D23: Disney Places Bet on 'Infinity' Mash-Up Game (Analysis)

"Disney Infinity"

The formula for the anticipated titled draws liberally from two recent hits, Activision's "Skylanders" and Mojang's "Minecraft."

Disney is betting big that two recent gaming success stories can be combined into a single blockbuster property, one that can turn around the ailing fortunes of its troubled interactive division. Disney Infinity, which will be presented to fans at the D23 Expo in Anaheim this weekend, is set to hit store shelves a week from Tuesday. The title culls characters, songs and locations from across its film library to create a mash-up adventure world.  

The title is a gamble on a flexible platform-based approach that will allow the company to pivot quickly on the games it creates around its characters, while leveraging Disney’s long history of success on the merchandising front. 

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Although Infinity will be populated with familiar characters like Jack Sparrow and Mr. Incredible, the formula for the title borrows liberally from two prior hits: Activision’s Skylanders and Mojang’s MinecraftSkylanders is a videogame that interacts with a line of specially constructed action figures that can be placed on a “Portal of Power” (an electronic platform), unlocking additional areas, characters or abilities. Activision debuted the title in 2011.

Skylanders' combination of cute collectible figurines and compelling gameplay was a near instant success. Figurines sold out in many places. Activision followed its initial release a year later with two additional Skylanders titles. So far, the franchise has sold 100 million toys and generated $1 billion worth of revenue. In 2012, Skylanders outsold both Star Wars and Transformers toys at retail.

The other title that offers a prototype of Disney Infinity is Mojang's Minecraft. In May of 2009, Mojang, a small, independent video game developer in Finland, released a bare-bones demo of its first product, a Lego-esque, survival-driven construction game called Minecraft. In addition to its survival mode, Minecraft also allowed players to simply build whatever they liked using its resource-unlimited “Creative” mode.

Minecraft hit a nerve with gamers. With no publisher backing and only word of mouth to generate new sales, the company continued to gradually expand the games feature set and acquire new fans. By November 2011, it had racked up 16 million game purchases. 

Disney Infinity appears to be mashing the Skylanders and Minecraft concepts together, adding the power of its iconic intellectual property. 

In Infinity, as with Skylanders, users will purchase figurines that interface with their computer or game console to affect the virtual world. The content will take the form of traditional videogames: beat-’em ups, platformers or racing games. In a unique twist, though, each figurine (as well as various other “playset” pieces sold separately) will also come with items that be used in a Minecraft-esque construction areas that can be shared with other players.

Players who buy multiple game packs will be able to build hybrid creations that span Disney franchises, allowing you to build a world that has pieces of Pixar films, Disney animated classics and live action fare such as The Lone Ranger and Pirates of the Caribbean.

If Infinity becomes a hit, it would be a boon to the company. Disney Interactive has lost money for the last 18 quarters. 2011 saw severe layoffs across the division and the closure of internal development studio Black Rock. In January of 2013, Disney shuttered Junction point studios, led by games industry legend Warren Spector after its latest title, Epic Mickey: The Power of Two failed to meet expectations.

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In April, after acquiring Lucasfilm and LucasArts earlier this year, Disney said it would no longer task Lucasarts with creating games, shifting it to a licensing division and laying off 150 employees. Infinity wasn't cheap to produce. The company has not announced costs, but experts estimate Skylanders development costs at around $100 million, and Infinity may have cost much more.