What Disney Infinity should borrow from Skylanders

Disney Infinity and Skylanders

In case you haven’t been following the gaming world over the last few years Skylanders has brought in more than a billion dollars in revenue for Activision. It took the platforming of Super Mario and the puzzles of Zelda, and merged them with physical toys. The latest version, Swap Force (SF), builds upon the previous two games and adds the ability to swap the top and bottom halves of figures in order to form a new Skylander as well as giving all of them the ability to jump.

Enter Disney Infinity (DI). I had very high hopes based off the interviews and gameplay footage I’d seen . After playing through the majority of both games I think SF might be the better game overall with the caveat that I think DI has the bigger upside. DI also has the best overall level between them. More on that later!

There are four areas that, if Disney Infinity 2 improves on, would push it into the same level of quality as Skylanders (if not surpass it).

Home Base

DI definitely needs one. SF has a town where the entire adventure begins. There are houses to visit, mini-games to play, and regardless of where you go you always return home. Some people may point out the Hall of Heroes, but that is more of a trophy room. How incredible would it be to have a little town where you could walk around with any figure and see the various Disney characters walking along the street? And as you purchased more characters the town would get bigger. You could walk over to the mission building, or the toy box building, or the Hall of Heroes museum. During Christmas time there would be a lit tree in the town square, during Halloween time the town would be dark and spooky. The point is it would give all players a connection to one part of the game. If they really wanted to go all out they could let you could decorate it how you wanted and invite other players to visit.

Storytelling

I think you would be hard pressed to find a better storyteller than Disney. Their film library could be used as a course in storytelling. Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Snow White, Bambi plus countless others told stories in a way other animators hadn’t. For what I’m assuming was a cost reason, DI doesn’t really tell you a story. In Cars, Toy Story, Monsters U, Incredibles and the Lone Ranger you are given a set of different tasks to do that aren’t really tied together cohesively. Each one has its own major story arc, however it never felt like I was a part of an unfolding story; rather it was more that I had a list of things I had to do in order to move forward. There were no cutscenes with characters that really involved you in the story.

SF had a great overall story, fantastic voice acting, and actually made you care about some of the characters (including the enemies!). I don’t know the exact count but SF had at least over 20 minutes in cutscenes that really added to, and immersed you into, the story.

Disney has done this countless times in movies and it should do the same thing in DI2. DI2 should add storylines, cutscenes, more voiceovers and a proper script for each property. I would even consider adding one major arc that spans all properties. Maybe Yen Sid or Dr. Doofenshmirtz figure out a way to traverse realities, and for the last level of the game you can use any combination of figures to defeat him/them.

The current crop of playsets doesn’t have proper endings. Basically they all just end and don’t even let the player know that they are done. For example, I didn’t even know I had completed the Incredibles playset until I read online that the battle with Syndrome is the end of that game. It made for a very anti-climactic experience.

A few other storytelling thoughts for DI:

Cars needed more structure. I loved the town but I think it would have made more sense to have Lightning travel across the globe as part of a racing circuit and use those earnings to improve the town. Cars 2 really took those characters global. Continue that with the game; give us races around the Eiffel tower, the streets of Venice or on the Great Wall of China! Give us proper spy missions!

Toy Story also felt a little disjointed. Why were they in space? How did they even get there? Apparently I am one of the only people that hasn’t watched Toy Story 3 but I never heard that they went to space. Why didn’t the adventure start in a toy box and move on from there?

Did you notice I didn’t mention the Pirates of the Caribbean level above? That’s because it doesn’t belong on that list. It was a brilliant world that combined fantastic level design and decent storytelling. It had a proper story arc and you always felt like you were building towards something. To me it surpasses anything else on DI, and SF for that matter. Not to mention the fact it was just plain fun. To be able to replicate that magic across every property would be a daunting task, however if anyone can do it Disney can. Could it use more cutscenes and story elements? Definitely. However, overall, I was thoroughly impressed.

Level Design

SF is the definition of a linear game. You go from level to level with no real major deviation (you do have the opportunity to do several side missions in each one; however, none of them are required). However, each one is fairly different than the others. Each level seems to have a different theme and tries to incorporate a unique platforming element. Are they always successful? No. But at least it doesn’t get repetitive.

