Disney Infinity was an excellent showcase for company’s vast stable of beloved characters, from Pixar to Marvel Comics to Star Wars, as well as an excellent creative outlet for kids of all ages. The one thing the series never got right was gameplay, and with yesterday’s cancellation it never will.
The toys-to-life genre is a relatively new segment of the video game market revolving around the gimmick of physical toys can be ported through various means into video games, becoming playable characters in virtual adventures. Toys-to-life began with 2011's Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure, a traditional 3D platforming adventure game set in a fantasy world where the mostly original characters had been transformed by dark magic into toys.
In 2013 Disney Infinity stormed onto the toys-to-life scene, knocking genre originator Skylanders down several pegs with its combination of beloved licensed characters and wholesome, creativity-focused play. How could Activision’s two-year-old series filled with strange creatures unfamiliar to children compete with the likes of Mickey Mouse and Anna and Elsa from Frozen?
Had the two games been comparable, Skylanders might have been in trouble. But Disney Infinity did not share the same gameplay structure. Rather than an overarching story featuring all of the characters available for purchase as toys, a series of adventure playsets were released. These playsets, based on popular Disney properties (plus The Lone Ranger) were generally short adventures set in smallish stages that were exclusive to toys matching their theme. A Cars character could not visit The Pirates of the Caribbean playset.
Characters without playsets, like Mickey Mouse or the sisters from Frozen, could only be played in the game’s Toy Box mode. Toy Box mode was a place where players could use Disney-themed tools to create their own adventures. Though the amount of space in each Toy Box was limited, within those confines players could build race tracks, vast jungle fortresses, dungeons, castles, villages teeming with tiny non-player characters. Using a simple built-in visual programming language players could even create their own Toy Box games.
The toys looked amazing. The Toy Box mode was a delightful creative outlet. The actual gameplay was a massive missed opportunity. Characters from all corners of the Disney entertainment universe coming together, only to remain separated in the official adventures created for the game. Disney and developer Avalanche Software had the opportunity to create something as beloved and enduring as Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts series. Instead they created a series of unrelated events sharing a central design. It was like picking up a book with a cover showing all of your favorite characters, only to discover it was just a short story anthology.
In 2014, Disney Infinity 2.0 introduced Marvel superhero characters to the series, which were pretty much the biggest selling point for the second installment. Vast improvements were made to the game’s creative mode. Its more adventurous side did not fare nearly as well.
Only three playset levels were released for Disney Infinity 2.0. The Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers and Ultimate Spider-Man playsets, each available at launch, demonstrated slightly enhanced gameplay (thanks to bringing on developer Ninja Theory to work on combat), but they were ultimately the same short, repetitive mission-based adventures we’d seen and played before.
Disney Interactive Studios finally started to see the light somewhat with last year’s Disney Infinity 3.0. The focus this time around was Star Wars. The three Star Wars based playsets featured much improved combat, tighter driving and piloting and lightsaber combat that wasn’t half bad, though structurally they were the same short, self-contained adventures as before.
But Avalanche and Disney Interactive also delivered the Toy Box Takeover game adventure, in which characters from each property join together to take down a common enemy. The Marvel Battlegrounds set turned the game into a 3D free-roaming fighter, going as far as to create all-new move sets for every Marvel Comics character in the game.
These were exactly the sort of experiences I was hoping to see Disney Infinity deliver. When they announced there would be no new installment of the series this year in favor of creating new experiences with what the developers already had available, I was genuinely excited.
Alas, it looks like it was too little, too late.
Despite strong early sales (largely due to Star Wars fever), Disney Infinity 3.0 sales were a disappointment to Disney, especially compared to the returns seen from Star Wars: Battlefront, a licensed game the company was not directly publishing. From Disney’s first quarter 2016 fiscal report:
At Games, growth was due to higher licensing revenue from the success of Star Wars: Battlefront, partially offset by lower Disney Infinity results. The decrease from Disney Infinity was due to higher inventory reserves and lower unit sales volume.
The outlook was grim back in February. Then again it was also grim for Activision’s Skylanders. Superchargers, the most recent release, was cited for lower than expected sales in the company’s 2015 investor report. Despite disappointing sales, the same report also announced a new game coming in 2016 and an animated series starting in the fall. The latest entry into the toys-to-life category, LEGO Dimensions, just finished releasing its first year’s worth of toy-based content, with plans to announce more soon.