EXCLUSIVE: Disney Infinity's John Vignocchi on "2.0," Marvel, and hints at what's beyond!

I’m a big fan of the Disney Infinity video game platform, both in its original and especially in its new, Marvel Superhero-loaded 2.0 edition. You can read my review of the new game, including some thoughts on the three Marvel-centric playsets that you can opt for right from launch: the Avengers, Spider-Man and Guardians of The Galaxy.

Speaking today to John Vignocchi, the game’s Executive Producer, I decided to dig a little into that Guardians playset and try to find out what makes it so distinctive, and to find out how it came to be that Yondu was so recently added to the line-up of playable characters. We also spoke about all of the other things that I, as a big fan, really wanted to know about the game, how it works and what the future will bring.

I think I managed to get some real, solid information here that hasn’t been published anywhere else, covering many things Disney Infinity right through 2016. I can only thank John for his thoughtful answers and for taking the time to speak to a self-confessed Infinity nerd.

Here’s how our chat went down.

Hi, John.

Hey, how are you?

I’m alright, I’m alright, but I’ve run out of playsets [I’ve been playing the game heavily for eleven days now]. Three’s not enough.

Really? [Laughs]

I’ve squeezed every last drop out of them. Can you tell me, categorically, whether or not there is content locked for another playset on the 2.0 disc or not?

So... every playset piece gives you access to a playset, and on that disc are three playsets that can currently be accessed through a playset piece.

But how many are on the disc in total?

You know, we don’t actually disclose that information, what the specific content is on the disc.

Let’s talk specifically about the Guardians of the Galaxy playset for a while. To my mind, it is the most distinctive of the playsets. Tell me about the first thoughts that went into it and what the initial concept was.

The Guardians of the Galaxy playset is loosely based on the story of the film. We were granted access to the script as well as to the early visual effects treatments that Marvel were working on. Then we worked closely with the senior executive team at Marvel to develop the story that would be told inside of our playset, which would be slightly different to the story that the film is telling. Have you seen the movie?

I have indeed.

So if you’ve seen the movie and played the playset you’ll know that there are distinct differences. Of course, Ronan and his Necrocraft are in pursuit of you as you land on Knowhere in the playset. In the film, the same sort of thing happens as well but the key differences are Cosmo the dog is trapped inside of The Collector’s cage in the film versus our playset where he becomes a mission giver of sorts giving you things to do to help batten down the hatches of Knowhere as Ronan is attacking.

The thing that stands out to me about this playset is that it’s much more ‘ground level,’ maybe just because the two characters that come in-pack with it aren’t flying characters. It was much more of a platforming experience for me than the other two. Do you think it’s important to have distinctive play styles in different playsets?

Absolutely, and you’re right. Given the abilities of the different Guardians characters, Studio Gobo - which is the developer that did the Guardians playset for our platform - were able to take a different angle on how they developed their content. In the case of Guardians, having known from the beginning that they have Guardians and they wouldn’t be able to feature flying characters, they designed their playset differently to how the team at Avalanche, who put together the Avengers and Spider-Man playsets, had to design their particular content.

So what’s your process when somebody “out of house” is developing a playset? How is that process structured?

That’s one of the most interesting parts of our development process. As you have probably heard me say, Infinity is a platform not just for consumers but for developers as well. To take a step back, Infinity actually runs on Disney’s own internal development engine which is called Octane.

Octane was written by the team at Avalanche and has been their engine which powered dozens of games in the past, and continues to evolve with each new iteration that we put out there.

The way we on-board an independent developer is that we have a team go out, set up the various servers to provide access for the game developer to our source code. Once we’ve set up the pipeline, we normally send people out from our studio for about ten days to train the developer’s studio on our tools and pipeline. Then we’ll bring people from the development studio and they’ll probably spend another two weeks playing around with the team there.

We also have extensive documentation available on our internal servers, and lots of video documentation with various artists, programmers and designers talking about how we go about using our scripting language - our scripting system is called Meridian - as well as how we use Maya, which is the art program, and various custom Maya plug-ins we’ve written that allow developers to create content for the platform.

Typically, we can on-board a developer in two and a half to three months.

Looking at the Yondu playable figure who is coming up later, at what point was it decided that he was going to be added to the game?

As we began working on Guardians of the Galaxy and taken notes that we thought this was going to be a huge film, we contacted the team at Marvel and said that “We have additional resources and are able to make another character for the Marvel roster. What character would you guys like to see join the platform?”

We had given them the opportunity to add five characters, and they had chosen The Green Goblin, Loki and Ronan, the three villains in each of the playsets; they had also, given the popularity of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they recommended that we do Falcon; and given the heightened level of awareness and excitement around Guardians of the Galaxy, the next character they wanted was Yondu. So that’s how Yondu got into the product, but also the villains and Falcon.

So, which way round did it work? You knew that you were going to do a playable Yondu before you came up with the notion of doing the Yondu team up disc?

No, other way around. We knew we were doing a team-up disc for Yondu prior to knowing that we were going to do a full-on figure.

And was the process easier because you had the assets for the team-up? Are you essentially standing on the shoulders of work that was done for the team-up disc?

Some of the work does translate, a lot of it does not. Getting the character rigged and animating on the screen is part of it so it certainly helps if a characters starts as a team-up disc but that’s not nearly the whole picture.

So if the call came down now, you picked up the phone and it was Mickey Mouse on the other end and he demanded that Dopey the Dwarf join the game as a playable character, what sort of turnaround time would you need?

It really depends. It goes back to your original character, where I think you were asking, really, “Are you planning on delivering content digitally and can you do that?” and the answer is, “Yes, the system is designed to do that.” Do we plan on doing that? Well, I think this year you’ll see our first two characters delivered digitally, two Disney characters that we have not yet announced.

