Kid-focused augmented reality game Disney Infinity seems like a me-too cash grab, and in a lot of ways it is. After the massive, on-going success of Activision’s Skylanders — a franchise that combined relatively simple video games and collectible toys into a highly lucrative package for kids — the announcement of Disney Infinity felt like the company was simply trying to get in on the action. You can't really blame Disney: with a wealth of incredibly popular characters and franchises to choose from, it’s a project that could be a money-making machine. And Disney Infinity is indeed expensive. You start out with three characters, but you can buy more toys and even physical discs that represent everything from new abilities to visual skins for the world. But that's not what makes Disney Infinity exciting. On the surface it looks like yet another video game trying to gouge your wallet with the addition of costly collectible toys, but underneath you'll find that Disney Infinity actually has more in common with a much less likely type of game. This is Minecraft meets Mickey Mouse — oh, and there’s a dash of Tron to seal the deal.
This is 'Minecraft' meets Mickey Mouse
The Disney Infinity package consists of several different pieces. There’s the game itself, which comes with a number of physical objects to augment the experience. There’s a base that plugs into your console, and placing a toy on it will cause that character to almost immediately appear in the game in digital form. The base also has spots for "power discs," which can be purchased in packs like baseball cards and placed down to add new items, vehicles, or character skills to the game. And in addition to the included power discs and characters ,you’ll also be able to buy more when Disney Infinity launches. Disney tells us that the toys themselves are platform agnostic — so even if you’re playing on Xbox 360, you’ll be able to take your Jack Sparrow figure over to a friend’s house and drop him into a PlayStation 3 game.
The actual video game portion, meanwhile, is divided into two main sections. The first is probably what you'd imagine a combination of Disney, video games, and physical toys might look like. There is a series of campaigns (called play sets) to play through, each based on a film like Pirates of the Caribbean or Cars, and they appear to play a lot like a standard third person action / platform game. Mr. Incredible brawls his way through a series of robots, for instance, while Mike and Sully pull pranks at Monsters University. It looks great and the action seems well suited to the six to 12-year-old audience Disney is aiming for. And if you buy additional figures, you can swap in new characters on the fly by placing a different toy on the base. You can't mix and match franchises — Jack Sparrow won't show up in The Incredibles area, for instance — but each character plays differently and has unique abilities, which should make the physical toy collection element all the more tempting. Each play set is essentially its own game, but more importantly they’re also where you'll unlock content for the real meat of Disney Infinity: the toy box.
"No one's going to tell you it's the wrong way to play."
Here, Disney universes collide. "It's kind of like when you were growing up: living room floor, dump out all your toys, no one's going to tell you it's the wrong way to play," explains executive producer John Vignocchi. It's a creative mode where, using content you've unlocked or purchased, you can build, well, whatever you want. During a demo we witnessed a world filled with iconic Disney landmarks like Pride Rock from the Lion King and Scrooge McDuck's money bin, all sitting next to each other. You can zip around by strapping on Buzz Lightyear's jetpack or, even better, hop into a vehicle like a Tron lightrunner. It's a huge open space that you can approach however you like. The creation tools look on-par with games like LittleBigPlanet in terms of complexity, letting you simply highlight objects to interact with them or move them around. This should make it relatively easy to get down and start making stuff, which is especially important considering the younger target audience. You can even use unlockables to skin the entire game world with a particular visual theme, such as the grid from Tron.
Certain objects in the game can also be given commands, which could turn Disney Infinity into a sneaky way to get kids interested in programming. For instance, you can rig up a pair of soccer nets so that, when a goal is scored, fireworks go off and a scoreboard displays the correct score. You can even add rules and win conditions, essentially letting players build their own games inside of the toy box. "It's like low-level, rudimentary programming," says Vignocchi. You can link together around 70 different virtual toys this way, which, much like LittleBigPlanet, could lead to some potentially amazing creations once players start to dig in; one developer already managed to build a working calculator in the game during testing. Even in its seemingly simplified form, however, building games within Disney Infinity could prove difficult for many kids. "This is definitely for more advanced users," Vignocchi says — which in this case means 12-year-olds.
Players can also share what they create, though given the family-friendly nature of the game, this aspect is a little restricted. You can visit your friends' toy boxes over Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network to see what they’ve made, but when it comes to seeing what strangers have built, Disney will actually be curating the user-generated content. A series of contests will task players with building something specific, and then Disney will pick the best (and safest) submissions and make them available to other players for free. And considering just how much people love drawing dicks in games, it's probably for the best.
'Disney Infinity' can be a very expensive game
All of this comes at a cost, however. The game and initial trio of characters will cost you $74.99 when Disney Infinity launches on August 18th for a huge range of platforms, including 360, PS3, Wii, Wii U, 3DS, Windows, and even mobile devices (though Disney was tight-lipped on details for the mobile version). Additional character figures are $12.99 each and new play set expansion packs are $34.99 each. Meanwhile, the power discs will set you back another $4.99 per pack. And since the discs are packaged randomly — not unlike baseball cards — some players will likely buy plenty in the hopes of getting some rare new virtual toys. For those that really get into Disney Infinity, those costs can lead to a very expensive game. Then again, can you really put a price on seeing Mike Wazowski ride around on a pirate ship?