Even in the early days of Disney Infinity, Jeff Bunker was already thinking about Marvel characters. Bunker is the creative director for Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes, and he helped create the streamlined art style for first game, an experience that managed to seamlessly take characters from disparate Disney franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean and Monsters University and reimagine them with a slick, streamlined look that made it feel like they were part of the same world. Now he's done the same thing with Marvel — and he was prepared all along.
"I was hoping for it," he says of the chance to work on Marvel characters. "We were told not to get our hopes up, but even still I just knew that I needed to be prepared for whatever, so we were looking at characters across the gamut that Disney has."
The first Disney Infinity launched last year, with the goal of blending real world toys with a video game. Much like Skylanders, you could buy cool action figures, and then zap them into a video game where you could take them on adventures. But what made Disney Infinity so interesting was its toybox mode, which let you take characters from a range of Disney films and have them together in one virtual space. You could have Jack Sparrow riding on the back of the elephant from Aladdin, while wielding a laser gun from Toy Story and racing against Lightning McQueen. One of the most impressive things about the game was how it remained visually cohesive: all of the characters looked like themselves, but the game had a distinct style that made it feel like they were all part of the same universe.
One of the keys to getting the look just right was subtraction. "If you look at the original Infinity characters, we took a lot of the detail out," explains Bunker. "There was no musculature, they were fairly cartoony." That technique worked well enough for characters like Rapunzel or Mickey Mouse, but it turns out that it wasn't a great fit for Marvel superheroes. So the sequel involved a slightly different approach. "We had to put a lot of that anatomy and detail back in," says Bunker. Thor or the Hulk just wouldn't look right without bulging muscles, and so the design team had to find a balancing point: beefy enough that the characters remained iconic, but streamlined so that they still fit in with all of the existing Disney characters. (The sequel lets you import characters from the first game, so your virtual toybox can feature Spider-man running alongside Elsa from Frozen.)
The process for creating Marvel characters was much the same way as it was for the Disney crew. It starts by gathering lots of reference material; for characters like The Avengers, that means looking at the films, comics, and cartoons that already exist, and then working out how best to incorporate that in the game. Once the basic look is settled on, artists find ways to strip away detail while still keeping the character instantly recognizable. After that, they add small touches, like shoulder or neck joints, to make them feel more toy-like. "These aren't cartoon characters, they're toys that have come to life," says Bunker. Eventually the design is turned into a 3D model, and tweaked based on feedback from animators. Sometimes a design that works great as a physical toy doesn't make for the best video game character, and so the final stages are a back-and-forth process of small changes to make the character work in both realms. It's a process that takes around six months for each character.
Luckily, the process was sped up at least a little bit for the sequel, thanks in large part to the success of the original Disney Infinity. "We really had to sell ourselves," Bunker says of the first game. "There was a lot of concern from a lot of the different film makers and creators of the characters about mashing their characters up together. There was some reluctance at first." And since Disney is a large company with many divisions, from Pixar to Disney Animation Studios, that meant dealing with approval from many places, which often slowed things down. There was less of that with Marvel Super Heroes, though the development team still worked with, and ultimately earned the approval of, many of the original creators. Famed Marvel artist Joe Quesada even offered a bunch of sketches to help with Thor's design.
The switch to Marvel also let the team pull inspiration from a wider range of places. The look for the Avengers set of figures, for example, was based primarily on the comic books, while Spider-man's set was inspired by the Ultimate Spider-man cartoon series. The Guardians of the Galaxy set was based primarily on this summer's excellent live-action film. There's even a new flavor with the sequel, thanks to the addition of playable villains like Venom and Loki, which add a slightly darker feel to the game. The original Disney Infinity featured a small number of bad guys, like The Incredibles’ Syndrome, but with the likes of the violent Ronan from Guardians of the Galaxy, the sequel has a much grittier feel. "It seemed incomplete to not be able to play as the villains," says Bunker, "especially if you're a fan of collecting these figures."
And those figures are really the highlight when it comes to the designs. While the characters look great in-game, the likes of Iron Man and Groot the sentient tree are particularly striking as physical toys sitting on a bookshelf. They fit seamlessly into the Disney Infinity universe, but also just look like really cool sculpted versions of your favorite superheroes. "In the end, we want these sculpted figures to be — frankly, as an artist — I want them to be a piece of art," Bunker explains. At launch, three different five-piece "play sets" will be available, featuring characters from The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-man. The base game will come with three characters — Iron Man, Thor, and Black Widow — with the rest sold separately. The team also has a roadmap for future characters that are in the works like Green Goblin, as well as unannounced stuff that they'd like to tackle after that.
While there’s still a lot of work to do within the Marvel universe, Bunker and his team have also been planning for other potential additions to the franchise since the very beginning. "Of course we were looking at Lucas properties," he says of the potential for Star Wars characters to work using the same style. "In the same way I was hoping we'd get to work on Marvel characters, I think we have a style that accommodates anything that comes our way."