Disney Infinity 3.0 Execs Focus on Fans First as Star Wars Joins the Party

(Photo: Disney Interactive)

On the eve of the release of Disney Infinity 3.0 Edition and the inclusion of Star Wars into the video game, Disney Interactive executives might be freaking out, but you'd never know it. Vice President of production John Vignocchi has hit a cross-country road trip for the days leading up to the release, showing off the toys-to-life game to the likes of CNN, Good Morning America (in the middle of Times Square, NY no less), and Fox News.

But talking with Vignocchi, plus Avalanche studio head John Blackburn at the recent Toy Box Summit in Anaheim, CA (it was actually held right on the grounds of Disneyland's California Adventure park), showed that while they may not be outwardly nervous, their excitement and love for the product is on full display.

The second Toy Box Summit, being at the park and hooked up to D23 Expo, was a much bigger affair than the inaugural affair in Salt Lake City, Utah last year.

"That's mostly because we knew we were doing it, and had a whole year to plan it this time," Blackburn intimated. Vignocchi also said that the Parks and Resorts branch of Disney actually invited them to host it at the park after "enough cool noise" about the first summit last year. The community is incredibly important to the team, on both a personal and corporate level, and something Blackburn says they'll "continue to nurture" in the hopes that it grows into something with a life of its own.

The yearly release model, with 2.0 last year and 3.0 following this week, will continue, but focus primarily on gameplay mechanics and improving the backbones of the game. Blackburn said that's why they brought other developers, like Ninja Theory for lightsaber combat and Sumo Digital for driving, into the team.

"Infinity is becoming a platform where you can do different genres," Blackburn told us. Inside Out's play set focuses on platforming adventure instead of the open-world style of the Marvel sets from last year, or the combat focus of the Star Wars play sets for 3.0, for example, and that genre-exploring is something he and the team would like to do more.

The best part of this, to Vignocchi, is the way content creators "know how much we care about their brands and being true to their property." This means that those folks from Pixar, and Marvel, and Lucasfilm, and Disney XD, and every other corner of the company, are actively coming to the Disney Interactive team to get their characters included.

This includes Darkwing Duck, who has been teased a lot via power discs and polls. Vignocchi said he's really getting trolled by his own team now, after "having a fit" at a meeting about characters. "There's been such a rally – fans have gotten the comic book creators, the writers and producers of the show involved, and I show Blackburn all this stuff and he just goes 'woah!'" The VP also said that creators of Disney characters, or "property holders" getting involved makes it "get done" faster. The Gravity Falls content that's been included came right from the creators who went to him and his team and said, "we want this in your game, can you make it happen?" He said he's also been contacted by the creator of Kim Possible and others about including content or characters, and it's always a great first step.

Of course, that unfortunately isn't the case for every character Disney has ever been involved with, either directly or through sister companies and distribution.

"There are some characters we just don't have the rights to do: X-Men, Fantastic Four, Roger Rabbit. Even something like Captain EO – we'd have to go clear that with the Jackson estate! It's something we'd like to do, and we've even tried, but it could take years," Blackburn said.

(Photo: Disney Interactive; John Vignocchi and John Blackburn joined on stage at D23 Expo by Daisy Ridley and John Boyega to premiere their Star Wars: The Force Awakens figures)

The characters they do have, branching from many disparate brands, come together in a story-driven way for the first time in the franchise's history thanks to the new game "Toy Box Takeover," an add-on that can be bought for 3.0. The game assembles villains from Star Wars, Spider-Man, Pirates of the Carribean, The Incredibles, and more in a mash-up that can be played with any character from all three versions of the game. Yes, that means you can fight Darth Maul in a story-based game using Princess Jasmine of Aladdin and Marvel's Iron Man (amongst the other 85 characters released or announced for the game's three editions).

"That one was very difficult to pull off," Blackburn admitted, noting that while the story concept was easy to grasp and exciting for fans, the content holders like Lucasfilm and Marvel wanted to make sure their characters were ach handled appropriately, as well.

"It will be interesting to see what fans make of all this. We have people saying they want more Play Sets, that they want their characters to work everywhere, and that they want easier Toy Box tools," Vignocchi intimated. That's something they'll continue to tackle throughout the years between major releases. This year, they'll be releasing two additional Star Wars play sets and a Marvel play set (called "Battlegrounds") in the interim, in addition to the two play sets released at launch and two toy box games, as well. This also had Disney Interactive go to Lucasfilm asking if they could get the Star Wars characters from each era playable in all three play sets, something that breaks continuity but offers up fun "toy" moments for fans. "It'll be interesting to get the data back from the players, but I believe that the Toy Box Games might actually become as significant in terms of how many resources we dedicate to them compared to Play Sets."

This all came back to fan participation and inclusion. "What we ended up doing for 2.0 was addressed things for power users, but neglected the casual user," Blackburn said off of fan feedback. "Why aren't fans using the other Toy Boxes?" was a frequent question, which led them to reevaluate how things were presented in the menus, and led to the reinvention of a default toy called the Dispenser. This new toy generates other toys, from terrains to creators to enemies and new weapons, vehicles, and more. Being randomly generated, it shows off the depth of the creations, and lets people know what you can do with the game.

Nowhere is that more prevalent than at the now-annual Toy Box Summit. With the master artists brought in from around the world to play the newest edition (and a live Toy Box challenge with just 16 hours to build a Star Wars set of their own), they had a new addition to the Summit as well. This time, the master artists got to sit down with Disney Interactive executives and choose their own character for the game. Peter Pan will be the first "Artists' Choice" and hit the game (and shelves) in 2016, but there's every intention for this to be an annual event, as well.

"As a toy box artist, now, if people participate enough in the Toy Box challenges and win them, then they get to come to the Summit next year, be part of this committee, and choose a character. And now they know about it, so they can come with their plan and presentation ready for the character they want," Vignocchi teased.

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Ultimately, Disney Infinity 3.0 all comes down to one phrase, oft repeated at the Summit: If you can dream it, you can do it, and Vignocchi and Blackburn are more confident than ever that it's the case for fans.

Disney Infinity 3.0 hits all major consoles in the US on August 30, 2015, and in Europe August 28, 2015.