How do you tackle the problem of poor movie tie-ins?
That was the challenge set to Disney's game studio, Avalanche Software. The Salt Lake City developer has surprised not once, but twice in the field over the past few years. Its Toy Story 3 offered a rich sandbox world in its Toy Box mode that we were happy to play in, while Cars 2 was a much more than just a decent introductory racer for younger gamers.
So it's better than most in getting the best out of the shortest time available, that schedule crunch that comes with the territory of coinciding a game with its cinematic counterpart.
Three years might seem long enough then for their latest creation. But then, the studio wasn't handed just one Disney franchise: it was handed all of them.
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Charged with combining all the company's movie properties together for one of the biggest rosters of Disney characters seen outside the Kingdom Hearts series, Avalanche moved to crafting virtual toy versions of the diverse cast, using a variety of different materials as basis. Plushies warred alongside other child-friendly designs (how they dealt with the Toy Story situation - toy of a toy of a toy - they don't say) until an entire range of creations that wouldn't be out of place occupying your local toy store was created for a potential game.
Pixar's John Lasseter shot it down.
An avid toy collector himself, the creator gave Avalanche their new starting blocks. A concept that'd ultimately become the final design: one range of figures, sharing similar design characteristics. Collectables that could be put on the same shelf. The game elves got back to work.
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Three years later and we're sitting with Avalanche Software CEO John Blackburn amid stacks of figurines, laptops and an Xbox 360 debug unit. This is Disney's answer to poor movie tie-ins.
This is Disney Infinity, a title that's both video game and collectable toy range, and the start of an ambitious five year plan for the company, as any future movie tie-ins will be developed, and played on, Infinity. "That was one of things with this platform launch that we wanted to do," Blackburn explains, "making sure we were tying them all together, someplace that any content from Disney could fit in."
An electronic board, that comes bundled with three figures in a starter pack releasing this summer, connects into your console or PC. Figures, along with an assortment of coin-like power discs, have electronic chips built into their base. Place figure on the board and a virtual version will appear in the game. Other figures and discs will be sold separately - pricing for all is still to be decided.
The game content, Play Sets, will be tailored to what cast of characters you've placed on the board. We see characters from Monsters University, The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean sitting in figurine form today. Sulley, Captain Jack Sparrow and Mr. Incredible will form the first trio for the game. Avalanche tell us they're trying to get as many of the original voices on board as possible for the project, as well as music, to make the experience as authentic as they can.
We watch a playable demo of Pixar's superheroes fighting their way through a sandbox city, with Blackburn switching figures on the board and watching their counterparts materialise into the world (with this early build there's a slight delay - the finished product will be instantaneous).
The CEO then fires up a laptop to show us a video of Captain Jack Sparrow rowing his way through a port town under attack. Play style will also be customised to cast and worlds: where superheroes combo their way through enemy waves, Sparrow's more about exploration and sword-fights (pistols mainly used for opening treasure chests).
What's more surprising is the impressive level of detail on buildings, explosions, even the Sparrow model itself during this segment. While Blackburn tells a good story about Johnny Depp clearing the likeness rights himself, we're more drawn to the naval battles we see running on screen. Each Play Set will have elements of customisation alongside the action; for Pirates its all about your ship, as you get to upgrade your vessel and take it to the high seas.
Looking at the video, you'd think this was a different game from the Incredibles, which is all primary colours and simple - but evocative- lines. As we learn, diversity's a big component of Infinity.
Separate from each cast's adventures - who'll be stuck to their respective worlds in Play Sets - is the Toy Box, a mash-up of everything you've found during your adventures, and all characters you've collected, dropped into a choice of sandbox worlds to interact and play together.
The team have made sure all characters can interact with the other - we see Dash from the Incredibles hitch a ride from Lightning McQueen, while Mr.Incredible uses a weapon to expand the wheels of a nearby ride to monster truck size, before jumping on a floating surf board (with a grinning Stitch hanging from the front) to coast round the environment.
