Imagine holding an action figure-sized version of Sulley, the fuzzy Yak-like frightener from Disney/Pixar’s Monsters, Inc. Now imagine placing Sulley on a small platform connected to a game system, and presto: There he is on your TV or computer screen, popping into a colorful video-game-verse, his innate characteristics and abilities factoring in some galloping, no doubt nightmare-related adventure. When you’ve finished, whatever items procured or accomplishments landed are wirelessly saved to a posable piece of powder-blue plastic, ready for your next play session, whether at your place or your friend’s.
That’s the idea behind “Disney Infinity,” an intrepid, ostensibly industry-upending venture by Walt Disney Co. to merge games and toys by capitalizing on the studio’s vast roster of beloved storybook characters. With it, Disney’s essentially promising cute little action figure versions of its film characters — both animated and live action — to use as physical avatars capable of linking to computers, video game systems and what Disney describes as “an accompanying mobile experience” (read: smartphones).
If it all sounds a little like Skylanders, well, it is pretty much — with bells on. And who’s surprised, given Disney’s pedigree and the obvious property fit? Activision’s game-toy series struck like a thunderclap from the blue, taking everyone by surprise, including traditional gamers, who lapped it up despite its younger vibe, embracing its polished platforming and thoughtful roleplaying angle. At some point a company like Disney was bound to notice. And the company really needed to, given its shoddy track record designing/outsourcing video games.
“The games business for Disney has not been profitable and not met the same level of excellence we have in ABC or our parks or Pixar,” said Disney game exec John Pleasants in an interview with the L.A. Times. “If we’re going to be here, we want to make high quality stuff and keep doubling and tripling down. Infinity is a concept we think can scale and stand the test of time.”
In theory, you’ll buy one of these new toys and, in addition to enjoying it as a physical object, wield it as a kind of proxy for story-driven adventures in Disney-themed game worlds, which Disney calls “Play Sets.” At launch, those worlds will include three of the company’s most popular franchises: Monsters University, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Incredibles. As you work through a Play Set accumulating stuff, you can save it to a “Toy Box,” which Disney says can be used to create your own adventures, recombining characters, settings and items from any of the franchises.
The interface itself — a small USB-powered pad that’ll wirelessly link Disney’s action figures, power discs (physical objects that enhance the Play Sets) and Play Set pieces with PCs, game consoles and smartphones — is called a “Disney Infinity base.” To get it, you’ll have to pick up a Starter Pack, which Disney says it’ll sell for $74.99 (same as the Skylanders: Giants starter pack, though GameStop sells the latter at a $10 discount). The starter pack includes the Base, three Play Sets, three Infinity figures, an Infinity Power Disc and codes to access online content. The action figures will go for $12.99 a pop (or $29.99 for three) and you can buy a Play Set Pack for $34.99. Off the block, Disney’s highlighting characters like Sulley, Captain Jack Sparrow and Mr. Incredible, but says it’ll launch Disney Infinity this summer (in late June) with 17 figures, three Play Sets and 20 power discs, with more to come as the series expands.
Who’s the target audience for Disney Infinity? Disney wonks of course, from toy-obsessed youngsters to nostalgic adults (like myself) and of course obsessive toy collectors; kids like my niece, without question, who for better or worse is addicted to themed stuff like Disney’s Princess line as well as anything Tangled-related; and assuming Disney gets the game design right, probably mainstream gamers, who embraced Skylanders because it was an actually decent game and not a rote collectibles knockoff.
If anything, it’s weird that Disney took this long to wake up and smell the opportunity. The company’s entertainment assets are like the ocean trying to flow through a bottleneck of clumsy video game choices. Disney’s had variable success with stuff like Epic Mickey and the Kingdom Hearts games, it’s true, but the list of Disney games released over the past three decades is long and forgettable. However, this is still a company with perhaps the world’s most well-known characters and movies — number eight on Businessweek‘s 2005 list of the top 100 global brands. What could be a more flexible, popular and increasingly cross-generational medium to crack open than video games?
It’s a big world, after all.