Create, collect, go into debt
There's not a lot I remember about the rampant imagination of childhood, but most of the good memories came from the depths of my toy chest. Pitting Aliens against Transformers. Imagining Cloud Strife's sword slicing through Foxhound's ranks. On occasion, a friend would come over and contribute to the chaos until it ended with crying, a fight, and a broken yet replaceable (but totally irreplaceable in my eight-year-old mind) figurine.
This basis of mashing properties together is probably why we have M.U.G.E.N, Girl Talk, and comic book crossovers. There is something forbidden and alluring about bringing together things that were conceived in different worlds. So when Disney Interactive brings together its movies, TV shows, and Pixar hits this summer for Infinity and provides an allotted virtual space for play, will it be like the messy, epic battles that once happened on my living room floor? Or will it feel like a cash grab riding on the coattails of Skylanders?
Disney Infinity (3DS, PC, PlayStation 3, Mobile, Wii , Wii U, Xbox 360)
Here's a general rule I have when previewing a game, one that investors (only the ones who play games) would be wise to adopt: If I have to use more than three games as a basis of comparison to describe an upcoming title, then it's something special but not necessarily something good. A game that does everything yet pleases no one is an ambitious mess. With only a limited demo and no hands-on time, I can't accurately state where Infinity falls between these two extremes -- one being a fun creative stroke of innovation and the other an incomprehensible turd -- but that the explanation doesn't begin and end with "Skylanders rip-off" is an achievement in and of itself.
(For the short version of what makes Infinity special, jump to **** below.)
I'm glad I'm not doing PR for this game
It's awesome that long-standing Disney developer Avalanche Software isn't settling for a Skylanders clone. It's also awesome that it's not my job to sell this game and ensure its success. A 45-minute presentation for a family title should be overkill, but it felt as if Disney only scraped the surface during Infinity’s reveal at Los Angeles's El Capitan Theater, leaving many questions unanswered and seemingly deep aspects only teased.
Though the game can only be played co-op with players on your friends list, there are some MMO roots to Infinity's design:
Perhaps MMO is the wrong genre to compare it to, but there certainly isn't a right one. Hack 'n slash action in the world of Pirates of the Caribbean, creeping across campus in a Monster University stealth mission, platforming across a series of death traps a friend uploaded, trying to break the game's physics with three friends in Toy Box mode -- you can't explain Infinity's design any easier than you can explain how children play with their toys. It begins with emptying out every single thing onto the bedroom floor, G.I. Joes prodding out from beneath the sprawl of Ninja Turtles and Smurfs figurines, hoping something fun will follow.
Where to begin
No two players may have the same takeaway from Infinity, but all players will experience the same beginning. The intro opens with Jack Sparrow -- re-stylized in the pastel colors, saucer eyes, and vaguely Korean character design look that graces all Disney characters in Infinity -- rowing a boat through a pirate town under cannonball fire. After accepting a mission quest to rescue Gibbs, Infinity throws a series of tried-and-true mechanics at you: ground pound for an area-of-effect attack, cling and jump along ledges, fire a pistol at a locked gate, and always, always, always follow the big persistent purple arrow. To be fair, the game has a tasteful HUD that hides elements and contextualizes them in the world, such as a Blur-like health bar that temporarily appears around the player.
Upon rescuing Gibbs, you are offered other islands and worlds to explore. Completion rewards the player with a ship for purchase in the toy kiosk at the center of town, a constant landmark across the game's worlds. With the coins acquired from defeating enemies and hitting the crap out of barrels, one mighty pirate ship can be purchased and boarded. From there, you can jump into a different section of the game (Pirates, The Incredibles, and Monsters University were shown off), play around in Toy Box, or customize your seaworthy vessel with items you acquired from red capsules hidden throughout. A new sail here, a fresh coat of paint there, and you're ready to island hop or have a naval battle. If a friend happens to join you, they can help man the cannons or go on their own adventure elsewhere in the world (without breaking the split-screen play).
The Disney chokehold
This is the company that had the government rewrite copyright law so it can hold onto its empire until the Earth enters the next ice age. While I can't say I ever met an unhappy Disney employee, the company itself has a habit of biting its own tail, and this is perfectly on display in Infinity. Avalanche Studios seems to be wholly content and grateful to be tied to such an ambitious project after many years of making games timed to movie releases. For an outsider, it wasn't hard to tell that Avalanche isn't being given the keys to the kingdom. I also get the sense it isn't being given the trust or freedom it needs to make Infinity a home run success, either.
