It’s been a sad week for the community that surrounds Disney Infinity. As a reaction to Disney Interactive’s poor sales numbers and Q2 earnings report, the decision was made to drop the axe on all Disney console gaming, including the entire Avalanche Studios and Disney Infinity as a whole.
Infinity will round out with its final two releases, the Alice Through The Looking Glass figures and the Finding Dory Playset, and then close its doors in June. Disney Interactive will stay open, focusing on mobile gaming and apps, but Infinity’s gatekeeper, Avalanche Studios (owned by Disney) will shut its doors for good.
So what happened with Disney Infinity that led them to cease operations so suddenly? There are many questions, some of which we may never truly know the answer to, but as more and more news stories slowly flow in, we can get a very good idea of what happened.
Toys To Life games can suffer dramatically from a lack of stock. Empty shelf space is a dangerous thing to have when you are trying to put a figure in the living room of every gaming family around the globe. Amiibo fans know this firsthand, with scalpers and flippers gobbling up the low stock of Nintendo’s initial limited release and gouging collectors with high prices.
Disney Infinity 1.0 also suffered from this during its startup. The original line up of the Toys To Life game flew off the shelves, bringing huge success to Disney Interactive, but some characters became increasingly difficult to find. Any Disney Infinity completionist collector can tell you that finding a mint-in-box Syndrome single figure was near impossible for some time.
Disney, fearful of having a single bare shelf or hard to find character, overstocked and overproduced on a lot of products that ultimately sold poorly. Stories are coming in now of characters like the lovable, but poor-performing Yondu, or Hulk, for whom barely half of the two million units ordered actually sold.
In their Q2 2016 earnings report, Disney self-imposed a $147 million charge (labeled the “Infinity Charge”), which was attributed “primarily due to an inventory write-down.” That’s a lot of unsold figures. CEO Bob Iger remarked:
“You take on substantially more risk, particularly when it comes to manufacturing and managing [the toy inventory] of that business…a good part of the write-off that we just announced comes from having to write off that inventory that we took responsibility for when we went into the publishing business.”
Consumer Compatibility Confusion
Disney Infinity was an amazing platform for creativity and adventure, but provided some of the most confusing compatibility for any Toys To Life platform. Multiple game pieces and add-ons, which each had their own list of restrictions and limits, made for many confused parents and kids when trying to play with their new toys.
Kids wanted the ability to take their new Baymax toy and have him fly around and help the Avengers in their playset, but this was off limits in Disney Infinity, thanks to tightly-enforced IP restrictions. The game offered copious Toy Box-only characters, but it left a bad taste in many people’s mouths to learn that the only way to play with their newly-purchased toys was to build an adventure world themselves, or to try and play in some world created and shared by a stranger.
This was a bold move, and could ultimately be seen as a bad choice (though with Disney Corporate’s strict control of the profitable Marvel/Disney/Star Wars franchises, the Infinity team was left with little option). What other games can you think of where you buy in, only to find that there is no content for the toy you just purchased, and you’re instructed to make your own fun? There aren’t many out there.
The forward/backward/sideways compatibility of figures that required crossover coins/champion coins/toy box expansion games, power discs that worked in this playset but not that playset, and in this part of the toy box but not that part, playsets that could only be played in older versions of the game, and not the newest version that you just brought home…compatibility in Infinity made for a nightmare of information overload for parents, kids, and even adult players.
Marketing Tool Gaming Experience
The idea of Disney Infinity was at its core a great one: stop producing so many silly franchised gaming titles that ultimately were not well done, and instead unify the entire Disney console interactive experience under one roof. With this new concept, there would be an underlying promise of quality for every new franchise game title that was released, overseen directly by the owners of the content and guided to play out in tandem with the release of that property.
What we ultimately got was a marketing tool disguised as a video game. Perhaps Infinity 1.0 gets a pass on this because it was finding its footing and figuring out where it belonged in the gaming world. With the introduction of 2.0, Disney fans were mostly pushed to the side and left with a handful of Toy Box-only figures, while Marvel fans were given three playsets, two of which just recycled the same aesthetic of Marvel’s Manhattan, with a slightly different map and throwaway storylines.
Disney fans who were drawn to the initial lineup of 1.0’s classic Disney and Pixar titles were left wanting in 2.0. When Star Wars was added to the lineup in Disney Infinity 3.0, we saw three back-to-back Star Wars titles and only one Pixar property, the speculative, but ultimately successful, Inside Out.
Huge opportunities to appeal to the young gaming audience were left on the table, including playsets for Big Hero 6, Zootopia, Frozen, and Brave — massively successful family-friendly films that were barely acknowledged with a figure or two for the Toy Box — and despite years of requests for content involving the critically-acclaimed Gravity Falls TV series, all players ever received were a few power discs.
Corporate Creative Meddling
The very hands-on approach by the corporate teams of Disney, Marvel, and Star Wars only hindered the overall experience of Disney Infinity. The constant meddling, down to how JV was required to address all the super hero characters as “Marvel’s The Avengers” or “Marvel’s Captain America” showed that the unrelenting protection of the franchise IP, while a good thing in the cinema, turned into a muddy and tricky experience for gamers.
Marvel’s tantrums and strict rules influenced simple things, like seating arrangements during live broadcasts and art displays for convention showcases. Disney wanted us to believe it was too complicated a scenario to try and bring together three huge and wildly independent franchises and get them to all play nicely together. But if Lego could get away with it, and they don’t even own any of the franchises they mixed together, it’s bizarre that the behemoth Disney wasn’t able wrangle together three properties they fully own.
Preventing the crossover, free range gameplay that is present in other toys to life gaming experiences ultimately over-complicated and limited the creative gameplay for most gamers. New postmortem reports of the possibilities we could have expected in 2017’s Disney Infinity 4.0 make mention of a Toy Box story mode that would have finally allowed cross-IP gameplay in the Toy Box, though it still may have been too little, too late to save the game.
March’s release of the Marvel Battlegrounds playset has now been exposed as Disney’s last ditch effort to move overstocked 2.0 inventory and tie in once again to their profitable cinematic franchises. But poor creative decisions like the lack of an online mode in a contemporary 4-man brawler, little in the way of side content, and an unfortunately shallow gameplay experience resulted in a tepid response to that play set.
Disney’s attempt to integrate underdeveloped versions of a fighting game, a racing game, a side-scroller, and so on, all into one property, betray a split focus that will ultimately hang on the head of the now-finished Disney Infinity franchise: it tried to be a jack of all trades, and ended up a master of none.