Big changes are coming to Disney Infinity.
Previously, a new version of the (according to the market research group NPD, most popular) “toys to life” game would come out every year. Those would support new playsets and characters, but they wouldn’t work with older editions of Disney Infinity. Now, future figures and playsets will all work with Disney Infinity 3.0, the edition that came out last year for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Wii U, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, mobile, and Apple TV. This is a huge shakeup in the toys-to-life category (which also includes games like Skylanders and Lego Dimensions), which has emerged as one of the most popular gaming trends in the last few years.
Basically, Disney isn’t releasing an Infinity 4.0 in 2016.
Instead, Disney plans on four new playsets for Infinity, and you won’t have to buy a new version to play them. They’ll work with Disney Infinity 3.0 (was long as you have an Internet connection, since you’ll need to download that new content). Disney is also airing regular digital broadcasts, called Disney Infinity Next, that will discuss new content.
GamesBeat talked with Disney Infinity vice president of production John Vignocchi and studio founder John Blackburn about the new content coming to Disney Infinity, the surprising secret behind the best-selling figures, and the obscure characters they’ve discussed adding to the game.
GamesBeat: Do you have specific details on what the new playsets will be?
Vignocchi: Nothing beyond that one will be Pixar, one will be Disney Animation, one will be Star Wars, and one will be Marvel.
GamesBeat: I think I can connect some dots on what those might be.
Vignocchi: Yeah, maybe. But what’s interesting is there’s a lot of — depending on how close you’ve been following Infinity, that could mean a lot of different things. Last year, coming out Toybox Summit, our Toybox artists chose Peter Pan as a new character that’s coming.
Disney Infinity Next, although not in this first episode, will be revealing that character, showing his in-game moves, and showing what the figure will look like. We’re supporting Disney, as opposed to Disney Animation specifically, with lots of new content. But no confirmation on what that content is.
GamesBeat: Is there a release date for any of this yet?
Vignocchi: Our first big playset that’s going to be dropping will be the one in support of Marvel this year, which will be Marvel Battlegrounds. That will release on March 15, prior to the release of Captain America: Civil War. This playset is actually a — we call it a brawler. It’s like a fighting game, four players simultaneous. We’ve never done that, four player simultaneous local co-op, inside of Disney Infinity. This is something new. We’ve certainly never integrated a fighting game into Disney Infinity. That’s also totally new.
All the characters from Marvel 2.0, all 28 of those, will be compatible with 3.0. Plus, on March 15, we’ll be dropping Ant-Man, Vision, and Black Panther as three new characters that will be added to the Marvel roster. At the end of the Battlegrounds section we’ll drop an Easter egg. There are more Marvel characters and content coming this year. Those characters and content will be compatible with Marvel Battlegrounds.
GamesBeat: This is separate from the other four new playsets you’re talking about, right?
Vignocchi: No, this is one of the four. Our vision here is that this year, whether you’re a fan of Marvel, Disney, Pixar, or Star Wars, there’s something new for you inside of the Disney Infinity platform.
GamesBeat: You’re talking about supporting the new properties. Are we going to see figures representing any older, more classic movies or properties?
Vignocchi: You definitely will. There’s obviously the Peter Pan figure, which we’ll get into in a future version of Disney Infinity Next. But inside this particular inaugural episode we’re doing, toward the end we’ll reveal that in support of Jon Favreau’s new live action version of The Jungle Book, prior to the release of the film, we’ll be releasing a classic animated version of Baloo. That will be compatible with Disney Infinity 3.0 and our Toybox mode. We’ll go into the development of that character, show some of his special moves, just some of the overall thoughts the development team had behind bringing this classic animated character to Disney Infinity.
If you’ve been involved in our community or know everything that’s happening around it, you know that we have huge fans of classic Disney animation. Going with this particular strategy of celebrating the release of the film, but kind of hyping it with a classic animated character, was the right strategy to appease our fans. And at the same time we’re able to draft off this great new film coming out.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of synergy within the company with these, coming out to support new releases. Who is the ultimate decider on what characters become figures and playsets and so on?
