Disney Infinity fans, meet the Johns.
John Vignocchi is one of the public faces of Disney Interactive, with a heavy twitter presence, and a larger-than-life personality that makes him impossible to miss at any convention or event. It doesn’t hurt that he’s as kind and welcoming to fans, press, and really anyone who is willing to talk about games as he is enthusiastic about the games he works on and represents.
John Blackburn, meanwhile is much more reserved and soft-spoken. He balances Vignocchi, though his enthusiasm isn’t any less (just a little less openly expressed). His knowledge and passion for the game – and the game’s 2014 additions of Marvel Superheroes – exudes from him as soon as you get out of the spotlight and into private conversation.
Together these two represent a team that has been working, surprisingly enough, since 2011 to get Marvel characters in a game alongside Disney ones. As soon as Disney Infinity’s development was underway, people at Disney Interactive knew the possibilities. Now, with the slightly clumsily titled Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes (2.0 Edition) (most seem to just call it Disney Infinity 2.0 for shorthand purposes), they and fans are getting their wish upon a star, and will see Marvel’s Avengers, Spider-Man and his amazing friends, and Guardians of the Galaxy come to the endlessly customizable world of Disney Infinity.
To celebrate the upcoming September 23, 2014 release of the next version of the game, Disney went straight to the biggest of fans. They flew in gamers from around the world who had already shown their acumen with the first version of the game’s customization engine, the Toy Box, and let them be among the first to try the new edition. Other gamers, meanwhile, will get to enjoy the fruits of their labors, as these creations will be saved and made available for download at the game’s launch.
At the first (hopefully annual) Toy Box Summit, we sat down with the Johns while the experts plied their craft for an extended conversation about Disney, Marvel, Toy Boxes, and what the community that has built itself up around this game and the people at Avalanche’s hard work means to them.
Newsarama: So, Johns, obviously when Disney Infinity hit last year and people were already asking about and wondering about Marvel characters – as we saw during the studio tour, you guys were already working on Marvel characters! How hard was that to keep internal and not let get out there?
John Blackburn: Well, it is relatively difficult! If you see our freaking sku plans, those get out there early…
John Vignocchi: Thank you, retail! (laughs)
Blackburn: Realistically, everybody at the studio takes it very seriously. The interesting thing is, I’d love to share what we’re working on with everybody all the time, but I think it matters more to get the stuff right before we show it off. I think the guys at the studio feel the same way. Everyone is very concerned about stuff like that.
It’s the same thing as a movie or those kinds of things – I’m a geek, I love this stuff too. When Star Wars stuff comes out, we got that image of the cast doing the script read – that was cool. I like to experience stuff like that, how it’s planned, instead of through leaks. It’s a challenge, but it’s not that bad.
Vignocchi: So, my view on this, I’m the one on the team who gets super sensitive when things get leaked. We have a duty to our community to keep things exciting and keep things fresh. Knowing what we know, and building a big plan about how we’re going to release the information to the public is part of the magic of Disney Infinity.
Saying what the new characters are going to be, when they’re coming out, how they’re coming out, what they’re going to be like in the game, showing off that first trailer – those are things that our team at Avalanche, our team at Disney Interactive, everyone puts a great deal of work into. So we try to be as tight as we can when it comes to announcements.
Blackburn: We actually get together and talk about the story of the release. We want users to experience that “Oh! Wow!” moment.
Vignocchi: Yeah, this year we definitely had a challenge with retail – putting out the sku plans and having those accessible by managers prior to announcements. But at the same time, as we’ve said internally – well, people care enough to talk about it, so we know we’re doing something special!
Nrama: And then sometimes someone will tweet out an image of the collector’s edition base with Loki on there before he’s announced…
Vignocchi: (laughs) Yeah, sometimes even the greats make mistakes! Lucas, you got me on that one.
