As usual, rough transcript under the jumpcut.
Back in 2010, Avalanche Studios released Toy Story 3. It had a story campaign that was pretty by the numbers for a licensed kid’s game, but it had a really cool idea unique to the “toy” concept. There was a toy box mode that let you piece together the various playthings in Andy’s room into a fictional town from the old west. There was an emphasis on light, kid-friendly player expression – you could place buildings on a variety of preset slots, change their colors and textures, customize citizens, and really take ownership of the town’s layout and look. You felt it was your version of this archetypical setting. Like a real toy box it wasn’t about perfect theming or precision construction, but the power of your imagination to take simple objects and imbue them with meaning. It was a cool feature in a game that could have just as easily ended up as yet another generic licensed title.
Then in 2011, Skylanders came out and made Activision a boatload of money, with stockholder meetings that boasted it as the next billion dollar franchise and sales figures of over 20 million individual character toys.
And somewhere between there and here, someone had this idea: “What if you take the idea of the living toybox from Toy Story 3 and combine it with a Skylanders set of ACTUAL toys across not just Toy Story, not just Pixar, but the entirety of the Disney corporate empire? And what if instead of just letting you place and paint buildings, we gave you a content creation tool that would let you mash those pieces up into any combination you could invent?!” It was an ambitious, creative idea from a megacorporation not really known for successful, ambitious interactive entertainment. The resulting game was dubbed Disney Infinity – not to be confused with Disney Universe, their 2011 attempt to cross-brand a bunch of franchises into one game. Yeah apparently someone at Disney has been wanting to do something like this for a while. Anyways, Infinity has been a major investment for Disney, with The Wall Street Journal running a piece that suggests the game will determine whether or not Disney Interactive will continue to produce console games in-house and quotes a former Disney Interactive employee as saying that it’s a “Hail Mary.”
And now that it’s finally here the results clearly show the strains of bearing such tremendous pressure. It tries to be a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and the ultimate experience is contradictory. The game is cut into two halves, each diametrically opposed to other other. The first are the playsets, which are structured, goal driven, limited only to characters in the playset’s universe, and have a finite end. Then there’s the Toy Box mode – a creative suite that lets characters from a multitude of universes interact and has no winstates, no substantive structure, and no end. Right off the bat the game can’t decide if it’s a platform for Disney and Avalanche to make short $40 playsets based on random Disney franchises, or if the game is a platform for players to create and express themselves with. It’s both, and it’s neither, and the two overlap and intersect in ways that hurt each other.
For example, the Toy Box mode has well over 1,000 pieces in it – everything from Spaceship Earth to countless terrain pieces to little critters and detail objects. The idea is that with enough pieces and textures you could make just about anything you wanted. Which would be cool, except just about every one of those items is locked away in the Disney Infinity Vault. Which is fitting, I guess, because the Disney Vault does traditionally represent false scarcity in deference to corporate interests. If the first thing you want to do is jump in and make a race track – too bad. You need to unlock all of the different race track packs, and to that you’ll need to spin on the Vault, which gives you only a 1 in 16 chance of getting what you hoped for and not, you know, townspeople costumes. Now you can influence this by saving up 16 spins and burning through all of them until you get the part you wanted – except you get spins by leveling up characters and the fastest way to do that is by playing the Playset quests. Well, actually the fastest way to do it is by taping the analog stick down and cheating with car stunts, but that’s lame. Besides you also need to play the playsets to get the green baubles that unlock various items, or to open toys up for purchase in the toy store, or to open various character locked vaults to get the rare goodies. So in effect, expressive power in the Toy Box is derived primarily from completing quests in playsets with as many characters as possible. If you want to be able to enjoy yourself in a freeform and creative environment you first need to play our more structured games before we’ll even give you the tools. So in that sense the Toy Box mode is subservient and secondary to the Playsets.
The Playsets themselves are where the game probably comes closest to working. Each one is themed nicely to match its source material, including a mechanical twist to give it a sense that you’re playing in a different universe. Pirates lets you engage in some shallow naval combat, Monsters, Inc has some light stealth where you scare people, Cars has tons of racing, that sort of thing. They sort of feel like small scale kid friendly versions of another recent open world game about collecting pickups and completing trivial missions for people.
