Disney Infinity is more than just a new game, it's a new business and merchandising model from Disney Interactive.
One part Minecraft, two parts Skylanders, with dashes of Club Penguin and Mario Paint, it's Disney's most ambitious interactive investment yet.
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The new project -- which Disney describes not as a game but as a "universe" -- is Disney's attempt to fuse physical toys with a digital world.
Borrowing heavily from Activision's blockbuster Skylanders, Disney Infinity works by attaching real world, physical figurines to the game. The experience of the game changes depending on what figurine is present on a connecting hub -- a device Disney calls the "Disney Infinity Base." The game world will mimic the figurines, special powers and other objects placed on the Infinity Base.
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Like Skylanders, Disney will make multiple sets of figurines, power discs (which sit below a character on the Infinity Base and offer extra powers or special features) and Play Sets (worlds within which a player can play) available for purchase.
Disney's Main Advantage: Renowned Characters
Of course, what makes Disney Infinity unique is that its characters and Play Sets are from across the Disney and Pixar universe. Moreover, players can combine figurines from different franchises within the same game universe.
John Lasseter, the chief creative officer at both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, told us that the idea behind allowing the separate worlds to merge was based on the way that kids actually play with toys.
"Look at how [Toy Story toy owner] Andy played with his toys," Lasseter said. "He had a Buzz Lightyear, a Cowboy Woody and Mr. Potato Head and played with them all alongside one another."
Moreover, Lasseter says that the way Disney looks at the experience of Disney Infinity isn't as changing or expanding the storyline of the renowned franchises, it's about letting kids play with different characters within one universe.
Disney only announced three franchises that will have initial support -- Monster's University, Pirates of the Caribbean and The Incredibles, but executives promised multiple additional worlds and characters when Disney Infinity launches in June.
I asked John Blackburn, the leader of Avalanche Software (the Disney-owned game studio that built Infinity), about the possibility of having characters from Star Wars inside Infinity -- after all, they are now part of the parent company.
Blackburn said that, "from a creative standpoint, I would love that -- but it's too early to say anything definitive." The decision, he said with a smile, is also "above my pay grade."
Assuming Disney is as serious about its investment in Infinity as it says it is, I absolutely expect all of Disney's biggest characters and properties to make their way into the game.
Disney's unique asset with Infinity is the characters. The more characters available, the better the experience.
Inside the "Toy Box"
Infinity isn't really a game -- it is, as the executives said, an experience and a new universe. Each Play Set will have mission-focused aspects -- like a traditional game -- but the element that had me believing this will be a winner was the open-ended play mode called "Toy Box."
"Toy Box" is basically Minecraft with Disney characters. Users can create their own worlds and drop in objects, characters and power-ups to create their own adventures.
One of the demos Disney showed us at their press event was the recreation of Bowser's Castle from Mario Kart, complete with a racer in a kart -- in this case, Cinderella's magic buggy.
Disney said that it plans to let users upload their worlds and experiences to share with others. Once Disney vets the experiences and makes sure they are appropriate, other users can download and play or add on to the worlds and adventures created by others.
In the hands-on demos, the focus was on the "Toy Box" more than the guided gameplay. Perhaps that functionality is further along in development, but I got the sense that this open-ended play is what Disney is really wanting to create.
As a child, I would spend hours building elaborate Lego destinations that my other toys could visit and exist within. "Toy Box" just might be the digital equivalent.
Focusing on Mobile
One of the more unique aspects of Infinity is that it isn't just being developed for game consoles. Disney is also targeting computers and mobile devices.
On the console front, the Wii, Wii U, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will all support Infinity. For mobile, Blackburn would only confirm iOS support for now, but said the company is actively invested in supporting other mobile platforms -- including Android.
What is less clear is how seamless the experience will be for users who engage in the experience on a phone or tablet -- versus with a game controller and TV. Blackburn told me that the team is looking at optimizing the experience for mobile play.
When I asked why the focus on mobile, Blackburn said that its an increasingly important -- or even primary -- gaming device for its audience.
Disney Interactive Needs a Hit
Disney Interactive needs a hit. The division has been losing money for Disney over the last few years, and it's under pressure to become profitable this year.
It's not a surprise to see a more concentrated effort on projects, such as Infinity, that include the addition of toy tie-ins alongside games.
The big question will be: Is Infinity an experience kids will want to be part of?
From my time with the demo, I think it is. I also think the quality of the figurines and the openness of "Toy Box" mode will make this a success.
Disney Infinity will make its debut this June.
Toy Box Mode
"Toy Box" is the open-ended mode within Disney Infinity. Here, players can create their own free-form adventures.
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images
This story originally published on Mashable here.