Friday 31 July 2015

In defence of 'Disney Infinity'

Why can't adults resist the allure of children's games?

Developed by Avalanche Software
Published by Disney Interactive Studios
Initially Released in August 2013

It's August 1994, I'm standing in a queue at Electronics Boutique looking sheepish. Although I'm 14 I don't look my age, so I'm not exactly shocked that I get asked how old I am when I pass ‘Resident Evil' to the cashier. "That is a 15 rated game mate" he says to me. I look up embarrassed. "It's not for me ... It's for my brother and he is 17".

Fast forward nearly twenty years.

It's July 2015. I'm standing in a queue at CEX looking sheepish. Although I'm a father of two they are not with me, so when I ask for any second hand 'Disney Infinity' figures I'm not exactly shocked with the cashier’s reaction. "That is a game for kids mate" he says to me. I look up embarrassed. "It's not for me ... It's for my daughter and she is 5".

Considering rows of ‘Disney Infinity’ figures line shelves in toy shops, it's entirely understandable that many think they are games for children; indeed some market them as such. In contrast, Nintendo’s ‘Amiibo’ figures are sold more as collectables, with impulse purchases driven by a heady mix of nostalgia and limited availability. This is perhaps why 21% of Amiibo buyers are adults with no children; an inversion of the ‘Disney Infinity’ audience, where more than 90% are sold to households with children.

However, I would argue that beneath the enchanting child pleasing Disney packaging there is a game series that's worthy of anyone's time. It should more appropriately be marketed as a family title considering characters from 'Star Wars', 'Tron' and 'Guardians of The Galaxy' sit alongside 'Mickey Mouse' and 'Frozen' characters. It's hard to imagine there's not a 'Disney Infinity' figure to make even the most grown up of grown-ups smile.

Perhaps the very thing that narrows the audience in the first place is the fact that the series is part of the emerging "toys to life" genre. It's easy to draw comparisons with Activision's 'Skylanders' phenomenon, which is also primarily targeted at children. In both games players place individually sold figures on a USB peripheral. This reads a "near field communication" chip in the base of the figure and instructs the game’s system which character to load into the game, even tracking character development and growth. Essentially the figures act as very elaborate keys to unlock content that's already on the game disc, they are DLC made solid and physical. Like ‘Skylanders’, a ‘Disney Infinity’ "starter set" includes a few figures. As the name implies, it’s enough to start the game. To get a more varied experience players are encouraged to expand their game by not just buying additional characters but also by buying "Play-Sets" which add additional levels themed around various Disney properties. In the first game buying play-sets meant having the opportunity to play stages based on the 'Lone Ranger', 'Cars' and 'Toy story' films.
These then add to three play-sets that were included with the game disc, which were inspired by Disney's 'The Incredible', 'Monsters University' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean' films. The sequel 'Disney Infinity 2.0' addicted a further three play-set adventures based on Marvel franchises; 'The Avengers' 'Spider-Man' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy'. Next to be released, will be ‘Disney Infinity 3.0’ which adds ‘Inside Out’ and the ‘Star Wars’ films to the play-set roster. When looked at in this list form, it's pretty obvious that when all the play-sets are bought, playing 'Disney Infinity' actually is quite a diverse and varied. And it's not just palette changes to reflect a different franchise; each play-set actually offers different game play. They feel like a number of disparate larger games, each distilled into a five hours family friendly experience. Their brevity may make them seem expensive but this is exactly why they would be perfect for a young or old gamer that have little spare time but is keen to play a range of game styles. 'The Incredibles' levels for example echo the sandbox, “driving in a city” style game-play of a 'Grand Theft Auto' game. 'Monsters University' levels have stealth mechanics lifted straight out of 'Metal Gear Solid'. 'Pirates of the Caribbean' has ship to ship combat that almost equals 'Assassin's Creed : Black Flag' and 'The Lone Ranger' stages feel at times like 'Red Dead Redemption'. Of course only an idiot would say that the levels seen in 'Disney Infinity' eclipse the AAA games they imitate. What they do offer though is a short extremely polished self contained experience, complete with a narrative, dozens of hidden unlockables and side mission distractions.