Was Pirates linear? Absolutely. But if you are looking for open-ended that’s really what the Toy Box is for. If you want people to feel a connection to these characters there has to be a story. The open-ended design of all the other worlds led me to get bored after a few hours. I loved the Lone Ranger and Incredibles playsets; however you can only destroy X number of robots and load the train with Y so many times before it becomes too repetitive. And that’s basically what ended up happening. It’s a real shame too because in the Lone Ranger for example, I loved the horseback riding and I loved the train. I think it would have been a better experience had I been riding that train to numerous towns, clearing them of the Cavendish gang (along with helping the citizens in other ways) until the final battle with them. But having the train go around in a big circle made the experience small.

Pirates worked because of its diversity. The use of the pirate ship was perfect. You used it to travel and for incredibly fun ship battles. Once you got to land you swashbuckled your way through a very diverse set of enemies, all the while making your way through some very entertaining platforming elements.

I don’t want to give the impression that open-ended gaming doesn’t work because it can and has. The key to its use however is variety. You can’t have too much of the same “collect 10 of X” or “defeat 10 of Y”. In Incredibles I liked going after the super-villains but there was never a real build-up, it was always “go defeat Y”. I”ve played other superhero games where each villain has their own “episode” (with each containing several missions) culminating in a final battle at the end. It seemed to work really well. It would have been nice if Metroville had been bigger (because it was a little on the small side) and have each villain terrorizing a different section, finishing it off with a huge battle against Syndrome. Air battles would have been great as well!

Variety of Powers Mickey and Wash

While I don’t have every figure I have yet to see two Skylanders with the same power sets. Each one looks and feels very different from the others. They did a fantastic job in differentiating the figures.

With the exception of the Incredibles, in DI most of the other characters are copies of each other. Let’s look:

Pirates: All Pirates have the exact same sword and gun attacks. There is no difference between the characters in-game other than their looks.

Cars: All Cars seem to handle the same. I may be wrong but I didn’t feel a difference as I was driving.

Toy Story: All figures are the same. By default they throw a ball and eventually you can upgrade to a blaster.

Monsters U: Again, all figures are the same. They all have Charge and Scare. The one difference is Randy has the ability to go invisible.

Notice a pattern? I think the expectation was that we would unlock the in-game weapons and use those as our primary attacks. However I guess I’m a bit of a purist in that I would prefer to use only character attacks unless absolutely necessary.

My suggestion would be to give each character at least 10 different powers (that are unique to them!) but only allow them to equip 4-5 at any given time. A new power could be available for use every couple of levels so by the time the player hits Level 15 they would have all 10 available to them. This would give players incentive to max-level the character. This would also add variety to online gameplay as two of the same characters wouldn’t have to be carbon copies of each other.

I think Incredibles almost nailed it in terms of power sets. Their powers were all so different that I found myself going back and forth between all of them because I was having so much fun. My only complaint was that I wanted more powers for each character! I wish the same thing would have been true for the other playsets.

The Toy Box

Here is where the real upside is for DI. Long after Skylanders has run through its content Disney Infinity will still be playable because of the inclusion of the Toy Box. The DI Builder community, of which I am one, seems to be bustling. Disney themselves said they had received thousands upon thousands of submissions.

The Toy Box itself needs only minor tweaks(along with a few bug fixes). First, the side-scrolling camera doesn’t work very well. It pans out much too far away, and without the ability to put down an invisible wall it becomes really easy to fall off on the front or back side.

Second, Disney should increase the multiplayer size to at least 10. 2 on 2 is far too small and for games like paintball, the larger the group, the better.

Finally, I would allow the ability to add speech bubbles to characters. This would then allow us to become storytellers.

Conclusion

Overall I think Disney Infinity was an outstanding first effort in what I hope will be a very long series. Since the time that I was a child I have never collected figures or toys but for whatever reason I’ve really connected with what they’ve done. My first purchase was the Starter Pack and Violet, and I’ve collected every figure since (even the rare D23 Mickey!). The concept that I am excited about future playsets AND figures is completely foreign to me but it speaks to what Disney has managed to accomplish. I for one am excited about the beyond!