But they have an emphasis on customization that rings hollow next to the more expressive Toy Box. The Toy Story 3 playset at least conferred a sense of ownership, but here it feels tacked on – as if these playsets know they’re part of a creative tool but have no interest in supporting it. For example, you can customize the NPCs in Disney Infinity, just as you could in Toy Story. But in Toy Story you were buying those same NPCs buildings and helping them with chores and saving them from robbers. They were your townsfolk that you had a sense of stake in, and the fact that you could redecorate them however you wanted made them feel that much more like an extension of your vision. Here they’re not your townsfolk, they’re just NPCs that exist passively in this game world. Like, yeah, if I’m playing the Pirates playset I can change a random soldier on a random island to have a different hat, but why would I do that? Yeah, I can place traps all over the Monster University campus, but that’s hardly giving me a sense of ownership over the campus itself which remains immutable. Having the option to customize something isn’t the same thing as giving players reasons to customize something. The self expression in Toy Story meant something, like an Animal Crossing lite – the ability to paint your walls and change your townsfolk.
The Cars playset actually comes closest to capturing this – but the specificity of Radiator Springs as a place doesn’t confer ownership the way that, say, a nondescript mining town did. Your Radiator Springs is still just Pixar’s Radiator Springs with your paint job, but your fictional old west town was truly your own creation. So while they’re cute little games, the whole customization and toybox angle falls apart and you’re left with a shallow imitation of a PS2 era licensed adventure game where you can change the colors of some buildings.
The other problem with playsets is… well… that’s not why you bought Disney Infinity. No one picks up this game and goes, “Oh gee, I can’t wait to play a five hour mediocre Pirates of the Caribbean game!” You buy the game because you want to see Davy Jones riding in Mickey Mouse’s car while racing against Lightening McQueen. You buy it because you want to see Mike Wizowski flying a Tron Recognizer blow up a bunch of guards from Agrabah in Wonderland. You buy it explicitly for this crazy mashup of Disney stuff! And in comparison to the wild, wacky, off the wall franchise scramble that the marketing and box promise you, the most functional part of the game is the part that keeps giant walls between franchises in order to provide a serviceable but shallow adventure, and the only reason to keep playing that is that you have to in order to unlock everything you want in the Toy Box.
And you know, that sucks, but if it was just a shallow grind to get useful tools for the Toy Box this wouldn’t be terrible. But the Toy Box is… well… a few years back Ian Bogost coined the term ‘shit crayon.’ A shit crayon is a tool that believes itself to be about creation, but the reality of using it is a dehumanizing and debasing experience. Bogost’s examples were things like expressing yourself in shallow Facebook games like Cow Clicker or Farmville, and more recently has made the comparison to the ever-changing Facebook API. That’s not to say you can’t make a good Facebook game, but making a Facebook game necessitates subjecting yourself to an API that changes arbitrarily and at the whims of Facebook’s interests, completely indifferent to how much pain or strife it may cause you to keep your game functional. It’s a tool that allows creation, but does so by demanding the complete submission of the creator.
And Disney Infinity’s Toy Box feels much the same way. Can you make something cool? Yeah, in theory. If you grind enough or are lucky enough to get all of the vault items and decorations you need after a few hours, you can probably make something that approximates your vision for a race track or beat ‘em up level. But once you’ve got the overall layout down you start noticing all the other problems. Like, why can I unlock tons of textures in the playsets that never ever show up in the Toy Box? For example, Lightning McQueen’s Kachow texture shows up in the Cars playset, but there doesn’t seem to be a way to transfer it to the Toy Box where it’s actually useful. There’s no scaling of objects and everything is placed on a grid with the ability to rotate objects only in 4 cardinal directions. So you’re already really limited in how you can lay stuff out and decorate it. When you’re retexturing objects you can retexture just that object or retexture everything, but there’s no paintbrush option that lets you just quickly change the texture of multiple blocks. And there’s no undo button, so if you accidentally place something down in the wrong place or delete a piece you didn’t intend to you need to re-find that piece, re-place that piece, then retexture that piece.
