much more to the editor than random assembling.

The Toybox creation tools were robust but placing and setting up items required a bit of practice. The control and organizational system did not seem intuitive and required much practice to learn. The creation tools in Disney Infinity also did not have the fine tuning features of Minecraft or Little Big Planet. Set pieces in Infinity were fixed shapes that could be moved, scaled and rotated but not disassembled. In the other building game players could shape, paint and texture an entire item or strip it down and rebuild it completely new.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Disney Infinity did offer a large collection of gameplay triggers though to counter the lack of precise editing. Players could create virtual missions, host treasure hunts, and recreate entire classic arcade levels if they chose to. They could fix camera angles, have opponents pop up at specific intervals, build counters, rewards and elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions if they wanted to. All they needed was a little imagination.

Disney Infinity had much more than level building and character mash-ups to offer but it would be hard to convince gamers that this was a worthy investment. The idea of collectable figures and blind-pack booster packs seemed like a cash grab to the fickle community. The loyalty to Minecraft and Skylanders was still strong among gamers and Disney did not have the best gaming track record. Titles with the Disney label had been more mediocre than memorable over the past 25+ years. Granted there were standout moments like Castle of Illusion and DuckTales which were both remade for the current generation. The majority of the time Disney Interactive released a poor to average gaming experience for a film that was about to debut. There were no original ideas, nothing that could compare with the Gears of War, Assassins Creed, Uncharted or the other blockbuster games from major publishers.

When Disney Interactive tried to be completely original, as in Epic Mickey, the ambition outgrew the experience. Gamers loved the attention to detail and reintroduction of Oswald and Ortensia but were frustrated with the camera and controls. They were expecting a different gameplay experience altogether. The lessons from Epic Mickey were not lost on Infinity. Disney Interactive did include members from the Junction Point studio that created Epic Mickey after all.

Disney Infinity also incorporated the tiniest details from the films, cartoons and theme parks. It made good use of music, voice acting and storytelling to help immerse players into the world. It solved the control issue by giving characters familiar attack and defend capabilities that players could learn quickly. It used a simple camera setup so players could easily follow the action and adjust the angle on the fly.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

When we first started a Playset stage Alice and I found it extremely easy to get into, control and play. We were well into the story without having to second-guess our choices, not at all like our experience with Epic Mickey 2. The aesthetic of the game was the strongest draw for gamers and even non-gamers.

Classic and modern characters were all re-imagined as stylized toys so that they all shared a common theme. Even though Mickey Mouse was pushing 90 he looked as young and vibrant as Vanellope Von Schweetz from last year's Wreck-it-Ralph. Live action and television characters also fit into the world of Infinity seamlessly using the same aesthetic. This was a game that could continue to grow and evolve well beyond the initial release. This was the franchise that the studio had hoped for.

Finding out what made great games unique was part of the challenge laid out to Disney Interactive. The proposal came from the top, Bob Iger the CEO of Disney was aware that the culture surrounding the company had changed. Pixar had inspired fans the way that Disney Animation studios once had. Yet the characters from both studios were only getting older and films and cartoons were not being produced rapidly enough to keep them relevant.

In order to help audiences reconnect with the mascots, Disney had to reach out to them in new ways. Disney cartoons and comic books had seemingly run their course in the USA. Videogames had been ignored by the company in the early days. As a result a generation was lost to Nintendo and the other big publishers. Consoles had become more influential than the Mickey Mouse Club in that time. Game studios had snapped up the talent that would have become animators or Imagineers in an earlier era.

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It was painfully obvious to Iger and the senior people at Disney that gaming was not a fad but a benchmark for modern entertainment. In less than 30 years it had surpassed film as the highest grossing entertainment product and showed no sign of slowing. Disney would have to become a major player in the industry or lose touch with and creative control of their icons for another generation.

Disney remained diligent about making headway into the new standard. Warren Spector was tabbed to create a Triple-A original game for the studio. The mandate was to make Mickey Mouse relevant and bring back Oswald to public consciousness. Gamers may consider the Epic Mickey series a failure but Disney had barely taken its first steps towards a long-term goal. The studio had an understanding that the current and next generations were being raised on a steady diet of fantastic gaming experiences.

Epic Mickey was a good attempt at launching a new franchise but audiences wanted something different. They had grown up expecting more immersion and interactivity from the entertainment they consumed. In order for Disney to connect with these people, to make their characters iconic once more, they had to rethink their strategy. The studio made a more concentrated effort to incorporate interactivity in the theme parks and on home consoles as well. They had to give the creation tools to audiences and let them build their own unique experiences. They had to figure out a way to share these experiences with friends and family.

The creation tools for Little Big Planet had worked so well for Sony that it became a recruiting tool for the publisher. Young designers were hired based on the quality and content of the levels they had created in the sleeper hit. Disney may be able to spot new talent in the wild by combing through the Toyboxes of players or ask for a level sample instead of a demo reel for Disney Interactive.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Collectable items and gaming had done well together in the past. Pokémon and Skylanders showed that millions and even billions of dollars could be made from a great platform. Instead of chasing the elusive AAA blockbuster game, the Uncharted or Assassin's Creed equivalent, Disney instead focused on creating the next platform. The company managed to build that platform and sidestep the competition. The game was unique enough that fans of Minecraft, Lego and Skylanders could still find something compelling in Infinity.

Moreover fans of traditional racing games, fighting games, shooters and action titles could also be drawn to Infinity. Instead of releasing a console exclusive, as was the case with the original Epic Mickey, Infinity was available on all the major consoles the very first day. To simplify things the collectable figures and booster packs would work on every console. Parents did not have to worry if they got the Wii version or Xbox360 version of a particular character or Playset because they were all identical. The platform had a robust base and expansion sets would keep audiences engaged for weeks, months and potentially years.

Disney had created buzz at the D23 in Anaheim this past month by announcing the inclusion of the Nightmare Before Christmas, Phineas and Ferb, Frozen and Wreck-it-Ralph characters in the next expansion. Speculation had run rampant in the Disney and gaming communities as to what the next Playset would be. Would audiences see the Hatbox Ghost become a playable character? What about the Little Mermaid, Pinocchio or Beauty and the Beast? Would seasonal Toybox themes be released?

Audiences were eager for a fan-favorite character to appear next. Others wondered about the other Disney-owned franchises, like Star Wars or Marvel, would they get an Infinity set all their own. There was the potential for Disney Interactive to grow as large as Blizzard if they could find their audience and control the format. As a platform Infinity could support the entire Disney IP for the next five or even ten years. It could be the long-term goal that Bob Iger was looking for. It could keep every Disney, Pixar, Marvel, Muppet and Star Wars franchises alive and relevant to the next generation.

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Provided that every release of the game had the same level of detail of the first then relevancy was an attainable goal. The biggest challenge for the studio would be to get enough sets sold between now and holiday 2013 to make the series sustainable. Otherwise this would turn out to be a very expensive gamble. Retailers were certainly doing their part. Since the release of Infinity three of the major retailers Toys R Us, Wal Mart and Target were constantly running sales against each other. Fifty percent off, buy one-get-one and other promotions had helped expose shoppers to the game and get booster packs and figures into the hands of very passionate collectors.

JHM will be tracking future releases of this game very carefully. For now you will have to excuse me. Mr. Incredible has some robots to smash.

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  • Great write up.

    When writing this though, did you think Disney would be releasing Wave 2 so early?

    To me it seems a little premature the release of Wave 2 in October and November.

    What do you think?

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