Disney Infinity’s Next Move? Look to its Marvel, Lucasfilm Acquisitions

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With latest venture, Disney stopped making crummy videogames to promote movies — is instead betting on a whole new genre

With the release of videogame/toy hybrid "Disney Infinity," the long-struggling Disney Interactive unit hopes it finally has a bona-fide gaming hit to hang its mouse ears on after years of lackluster titles and financial losses.

"Disney Infinity" — an unprecedented cross-branding experience where characters from various Mouse House franchies can meet — has been getting strong reviews since its Sunday release. But as Disney Interactive has discovered with "Epic Mickey," reviews aren't everything in the fickle space.

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The game works much like Activision's hugely successful Skylanders franchise: Players purchase the game and a base that connects to Xbox 360, PS3 or Nintendo Wii. The $74.99 starter pack also comes with three toys, and more are available for sale.

Place a toy on the base, and the corresponding character appears in the game itself, with his/her particular traits and skills.

Disney Interactive, which represents an estimated 2 percent of the company's revenues, has a dubious history of games rushed into production to complement movie releases or chase fads — a "really expensive and difficult way to develop games," one Disney the insider told TheWrap. "You don’t have a lot of time to make a great game because of the film cycle."

This time, it's different, the insider says: "We haven’t made an investment this big, as far as I know, ever," the person said.

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Founded in 1999 and consolidated by Bob Iger in 2008, Disney Interactive has been a revolving door of mergers, acquisitions and closures, resulting a forgettable string of properties and quarter after quarter of financial losses. “Cars” and “Fairies” virtual worlds started by $350 million acquisition Club Penguin in 2007 no longer exist; 2010 acquisition Playdom ($563 million), which makes social-networking games, fared well with an Avengers property but has suffered usership declines.

Disney’s flagship Wii game “Epic Mickey” was a critical hit and a modest commercial success in 2010, but the sequel flopped – and Disney promptly closed creator Junction Point Studios in January. A few months later, after acquiring LucasFilm for $4 billion, Disney shuttered the company’s 150-employee videogame development arm Lucas Arts.

Other units Disney Interactive has recently axed – and there have been many – include Black Rock Studio (racing games “Split/Second” and “Pure”) in 2011 and Propaganda, the company that produced its ho-hum “Tron: Evolution” tie-in game.

The company's next big one-off gaming venture will be "Fantasia: Music Evolved," a musical motion-controlled game for the upcoming console, Xbox One's, next-generation Kinect technology. The game is due out in 2014.

With "Infinity," Disney Interactive is moving away from single-title tie-ins, instead making a playset that could conceivably include ALL of its movies — and that can be updated as new releases come online.

"It makes sense," IGN.com's editor-in-chief, Steve Butts, told TheWrap. "Disney already has a very, very viable plastics business … for Disney to make a bunch of toys, that's no big deal." 

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Butts said that while Disney Interactive has had some successes in mobile and platform gaming, he and his colleagues are beginning to seriously take notice with Disney Infinity. And for Disney's part, it is adapting from tradition in more ways than just its physical product.

"Disney's had this long-standing rule that there is no cross-brand experience," Butts told TheWrap. "This is the first opportunity where Disney said, 'We're fine with it.' You can have Buzz Lightyear and Jack Sparrow in the same place."

However, it's neither Lightyear nor Sparrow that Butts — or our company insider — sees Disney Interactive making its biggest splash.

After all, Disney owns Marvel and "Star Wars" through its Lucasfilm purchase — and both are strongly hinted as possible additions to the "Infinity" platform. The company is just waiting to see how this first offering does before you see Spider-Man and Han Solo.