Disney is announcing today that it will have a version of The Lone Ranger to play on its Infinity hybrid toy-game platform when it launches in August. The new “playset” for Infinity means that the company will engage in further heavy bombardment this summer of its rival Activision Blizzard, the maker of the rival Skylanders toy-game products.
The Infinity platform combines toys and video games in a single “transmedia” entertainment platform, much like the Skylanders figures that have become a billion-dollar business in the past couple of years. Disney hopes to compete by launching a similar game concept. You put a the game disc in your home console (like an Xbox 360 or a Wii U), but you can modify the character and the environment by putting a different toy on top of a reader platform that plugs into the system. Where Disney hopes to differentiate itself is by periodically adding new “playsets,” or a new six- to 10-hour game, based on big Disney brands.
The entertainment giant is launching a remake of The Lone Ranger; the film debuts July 3. That Jerry Bruckheimer action flick will create a ton of awareness, and The Lone Ranger playset will ride that slipstream when it debuts with Infinity. Altogether, Disney plans to have five playsets available at the launch of Infinity: The Lone Ranger, Cars 2, Monsters University, The Incredibles, and Pirates of the Caribbean.
The hope is that Infinity will be an enduring platform that the company can build upon over time, adding new games and toys on top of it. John Blackburn, the vice president and general manager of Infinity developer Avalanche Studios, said in an interview with GamesBeat that the platform will help Disney deal with the problem of having a huge number of franchises. Some older franchises may not justify a huge new console game, but they could be the basis for a new playset or a smaller treatment within the Infinity world.
“Infinity is a platform for a lot of different properties,” said Bill Roper, the vice president and general manager of production at Disney Interactive, the game arm of Disney. “Each playset has a new world, new characters, and new game play mechanics.”
The toy-game competition is perhaps one of the biggest wagers any company could make in entertainment. That’s why only the biggest companies — Nintendo, Disney, and Activision — are moving into the market so far. (Activision has its own plans to out-market Disney with another full Skylanders game this fall).
The Lone Ranger playset is based in the world of Colby, Texas, during the building of the transcontinental railroad. You can play as the Lone Ranger and shoot guns out of the hands of bad guys and take them out with a bullet ricochet. You can ride on trains or different horses. The in-game gun has a red tip at the end of it, to show that it is harmless (a concession to violence-shunning parents). You can customize your own train.
You can play with the playset as a story-driven game. Or you can also play Disney Infinity in ToyBox mode, where you can mix and match characters from all Disney products in an open world. With ToyBox, you an mix and match characters from Toy Story with The Lone Ranger and so on. That’s like having a meta game to go with the story game.
Disney’s big bet
Disney began work on Infinity shortly after it shipped Toy Story 3: The Video Game in mid-2010. The company’s Avalanche Software division in Salt Lake City was enamored with Toy Story 3′s Toy Box mode, which was an open world where you could engage in any kind of play with a bunch of different characters. Kids could build their own town from scratch, and it was clearly the innovative part of the title.
Then Disney adapted to the shift toward social and mobile games acquired social game maker Playdom for $763.2 million in July 2010, and it also grabbed mobile gamemaker Tapulous in mid-2010. Playdom’s CEO John Pleasants became the head of Disney’s game business, as the move toward digital games took on a new urgency.
A big part of the team was working on a game for Cars 2. But a smaller skunk works team at Avalanche focused on a game called Buzz Lightyear: Star Command. In conversations with that team, Pleasants directed to do something much more ambitious that would be a platform for all Disney games in the future.
“Instead of a one-off game based on Tron or Tangled, what if we could make a game using the same engine and tools and vary the amount of content we could do for a particular Disney property,” said John Vignocchi, the executive producer of Disney Infinity. “The idea of creating a platform really resonated with us.”
While this was happening, Activision Blizzard launched Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure in October 2011. It combined a multiplatform game with a line of toys that you place on a “portal” connected to a console. By placing the character on the portal, the toy character transfers into the game for the player to control. The series was an instant hit, and it has sold more than $1 billion worth to date, with toy sales beating out sales of Star Wars toys. That’s a real threat to Disney, and, while Disney executives won’t acknowledge it, Disney Infinity was clearly adapted to mimic the toy-game hybrid strategy of Skylanders.
But Disney’s own portal, or “Infinity Base,” isn’t an exact copy. The base lights up with different color LED lights based on which character is on it. Like with Skylanders, you place a Disney toy character on the portal to activate that character inside the game. But you can also add “power discs” in the form of plastic hexagonal pieces of plastic for the character to stand on. Those separately purchased power-ups give the character new abilities, and you can put up to two of them under a character. You can improve a character’s health by 20 percent or give the character an economic boost.
The starter pack for a character comes with one of those power discs included. Kids can trade those discs with each other. That enhances replayability for the toy-hybrid platform, giving players a reason to acquire a new toy for $12.99 each. The base package will sell for $75, including the game and the base platform. The potential for additional collectible toy sales is enormous — and it’s on a scale that only Disney can do.
Among the other toys coming are Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles, Sully from Monsters Inc. and Monsters University, and Jack Sparrow from The Pirates of the Caribbean.
The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean and Monsters University will be bundled in the Starter Pack, which sells for $75. Cars 2 and The Lone Ranger will be available at launch but sold separately.
Here’s an image gallery of screen shots for the Lone Ranger playset and the ToyBox.