There are a few important differences, but the similarities between Activision's enormously popular toys-into-games platform and Disney's new Infinity initiative are quite striking. Both are inspired by smaller developers with big ideas: Toys for Bob on the Activision side, and Avalanche Software on Disney's, which developed the "Toy Box" idea in a much smaller form as part of the Toy Story 3 game. Both are big, expandable product lines with lots of options for console (and eventually mobile) titles, and both take retail-friendly physical toys and tie them directly into engagement-friendly video game experiences.
Oh, and both franchises are probably going to make their owners lots and lots of money.
To hear Avalanche Software producer John Day tell it, the idea for Infinity was sort of co-inspired by executives and their creative counterparts. Avalanche had previously worked with Pixar and John Lasseter on the video game adaptation of Toy Story 3, and that game contained a freely creative Toy Box mode that players (and critics) responded well to.
"We loved what happened with the Toy Box mode and what we saw people do with it," says Day. "And so we wanted to make a followup game to that, set around another part of the Toy Story universe, around Star Command." At that point, Disney, likely inspired by Activision's success, stepped in with the co-president of Disney Interactive, John Pleasants. "Pleasants came," says Day," and said, 'We love what you're doing, we love the idea, but let's make it bigger.'"
When Disney Infinity arrives this June it will consist of a game bundled with three figures: Jack Sparrow of Pirates of the Carribbean, Mr. Incredible of Pixar's The Incredibles, and Sully from Pixar's prequel, Monsters University. Each of those figures will have their own "Play Set," which is a specially designed gameplay setting just for that character. Jack Sparrow, for example, fights around his pirate ship, while Sully pranks Fear Tech with his friend, Mike Wazowski.
Each of these "Play Sets" are self-contained worlds, and only the figurines that come from there have access, so you won't see Mr. Incredible in the Carribbean. Disney made it clear during the presentation that some fans would rather not see universes mashed up, and have chosen to enclose character-specific mechanics, customization, and gameplay in their original realms.
The other side of the game, however, is the "Toy Box" mode, a sandbox area where all of the characters can meet up and go nuts together. In each of the Play Sets, players can earn stars and toys, which can then be brought back to the Toy Box, and even traded between characters. In the Toy Box, Jack Sparrow can make use of the Monsters' rideable pig, or Mr. Incredible can use Sparrow's pirate grenades. Disney's goal is to make anything possible while pushing all of its stories and settings together.
Aside from the figures themselves, Disney's also created "Power Discs" that can sit on the game's little physical "base" interface. Circular discs sit right underneath the character figures and provide character-specific buffs, like flying capes or a bigger jumps. There's also a hexagon-shaped area for one extra disc at a time which will unlock content or add a new toy into the world.
That hexagon-shaped disc is where Avalanche has really dug back into the Disney archives. While the content isn't yet finalized, there were Power discs on display from The Muppets (a rideable Electric Mayhem bus!), Dumbo, and Tron. The disc can also be used to stylize the entire Toy Box world, turning the area you've created into something more fit for a lightcycle than a Cinderella carriage. Discs and characters are hot-swappable, which can lead to some silliness when, for example, another player happens to drive off with your helicopter and you yank the helicopter disc off the base.
Aside from running around the Toy Box, which players can do in two-player co-op split screen or with four online, there are plenty of components to construct, from various pieces of scenery to more practical items like racetracks and hoops. There are also "logic" pieces, such as switches that move platforms, or more complex Rube Goldberg-ian devices. Created worlds will be shareable, and Avalanche plans to moderate uploaded worlds to make it all kid-friendly. Using the Toy Box tool, the team has already recreated the USS Enterprise and Bowser's Castle Mario Kart level.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Disney Infinity and Skylanders is that while Activision is essentially making up its universe as it goes along, Disney obviously has a long history to pull from. John Day says Avalanche has gotten nothing but support from the House of Mouse. "We have a platform where we can develop content. And there's a lot of interest within Disney as a whole, because people see it and they're excited about it. We have total buy-in from Pixar, from Disney Feature, from these other divisions that are really excited to see these things come together," he says.
And, as Day is quick to point out, Infinity does have a style all its own. For John Lasseter and the divisions he oversees, it was important for the game to have its own artistic voice, even though it is borrowing from various properties. The versions of Sully and Sparrow in Infinity are not the same you'd see anywhere else.
Toys for Bob had already made a name for itself in physical toys before Skylanders was created, but Avalanche has no such history. Fortunately, says Day, Disney has the requisite experience making toys for kids. "Underestimate not Disney's ability to create merchandise," he jokes. "We developed these toys in collaboration with Disney Consumer Products, which makes a lot of this merchandise. So we were able to leverage a lot of the strength of that side of the business to create these toys. And it was a lot of fun to see all of that get realized."
After the starter pack with three figures, priced at $74.99, Play Sets will be available for $34.99, with Power Discs available in a pack starting at $4.99. It's not hard to imagine Disney leveraging Infinity on its other ventures as well: Go see Monsters University, get a special exclusive Power Disc. Go visit Disneyland, pick yourself up an exclusive figure. Disney's reps wouldn't confirm any plans like that, but they did smile and nod when asked.
Infinity is starting out on the Wii, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, and PC, and Disney confirmed that there would be a "mobile" experience to come, though what that entails isn't yet clear. It's "under development, under discussion on the executive level," according to PR. Just like Skylanders, Disney will probably expand the franchise when it's ready, and incorporate the figures on portable platforms when it makes sense (and money) to do so.
Even without those mobile details, Disney Infinity is a fairly grand plan, a big play to leverage some of the world's most loved IP into a video game-powered money machine. Activision proved that a large cross-media franchise like this was possible with Skylanders, and now Disney is trusting Avalanche to do it again, even bigger, with Infinity.