Nrama: I find it really interesting: Disney Interactive seemed like they were scaling back a lot, focusing more on mobile and social gaming, then Disney Infinity comes out and explodes out with a little bit of everything. How much does it limit what else Disney Interactive can do with these characters, and how much does it allow them to get characters out there that might not get a spotlight in games otherwise?
Blackburn: I’ll hit the second part of that first. That’s actually one of the most exciting things about Disney Infinity for us. Jack Skellington is the perfect example. We love him as a character, but if you look at the current console environment, what it takes for production value and everything – there’s no way you’d see a game coming to the PS4 with Jack Skellington! So I love that part, that it really does open up possibilities for these characters we still love.
As for the other part, it hasn’t limited Disney Interactive at all yet. First, we were talking to people at Disney and they’d look at this big mash-up Toy Box thing and they didn’t really understand it. Then the Play Set is so different from Toy Box. I don’t know how many times we did this pitch – probably 40 times to different groups.
Vignocchi: And that’s to Tim Burton. Jerry Bruckheimer. John Lasseter.
Blackburn: Yeah! And they’re in different states of mind. We were pitching Bruckheimer on the set of The Lone Ranger. There’s this big dust storm happening on the set, and he was pretty preoccupied with that at the time!
So people hear different parts of the presentation. At that time, it was hard to get it through to people – once we had the figures and the game working and we could show them what we were doing, they’ve all said, “Oh, I actually like this, this is good execution!” Ever since then, we haven’t had a problem.
So gaining speed, it was a challenge, but once we got our momentum and people can experience it, it’s been easier. Now the best way we can pitch it is we give people a box and let their kids play it! They see that and just see “Oh, this is awesome.”
Vignocchi: Yeah, like John said, in the beginning we were trying to get people excited an interested in this. Disney Interactive’s track record wasn’t exactly stellar when it came to video game adaptations of films.
Nrama: Right. Well, no one’s track record was very good when it comes to making games out of films.
Vignocchi: (laughs) That’s a good point! So we’d go in there and say to a producer or agent, “We need about an hour with this particular person,” and they’d say, “no, you have about ten minutes.”
So how do you explain something this vast in ten minutes? “Well we have the play sets, and those are true to property experiences 6-8 hours long…” especially when the people you’re talking to don’t have a lot of experience with video games. And they’re preoccupied.
But what’s funny is how it’s changed now that we put out the first version of the game. We give a lot of credit to John Lasseter and the guys at Pixar for being the creative ambassadors for our game. They’ve been telling everyone that they should give us time and hear us out, because they thought the game could be big. We owe a lot to John and Pixar for really helping set things up across the entire company to show what Disney Infinity could be. The support from Pixar with all their properties in the game, of course helped too! They’re like family to us now. We’ll do anything we can to support them, in the game, and beyond.
So it’s been an interesting growth experience, because now Producers and Directors are coming to us and saying “Hey, what does my footprint inside of Infinity look like?” That’s been exciting for us.
Blackburn: It has been a turn. Before it was us going to them and begging – now I don’t know if it’s them coming to us, but they’re accepting the meeting right away! It’s so much easier now that we can send them a version of the game. They say, “Oh, yeah, this is cool!”
Nrama: So we’re of course here at the Toy Box Summit – I certainly didn’t expect this amount of changes to the Toy Box in just the second generation – I feel like you guys put out Toy Box 4.0 in year two here! Did you start off that ambitious, or was it something where you figured out as you were going that things could keep being added?
Blackburn: So, there were two different parts to that. One was just having a lot of things we wanted to do last year that we just didn’t have time for. So the team came back with a huge list and just went boom boom boom, let’s make these things work. There was a lot of low-hanging fruit there.
The secondary part of the answer though, is our vision of what we wanted Toy Box to be. We would like this to be the most accessible game editor in the industry. That’s where we wanted to go. We think we have a reasonably good paradigm with the logic toys. It became a bite-sized chunk, where instead of having to learn about scripting, you can just play around with that toy. So we had that vision, right away when we started to build this. Once our guys got their hands on it, they started making it really powerful. Our first meetings were about things that got cut, then we went to the forums and listened to the community.
