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Interview With John Vignocchi: Disney Infinity Aims to Expand Open World Gaming

by Roy Choi | August 11, 2013August 11, 2013 2:00 pm PDT

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Disney Infinity aims to bring open-world gaming into living rooms using familiar Disney characters in Toy Box modes. The game brings both property-specific gaming and sandbox gameplay and hopes to give life to properties long after their release. Imagine your favorite Disney characters playing alongside each other in different worlds, not tied to specific intellectual properties.

We sat down for an interview with John Vignocchi, executive producer at Disney Interactive Studios during Disney’s fan convention, D23 Expo. We discussed Disney Infinity, what it took to get the game to market and what to expect for its release and beyond.

Where does the inspiration for Disney Infinity come from? We saw a bit of the Toy Box gameplay in Toy Story 3?

The guys at Avalanche Software, based out of Salt Lake City, have been a part of Disney since 2005. They are a great, awesome studio and they first started working with Disney on Meet the Robinsons, Bolt and then eventually came to work on the Toy Story 3 game. Inside the Toy Story 3 game, there is the mode of play called the Toy Box mode, our first foray into open-world gaming. And Journalists and fans out there noted the most fun mode of play was the Toy Box.  So as the team was wrapping up Toy Story 3 and an entirely other team began finishing up Cars 2.

The Avalanche team developed an engine called Octane, and it has been development for the past decade. The team has spent time nurturing it and adding layers of functionality over time. For example with Toy Story 3, the team introduced streaming into the entire thing, so it is not your typical level-based gaming, and in Cars 2 we introduced all driving mechanics. So the Toy Story 3 team transitioned to working on the spiritual successor to the Toy Story 3 video game, and it was going to be a brand new open world Toy Box experience. But instead of being in Woody and Jessie world, which was what it was in Toy Story 3, we were going to go to Star Command, Buzz Lightyear’s home.

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Disney Infinity is a new game that its publisher and developer hope will present an almost infinite toy box of Disney franchises to fans. The aim is to give players access to classic Disney stuff, and then take away limitations on how they can be played with. Our own Brandon Russel was present for the […]

While that work was happening we had a management change, with John Pleasants and Jimmy Pitaro, Co-Presidents, coming on board. John sat down with all the different game chiefs and said “Think Big” and asked, “What is the biggest idea you can think of?”  At this point we were working with Pixar on these projects, so we went to Pixar and said, “We’ve got an idea. Rather than do a one off video game, like we’ve done previously, what if we were to make a true platform”. As new events happen within Disney’s IP we can support them inside of this platform.  To become something bigger than what we were currently doing.

So we were doing these one off video games based like Tron, or another game on Tangled. It involves a whole new game, all new engine, new animation, new gameplay mechanics, new relationship with filmmakers, new marketing, it’s really tough. You are starting from scratch each time. So like Tron, we were working with the guys from Propaganda, new engine, and new mechanics.  And the way these types of games are played, people will play them and say “Well I’m done” and they may never pick up the game again, with all the work that goes in to the games feeling lost, not just for the developers but for the consumer.

So in Infinity our idea was if you could get everything on a common engine and technology you can expand, and not only just for our team but potentially other teams outside. So then you can begin contributing to the content and with what this engine could do we can grow Infinity over time.  And from an investment standpoint, company and consumer, it is a great way to build a product. Now as a consumer I know when I buy something for Infinity, I know I’m adding something new to my game. It’s kind of like Legos, I know when I go buy a Lego gas station or Lego Death Star, whatever it is, you build those, at the end of the day you are buying bricks that work with each other. So every time you buy a new play set, yes you get a brand new 6-7 hour game experience but you get a bunch of toys, new characters and you can play with them however you want to and always be adding value. 

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So you just mentioned the potential for outside developers to contribute to Infinity.  How far are we from seeing contributions to the platform?

Actually, we’ve already begun. The Pirates of the Caribbean play set was developed by an external developer, Studio Gobo in the U.K. That was our first foray in to that. Avalanche of course always will executive produce, but I absolutely think that [Disney] is always going to make great content and we can serve that content to fans through the Infinity platform. Over time it will continue to grow and we can certainly bring in other external developers to contribute to.  It would be awesome if Ted Price and the guys from Insomniac could work on the platform using our IP or if we could work with Randy Pitchford on Borderlands. I know exactly the properties that would be perfect for those guys, but I just can’t say. But that type of relationship could work as Disney Infinity as its home. This could be something truly bigger than just a game and be a platform.