While items picked up during adventures can be swopped in and out, props such as rides (ranging from horses to carriages) as well as character-XP bonuses only last as long as you have the relevant disc attached onto the board. Characters will always have their basic moves: Violet Parr will be able to use force shields, Sulley his roar, for example.
There's a lot of fun just messing about, but if you don't like what's on offer, the developer's giving you the tools to build whatever you want.
That's perhaps the biggest surprise of Infinity. While the correct disc dropped onto the board paints distinct backgrounds onto your play space - such as Wreck-It-Ralph, Nightmare Before Christmas, Tron - and you can tinker with blocks and such like, there's much beyond that. There's almost an echo of Buzz Lightyear's catchphrase here.
What we see draws the initially easy comparisons of Activision's Skylanders away to something much more surprising: Sony's Little Big Planet.
Blackburn lets a video do the talking. We see some physics-based puzzles. But then we come to a montage of creations that ape some very familiar names. We see Joust, Gauntlet. Super Mario Bros. Off-Road, Donkey Kong. It's when the video hits multiple renditions of Mario Kart 64 tracks - with nice tweaks such as Peach's Castle replaced with Disney's own - and we're told setting up full-scale races are possible, do we realise the scope the platform's offering.
Avalanche almost breezily confirm that two players can build simultaneously in this editing suite. "We've got a bunch of templates," Blackburn outlines as example. "Like you start on a world with two islands. so if you and I want to start building castles and fire things back and forth with catapults." It does acknowledge though that the UI needs work.
As expected with a Disney product, Avalanche agree family safety is a concern. Hence why the game's multiplayer, four player online, will only allow you to invite those people on your Friends List. Custom map designs are sent to Disney to look at.
This community concept is still bare bones, with a "watch this space" depending on how players take to it. "It is my assumption that if that part takes off, the community really goes, we'll probably do a title update," Blackburn theorises. "Better tools to better categorise stuff. Right now we're just using a simple streamlined interface, so you got your Disney download files, and your own."
Building blocks that make for promising foundations. Something that Avalanche will believe will hold strong for the next half decade and more, allowing the studio to continue to build as many worlds (and characters) as Disney have in their portfolio. With over seventy years to choose from, the team are likely here for a while.
That five year plan commitment is real: Blackburn mentions the idea of an "Infinity 2", and the confirmation that will bring relief to any parent: everything will be backwards compatible.
"As we start releasing films," Blackburn explains, sketching out the road map ahead, "you can go buy those Play Set packs, and get those. So as we keep doing this over the course of years, with Infinity 2, and we keep going, all of these figures and Play Sets you have will be backwards compatible with each other, so they'll always work with your Toy Box. "
As for what, and who else we'll see in the future, the studio's keeping quiet. A query about Marvel's spandex crowd is met with raised eyebrows, a laugh and a diplomatic "wouldn't that be awesome?"
Similarly an innocuous comment about Finding Nemo brings us to ask how you apply fish to all this, as water traversal is currently not an option.
"We were going to put him in a mech," laughs Blackburn. "We've a roadmap for some of the gameplay - swimming is a big one. it was out of scope for this first one. But you can imagine if there's probably a Nemo movie in the future, that there's going to be swimming."
Avalanche have a lot of work still to do ("this is the biggest game we made" they respond to questions about the concept leading to easier development), but one thing that's come from their dedication to improving the average of the movie tie-in is a trust from the creators of the properties they're playing with.
"Avalanche has made five movie games for Disney. and over the course of time we've built more and more trust," explains Blackburn. "That trust has allowed us more access to everybody, and it's because we really care about making sure that these things are true to property. We protect the franchise for the owner.
"And as that word has gotten around with the movie teams and the guys at the TV studios, that's made that easier. They're more willing to allow us to do what's right for the game, as opposed to just follow their films."
We walk away impressed by what we've seen. The game's definitely tailored for a younger crowd, but what holds true to Pixar's films could be applied here: something that'll interest both the young and old. Something that'll interest everybody. Something that's rarely said about movie tie-ins.