With Disney Infinity, it really is a small world after all

The house that Mickey built is now animating the toy world. Toys may never be the same.
Disney

Darth Maul is ready to strike. The villainous Sith Lord — who predates Darth Vader in the "Star Wars" chronology —twists like a coiled spring, his black tunic whipping from the motion. He holds a double-bladed lightsaber behind him, ready to slash the deadly weapon at whoever comes near. Maul is a fearsome sight: Red and yellow eyes glare from a red face embellished with black tattoos. Eight small horns sprout from his head.

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 Fortunately, he's only 4 inches tall and made of 3 ounces of molded plastic.

The figurine alone is enough to grab fans' attention. But under Darth Maul's sand-colored base is a computer chip. Place him on a pad in front of a video game console and — presto— lights flash, sparks fly and the plastic action figure is transformed into a digital character in a video game, ready to set off on an adventure inside the screen.

As kids, most of us imagined a world where the toys we played with on our living room floor came to life. The Walt Disney Co. is edging closer to that fantasy — animating toys to make it seem like they're playing with us.

It's all part of Disney's ambitious effort to capitalize on its pantheon of characters, which includes Mickey Mouse, Iron Man and Princess Leia; grab kids' attention (along with their parents' wallets); and, in the process, reshape the $18 billion US toy industry. That goal hinges on a game called "Disney Infinity." Part collectible figurines, part video game, Infinity gives kids the freedom to dream up their own storylines, create new worlds and fill them with the Disney characters they want.

If Infinity's developers have their way, every toy Disney sells could step inside a game-generated world that we build with our imaginations.

"Toys in the future will not be like the ones you and I grew up with," says John Vignocchi, who heads production for Disney Interactive. "This is the future of toys."

It's alive!

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Toys have been around for as long as humans have been able to pick up sticks.

Archaeologists found toys in Egyptian pyramids, among ancient Greek artifacts and even buried alongside 5,000-year-old ruins in the Indus Valley, near the borders of modern day India, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Today's mass-market toys chart their history to Hasbro, which started producing plastic toys during World War II and soon offered doctor and nurse kits for kids. In 1952, Hasbro launched its first hit: Mr. Potato Head. The first toy advertised on television, Mr. Potato Head came with interchangeable ears, eyes, shoes, noses and mouths. Mattel introduced Barbie seven years later; Ken showed up as her love interest in 1961.

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The millennial generation had Teddy Ruxpin, an animatronic bear whose mouth and eyes moved while "reading" stories from a cassette tape stored in its back.

Nowadays, toy makers are looking beyond those simple technologies.

Activision created the "toys to life" game genre in 2011 when it launched Skylanders. As with "Disney Infinity," Skylanders' toys appear on the screen when placed on a special pad connected to a video game console or tablet. Nintendo and Lego sell their own toys-to-life games, too.

In March, Mattel unveiled the $75 Hello Barbie doll, which uses Siri-like voice recognition technology to listen to and interact with its owner.

Meanwhile, Hasbro and Disney together created Playmation, a $120 setup where kids strap on a glove that, using motion sensors, infrared technology and Bluetooth wireless communications, can "shoot" at toy action figures. The glove vibrates when the toys shoot back.

The reason for all this technical wizardry? Today's kids expect it, thanks to their constant exposure to smartphones and tablets. "Now that they're used to that high level of interactivity, they will want to get it from their toys," says Lior Akavia, CEO of Seebo, which helps toy makers build smarts into their toys.

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No limits

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Imagine having a magic wand that lets you create worlds studded with castles, forests and cities, and filled with flying heroes and villains. That's what you can do with Infinity's Toy Box feature. Toy Box drops players inside an empty shell and lets them build a world of their own, complete with music, buildings, bystanders and bad guys.

"This is your imagination," says Disney Interactive Studio Vice President John Blackburn, from the team's unassuming building in Salt Lake City, which it shares with the Social Security Administration, a few lawyers and business-software maker Workday.

You'd never guess one of the world's most popular video games is made here until you step off the elevator onto the ninth floor. Glass cases display concept sketches of popular Marvel and Disney characters, along with the actual figurines. Life-size statues of Sulley and Mike Wazowski from the movie "Monsters, Inc." stand by the entrance, while scenes from classic Disney movies such as "Peter Pan" festoon the walls.