Looking beyond the elephant in the room (i.e. "Will Marvel or Lucas characters appear in the game?" Avalanche developers smiling, nodding, and saying, "We'll see."), it's baffling that Infinity's main concept is bringing the many worlds of Pixar and Disney together, yet no mission in the game will allow characters from another property to enter. There is an argument to be made that Monsters Inc. characters entering Pirates in the Caribbean may be out of character and a ham-fisted maturation of the property. That argument can be ended by pointing out that anything and everything is possible with the game's assets in Toy Box (read on below).
If Disney was hoping I wouldn't notice the almost complete absence of classic Disney animated characters and expected that platypus from TV series Phineas and Ferb to fit right in with Pirates of the Caribbean and Toy Story, Disney is mistaken. So far, appearances from animated Disney films has been limited to minor aspects in the game world that can be applied in Toy Box. These range from the mundane (the Cave of Wonder's tiger entrance from Aladdin) to the fantastic (can I get a heck yeah for the inclusion of Tron's Recognizers?).
Moderating player uploads and limiting players to only connecting with those on their friends list are to be expected. Limiting Avalanche's Toy Box, and in effect the player's, to only recent Disney CG properties -- really, who wants Bolt and Frankenweenie before The Lion King and Mulan? -- makes it appear as if Disney doesn't have a great deal of confidence in Avalanche to handle its top-tier properties, and it makes me wonder why. More importantly, it makes me wonder if the game will feel incomplete upon release, not fully making good on its grand concept of representing a child's play box where CHARACTERS from DIFFERENT PROPERTIES can PLAY TOGETHER. Right?
Perhaps the rest is yet to come in a conveniently timed to E3 reveal. Let's hope.
Once more into the toy chest
I don't have kids, I don't adopt kids, I don't kidnap kids, and I don't have any young relatives or siblings. I am part of a demographic that isn't Disney's bread and butter. The same can be said of most game journalists, which is probably why Disney offered beer by the crate and dessert at 10am during the event. Such indulgent treats weren't necessary when Avalanche has an ace up its sleeve with Toy Box.
At its simplest, Toy Box is a place where three players can join online and goof around, settle “What if?” scenarios between Mr. Incredible and Buzz Lightyear, build impossible obstacle courses, or construct a world that can be called home out of parts from 20+ Disney franchises. At its most complex, Toy Box can become a toolset that allows players to create puzzles via a logic editor that connects triggers to the environment, reposition the camera to make a traditional 2D side-scrolling platformer, or recreate Bowser's Castle from Mario Kart for others to race on.
Toy Box is the one place where all of Infinity's items, art assets, and heroes come together to form a virtual space for kids to break, explore, build, and share. Combine all this with plans to run community contests, like one centered around building the craziest castle, and introductory templates and blueprints to ease players in, and Infinity has a real chance of presenting lessons learned from Halo’s Forge mode, Minecraft, and LittleBigPlanet to a younger and possibly wider audience.
And all of this for the price of ...
SCUMBAG GAME JOURNALIST turns to developer, who is explaining how to spend coins to purchase in-game items, and says with a smirk, "So, you can also buy those coins with real world money, right?"
That would be too obvious for Disney, which has a far more insidious plan. If Disney's plan comes together, it could create a perfect storm that will make the Elmopocalypse of 1997, Furbygeddon of 1998, and Skylanders drought of 2011 look like small footnotes in hungry-consumers-turned-stampeding-angry-parents history.
Here's how you do it: You take Skylander's base reader and well-crafted figurine collectibles, then you add a third slot to the reader (the second slot is for a second player) which unlocks items, custom packs, buffs, and abilities, and finally -- this one is the real kicker -- you offer those franchise-specific tokens through blind purchase packs that leave kids frustrated over getting Frankenweenie for the fifth time and parents without any money to spend on Grandma come Christmas time. Like I said, it's insidious but not without a dash of genius on top.
Whether you think it's better or worse than a pay-to-play structure, this aspect of collectible tokens and figurines brings the whole toy box concept full circle. Kids at playgrounds will make sacred trades, covet the impossibly rare Howard the Duck costume pack (not real), and become increasingly giddy each time they spill out the contents of their virtual toy chest onto their private play space -- one that may contain the iconic Disney castle in the background and Wreck-It Ralph's Sugar Rush track in the foreground. But it's also a space where memories can be made, not unlike the ones I made on a living room floor, once upon a time.
Just don't expect to see Ariel make out with a facehugger.