Vignocchi: It’s a combination of people. It’s a combination of the properties, the stakeholders, characters and content that they’re excited about and want to put out there and support in different ways. It’s reactions to things that fans are asking for. On behalf of the product development team, it’s what characters are the most fun to play in the game. It’s a mix of all that. There’s probably 10 of us that sit in a room and argue about every three months over what new characters are coming.
The joke now is that I’ve wanted Darkwing Duck for so long. “I’d rather see Darkwing Duck than that character!” One day I’ll get him. The team is what makes a decision about what characters are added, but certainly we take input from our partners in theatrical and TV animation and parks and resorts. Across the entire company, everyone comes together.
It’s been a lot different. Now we take way more meetings with people coming to us saying, we’re working on a new film and we’d love these new characters to be in Disney Infinity. Before, we’d go to the different property holders and ask as politely as we could if we could integrate their properties into Disney Infinity. It’s become a thing.
GamesBeat: You’ve talked about these main properties. A lot of them are movie-based. We’ve seen some park-based stuff, like building Spaceship Earth, but can we expect more content directly from the theme parks?
Blackburn: We’ve worked a lot of with the team at the parks to figure out what the best way to do that would be. We’ve had some set pieces from the Toybox. We’ve talked about which characters might make the most sense. The real thought, just right now, is that yes, we’re always looking for opportunities there. As far as what we’re talking about today, we’re not announcing any of that stuff. But we’re working with those guys on some stuff for the future.
GamesBeat: I want a Figment figure.
Blackburn: That’s the one that comes up the most frequently when we talk about characters from the parks that people really identify with.
Vignocchi: Hat-Box Ghost!
GamesBeat: Get Orange Bird in there, we can have all sorts of fun.
Blackburn: The cool one is, he’s been carrying the torch for Captain EO [a 3D film shown in the theme parks starring Michael Jackson] for a long time.
GamesBeat: Oh, my god.
Blackburn: That one’s a challenge for all the approvals. A lot of times, when we’re working on these things, the stakeholders have rights as to whether or not we can do things and we need to make sure we’re happy with what we do. It happens that Captain EO is the most complicated one that we’ll ever run into.
Vignocchi: I’m working on it! It’s like, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, [Francis Ford] Coppola, and then the Jackson estate. We’ll make it there one day.
GamesBeat: I could geek out about very specific characters and figures — I have a feeling a lot of people must do that to you guys. Maybe you get a little tired of, “This character needs to be a figure!”
Blackburn: It’s not tiring at all. I think the one thing that may or may not come across, depending on how much stuff you’ve watched, is that the team here are fans. There’s particularly — in any given franchise, whether it’s Marvel or Disney or whatever, we have super fans here. We generally hear from them first. In the same way that he really gets behind that Disney Afternoon [an old block of cartoons like Duck Tales and Darkwing Duck] lineup for Disney, there are other people carrying the torch for Marvel and some of the comic books that haven’t necessarily come back around as films.
Or on the Star Wars stuff, when we found out we first got that, we have a guy here whose office — he has every old action figure up on his walls. There’s definitely a lot of love for all those things. When people come and talk to us, if you get the right person when you’re talking to someone on the team, you might find someone who knows every bit as much as you do about the more obscure stuff.
GamesBeat: Going back to the new content, this is stuff that wasn’t on the disc or however you’d describe it. Are you going to need an online connection to download all of this?
Blackburn: Yeah. They’re going to come as title updates. It’ll come down when you turn on your system. It’ll automatically download it. If you haven’t been connected and you get one of these toys, we’ll ask you to hook up to the internet to be able to play it?
GamesBeat: Is that a concern anymore? Or do most of your players nowadays have a connection of some kind?
Blackburn: Most players do have an internet connection. If you think about how games have changed over the course of the last decade, to where — back in the day games were pretty much finished. They didn’t have bugs. You didn’t expect title updates. Now it’s a pretty standard thing to expect. Games are so large that it’s almost become an expectation in the industry, I think. But in general, we did think about it a lot on Infinity 1.0, because we had the Wii and the Wii didn’t really have storage to be able to do this. It wasn’t as connected as the platforms today.
GamesBeat: This is new ground, a bit, in the toys to life category. It’s something people have maybe always wanted, to skip paying $60 for a new version every year. That’s been a criticism or a request for a while now. Why is this the year it’s finally happening?