But as time goes on, the answer is yes. If we get an itch or a strong request from fans that we potentially didn’t foresee including in the platform during the course of development, we will be able to make that as an additional figure and introduce that character to the game digitally.

To make the physical mould, the physical game piece itself, the figure, that takes considerably longer. At minimum you’re looking at eight to ten months to make one of those figures.

Wow.

Yeah, that’s in the volumes we’re talking about. We could do more limited run characters more quickly.

So you already know what Luke Skywalker and C-3PO look like, John. You already know what their Infinity versions look like.

[Laughs] You can’t see me right now but I’m doing the hand signal that says “These are not the droids you’re looking for.”

Do you foresee a future where the base is upgraded and the capacity of the RFID chip in the figure is such that all necessary data to introduce a character could be in the figure?

No. Those chips do not contain enough memory to hold all of the animation data and figure data.

But is it beyond the limits of the hardware to make a chip of that capacity?

I do not know of RFID chips at this time that would be required for any “Toys to Life” product to have figures that have all of their data on them.

There is some concern in the user base about how you’ll have some people who don’t go online.

Of course, that is a concern but if you talk to Sony and Microsoft they have between 94 and 98% penetration with online on their consoles.

So it’s of relatively little concern and will become less and less significant as the years go by.

I do believe that’s true. Of course, we’ll do everything we can to continue supporting our players. There is one thing we could do which is remastering a disc. Once we put out a disc, if it doesn’t have the content on there and there is a chance that a player isn’t connected, we could work with first party to remaster that disc and put that data onto the disc. That’s something we could do, but we’re not foreseeing that we’ll do it right now.

So when, say, Belle and the Beast come out in January, you’re not anticipating a remastered disc for that?

Ha! Ha, right. We don’t have any plans right now to do remastering right now. But when these new characters come out we will, basically, indicate to players that these figures will require an online connection in order to download and install the files necessary to play as these characters inside the game.

John, I love the game. I absolutely love it, but having said that, there’s sometimes something I don’t quite understand.

Okay...

Well, one is that there are these Icons around the game that give me access to the skill tree. I’m not sure why they’re there when I can easily access the skill tree at any time through the menu. Was there a time in development when I wouldn’t have been able to access the skill tree through the menu?

That’s an interesting statement. The answer is that in testing, we noticed that players weren’t actually levelling up their characters despite there being big, flashing menus on screen that told you to do so. As kind of a safeguard to make sure players were aware that they could level up, we created those in-game elements they could run in to that would take them to their skill tree.

That’s interesting. Those players are clearly thinking in a totally different way to me. It’s good that the game covers everybody like this. How long is your playtesting process?

Our playtesting process starts very early in development. It’s primarily aimed at making sure the system we’re creating - whether it’s the skill and ability system or, in the case of the new Marvel Superheroes, the new combat system - is accessible for fans of all ages. We obviously notice that our teen and adult players pick things up right away but making sure that the systems are accessible for the younger audience, the 6 to 12 year olds that are playing the game, is very important to us too and so we start testing very early.

Now, I’ve heard you say that under the skin, Iron Man and Tinkerbell are very close to one another but looking at Spider-Man, he’s very different from all of the other characters I have played. I’m assuming it’s a kind of modular system where each character is built from a series of modular choices, elements of how parts of their move set works. Is that a fair assumption?

That is a fair assumption. It’s absolutely correct. Our idea is that we think of Infinity less as a single game but more as a platform, and we mean that it’s a platform for players themeselves, that they can continue to pick up additional figures to expand their content; but at the same time, it’s a platform for developers to join and create additional content; and, last but not least, it’s a platform for our investors.

So as time has gone on we’ve gone and create mechanics for the characters. Say Iron Man, we can take his mechanics and translate them to Tinkerbell, Thor and Nova. We’ve basically created ways to have a flying character and then we can spend additional investment on making sure those characters who use the same flying mechanics feel slightly different and fresh, rather than it just being a reskin with every single character.

There are lots of characters inside of Infinity that are one offs, so to speak. For example, Randall [from Monsters University] is a one off. His rig, that we use to animate the character in game, is so completely unique. No other character shares the rig that he has. Interestingly enough, Dash from The Incredibles, Vanellope von Schweetz and Agent P share the same rig. This allowed us to add those characters much more quickly than if we were to start from scratch with the extra characters.

What stage are you at with adding swimming to the move set?

[Laughs] The thing is that adding swimming... well, the answer is yes, we have discussed it and we continue to discuss it. We want to bring swimming as a mechanic inside the game in a big way but we’re waiting for when it makes sense to do so. I think that if you take a look at some of the great films that the Walt Disney company has in development, I think you’ll have an idea of when we may go and introduce swimming into Infinity.

I think I know which film you mean. [Finding Dory will be out in the summer of 2016 and timed pretty much perfectly to join Infinity’s fourth iteration.]

We want to do that, for sure, but when we do it, we need to do it big.

Of all of the elements that come before you, all of the things you’ve overseen and all of the discussions you’ve had, what’s the furthest iteration down the line that you’ve touched? You just alluded to something there that sounds like a 4.0 addition, but have you had discussions that will impact specifically on 5.0, 6.0 or further?

We have developed a content plan for Infinity that goes through 2016.

- - - 

And there, stretching two years into the future, we’d gone as far as we might. I hope to speak to John again, perhaps when the two secret characters come along in the new year.

For now, I’ve got a lot more work to do defending Odin’s treasures and Asgard from legions of portal-spewed ice giants.

Disney Infinity is out now in much of the world and is available in the US TODAY!