Ever hear about the filibuster episode of Parks and Recreation where guest star comedian Patton Oswalt rants on about a crazy crossover movie between Star Wars and Marvel Comics superheroes?
The odds of such a film ever happening are extremely low for obvious reasons of sanity, despite both properties being owned by Disney, but the ultimate nerd mash-up – OMG, Yoda versus Iron Man?!? – could indeed happen in video game form. Disney Infinity, which hits consoles next week, is premised on just such an idea – the crossover of multiple franchises into a single open-world, open-concept game that lets players create their own stories, no matter how crazy.
Neither Star Wars nor Marvel characters are in the game to start with, but Disney isn't ruling them out as future add-ons. In the meantime, players will be able to create their own mashed-up adventures with characters from Monsters University, The Incredibles and Pirates of the Caribbean, among others.
"We're continuing to try and find those best opportunities and synergies across the company for what we can bring to the Infinity platform," says Bill Roper, vice-president and general manager of product development at Disney Interactive Studios.
"[But] we're not going to tell people what they can and can't do. If they want to mix and match characters and settings and come up with their own stories, that's great."
At first glance, Disney Infinity looks like something we've seen before. It's a video game-toy hybrid similar to Activision's Skylanders, which became something of a sensation with kids when it launched in 2011. Both games feature plastic bases that attach to the game console. Toy figurines are then placed on the base and are instantly zapped into the game, where they "come alive."
But that's where the similarities end, Mr. Roper says. While Skylanders and its sequels feature relatively linear stories for players to battle through, Disney Infinity takes a different path through several modes of play.
The first is the Playset mode, or straight-forward story adventures that are each set in their respective universes. Players can control Sully in the Monsters University world, or Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, and so on, but crossovers aren't allowed.
The other mode – the open-world Toy Box – is where things get interesting. Here, players can mix and match and create whatever they can imagine using the game's design tools. In that way, it's more like LittleBigPlanet or Minecraft than Skylanders.
"It's kind of like improvisational theatre. You want to say, 'Yes, and…,' " Mr. Roper says. "Can I build a castle and erect a catapult and then put a football in it and shoot it? Yes, and you can even hook it up so you can score that."
Disney Infinity does, however, share a pedigree with Skylanders, with both originating with Pixar's Toy Story movies. Activision's game was written by Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen, the same duo that was nominated for an Oscar for penning the original Pixar movie. Infinity, meanwhile, originally began as another Toy Story game.
Fresh off making the tie-in game for Toy Story 3 in 2010, developer Avalanche Software set to work on a sequel. While the movie game focused heavily on Woody and his western environment, the next installment was to star Buzz Lightyear in a space setting.
The developers created a sort of pre-game lobby where players could mill about and do whatever they wanted before setting off into the actual adventure. In play tests with kids, the feature turned out to be more popular than the game itself.
"It's like when you spend a lot of time and effort and money to get this perfect Christmas gift and you give it to your kid, but then they play with the box," Roper says. "That's what happened to us."
At around the same time, John Pleasants came on board as co-president of Disney Interactive after his company Playdom was acquired by the entertainment giant. He challenged the developers at Avalanche to think bigger.
Their response was to blow that pre-game lobby up to be the main attraction of the new game. And rather than limiting it to just the Toy Story world, they decided to expand it to all of Disney's properties.
From there, the challenge was to explain how those disparate characters and settings could co-exist in one game. Again, Toy Story served as the inspiration. Just as the characters in the movies are toys from their own various fictional properties, so too would they be in what would ultimately become Disney Infinity. The characters in the game are therefore not the actual characters from the movies, but rather toy representations of them. It's all very meta.
The rationalization also allowed for a unified art style as well as some other practicalities. Sully, for example, is twelve-feet tall in his movies, yet Buzz Lightyear is only eight inches tall. Making the characters into toy avatars allowed for a common scale to be used.
With the concept and logic figured out, it was then Mr. Roper's job to sell the game to the various stakeholders. In a company as large as Disney, that was no easy task. Not only did different departments have to be brought on board, so were outside forces including Johnny Depp and Jerry Bruckheimer, who had to be consulted on the Pirates and Lone Ranger inclusions. Mr. Depp, for one, was supportive and thought the game idea was "cool." He even provided feedback – apparently Jack Sparrow's rings were initially the wrong colour, Mr. Roper says.
So why no inclusion of Star Wars or Marvel? The latter probably came along too late, with Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm happening only earlier this year. As for the former, Mr. Roper isn't saying.
"It really came down to a combination of what was interesting to the team, who was approaching us within the company and where we thought some fun opportunities would be," he says. "We view [Infinity] as a platform. We have a lot stuff at launch and a lot of stuff down the pipe."