Making Darth Vader fight Wolverine (hopefully!): the challenges and opportunities of Disney Infinity
John Blackburn is the CEO of Avalanche Software, the team behind the ridiculously ambitious Disney Infinity. I ask him point blank: If he could snap his fingers and have access to any Disney property or character for the game, what would he want to include?
“So personally? Darth Vader, right off the bat,” he said. “I loved that stuff when I was a kid, so if it was one, it would be Darth Vader. There is such a wealth that it’s hard to choose. I was a big comic book fan as a kid, so a lot of the Marvel stuff, particularly X-Men. That was one I read a lot. Maybe Darth Vader vs. Wolverine.”
Let’s just let that sink in for a bit. This is the power of Disney’s collection of IP: We may be playing a game that allows us to have Wolverine or Cyclops battling next to Darth Vader or Boba Fett. And then you can bring in Captain Jack Sparrow, or Elastigirl.
Disney Infinity is part Skylanders and part Little Big Planet. You bring Disney content and characters into the game by placing the toys on top of a sensor, just like Skylanders, but there is also an open-world mode that allows you to create new environments, games, and ways to play, and you can then share that content with your friends online. It’s not a game as much as it is a platform, and you’ll expand that platform by buying extra play sets and characters.
As soon as I begin to get excited about the possibilities of a Star Wars and X-Men crossover, Blackburn begins to explain how tricky these deals are, even within Disney. “That’s the kind of thing we need to watch out for, because maybe that doesn’t work,” he said about his own fantasy Darth Vader, Wolverine match-up. “That might not be the right thing for the brand of either of those two. The idea of whether or not these other properties get added, it will be a careful process to make sure that it’s right.” In other words, this is just his personal dream. Whether or not it’s going to happen is a whole ‘nother story.
Getting Disney onboard with itself
Getting a project of this scope off the ground at Disney isn’t easy.
“You have to do a whole lot of pitches, to a whole lot of people. It probably took around four months to get this signed off on by all the key stakeholders,” Blackburn admitted. John Lasseter was one of the first to sign onto the project, based on the work that had been done with the Toy Box mode of the Toy Story 3 game, a mode that would inspire the more creative aspect of Disney Infinity.
Lasseter wears many hats at Disney, including the chief creative officer of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, as well as the Principal Creative Advisor of Walt Disney Imagineering. Lasseter’s okay allowed the team to begin working on a game play prototype and early versions of the first toys, based on Pixar characters. Blackburn’s challenge was to prove to the other branches of Disney that this was real, and that they could treat the characters with respect.
This was important, as the toys are actually stylized versions of these different characters, and they’d be creating games for each play set, as well as content to bring into the Toy Box mode. I asked how much input the creatives behind each property had in their toys and game. “A lot, is the quick answer,” he said. “If you talk about how we design the entire toy line, we reached out to all the key creatives and walked this through with them.”
So the film team that brought Tron to life has say in how the Tron Infinity Toys look, and what kind of content will go into the game. Disney, Blackburn told me, is incredibly precious about its worlds, and works to ensure that each one is being treated with care and respect.
The company that can do everything can do anything
Disney didn’t have to start from scratch, however. No company, with the exclusion of Apple, has the ability to go from design, to manufacturing, to sales, and can do it all internally.
“We got to leverage a whole bunch of knowledge within the company,” Blackburn told the Report. “We had to learn how to make toys throughout this, but we learned it from people at Disney consumer products who do that for a living. Their wealth of knowledge was invaluable.” Disney already has software teams, a toy division, and of course the retail stores to sell the content. Rarely do companies get to leverage so many aspects of its business into one product.
Still, what’s it going to take to get Stars Wars into Infinity? When will we see a Spider-Man swinging across the world of Tron? “I wish you could go and get that answer from the people who make that decision,” Blackburn said, laughing. “I want to make those games so bad. That would be awesome, right? From my perspective, it’s just… there are a whole lot of things that come down to whether or not that’s going to happen. Those discussions are happening right now, that’s a decision for the future.”
Disney Infinity is a product that builds on what Activision learned from Skylanders, that you can hook players by mixing toys and collectibles with a strong gaming platform. Infinity allows players to actually create new experiences in these worlds, however, and that's a unique thing when you're dealing with properties this big. Disney has the ability to create an almost unlimited collection of toys, across a variety of properties. Getting the company to play ball with itself, of course, may be more easier said than done.