What defined your childhood? Every generation will give you a different, sometimes confusing, answer, but everyone will give you the same few names. Mickey Mouse, Captain America, and Darth Vader have all inspired, or created fear in, children for decades; and will so long as humanity exists. Regardless of their creation, the world’s most popular franchises all stand under the House of Mouse. Today, we recognize these brands collected under one theme park or streaming service, but the first proper collection of Disney’s greatest was a rather simple video game.
Activision took the world by storm with 2011’s Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure. It took a niche concept and turned toys-to-life into the craze of children everywhere. The concept is simple. To play as a character in the game, you must buy their corresponding figure and place it on a physical “portal” that recognizes which characters you own. In 2012, Skylanders figures were the hottest selling toy in America and Spyro’s Adventure itself was the world’s best-selling game. Responding to this success, Disney threw together their greatest all-stars, with a few notable exceptions, into a toys-to-life venture of their own.
Disney Infinity had a few advantages that Skylanders could only dream of. Selling kids high-quality figures of their Disney and Pixar favorites was already a winning formula, when you throw in the game, it’s easy to see why this concept would be irresistible to kids. Disney would pump out two sequels, focusing on Marvel and Star Wars respectively, that would bring a whole host of new toys and allow kids to use all their existing figures! In an ironic twist of fate, these sequels did substantially worse than the original. Eventually, it cost the brand its life entirely. This failure has many, my little sister in particular, still scratching their heads. What went wrong? Could they have gone on? What prevented them from going bigger?
One fateful night, I decided to sit down and contact as many members of the team as I possibly could. This was exhausting and horrible, but I’ve come to an even deeper appreciation of this game, and the industry at large, and I think I can bring this to you too.
The culture of Disney Infinity’s development was a pleasant one. There were times of crunch, as is unfortunately commonplace in the video game industry, but developers had a close love for Disney and the game itself. Ideas came in from just about anyone who was willing to put theirs forward, the team was highly receptive to taking risks and pleasing fans, but Disney themselves were not.
Unfortunately, developing figures cost too much time and money. The team tried every way they could to represent our favorite heroes and villains, but they were always cut just a little bit short. Of course, the Marvel mutants and Fantastic Four were basically quarantined from the Avengers and a complete non-starter. The upfront cost of developing figures meant Disney imposed certain concepts and regulations on the team.
Every character had to be creative and fill an archetype that no other did. Figures had to be selected to promote certain brands, such as the popular Ultimate Spider-Man and newly released The Force Awakens. A lot of great ideas and favorites were left on the cutting room floor. Two examples that came up repeatedly were Flynn Rider and Darkwing Duck. The team loved both, but having beloved female stars was more important than making sure everyone from their movies were represented. The team fought tooth-and-nail for Darkwing Duck and Olaf. Unfortunately, Darkwing never fell into any brand strategy that Disney demanded. While Olaf would see his day in Disney Infinity 3.0, characters like Luke Cage, Scrooge McDuck, and C3PO still got the boot.
Playable characters weren’t the only concept to get the axe. Something else the team was fond of, and even prototyped, were stands for the Disney Infinity Base that read the figures. While a loosely themed stand was packaged exclusively with the PlayStation versions of Disney Infinity 2.0, many more would be pitched. Among these pitches were Avengers Tower and Arendelle Castle. After being rescued from the trash, these now reside in the hands of, Core Games VP/GM, Bill Roper.
The tale of Disney Infinity is tragic. It’s typical of corporations to meddle, but we really were cost something great to their incompetence. If you wish to read more specifically about the death of Disney Infinity, I recommend this article by Patrick Klepek. I learned a lot about the business side, but I don’t think I can do financials the justice Patrick already has! While Disney Interactive, and Avalanche with it, has collapsed, much of the talent on Disney Infinity have moved on to greener pastures. I hope this tiny glance into their heads has brought you as deep of an appreciation for their work as mine.