Full disclosure: Sony sent me a free copy of LittleBigPlanet 2: Special Edition for this article.
In Toy Story 2, not much happens at the home after Al kidnaps Woody. To adapt it to the game, the developers added a whole segment in which Buzz has to make his way through the house to the attic, where he fights an evil toy robot. This comes out of nowhere and only keeps players from getting to the more interesting parts of the story.
Toy Story 2: Buzz Lightyear to the Rescue for the N64 and PlayStation had potential to be a classic 3D platformer. The gameplay had moments of greatness, but Traveller's Tales made compromises like the one above in order to stretch the plot of an hour-and-a-half-long movie to fit a game that took six-plus hours to beat.
This impressed the hell out of my seven-year-old self.
After jumping onto a runaway train, shooting paper airplanes from a remote-control helicopter, and battling the forces of the Evil Emperor Zurg in an original story in LittleBigPlanet 2: Special Edition, I see that a sense of imagination, not a movie tie-in, is what makes for a great Toy Story game. If Media Molecule can make a great (if short) Toy Story game without borrowing the plot of a Pixar movie, why couldn't another studio with a bigger budget?
The Toy Story universe gives an endless number of possibilities for a video game. Just look at the opening sequence of the third movie: an epic adventure that included flying pig ships, a giant T-Rex, a car chase, and a train plunging into a ravine. For something to fit into the world, it simply has to be something a kid would want to do with his toys.
Tell me an awesome game couldn't be made from this.
Media Molecule obviously understood this when making the Toy Story levels for LittleBigPlanet 2. The plot is straight out of a kid's imagination: The aforementioned pig ship is attacking Woody and the gang, and it's up to Sackboy to help them stop him. Along the way, he goes on to confront Zurg and solve plenty of puzzles.
Again, these all seem like something a child would think up in the middle of a play session. While going through the levels, I could imagine Andy saying, "Oh no Buzz, the gravity controller on our ship is damaged!"
The key to making this work is reminding gamers throughout that they are playing within this context. The LittleBigPlanet 2 maps do an excellent job of this. Whether running across a train in a western-themed level or floating around in Buzz's ship, the game subtly reminds you that you're still in Andy's room.
Media Molecule has shown what a developer needs to do to make an amazing Toy Story game. It comes down to creating a scenario that is set in a child's imagination and taking advantage of the gameplay mechanics possible within that framework.
For instance: How many times have you seen a kid make a toy fight bad guys, then jump to having them flying about? Suddenly, the play space has gone from just the floor or the bed to the entire room. The same thing happens in LittleBigPlanet 2 when the pig ship attacks the train Woody and Buzz are on. Sackboy gets in a remote control helicopter and engages in aerial combat with not only the ship but also a formation of assaulting paper airplanes.
As shown by the fantastic Batman: Arkham Asylum and The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape From Butcher Bay, it's entirely possible to make a great licensed title separate from any particular movie. But those are darker franchises that are inappropriate for kids. With the right team, Disney could create a similarly amazing yet family-friendly game. Doesn't that sound like something Pixar would make?