Disney Interactive has a mixed history – that is, a mixture of failures and mediocre games. It splurged $700 million on Playdom to make social games and it went nowhere; it gave carte blanche to one of the world’s most overrated designers to make a Mickey Mouse game, only to end with a Mario clone with shitty camera control. For the Wii only.
Recently, Interactive shut down all their efforts in the console space, only to acquire the Star Wars IP, which is popular within the “core” gamer demographic.
In other words: Disney desperately needs a hit. Someone inside Disney Interactive decided that cloning Skylanders, adding some Minecraft-esque features and (allegedly) managing to spend $100 million on development was going to be it.
Enter Disney Infinity
Let me make one thing clear from the beginning: Disney Infinity is gorgeous. The idea is great, the game features collectible figures from Disney and Pixar movies, and has a level of “fun” that is the result of several expensive iterations. Moreover, as a late entrant in the market, they were able to improve on some of the features of Skylanders. But Skylanders it ain’t.
When it was first announced, the videos were perfect: the result of a well-oiled marketing machine. I mean, it’s Disney, right? When it launched, the reviews were all unanimouse [sic] in declaring it a winner.
On launch week, all the stores had run out of Infinity toys… which is when I started to smell a rat.
If Apple can deliver a product as complex as the iPhone, almost worldwide, and not run out of stock, how hard could it be to ship plastic dolls? Especially from a company that sells millions of toys every year. It turns out, very easily, unless you want to artificially restrict supply and you are selling to hordes of man-boys who go ga-ga for the latest novelty.
I simply cannot believe that a product like Infinity can outsell this quick organically without any market manipulation. I find it more believable that inventory was staggered to create a sense of urgency, a need to go out and collect, thus creating a sense of inevitability that this game was going to be something that was so good that everybody wanted a piece.
It was Beanie Babies and Furbies all over again.
To check if my Spider-Sense was correct, I went to a mall in London, assuming that Disney does not have as much of a stranglehold on the UK market as it has in the US. I went on a Bank Holiday weekend. The Westfield East mall was packed.
My first stop was at the Disney store, where Infinity was advertised at the security gates and the place was, as usual, pretty packed.
I could not find the actual Infinity toys, so asked one of the sales reps. She had no idea what I was talking about. I described it to her, pointing at the gates. She still had no idea and now sported a week-old fish gaze. She went to one of the female reps at the till. The till girl didn’t know either.
Then they asked another woman who had access to folders and stuff. (A clear hallmark of being a store manager or responsible for stock.) No. Fucking. Clue.
Finally, another rep, probably a manager as well, came to the rescue and pointed to the remote, lonely corner where all the Infinity toys were. My take? It was obvious that they had sold close to zero units.
I figured that maybe customers go to the Disney Store to buy princess dresses, gifts and Hulk fists, and not computer games. Looking to test my theory further, I headed to the nearby video game store.
As in the Disney Store, the security gates were branded Infinity. The stark difference is that the place was overflowing with Disney Infinity stuff. Something like thirty per cent of the floor space was devoted to it.
But… the game store was empty. And I mean a couple of guys browsing and that was it. Not one of them was remotely interested in Infinity. Despite stocking boxes to the ceiling, while I hanged around there for a bit, not a single customer wandered near Infinity or bought anything else.
So here’s what I think.
In the US, Infinity sold out due to irrational exuberance from adults, collectors and from stock manipulation by Disney, fuelled by a massive advertising campaign making it “the” toy to buy that week. In the UK, where they did not engage in the same level of hanky panky and promotion, the demand was not present.
But I think that is just part of it. The reality is that Disney Infinity suffers from a fundamental problem. In Skylanders, you buy badass monsters that shoot fireballs or have giant guns. Kids love it.
But Disney characters do not have the same level of aggressiveness – plus, the graphics have been designed for the current generation of consoles, so it’s not that it looks that different.
And the launch line-up? Some Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Pirates of the Caribbean (with Jack Sparrow, played by Johnny Depp). And the Lone Ranger (with a Native American, played by Johnny Deep). Lone Ranger… I mean what the actual.
I am almost 40 years old, and I barely remember watching the reruns of the cartoon of the Lone Ranger when I was in kindergarten. I have never even seen the original stuff. The movie was a $200 million shitfest that was already known to be a money-losing dud during production. I understand cross promotion, but this is a first class ticket to Shitville.
I am a huge fan of the Disney and Pixar craft. If you deconstruct some of their work you see how it’s the result of the combined effort of a group of extremely talented people. And Disney Infinity is really good. Just watch this.
Disney created and mastered the medium of linear storytelling and animation. Pixar revitalised it. But in the last 40 years they have been consistently failing to make the same impact in the world of interactive storytelling and video games. And something tells me they are hiding Infinity and restricting supply in their stores, which is a recipe for a stillbirth.
So although Infinity is great, it will likely be another tombstone in the Disney cemetery of lost video game opportunities. Expect it to be written off inside 18 months.