The Force has been strong with the Disney Infinity series so far. While it wasn't the first series to combine physical toys with a video game, the home of Mickey Mouse has carved a significant space for itself in the "toys to life" genre of games with a rich catalog of characters and properties to turn into toys.
By placing a Disney Infinity toy onto the game's base accessory, that toy (whether it's Mickey himself, Tinkerbell, Stitch or any number of other characters) becomes playable inside the game. Through the game's "toy box" creation mode, players are given a Minecraft-esque set of tools to build imaginative new worlds and experiences, then share them with friends and fellow players.
It began with a very Disney and Pixar-centric lineup that included Cars, The Incredibles, Pirates of the Caribbean and the Frozen. Disney Interactive followed that up last year with a super powered sequel, Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes, tossing the likes of Spider-Man and Captain America into the fray.
This year, though? Disney is betting big on Star Wars, which they acquired in 2012. The J.J. Abrams-directed Star Wars: The Force Awakens is set the take over theaters on December 18, and the third Disney Infinity game is also primed to take us to a galaxy far, far away. Through a variety of figures and play sets -- including one based on The Force Awakens itself -- Infinity will cover events spanning the entire Star Wars saga timeline.
"It's been incredible," John Vignocchi, the Vice President of Production at Disney Interactive told me over the phone. "As a game developer it's been a dream to be able to work on a Star Wars game. And to be able to create not just a Star Wars game, but rather something that spans the entire saga, has been a privilege, an honor and a huge responsibility."
The announcement that this year's Disney Infinity would be Star Wars focused wasn't a big surprise. Fans were jumping to that conclusion even before the release of Disney Infinity 2.0, and Disney Interactive didn't do much to hide their plans. But the game has been in the works for even longer -- around the time Disney bought Lucasfilm.
"It started back in 2013, very shortly after the acquisition," Vignocchi said. "We flew out to Lucasfilm and met with them to express our desire to support Star Wars within Disney Infinity with a play set based on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The team at Lucasfilm advised us that to really do Star Wars justice, we needed to not only do content for The Force Awakens but, more importantly, properly introduce Star Wars to Disney Infinity fans by creating content spanned the entire saga."
When it came time to cover the rich Star Wars history within the game, however, the team at Disney Interactive had to be careful with what they represented and how they represented it. Much of the non-movie content from the Star Wars universe (most notably the Expanded Universe) has been axed from the official timeline as non-canon. And the stuff that is still canon? Those events can't be altered or changed.
The Disney Infinity team was given some liberty, however, to retell iconic moments from the movies with the game series' signature humor and lighthearted charm, so you can expect a lot of classic scenes in the "Rise of the Empire" play set that covers Star Wars Episodes IV through VI. More interestingly, though, they got to step outside the confines of the Star Wars prequel films and create something new.
"With respect to the Twilight of the Republic play set, which is based on Episodes I through III, one of the most critical things for us was to have a powerful female Jedi be playable inside of that particular play set," Vignocchi said. "Lucasfilm had advised us that our primary demographic, which is 6-12 year olds, knew and would enjoy Episodes I through III. But when we had said that Ahsoka Tano would be a great character to integrate from a gameplay perspective, they said that it would probably make sense to create a brand new original story so that we could have fiction that would support characters and content from Episodes I through III but also the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series inside of our game."
OK, so Star Wars is great. But if you want a change of pace from lightsabers and blasters, Disney Interactive still plans to expand Disney Infinity 3.0 with non-Star Wars content. One of the most notable examples is a play set based on Pixar's most recent film, Inside Out. The set provides a two-player, 2D platforming game that's full of emotion. I wondered, though, if that set was getting as much attention as the Star Wars sets, which have been the center of most marketing efforts so far.
"The team that created the Inside Out play set is the same size of the team that worked on the Star Wars: The Force Awakens play set and the Star Wars: Rise of the Empire play set," Vignocchi said. So in terms of the amount of love and the amount of effort involved we are trying to keep things equal. Obviously this year, Star Wars at launch is a very big statement because those characters and content across the entire saga will be playable inside of Infinity. But we will continue to add new content from Disney, Marvel, Star Wars and Pixar as time goes on."
But the reason Disney Infinity has been so successful so far is not its individual franchises -- it's the combination of all things Disney. It's the fact that, within the toy box (where players aren't limited by things like story or the need to maintain consistence across fictional universes), Buzz Lightyear and Iron Man can fight robots from The Incredibles before getting on Jack Sparrow's boat and sailing to an island with an ESPN-branded sports stadium -- filled with those guards from Aladdin. Any area of the Disney company has potential inside Disney Infinity. In this year's game, that includes a Radio Disney jukebox that livestreams the radio station to you from the Internet.
(With the Lucasfilm acquisition, that also means there's the potential for classic LucasArts video game characters. I personally took a minute on Twitter to ask Vignocchi for a Guybrush Threepwood figure.)
It's the deep bench of beloved characters at Disney's disposal that has Vignocchi confident in the series' future, even as the "toys to life" market gets more crowded. When the series began, the main competition was Activision's popular Skylanders franchise. Since then, Nintendo has entered the fray (sort of) with its own line of "amiibo" toys based on the likes of Mario, Donkey Kong and Zelda. Lego is also getting into the business this holiday season with Lego Dimensions, which plans to capture audiences with Lego versions of classic franchises like Doctor Who, Ghostbusters and Back to the Future.
"It's very exciting to have increased competition entering the market this year," Vignocchi said. "Our hope is that these new competitive products expand the market, and that's something we've really been focused on with Disney Infinity. We really reached a broader audience than any of the competitive products in the toys to life space do.
"Infinity has become what's known as the pivotal four quadrant brand, which in the Walt Disney Company is something that speaks to males and females, old and young. We have as many non-parent adults and parents playing Disney Infinity as we do 6-12 year olds and teens.
"But the key advantage that Disney Infinity has over any of the competitors in the marketplace are our characters. Only inside of Disney Infinity will you see characters from Star Wars, Pixar, Marvel and Disney co-exist in one central environment. It's an incredible honor. All of these characters are, when you look at the Q scores [a measurement of brand familiarity and popularity], the most relevant and popular characters out there, and that's a key competitive advantage for us and something we're very keen on protecting as the platform continues to evolve."
Disney Infinity 3.0 launches on August 30 with the Star Wars starter pack, which will be available for $64.99 across the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Wii U, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Additional figures and play sets will be sold separately -- $13.99 per figure and $34.99 per play set (each of with comes with two figures). Collecting everything will be a very pricey proposition, but so far, fans have shown they're willing to invest in it.