Blackburn: There are multiple reasons, but I think the biggest one that’s easy to understand is, we have all the major improvements to the software and big gameplay mechanics for the engine — those were all put in as we added Marvel and then the Lucas properties over the course of the years.
Each one of those, we were adding so much stuff, both in the Toybox and the gameplay engine. We felt like it all warranted new releases. Now what we’re doing is leveraging a lot of those things and focusing primarily on the new content that’s going to be coming, as opposed to these huge new gameplay mechanics.
GamesBeat: Are you able to look at sales data on specific figures? Does that play a role in deciding what new figures you’ll create going forward?
Blackburn: Absolutely. We always look to see the popularity on these. That allows us to — I look at it from two perspectives. Sales figures tell us how correctly we guessed what the audience really wants. Looking at that, we’ve definitely — we lay out a portfolio of characters at the beginning of the year and say, it’s probably going to be something that looks like this. We refine that list as it gets closer to needing to go into manufacturing on the toys.
But I’d say in any given conversation around which character it’s going to be, you can look at the criteria as — hHow popular is that character? That’s always going to be brought to the table. Is something new happening? Will there be excitement around that franchise? And then the third one is, how well does that character work with our gameplay mechanics? Then we bring sales up after those three things have been talked through.
GamesBeat: Do you know offhand which figures have sold the best? Has there been any particular runaway?
Blackburn: We’ve got an ongoing joke here. It’s green dudes. Mike Wazowski was the best-selling on Infinity 1, Hulk on Infinity 2, and now Yoda on Infinity 3.
GamesBeat: That’s great. Now I gotta know who’s green and coming in this next batch,
Blackburn: That’s what we’re doing. We’re skewing everything green. It’s going to be awesome. [Laughs]
GamesBeat: Is there going to be another fan vote to pick a character, like with Peter Pan?
Blackburn: We loved that. It’s a great way to interact with the community, giving them a voice. We had a lot of fun doing it. They took the vote very seriously. So absolutely.
GamesBeat: Do you worry that the barrier for entry for Disney Infinity is too expensive.
Blackburn: I feel like the toys to life genre sometimes catches a bit of bad rap. There’s all this stuff to buy and it’s so expensive. I come to this from the flip side of, we can build a game that’s much larger and has a lot more options for people to play with than any other game we’d be able to do this way. I feel like there’s a great value on the toys to life space, particularly in Infinity, where we have all the different content, and user-generated content you can download for free. We’re not really expecting people to run out and buy everything we create.
We’re saying, look, we have such a broad range of things that people potentially like — Something like Jack Skellington. You’d never be able to purchase a game for him, but you can go get that character. There hasn’t been anything happening with him lately, but he’s there and he’s represented in Disney Infinity in a cool way. I look at it from that value angle. I’m hoping that we can get some people to look at this and say, hey, if you were trying to buy this whole thing it would be expensive, but if you go in and buy the things you like and the things that resonate with you, there’s real value here. There’s a greater chance that there’s going to be something directly that you like.
Also, the amount of properties and franchises represented in the Toybox and all the user-generated content is really large. It provides a bunch of free content over the course of time.
GamesBeat: In all these editions we’ve seen improvements to things like combat and driving. Will we still see improvements like that introduced this year?
Blackburn: Absolutely. As we look at this — there will be a time when there’s going to be big new upgrades we want to do, and we’ll want to drop those in a large new release. But right now we felt like the content that was coming out in 2016 really lent itself toward us doing some upgrades to current systems, like the combat system we’ve put into Marvel Battlegrounds. It wasn’t a new system, but we tweaked all the moves to work for a brawler-style gameplay mechanic, as opposed to a brand new combat system like all the juggling and stuff we did last year.
I do think that there will be those things in the future. We’re still eyeing what targets those will be. But for right now, in the content we release this next year, we felt like we could leverage the stuff we already put in the engine.
GamesBeat: I think I know what your playsets are. You have Rogue One for Star Wars, Moana for Disney, and Finding Dory for Pixar. I can connect those dots.
Blackburn: [laughs] I cannot confirm or deny that. But we look forward to announcing those things later in the year. And when I say “those things,” I mean what we’re supporting. There are also the characters coming out, so to say that it’s definitely a playset or not is premature.