I don't feel like I'm speaking out of turn when I say that I believe Disney Infinity was the most interesting thing that happened this past week. Yes, I'm well aware that we spent most of the week shouting about governmental scapegoating of the games industry, college football players with imagined girlfriends, and the decorative merits of eviscerated lady torsos, and amid the din of all that, you may have simply taken Disney's latest video game announcement as a point of minor curiosity. But putting aside the noise of the week and looking at things objectively, there really hasn't been an announcement as outright intriguing as Infinity in the game industry in quite some time.
I say this not just as some industry coverage man dying for some thrilling new technology to write about. If that were the case, I'd be focused on the same dubious new console hardware spec rumors we've been collectively regurgitating into each other's mouths since we all apparently decided the Wii U wasn't really all that interesting to talk about anymore. More to the point, Infinity isn't even really a new technology announcement. At its most distilled core, Infinity is exactly what we've seen from Activision's Skylanders series; a transmedia blending of the toy market and the video game market into a single, (hopefully) successful initiative. But reading through what Disney Interactive's chiefs, Disney Animation's chief creative officer John Lasseter, and the developers at Avalanche Software envision for this project, the scale for what Infinity could be trumps anything that's been done similarly by several orders of magnitude.
That's not a slag on Activision, who, despite their Mordor-like consumer image, have created one of the few genuinely successful new children's properties of the last few years, and done it mostly just building it as it went along. That Activision and developer Toys for Bob were able to make Skylanders a success on the mere strength of its withering Spyro the Dragon franchise is why you should believe this concept isn't going away any time soon. Spyro has proved an enduring franchise over the years, but in the case of Skylanders, it was really just a jumping off point. The framework of a collectible action figure-oriented game was just being filled in with spare parts from a franchise a publisher hadn't done much with in a while. On paper, it just sounded like a slightly more ambitious version of what Ubisoft did with its Raving Rabbids franchise, but once executed, suddenly Activision had a major hit on its hands.
Why? Because Skylanders appeals to the desire in children (and certain psychotic adults) to experience every possible facet of what they love. Give them something to collect, and they will collect the shit out of it. It's an idea that properties like Pokémon have exploited for years, but done with such a direct connection between the toys and the game that the line between the two was effectively blurred. Kids could have their bright, colorful toys to play with, and those toys actually fueled the action in the game. What kid wouldn't love that idea?
So at the outset, Activision's only true nemesis in all of this was the limitations of the Skylanders brand. Half a billion in sales later, now it has a real one in the form of Disney.
We've all seen the trailer now, and read the various descriptions of what Disney plans to do with this concept. Infinity goes beyond just the idea of a rigidly structured game and actively encourages kids (and, again, adult players) to use the characters and environments they've purchased (by way of the figures and other accessories) however they damn well please, thanks to this upgraded Toy Box mode. The Toy Box mode in Toy Story 3--which, understandably, you probably didn't get around to playing--is one of the better pieces of unrealized potential I've seen in a game in a while. While that game's version of it is limited, it's the version of it that's being implemented in Infinity that sounds truly exceptional.
Who wouldn't want a version of LittleBigPlanet featuring tons of major characters and settings we already know and love? It's why kids buy licensed toys in the first place, after all. They want to have those characters, those worlds at their imagination's disposal. Just playing a predesigned game is certainly fun, but when I was younger, I know I had a lot more fun taking my various G.I. Joes and Transformers and super hero figures and smashing them together into scenarios only my addled child brain could fathom. Whether the Disney characters are specifically your thing is entirely beside the point. The point is that they are giving you creative access to these characters and environments in ways that were traditionally relegated to plastic crap strewn about your living room.
That it is purely digital access is also beside the point, though it might not be for some of you. I've already seen a few comments lamenting some larger shift toward a "digital toy box" versus a tactile one, though I don't necessarily think one would ever replace the other. The toys, in Infinity's case, appear little more than a means to getting content into people's games, but kids will still play with those toys. The adults like Jeff who buy them, then proceed to leave them stacked and unopened, like canned beans in an apocalyptic bunker, are probably the distinct minority here.
And keep in mind that over time, all facets of this idea, from the game, to the toy box, to the figures themselves, will improve, provided they are successful. Infinity is likely just a launching point for many, many more things like it. Some of those will undoubtedly come from Disney, who has both the Marvel and Star Wars brands just sitting there, minding their own business, waiting for a chance to jump in and make their parent company unfathomable gobs of money. And when a company like Disney gets behind something like this in a big way, you can almost guarantee that others will follow suit. Activision's success was guaranteed to produce a clone or two, but Disney being the second major player in this "toys to life" market says to me we're about to see a fundamental shift in how games and toys are marketed to kids. If Infinity is a success, it could become the blueprint for these kinds of properties.
Adult me has no strong interest in Skylanders, nor does he feel a strong need to play Infinity outside of professional curiosity. Eight-to-eleven-year-old me, however, is practically exploding at the thought of what Infinity might mean for toys and games in the foreseeable future. I remember when I actually was that age, I always lamented that the toys and games I bought essentially had nothing to do with each other, even if they represented the same property. This is all the kind of thing I always imagined for the far-flung future, decades away from my own childhood. Turns out it wasn't so far-flung, I guess.
Sure, the technology is still somewhat crude, but again, this is a launching point for potentially greater things. Just reading about Infinity has given me all sorts of crazy hypothetical ideas of how those interactions between toy and game could evolve over time. And that doesn't even factor in crazy other tech that has yet to be utilized on a typical consumer level. Just wait until somebody tries to fuse 3D printing technology with gaming on a level affordable for the average consumer. You might not even have to wait that long, at the rate things are currently moving.
I know it's trite to toss out the old "we live in the future" nugget, but goddammit, we live in the future. Maybe my understanding of this fact is why, no matter how loud and angry everyone in the industry seems to be in a given week, an idea like Infinity can still stand out above the fray. Sure, it's just another way for a publisher to make money, but it also says to me that companies are looking for new, innovative ways to tailor gaming experiences to a market that's suffered stagnation for a while now. It says to me that companies aren't necessarily going to just wait around for console makers to do the innovating for them on the hardware side, especially when you consider Infinity is coming to current-gen platforms, and not waiting around for the next go of things, which isn't even that far off.
2013 really is shaping up to be quite a year, isn't it?
First of all, thanks for reading this! You might be confused why written content is appearing on the site on a Sunday. I assure you, there is no cause for alarm. This is The Guns of Navarro, a new column I'll be doing on a weekly basis here on the site. Yes, I'm well aware that title requires a purposeful mispronunciation of my last name, but you know what? Fuck it. It's not even a real last name. My parents made it up. It's supposed to be Ratcliffe.
So, what is this column? Well, it's kind of whatever I, and you, want it to be. I don't have a particular format or structure I plan to adhere to with this. It's more just about me writing about what I find interesting, positively or negatively, in the video game industry, and tangentially related areas of the world. I'm doing this because A. More content is always better than less content, and B. People have often lamented not really having the best handle on me and my own personal tastes. I do a lot of reviews and news writin' around here, but obviously being in New York, it's difficult to participate in things like the podcast and video coverage.
So this will be my nook, my little corner of the site where I talk about the stuff that seems of interest. Hopefully you'll dig it, but if you don't, hey, it's not like we're forcing you to read it! At least not until Dave finds a way to do that. I think that's his next project after the new site launch.
Anyway, thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week.