Disney Infinity was a triumph

Today I read that Cracker Jack boxes now include a QR code that links to mobile games, instead of a physical toy.

“The Cracker Jack Prize Inside has been as much a part of the nostalgia and love for the brand as the unforgettable combination of caramel-coated popcorn and peanuts,” Haston Lewis, the senior director of marketing at Cracker Jack parent company Frito-Lay, said in a press release. “The new Prize Inside allows families to enjoy their favorite baseball moments through a new one-of-a-kind mobile experience, leveraging digital technology to bring the iconic Prize Inside to life.”

I was recently at a museum with my children and saw a variety of antique Cracker Jack toys under glass, and marveled at what you used to get inside the box. I have memories of what used to come with the snack when I was a kid. If I go through all my old stuff, I’ll probably find one or two Cracker Jack toys. But now that’s over. The “prize” is digital, and there will be no museum for the minigames that replaced the physical object.

Yesterday, Electronic Arts announced that it has shipped over 14 million copies of Star Wars Battlefront, with a sequel coming in 2017. While I haven’t seen the contract between Disney and EA, I have a feeling Disney structured the deal in such a way that it would profit greatly from the game’s success, while not losing much money if the game failed. Licensing deals, when you hold the power that Disney wields, limit your risks substantially.

“At Games, growth was due to higher licensing revenue from the success of Star Wars: Battlefront,” a Disney earnings report from March of this year stated, “partially offset by lower Disney Infinity results. The decrease from Disney Infinity was due to higher inventory reserves and lower unit sales volume.”

We were told not to worry about the game.

“We are number one in this category,” John Vignocchi, vice president of production at Disney Interactive, told Talkgamer at the time. “The company has been completely behind Disney Infinity. If you look at all of the creative content coming out this year, you can see they are still proud and still 100 percent behind us.”

That was in March. Yesterday, Disney discontinued the franchise, shut down developer Avalanche Software and laid off 300 people. Disney will, in the future, focus only on licensing its brands to outside developers.

We lost something great

The writing was on the wall, and physical objects are increasingly seen as a bad investment. Disney is brutally efficient with its math, and if a product isn’t earning what they think it should, it’s gone. Disney Infinity was a game with a lot of toys on many platforms. Managing inventory had to be a nightmare in general, and volume was important. If sales dropped and retailers were stuck with a lot of toys that no one was buying on shelf space that could be used for other things …

I understand why the decision was made.

But it stinks. I have such wonderful memories of playing Disney Infinity with my children and, back when the power discs were still sold in blind packs, I used to spend blissful evenings at PAX with other game industry folk trading our doubles for the ones we were missing. It was a blast to see Marvel, Disney and Star Wars characters interacting, and change the virtual world’s look and feel so that Darth Maul could race Anger from Inside Out in the world of Tron. There was nothing like it.

I wrote this when Disney Infinity 3.0 was released:

After spending the last week or so with Disney Infinity 3.0 it feels like the game has finally begun to grow into itself. It can be whatever you want it to be; the playsets offer worlds with stories and rules, the toy boxes offer a variety of options and the editing features allow you to do whatever you want.

It’s fascinating to leave everything set up throughout the day and watch the children change how and why they play as they attack in different combinations. The younger kids like to just run around and explore, my daughter will play through the Inside Out playset, and my oldest son loves creating while the other kids play through his worlds. It can be whatever you want it to be and it’s welcoming to everyone.

The toys, the physical objects that represented each character, were wonderful. It was like DLC that came with a little statue you could display on your desk. My younger children loved playing with the toys as much as my older children enjoyed playing the game in all its forms.

There was a look to Disney Infinity — an aesthetic that brought all the characters from different worlds together while still clearly defining them as belonging to one world, to the land of Disney Infinity itself. That aesthetic unified everything, and it allowed characters from very different realms to play together without looking and feeling like a cheap mashup.

I’m not going to lie and say the game will last forever. At some point, Disney will drop support. The online features will be shut down. We’ll move to new consoles, and put away the portals.

But the toys? They will be kept. They will be traded. Disney fans may hoard them. They are real, the proverbial prize in the Cracker Jack box instead of a QR code. My kids may tire of them, and they’ll be put on display instead of being in rotation of the things they actively play with, but at no point will they be made obsolete. They can’t be shut down.

Maybe my grandkids will one day find a box of all my Disney Infinity toys; I don’t know. But for now, I have plans for the evening. I’m going to sit with my kids and play Disney Infinity. I’m going to tell them that it took hundreds of people to make a wonderful game, and that the team did a really good job creating something that made my family happy.

I think that’s a pretty good legacy.

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