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.
GamesBeat: There’s a lot of competition. Is the five-dollar price point a nod toward the fact that there’s a lot of toys-to-life options now?
Blackburn: What we’re doing with the price cut, it’s more about player choice from our perspective. What we hear from our players is that they care a great deal about multiplayer out of the box. We reduced it primarily to give people a choice of what their next avatar can be. By putting three in there, we were going back to what we did on Infinity one where we had three play sets. On Infinity two we wanted multiplayer out of the box. But this way, we just want you to have the choice of what characters you want. That’s something we heard from people. And obviously, price sensitivity — we want as many people to be able to experience this as we can. We’re trying to get as close as we can to the price of a normal video game.
GamesBeat: These are also full games, but are you able to do them more efficiently and more quickly now that you’re on the third time around?
Blackburn: We’re able to incorporate more properties for people. That’s how I look at it. Whenever we come out, we’re trying to make sure that you, as whatever type of Disney fan — be that Star Wars or Marvel or Disney — have the choice of what you want to do. It’s about giving you a variety of about five different characters. Each of these characters takes a lot of work to put in. We have all the skill trees and different moves they have, trying to make sure that those are all correct. That’s where a lot of effort goes into this. The variety of play sets is also an important component of those decisions.
If you’re just talking about efficiency, I think what it’s coming down to is, we keep adding new features, and so we don’t get any more efficient. We just add more stuff.
GamesBeat: That explains eight studios, too.
Blackburn: In all honesty, there is, just from a business perspective — the down side of this is that we have to go make sure that all the other characters we’ve introduced still work. There’s a lot of work in going back through. We showed the feature where everyone can use all the melee weapons. We went through and enhanced every one of the old characters. When you do that across 100-plus characters, that’s a lot of work.
From my standpoint, it’s important that — if I’m a kid and Buzz Lightyear is my favorite character, I want him to be as cool as possible. We want to go back and add that value, so that the kid who bought that two years ago still feels good about the purchase. Hey, today he’s still my favorite character to play because he has all these cool new moves.
GamesBeat: What did he mean when he was talking about 3.0? It sounded like he was talking about a final part of this whole project.
Blackburn: When we started, we knew we were bringing in Disney and Pixar and live action films from Disney. We knew that the second one was going to be Marvel. Right about that time was when Lucas was then acquired by Disney. We planned out our road map and said, you know what? By the time we get Star Wars in her, that would be the launch. So we’re finishing the launch of Infinity.
We feel like we’re now all things Disney. We promised that we would be all things Disney, and now we really are. That’s what John means. Now you’ll see us, in the future, supporting all the films. We’ll probably never have another thing like this, unless some other big acquisition goes down, but now all the main product families are here.
GamesBeat: Well, they need to buy somebody else big, then. You need some new movies to work on.
Blackburn: There’s a few things coming. I can’t say much about films, but the summer of 2017 is going to be a killer.
GamesBeat: You must be getting ready now.
Blackburn: Well, we’ve been looking at it.