I'll admit I didn't initially buy 'Disney Infinity' with myself in mind; in fact I'm not even the one who started the collection. As a father of two daughters I am no stranger to the film 'Frozen'. It's not a case of how many times have I seen the film, it's more a case of how many times have I seen the film today. Always on the lookout for new Anna and Elsa toys to give the girls, my mother-in-law saw the beautifully crafted figures and bought them without even realising there was a game that went with them. It’s not an unusual mistake to make and indeed this is how many children choose to play with the attractive figures. Across all “toys to life” players, 22 percent of the time, a figurine is played with as a toy, not even plugged into a video game console. This especially true in very young players. However, being a gamer Dad, this wasn’t how I wanted my children to play with their ‘Disney Infinity’ figures. These weren’t just toys and this was an opportunity to get my daughters interested in my hobby! The games were bought and thus started the harvesting of three inch high toys at an alarming rate.
A website known as “Common Sense Media” provide impartial consumer advice about the content of digital media aimed at children. The site warns parents to "expect a lot of pressure from kids for additional Play-Sets, Power Discs, Game Discs, and figurines". However it wasn't my daughters who demanded more and more figures - it was the collector in me. Two figures turned into ten which turned into complete sets. But the thing that surprised me most wasn't my desire to buy video game toys, I'd been doing that for years. What shocked me more was how eager I was to play the game, and I found myself begging my girls to put on ‘Disney Infinity’ rather than them asking me to play it. Critically acclaimed games like 'The Last of Us' and 'GTA V' sit up my shelf, largely un-played. When I get the opportunity to play a game on the big TV I reach for the "Infinity Base", grab a figure, a play-set and some power discs and spend an hour lapping up a "children's game".

With long working hours, and weekends taken up with clubs, weddings and birthday parties ,play time is scarce. At best I have three hours a week at home to engage in my hobby and this is usually spread out over several days. This fractured intermittent playtime makes following drawn out complex narratives tricky and when some story modes in games exceed 30 hours it could take me 10 weeks to see how a narrative concludes. The self contained modular style of the 'Disney Infinity' play-sets though can be completed in half a dozen hours and during that time you can get to do all the things that would typically be spread out over a lengthy campaign. If that wasn't enough new to ‘Disney Infinity’ 2.0 were Toy Box Games. These are small self-contained mini-games like tower defence or dungeon-crawling adventures, designed for short play sessions. 'Disney Infinity' therefore has lots of things to offer for someone in a hurry, even if they are old enough to have seen 'Aladdin' in the cinema the first time it was released.
In 'The Incredibles' play-set for example, in 5 hours I got to fly a helicopter, surf around a city on a hover board, defeat screen filling fire spewing robots and drive several cars. With a complete collection of figures I could even roam a relative large city with five different characters each with different abilities. Yes, it wasn't as rich and detailed a city as San Andreas or Liberty City. Of course there wasn't radio stations playing contemporary music, or bowling mini games to play. But when you compare the first 5 hours of 'Disney Infinity: The Incredibles' to the first 5 hours of 'Grand Theft Auto IV' it's obvious which is more varied even if it looks comparatively primitive and isn't very difficult.

