Toy Story 3 game celebrates Pixar's spirit of play

Set to hit shelves on June 15, three days before its namesake Pixar movie, the new video game features both a film-faithful story line and an open-ended "toy box" mode.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
5 min read
On June 15, Toy Story 3: The Video Game will hit store shelves, three days ahead of its namesake Pixar movie. The game features two distinct modes, one in which players follow the basic story line from the film, and a 'toy box' mode in which players can experiment and control their own adventures. Disney/Pixar

EMERYVILLE, Calif.--Call it Toy Story 3.5.

That's what Pixar's Jason Katz, at least, called Toy Story 3: The Video Game, during a press event for the game at the famous animation studio's headquarters here Wednesday.

Katz, the story supervisor on the forthcoming "Toy Story 3," which will hit theaters on June 18, was explaining to a group of reporters that while the game version of the film is very true to its source material, it also stands on its own and extends the franchise. Someone who plays the game and then sees the movie will intimately recognize the story line, Katz suggested, but will also be very much surprised by the plot twists that, as I've written, make the third edition in the "Toy Story" franchise such a great film.

For its part, Toy Story 3: The Video Game, which was developed by Disney-owned Avalanche Software, will be released on June 15 for the Xbox 360, the PlayStation 3, the Wii, the PlayStation Portable, and the Nintendo DS. The PS3 version of the game will feature the film franchise's ultra-evil villain Zurg as a playable character. The game will also be one of the first to be compatible with game play using Sony's PlayStation Move controller. This fall, PS3 players should be able to download a series of mini-games that will be playable with the Move.

In 2007, explained John Blackburn, the lead game designer on the new game, the "Toy Story 3" filmmakers, including Pixar head--and "Toy Story" director--John Lasseter, sat down with the Avalanche crew to explain what the new movie was about. Afterward, Blackburn said, he and his team explained that they had two potential visions for the game: one in which the main characters of the film are seen as small toys in a people-size world, and the other in which we see the world through the imaginations of a group of toys that are getting played with.

It seemed like the game's makers would have to choose one direction or the other, Blackburn recalled. "But John loved both" and inquired if Avalanche could follow both paths in a single game, Blackburn said. "And when John Lasseter asks that," he said, "the only answer is 'sure.'"

Practically speaking, what that means is that Toy Story 3: The Video Game is two games in one. On the one hand, it's a story-based title, in which players follow a dramatic arc loosely based on the movie. On the other, it's a sandbox game in which players can choose a mode where they get to follow their own imaginations and take Woody, Buzz, or Jessie--three of the film's main characters--on whatever adventures they can dream up. Fortunately, this is called the toy box mode. The more they play, and the more missions they complete, the more fans will unlock additional toys, be able to customize buildings, and change the way people look.

The imagination and joy of play
To Blackburn, the feelings he took away from his 2007 meeting with Lasseter and the rest of the "Toy Story 3" brain trust were the "power and imagination of play" and the "whole idea of the joy of play."

Those, then, were some of the main feelings that the Avalanche crew decided to imbue the new game with. And they clearly had buy-in from their Pixar counterparts. According to Blackburn, Lasseter, "Toy Story 3" director Lee Unkrich, and Darla Anderson, the film's producer, as well as other creatives from Pixar, formed a "game steering committee" that met regularly to keep tabs on the game and ensure that it was on track.

'Toy Story 3' director Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3: The Video Game lead designer John Blackburn and Darla Anderson, the film's producer, talk to journalists at a press day for the game at Pixar's Emeryville, Calif., headquarters on May 5, 2010.

"In comparison to any other movie game we've done as a studio, the level of involvement from Pixar has been off the chart as far as the number of people involved and the number of touches that they have," Blackburn said. "And that really ended up creating a kind of collaborative environment between the two companies, to where there's an understanding of where we were going with the game. And that allowed a level of freedom."

Anderson agreed, saying that she and Lasseter and Unkrich invested more time in meetings and discussions about the game than they had on any previous Pixar-related game.

Images: Toy Story 3: The Video Game

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Indeed, Blackburn said that as the game progressed, the two teams entered into a feedback loop where the guys from Avalanche would show what they'd been working on, and then hear what the Pixar folks felt. Over time, the trust that was built allowed Avalanche to keep expanding its idea for the game.

"That's an important element--that trust," Unkrich said. "They did gain our trust very early on in the process because we saw them doing some super creative things that were just way, way, way, way outside of anything we had been expecting anybody to bring to the table."

The PS3 version of the game will feature the arch-villain Zurg as a playable character.

Case in point, Unkrich added, is the game's toy box mode. "So many movie tie-in games just hew to the story line and the constraints of the world that's created in the movie," Unkrich said. "And [Avalanche was] trying to do something that was more about the spirit of play, and keeping it in the 'Toy Story' universe."

One thing that may have helped the making of the video game was the sense on everyone's part that the Avalanche team was going through much of the same creative process as those at Pixar.

"We're constantly presenting our films to each other, and they went through the same kind of thing," Anderson recalled. "They constantly came in and presented the game, and there's a healthy supportive critique process that's a part of the Pixar culture, all with the intent to make things as great as they can be. So it's not for the faint of heart...They probably experienced more of that than any other outside folks [ever have], alongside us, feeling the joys and the pain of what it takes to be in the creative chaos of making something as great as it can be."

Or, as Unkrich explained the Pixar process, "We try to fail early and often, because it just leads to things that are better."