Disney isn’t messing around. It is launching three major Star Wars “play sets” that go with the family-friendly Disney Infinity 3.0 Edition toy-game platform that is coming later this year.
These play sets are essentially full video games that blend Star Wars toys with video games, and they are part of a gargantuan Disney strategy to dominate the $3 billion “toys to life” market — a major and growing revenue stream in gaming.
Last week, Disney unveiled Star Wars: Twilight of the Republic, a play set which covers Episodes I through III of the Star Wars movies. Today, it unveiled Star Wars: Rise Against the Empire, based on Episodes IV through VI. And in the fall, it will launch Star Wars: The Force Awakens, based on the new film. To launch these games and more Infinity projects, Disney roped in eight major game studios.
Key leaders in the creation of those games are John Blackburn, head of Disney’s Avalanche Studios, and Ada Duan, vice president of Lucasfilm digital business and franchise management at Disney. We caught up with them at a preview event to talk about the strategy behind the play sets and Disney Infinity 3.0.
The new toy-game merchandise is Disney’s latest thrust in a huge competitive battle that kicked off in 2011 when Activision debuted Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. Now the market includes not just Skylanders and Infinity but also Nintendo’s Amiibo, Warner’s upcoming Lego Dimensions, and Rovio’s Angry Birds. Altogether, the “toys to life” category will generate about $3 billion in revenues in 2015, according to analyst Michael Pachter at Wedbush Securities. Infinity has become a huge business for Disney Interactive, the digital entertainment division of The Walt Disney Co.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation with Duan and Blackburn.
GamesBeat: From a Star Wars point of view, you have a nice window before the next generation of the fiction comes on.
John Blackburn: It’s a lovely window.
GamesBeat: That seems like it was important for this product.
Blackburn: Absolutely. To say that it wasn’t opportunistic for Infinity at this point in time, both from appropriated Marvel last year and appropriating Star Wars this year, but this year it’s also a year where there’s going to be a ton of excitement around what’s coming with Star Wars.
GamesBeat: Eight developers altogether sounds pretty dramatic.
Blackburn: It’s like managing a hydra. It’s crazy. I don’t want to oversell it, but it’s one of the most complex game development projects going on in the world right now. When you come here—You saw it. We’re presenting six different games. From my perspective, it’s both exciting because of the properties we get to work with, but it’s also exciting because so much stuff is being created right now for fans.
GamesBeat: You have to manage a bunch of projects all over the place as well.
Ada Duan: Absolutely. But one of the things we love the most is the variety of gameplay that is Infinity. That allows us to showcase things that are very much Star Wars. The melee combat is perfect for the lightsaber duels. Working with the best in class developers in that space delivers on that experience.
GamesBeat: How did you narrow things down? What sort of thinking went into the kind of focus you wanted to have?
Blackburn: We started off with which characters we wanted to show at which points in time. We got into these conversations right off the bat. Should Obi-Wan be in an early state, or should he be old Ben? Should we have both? All these things were conversations we had. Should we have Anakin? Should we just have Darth Vader? All these characters are very iconic in people’s minds at different times in their life.
We narrowed it down and decided that, no, we’ll just have one version of most characters. Anakin was the one where we said, “Well, you gotta have Darth Vader.” But otherwise, we wanted him to be at the height of his powers before he turned to the dark side. All those things were critical decisions for narrowing things down. That’s what the Lucas team brought in to the Infinity team, the timeline of how the character acts at a point in time in their life, how they can be true to their character and their beliefs at that point. Because a lot of them go through an arc where they change. Then we created the playsets around those timelines.
GamesBeat: The kinds of battles that you fight — do you have more than you can actually do in a game?
Blackburn: We never thought this through at Avalanche first. There’s an interesting story behind this. How many lightsaber battles are there in episodes four through six?
GamesBeat: I don’t know.
Blackburn: There are maybe three. Four if you count Luke fighting Darth Vader in the cave. The thing is, we started off thinking, “Okay, we’ve hired Ninja Theory to do all this cool lightsaber combat.” We had those guys on episodes four through six. Then Gobo came to us and said — Gobo’s been doing vehicle stuff for a long time. We realized, “Oh, man. As far as the way those two games are, episodes one through three are actually where the Jedi are at the height of their power. Everyone’s a Jedi.”
We ended up talking to everyone and realized that it didn’t make sense to have Ninja Theory on episodes four through six, because all the Jedi stuff happens in one through three. Then all the vehicle stuff – a lot of the vehicles that are really iconic, that people know — is in four through six. So we ended up swapping playsets. We talked it out with Ada on the phone. That’s one of the reasons why we ended up with Clone Wars in the starter pack. We really wanted people to have that awesome experience with the lightsabers, and that’s where that happens. Also, since our demographic is a bit younger — kids oftentimes identify a bit more with episodes one through three.