So not just a game for children then, 'Disney Infinity' also fills the gaming needs of a busy adult that desires high quality blasts of diverse game play. After all there's is no denying that the game engine upon which these play-sets are constructed is a quality piece of engineering. Hardly a surprise when you look at the calibre of talent involved in its construction. The game itself is created by Avalanche software, which has a history of working with Disney licenses. However, as points out, "as with other big yearly video-game franchises it's simply too much work for one studio to deliver alone" so "'Disney Infinity' very much needs the talents of [other] studio if it is to extend the success of the series." This is clearly not an unusual practice in modern game creation, but what is unusual is the teams that have agreed to work with Avalanche; arguably the best studios in their chosen field. For the latest ‘Star Wars’ themed 'Disney Infinity 3.0' car mechanics have been given an overhaul by Sumo Digital. This really is the perfect choice of development team given their previous works included the critically adored and commercially successful 'OutRun' sequels and the 'Mario Kart'esque 'Sonic and Sega All Star Racing'. With Light sabres comes a need
for improved combat mechanics, so step in Ninja Theory. Not just any games studio, the ones responsible for 'DmC: Devil May Cry' and 'Heavenly Sword'; two games celebrated for their fluid fighting mechanics. With 'United Front Games' also on the roster, if anything the credit list for 'Disney Infinity 3.0' looks like a "who's who" for gaming development and this high quality external studio involvement extends beyond the central game mechanics.
For example, Studio Gobo were "very proud" to be involved in the game series creating the 'Guardians of the Galaxy' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean' play-set adventures. Studio head Tony Beckwith is very much aware that despite a "PEGI 7" rating the 'Disney Infinity' games are certainly not just for children. "We are testing a couple of years older this year, from 6 years up to 17 year olds and whole families. Dads and Mums are playing the game too." It was an observation supported by global information company, The NPD Group. They discovered that over half of households currently playing “toys to life” games include adults that regularly play.

However while they may be my go to, the play-sets really are just a fragment of the larger 'Disney Infinity' experience. The main attraction is free-form creation mode called the "Toy Box"; indeed this is how the game originally started out. Avalanche Software had previous made a Disney published game adaptation of the Pixar 'Toy Story 3' film. While the main body of this game is the standard 3D platforming fare, tucked away in the corner of the game map lays 'Woody's Roundup' and its here that the origins of ‘Infinity’ can be seen. 'Woody’s Round up' is a freeform sandbox mode set in Woody's fantasy cowboy town. It’s a section of the game that’s bursting at the seams with simple fun make-it-up-as-you-go-along experimentation. Wrongly dismissed by critics who just saw it as an optional bonus game, it's more compelling, more entertaining and better realised than the "proper" movie-based levels. The player is free to expand and build Woody’s town, adding new buildings and customising pretty much every aspect using an ever-expanding catalogue of items. Every building can be painted, or decorated with accessories. You can dress up the little people in a mind-boggling array of costumes. You can drive around in a toy car, or ride a horse. You can chase and capture bandits and go parachuting with the Army Men. There’s nothing stopping you growing giant vegetables and even tipping cows should you desire. Anyone who has dabbled in the 'Toy Box' mode of a 'Disney Infinity' game will no doubt find a lot of these activities familiar.

‘Toy Box' mode Is the headline act of 'Disney Infinity' but tragically is the most over looked. It's an incredibly powerful fully-featured level designer, which is perhaps most easily described as a 3D version of the “create mode” seen in 'Little Big Planet'. Children can place simple objects and race tracks and within minutes feel like they have created a new level for their characters to explore. Adults and those with more time however can spend hours using the engine's complex logic routines and use the manipulate-able customisable objects to weave a level they have always wanted to play. After all, the Game is sold on a promise that "if you can dream it you can do it" and this is true to a certain extent. Level creations can be uploaded to a central server which can then be shared and discovered by others. In theory this means millions of levels could appear and the quality and complexity of the most popular ones even rivals the professional levels seen in the play-sets. 2D side scrolling platform stages sit alongside top down Rpg style games. Toy Box artists (as they are known in the community) have found ways to create puzzles games and sports simulations all within the flexible Toy Box engine. Indeed, Avalanche Software themselves promote the community's creativity, encouraging fans to generate levels that could win a weekly design completion.
The most prominent level designers have even found employment at the company, contributing to game development and helping other community members. It's this thriving community and continuous flow of user generated content that keeps players coming back once the play-sets have been completed. Those who wish to flex their game design muscles find a warm reception from those that wish to just play rather than design new stages.