The other thing that impacted this was team size.
Vignocchi: We have a responsibility as Disney to continue to push forward and innovate. The easy thing to do would be to just go in and make the same version of the game we did last year. The thing that separates Disney from other publishers is the magic – the type of innovations we’re going for. The fact that you, Lucas, look at this and think it looks like Toy Box 4.0; our team takes a great deal of pride and responsibility in continuing to push what the software can do forward.
Blackburn: I would just jump in there and say the thing I loved most last year was when we’d show somebody this, they’d play it, and be surprised. We wanted that same experience this year – that was the target. We love surprising people.
Nrama: The Toys to Life category is an interesting one, being just a few years old but seeing insane growth with more and more companies getting in on it.
The potential for the category – is it something that you see continuing to grow at an exponential rate, or do you have more of a plan for incremental growth?
Vignocchi: I think for us, it comes down to this: so long as the Walt Disney company continues to produce amazing new content, we’ll continue to support that inside of Disney Infinity. We’ve created an ecosystem inside the game that allows us to do that at many different investment levels. At the minimum, there’s the power disc, which can give a new vehicle, weapon, tool, sky and ground, team-up, costume change. Then we’ve got the next level up with toy box games or individual characters. Then the biggest amount of support is the play set. So we’ve created something that we believe, in terms of the offerings of Toys to Life is much different from what our competitors are doing. While we respect, of course, the amazing teams behind Skylanders and all the work they’ve done there, and we’re excited about what we’ve heard is coming out from Nintendo, we’re trying to innovate with our software and empower players to become Disney storytellers. We want to give them a system that’s so broad and has so much depth, that they don’t have to turn anywhere else.
Nrama: It’s almost intimidating when you look at Disney’s back catalog and having Marvel now as well…
Vignocchi: I think our competitors would agree with you! (laughs)
Nrama: (laughs) And you mentioned characters like the Disney Afternoon properties… I feel like it would be the hardest part of the job, looking at the huge selection and having to choose. Would you consider that the hardest part?
Vignocchi: Well, yes.
Blackburn: I think it’s one of the funner parts!
Vignocchi: Yeah, like John said, it’s fun, but there’s this responsibility we have to the Disney fan when we’re arguing and battling about it internally. That’s the thing, to me; there are champions for power discs and characters and play sets. It’s a challenge, because you don’t want to let people down. It’s funny – last year people said “Oh you have all these great Disney and Pixar characters – but where are the Marvel characters?” And of course we were quietly working on that in the background going “Wouldn’t that be great?” So now when we announced Marvel characters, people said, “Well where are the new Disney characters?” Of course we knew we had those in development in the background and had to bite our tongues on that as well.
Blackburn: That’s the fun thing, when we’re out doing presentations to everyone in the company, and we’re like, “Oh, Tinker Bell is awesome! She uses the same mechanics as Iron Man!”
Vignocchi: Yeah, we internally call Tink the Female Iron Man!
But the number one thing we want to do is focus on the community. We run those facebook polls and it’s free market research. What’s interesting about it is that the character you put inside Infinity is different from your typical consumer product. Disney Consumer Products might not go out and make a Stitch figure. But the interest from the community, the fervor from the community that wants to play a piece of interactive entertainment is what makes it so interesting as a hybrid. Across the company, people across the company are surprised at the characters popping up in the game.
People say they want more playsets, and in an ideal world we’d make them for every character, but we can see the stats, and players are spending 61% of their time in the Toy Box.
Nrama: I was equally surprised to find out that you’d been working on Marvel since at least last October.
Nrama: Oh wow! The demo we saw today at the studio of Iron Man flying through a rudimentary city was from last October though, right?
Vignocchi: Yeah. But as soon as the acquisition happened we started having conversations about Marvel. I giggle that I know the date, because I checked in via Foursquare at Marvel. So that’s how I knew, that was the first time we sat down with Joe Quesada.