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A lot of people are making comparisons of Disney Infinity to Skylanders. How much inspiration are you taking from Activision and their success with the Skylanders series for Infinity? How are you striving to make your product a better choice?

First of all, I’ve always said Skylanders is an amazing game, and Activision did a great job with it. There are comparisons and similarities, in that we both have figures but the similarities stop there. Infinity is all about open world gameplay with our play sets. So you’re not playing linear missions. You’re not starting at the beginning of a level, with a goal of finishing on the opposite end. With Infinity you can go wherever you want to. Explore however you want to. Probably one of the best examples of that is Pirates of the Caribbean within about 25 minutes you get your ship and you can leave Tortuga and sail the Caribbean to over 10 different islands just in that world. Inside The Incredibles you’re actually in Metroville, the city the Incredibles are from. You get a car that you can drive anywhere and everywhere.  So the gameplay is totally different inside each place, but then there is the Toy Box mode, Toy Box Mode is Minecraft meets Disney.  It is lose your imagination and play with your toys however you want to. In Toy Box mode you can actually take toys from different play sets and mix and match then with any of the characters you have. So you can give Jack Sparrow’s sword to Sully or Buzz Lightyear’s Jetpack to Jack Sparrow, now he can fly.  It’s up to the player’s imagination. 

Also, when you look at the overall feature set of Infinity, we have online play, we have four players inside of a Toy Box, that means four players can build alongside, in addition we have user-generated content. You can create your own content, upload it to us at Disney and we will moderate, curate it and put it out.  Of course, Disney characters, the biggest difference, recognizable characters that you know and love and so I think there are certainly are similarities and interacting figurines but the similarities stop there.

The interactive factor of Infinity makes it more than a game, it truly is a platform. The community will create concepts that we haven’t even thought of. If you haven’t played Infinity yet, you have to take a look at the Toy Box, the amount of the emerging gameplay that happens in there will blow your mind, especially when you watch kids play.  That why I’ve been sitting out there watching them play, because its so much fun to watch these families come together and experience this content and love it.

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How soon can we expect to see the user submitted content after the game’s release? 

So on release day, we will have custom created Toy Boxes that we’ve created that we will make immediately available for download.  So we’ll run these contests on the website and inside the game, and say “hey make the coolest castle or make the coolest race track this week” and we have our team take a look through the submissions and select the “best of” so that folks can download. The content is platform agonistic, so a Wii U user can upload or an Xbox 360 user can upload it and it can be available across platforms.  Once we curate the content, it will be available across platforms.

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Was there any hesitation about mixing so many characters together in the Toy Box mode of Disney Infinity?

So there are the play sets and the Toy Box, with a play set there is the true-to-property where players can play, where one character from one world will not jump into that world. So you wouldn’t see Mr. Incredible running into Monster’s University. We wanted to protect the property for the fans, so you have these huge fans here at D23 Expo.  Disney Fanatics, and its true about other property, so in the play sets you hold that part true.  But… in the Toy Box, its no holds barred and the so you get one part that is collaborated with film makers that we worked on closely with that creative team, but then you get this whole other world that brings characters from different worlds together for limitless gameplay.

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How long have you planned to support the game with new play sets?

First we have five play sets announced and we’ll have more coming, some we will announce this weekend. But we will continue to release new play sets and new worlds as we continue to expand the platform. Not just a one off game, over time it will continue to grow with new play sets, characters, power discs, this is just the start.

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So what is your favorite character/characters that you like to play with in Disney Infinity?

Well, all the characters have different gameplay features. Dash from The Incredibles was a favorite of mine for a while, Violet, also from The Incredibles, is always a go to for me, she can now use her force powers as mid-range projectiles and has invisibility powers. She’s a very well rounded character.  But I think my favorite character right now is Vanellope von Schweetz, from Wreck-It Ralph. Sarah Silverman did the voice and she’s a riot during the game. When you’re in the Toy Box, characters will just talk to each other, just like kids would do when playing with toys. Vanellope just makes fun of other characters through the game. Her glitchiness is also incorporated in to the game, so if she touches other characters they have the same glitch effect, just like in the film. She also comes with her cart from the movie so you can move that cart at any time throughout your Toy Box. 

Disney Infinity will be available August 18 and is currently available for pre-sale.  The starter-pack includes a play set of three characters (Jack Sparrow, Mr. Incredible and Sulley) with the option to purchase additional play sets.

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Roy Choi

Roy Choi is a Southern California native. He has been infatuated with technology reviews ever since he bought his first crummy laptop in the summer...

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