It is the Toy Box that keeps players, young and old engaged. This is no doubt the reason why 'Disney Infinity' has the highest percentage of player retention of all the games in the "toys to life" genre.
Evidently if a player starts collecting 'Amiibo', 'Skylanders' and 'Infinity' at the same time, statistically they will continue to play with their Disney figures for the longest. According to a recent NPD survey of 3,688 parents, a total of 1,187 had at least one child who has played a “toys to life” game. Of these, only 7 percent of families had abandoned play altogether. One of the key reasons for this abandonment has been that their child or children may have outgrown the games, so seemingly there is a time when society adopts the position that they are too old for classic Disney characters. This is why Disney are presumably including “more adult” properties in ‘Disney Infinity’, with the addition of ‘Marvel’ characters in 2.0 and the ‘Star Wars’ universe in 3.0. Industry analyst Liam Callahan believes this is a reaction to the discovery that “consumers are moving franchises, but not abandoning the [“toys to life”] category ... consumers are willing to try new franchises.” In response, rather than design and build individual games for film licenses, Disney Interactive now appear to simply make new “play set” expansions for the any Disney films released. This year for example, ‘Inside Out’ and ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ both will be sold as ‘Disney Infinity’ expansions, where as previously  they would have been stand alone games. As Avalanche Software’s Vice president John Blackburn explains; “’Disney Infinity’ is a platform for all the IP across the [Disney] company. You’ll see more as more TV shows and movies come out. We will continue to evaluate which is a good fit for ‘Infinity’, we have so much more content coming out and it’s natural we want to support upcoming things”.

While Blackburn implies that customers are the winners by including of all things Disney within ‘Infinity’, the” house of mouse” themselves are the real beneficiaries. By folding new franchises into the ‘Infinity’ game, greater profits can be made for Disney. While video games themselves are profitable, the real riches come from the figures which can be sold for a premium price but cost little to produce in bulk. So much so that Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter has speculated the margin on figures could be close to 90%. While this may be good news for the money men, it further distorts some people’s perception of the game. I can't help but think fellow gamers wouldn't bat an eye lid if I said I was playing a third person shooter based on the arguably adult 'Guardians of the Galaxy' film. However, when that same game has 'Disney Infinity' branding and figurines with it, suddenly I'm told I'm playing a game designed for six year olds.

Forbes once rather cynically said that "'Disney infinity' is a video game that exists primarily as a vehicle for selling figures". This pre-supposes that the game can be terrible and it wouldn’t matter.
If that’s the case Forbes couldn’t have played the ship to ship combat in the 'Pirates or the Caribbean' levels, which were more fun than a lot of other full-price games. Furthermore, playing them didn't require additional purchases after buying the original '1.0 Starter Set'. If it's really a game that demands continual financial input (much like the majority of mobile phone games) why is so much in 'Disney Infinity' offered for free? With the community content expanding daily and with no subscription to access it, the initial £30 you spend on a 'Disney Infinity' game gives you potentially hundreds of hours of content. Admittedly many (young and old) desire all the figures, but that's probably because they are collectable in their own right. We wish to buy the “toys” because we want them, not because the game doesn’t operate without them.

It's a little sad that we spend our life feeling the need to justify and explain our purchase decisions. I really shouldn't feel obliged to lie about my desire to collect 'Disney Infinity' in the same way I lied to try to get hold of an age inappropriate games as a child. Colourful children pleasing Disney characters on a box shouldn't rule out a deep and rich game experience for adults. There's no denying that 'Disney Infinity' is a big money maker for Disney Interactive.
President James Pitaro once revealed ‘Disney Infinity’ had sold 3 million starter packs, making an estimated $500 million in revenue. It’s a series so popular it has single headedly turned around a company, explaining why in November 2014 Disney Interactive enjoyed profits of $116 million, the first yearly profit since it started operating back in 2009. This success is largely attributed to 'Disney Infinity' and it's well deserved.

 They have in their hands a series that truly is family gaming, truly is something for everyone and really isn't a game that an adult should be ashamed to admit they adore.

1 comment:

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.