Blackburn: We were both geeking out. We were in the Marvel conference rooms, and they’re all themed to characters. We’re in Thor and Mjolnir’s in there and they had to tell us not to touch it.
Vignocchi: Signs on the desks that said “Less meetings, more working!”
But yeah, we had a responsibility to Marvel fans to treat their favorite characters right. Getting things like Spider-Man’s swing mechanic down. Making sure that flight worked well for Nova, and Iron Man, making sure that felt great to play was a huge responsibility. So for 2.0 we needed to introduce those characters and those mechanics in a way that Marvel fans would like and that Disney fans would appreciate too.
Nrama: So is it safe to say, then, that you have stuff being worked on now that is considered as “3.0” content, or something to that effect?
Blackburn: That… that would be… I don’t know if that’s something I can say at this point in time? I mean obviously we’re working on future stuff.
Vignocchi: Infinity is a platform, and we’re always growing! Media Training!
Blackburn: But honestly, I think you’re getting ahead of yourself, because there’s so much here. I understand the curiosity, but I’m really happy with the offerings we have, and I think it’s really exciting.
Nrama: What’s a personal favorite Toy Box 2.0 feature from each of you?
Vignocchi: We both have one we mutually share. It almost got cut from the game, too!
Mine is the Text Toy. That allows you to tag NPCs with text, and that allows you to make them into quest givers. So using the new toys in 2.0, you can, for example, take the camera and lock it to a birds-eye view a la “Link to the Past,” then put NPCs down, and you can tag them with lines of text to send you on a quest, whether it’s a fetch quest or a kill quest or whatever it is.
The way we’ve implemented that, is it requires an online connection to go through a Disney clean speak server to make sure there’s no bad text going through that. We think it’s a game changer. And we almost lost it. In fact, I heard it was going away and I called John on the phone and I cried. “The game is cutting the text toy, and you know that?”
Blackburn: By “cried” he means “yelled at me.” (laughs)
Vignocchi: Well, yeah. But John was like, “What? Really?” And then I remember you went and talked to the guys, and they said it was too difficult, and you challenged them. I think it’s really fantastic for creators. This is something that people will appreciate, because they can really be the Disney Storyteller or the Marvel Comics creator. They can take their favorite characters and do the ultimate mashup that will make Brian Michael Bendis blush!
Blackburn: I don’t really have one, I have a few: I couldn’t really build a lot in the first game. I love all the new terrain pieces that we put in, and all the platforming. I went through, and I would try to build my favorite levels from other games just to see if I could do it. I wanted to build the Spiral Mountain from Mario 64 and I couldn’t do that – we need to be able to make the Spiral Mountain!
Vignocchi: Yeah, that stuck out in John’s mind. We always try to say in Toy Box, “Can I? Yes I can!” And he said, “Can I do Koopa the Quick?” and we couldn’t, so that inspired all the new Mountain terrains.
Blackburn: So I got all the mountain stuff. The second piece I’ll add to that is the Undo button. We needed that.
Then coming at this looking at my 6 year-old nephew. Logan loves Infinity, but because he’s so young, the things he builds are pretty simple by nature. I wanted Logan to have a better experience when he goes in there.
So the procedural stuff, or going in and saying “give me a new City Toy Box” or “give me a new Treehouse Toy Box,” that’s what he wants. We tried to add as much value to that end of the spectrum as we did to the top end of the spectrum.
Nrama: Very cool! I like to end things on a tease, so is there something you’re excited about, maybe a little down the road?
Vignocchi: Well I did my tease today. My favorite character is one that has not yet been announced. It’s a female character. A Disney character. And we will not tell retail who it is for a very long time in order to keep it a secret!
Blackburn: I like your other tease better. “We can talk about the future, but that’s far, far away.”
Vignocchi: 2015 is not so far, far away anymore, is it?