Infinity, which cost a reported $100 million to develop, gives kids two ways to play: standard storylines with scripted action and the Toy Box. Both modes work with an ever-growing cast of characters. That's because Disney has released a new version of the game every year since its August 2013 launch. (A "starter pack" with two figurines costs $65.) Each release adds new storylines that complement that year's new toys. So far, more than 100 characters can either inhabit specially written plots and adventures, or mix it up in the Toy Box. Characters, which cost $14 apiece, range from the classics, like Donald Duck and Minnie Mouse, to Marvel's Ultron supervillain and Yoda from "Star Wars."

Blackburn, who first envisioned the feature in 2008, thinks of Toy Box as the video game equivalent of a child dumping all her toys on the floor and then deciding how to play with them.

That's what it's like for Georgiana Lee, 6. She loves the way Spider-Man can climb and swing around Cinderella's castle and then fly with Tinker Bell and other Disney friends. "It's really cool and it has everything," she says.

Blackburn came up with the idea for Toy Box when his team was talking to Disney's Pixar division about creating a game for the 2010 movie "Toy Story 3." He wanted players to experience the adventures of Woody, Buzz Lightyear and the other toys that come to life when humans aren't looking.

"Toy Story 3: The Video Game," complete with rudimentary Toy Box software, was a hit. More than 6 million units sold that year, far better than the 1 million units that typically constitutes a winner. That success emboldened Blackburn to pitch a more ambitious game, encompassing nearly all Disney characters. Blackburn knew he needed the backing of at least one high-level company executive. He got it from John Lasseter, Pixar's chief creative officer.

But there was a catch.

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Lasseter — who has overseen some of the world's most successful animated films, including "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo" — wanted Blackburn's team to create toys that could interact with the game. Lasseter told art director Jeff Bunker those toys had to be "wicked awesome."

A toy is born

Bunker had never created a toy. But in his first three months on the project, he designed dozens of concepts. Some were pill-shaped, others had magnets that let players rip them apart and snap them back together. To make the figurines more interesting, Bunker and his crew decided the characters needed detailed features, head to toe.

"We want them to hold up in 3D," says Jon Diesta, head character designer. That's easier said than done.

Over the next three years, Diesta and his team created up to 15 iterations for each character as they determined which features to emphasize, and in what pose. By the time they got to Darth Maul, they had designed nearly 100 toys. But Maul's horns, tattooed face and menace incarnate presented a particular challenge: That's a lot of detail to convey in something only 4 inches tall. The team worked with a sculpture artist to mock up Maul's features and flowing robes.

But creating a figurine that defines a character is only one challenge. Another is making sure the toy fits inside the standardized 4.5-inch square packaging. That's one reason Darth Maul is crouched and holding his lightsaber behind him, as if he's preparing to attack.

And then there were those horns.

In "Star Wars: The Phantom Menace," Darth Maul has 10 horns: eight in a circle around the top of his head and two near his ears. If the toy's horns had the same proportions as the movie character's, they would be small and sharp — a potential hazard to young children.

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Bunker's team had to convince Lucasfilm, the production company that created "Star Wars," to allow just six horns on the top of Maul's head. Imagine asking Leonardo da Vinci to rearrange the seating order of Jesus and the apostles in "The Last Supper."

Finish line

The pace of making a top-tier video game like "Disney Infinity" is relentless.

Where most game projects have a defined beginning and end, Infinity is like a marathon that doesn't finish. The team has been adding characters and features for the past three years.

Their task is made even more complicated by the fact that game makers don't assemble all the art, music, video and animations until everything's almost done. When directors see the near-finished version, they sometimes demand dramatic shifts. That can play havoc with deadlines.

That's what happened with the "Star Wars" game, which should have been nearly ready for release by May. It wasn't.

The game — with its sprawling story-line and special effects, including an exploding Death Star from the earlier trilogy — was too big to fit on one game disc. "It's one of the side effects of a game of this scope and size," says Marcus Fisher, a Disney creative director. "There were a lot of nasty emails."

Ultimately, the Infinity team cut portions of the game to fit it on the disc. Customers will be able to download some parts, such as tie-ins to the upcoming movie, "Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens," as a compromise.

Meanwhile, the team continues to create new characters slated for the next additions to the game. One recent toy: Finn, a character played by actor John Boyega in the latest "Star Wars" movie.

Few people have had a chance to see themselves as an action toy. Boyega saw his plastic alter ego for the first time on a warm August day, during a photo shoot in Los Angeles. Lifting the character out of its box and bubble wrap, Boyega was like a kid at Christmas.

"Seriously, did I just end up in a video game?" he said, awestruck and smiling. "I can't even say it's a dream come true. It's more like an altered reality."