But perhaps most frustrating of all is that the game teases you with the ability to make traditional game mechanics but not the ability to define a winstate. If the creative mode just focused on expressive block placement and texturing that would be fine – it’d be a Disney themed Lego set, and that could be cool if it actually gave you all those playset textures. Instead they have all of these tools that imply that you can make a more structured game, but you can’t. There are timers you can hook up to a sky changer and make a day/night cycle, they have lap counters that let you time races, they have trigger zones that can set off enemy spawners. It’s actually a nice little system that lets you program some basic game logic, like kill five enemies to progress or survive for 30 seconds. But there’s no way to actually declare victory – the only feedback tools you have to communicate with the player are firework dispensers and noise makers. The result is that any levels you make end in an anticlimax – you finish the race or punch the last bad guy, some fireworks flare, and then you’re left standing on a now-conquered stage with nothing else to offer wondering – is this it? Am I done? Can… can I go? And it’s frustrating because the so-called Adventures Avalanche offer for each character are made with the same rules and the same assets, but done in a way that lets them declare a victory condition. They’re cute little challenges, and you can make 90% of what they do in the Toy Box – but you can’t actually make a level that ends in a victory. You can set up a paintball arena that spawns bad guys and keeps track of the number of bad guys you’ve hit, but they can set up a paintball arena that has a finite time limit and scores you with bronze, silver, and gold medals. And seeing what you feel like you should be able to make juxtaposed against what they’re willing to let you make feels insulting, like they don’t trust you with those particular tools. The ads purport that you can make your own Mario level, but what they really mean is that you can set the camera into side scrolling mode and then throw up fireworks when you reach a certain point. In fairness, you can race on your own custom racetracks – but only if they form a complete circuit; no Donkey Kong Jungle course style jumps in the middle.
But even if you can overcome those restrictions, and make a level that has racing or beat ‘em up mechanics but no real winstate – you can’t meaningfully share it. There’s nothing at all like what, say, Little Big Planet has. There is a submission process and Avalanche have promised they’ll cherry pick the best and brightest levels to share with everyone, but that means you’ll spend hours grinding to get the tools to make a compromised, blocky, mis-textured version of a simple game level that you can’t actually give a winstate to and then submit that to a walled garden to have an outside chance that people will see the thing you sunk hours into. If this is meant to be a tool of creation or communication, it is certainly one that demeans and debases its creators. Again, a shit crayon.
And speaking of debasing people – this thing is not ashamed to ask for pretty much all of your money. The whole concept is essentially to take one game’s worth of content and stretch it out for literally multiple hundreds of dollars. Future characters aren’t DLC that will be added later – they’re on the disk, and they have slots with icons awaiting their release in the Hall of Heroes. This game is done and it’s just awaiting more of your money to unlock the rest of it. And by tying vault spins to character progression, and then capping progression at 15 – they’re effectively asking people to not just buy future characters because they like them, but because they represent 18 new chances to get the Toy Box items they want. Hell, this game is so crass that while you’re in the middle of editing a level they will spawn unlock crates for characters that haven’t even been released yet just so they can run an ad telling you how awesome they’re going to be. Look, Steel Battalion launched for $200 and it at least justified itself with a massive controller that the game was designed for. Kotaku calculated that Disney Infinity would cost around $250 to buy everything for, and that’s at launch and not including the upcoming Toy Story playset or ten or so additional figures. Again, all on one disk, already in my hands. And if you’re asking why this is different from other on-disk DLC – one character is $13.99 USD. The individual playsets? Forty dollars a pop. For content on the disk not because they were wrapping up development and wanted to get their art asset pipeline started ahead of time, but because it is the business model the whole thing operates on.
Still, despite all of this stuff I can’t bring myself to entirely hate it. It’s a classist game that favors upper middle class people with tons of disposable income, the only playable minority is a white guy pretending to be a Native American guy, it’s manipulative to parents and tugs on the nostalgic impulses of Disney fans, and it flip-flops between shallow play and compromised self expression. But… I can’t bring myself to hate it. Because as much as my left brain knows how terrible this thing is for a million reasons, I… I can’t stop playing it. There points where I’ve built a race track I really like playing on – I just can’t share it or decorate it for a damn. There are moments I find myself gleefully surprised to be playing a Tony Hawk knockoff in the Cars playset – but the fact that all of the controls are unified for all of the games means it’s stiff and awkward instead of rewarding. There are times I’m wiring up objects and I can see how these tools could be extraordinarily powerful if I could just get access a real win state or even just send text to a player to tell them a story, but all I can do is spawn more enemies and more fireworks. There are neat ideas here, ideas that – if you could scrap the exploitative business model and refocus it on what works – show a lot of promise. I mean, the core idea – empowering people to create by exploring these beloved franchises in a new way, that’s a worthy idea that I think deserves attention. It’s this implementation of that idea – from the vault system to the too clunky and winstateless creation system to the vapid playsets to the overpriced plastic collectible crap – it’s all of that gets in the way. It’s a shallow collectathon taped to a shit crayon – but if they could just put more faith in their customers creativity and less faith in their customer’s bank accounts – I think it could become something much, much more.