One afternoon in 2010, John Blackburn arrived at Pixar’s Emeryville, California, offices to pitch a new video-game idea to the animation studio’s revered longtime leader, John Lasseter. Blackburn had been through similar meetings several times in the past few years. Now, however, he had a bad feeling. Lasseter was not going to be happy.
For more than half a decade, Blackburn, the general manager of Disney-owned video-game company Avalanche, had been carefully converting Pixar movies into titles for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii consoles. He had worked with Lasseter–who also serves as chief creative officer for Disney, which owns Pixar–on games for Toy Story 3 and Cars 2, and along the way he had earned the coveted respect of the man behind animation favorites such as WALL-E and Finding Nemo. That relationship was about to be tested. The concept art Blackburn brought with him violated one of Lasseter’s creative rules: Never shall separate animated worlds coexist. One shot showed Aladdin‘s Princess Jasmine racing a convertible away from the dinosaur from Toy Story, while Pirates of the Caribbean‘s Jack Sparrow hovered in a helicopter near the creature’s head, about to shoot it with a goo gun.
“John looked at it and said, ‘Man, I just really dislike this,'” recalls Blackburn. “We were like, ‘Oh, this is going to go badly.'” To Lasseter, the presentation was a nightmare. “They wanted to combine all the Pixar characters together in one game and one world,” he says. “That’s always been taboo. We just don’t do that. I can’t stand when they just ignore the story and put them in a magical world where they all live together.” But Avalanche’s relationship with Pixar did afford Blackburn one advantage. Lasseter–who is so busy that he schedules five-minute meetings for the times when he is walking between other meetings–kept listening.
If not for that courtesy, Blackburn’s blasphemous vision might never have turned into Disney’s largest-ever gaming gamble: Disney Infinity, an all-encompassing Disney-Pixar universe that combines on-screen action with specially designed toy figurines. The game’s $74.99 “starter pack,” released on August 18, comes with three figures from different movies–Jack Sparrow, The Incredibles‘ Mr. Incredible, and Monsters University‘s Sulley–along with a flat base that plugs into console systems. Placing the toys onto the base unlocks areas of the game, and players can buy more toys–a $34.99 Cars play set, say–to access more content. There will also be a series of tie-in mobile apps that mirror and sync with their console counterparts.
Disney is hoping this major game launch can help end its long history of troubled digital initiatives, stretching back to the failed Internet portal Go.com in the late 1990s. Over the years, the company has had only mixed success capitalizing on some of Hollywood’s most beloved movie franchises. If it pulls off Infinity, the feat could put the brand, quite literally, back in the game.
But Infinity almost didn’t happen–and not just because of Lasseter’s skepticism. “This shouldn’t have existed,” says Avalanche studio art director Jeff Bunker, who played a key role in the game’s creation. Then he corrects himself. “It should have existed. But it hit on every improbable note it had to in order to exist.”
In the lobby of Avalanche’s headquarters on three floors of an office building in downtown Salt Lake City, a 7-foot-tall stuffed Sulley looms in front of the modest entryway. On this June morning, Avalanche similarly feels a little too big for its space. The team is still weeks away from locking in a final version of the game, and the crowded rooms are buzzing with activity. Project managers share offices. A group of character designers work in an open pod that’s not much bigger than a cubicle.
A few years ago, it seemed like Disney might be on the verge of shutting down the now-bustling company. At the time, Disney Interactive had just installed John Pleasants as copresident and head of its games division. Pleasants came aboard when Disney acquired his social-gaming company, Playdom, for more than $500 million. Avalanche, on the other hand, had always focused on console games, and it was hard for Blackburn to interpret Pleasants’s elevation as anything but bad news. He and the rest of Avalanche’s team were nervous. “Terrified,” says Infinity executive producer John Vignocchi. “We all were.”
In early meetings, Pleasants encouraged Disney’s game executives to think bigger with future projects. So Avalanche dreamt up something truly huge: a single game that would incorporate the entire Disney-Pixar universe. Surprisingly, Pleasants liked the ambitious proposal, and though he closed three other Disney-owned console-game companies and moved most of Disney Interactive’s resources into mobile and social projects, Avalanche survived. Its big idea–at that point dubbed Toy Box–kept getting bigger.
Then came that meeting with Lasseter, who’s the ultimate authority on creative decisions involving many of Disney’s beloved properties. In addition to the mixing of characters from different worlds, Lasseter worried about the clashing art styles and dramatic differences in scale between, say, the supposedly toy-size Woody and life-size Jack Sparrow. Blackburn made his best case, explaining that the characters would all be portrayed as toy versions of themselves, which would make mixing them up feel as natural as different creatures next to one another in a kid’s toy box. Lasseter wasn’t convinced. “They looked like they were from different worlds,” he says. “They really [didn’t] go together.” Still, he was intrigued enough to keep the discussions going, asking Blackburn to develop a more consistent visual style.
Avalanche kept working on Lasseter’s concerns, trying to develop a uniform look that would make the characters feel connected to each other but also remain true to their iconic forms. After months of discussions and more than 100 design concepts, Avalanche finally nailed it. Lasseter was onboard.
Next Avalanche had to get sign-offs from a host of gatekeepers who have approval over the use of various characters: movie directors, corporate brand managers, even Johnny Depp, who wanted Tonto (his character in this summer’s Lone Ranger movie) to be dirtier and less skinny and asked that the rings on Jack Sparrow’s fingers match the colors in the Pirates films (Avalanche complied). In many instances, the pitches required a certain amount of finesse–arguments made from both a business and creative point of view. “If I go in to [Pirates of the Caribbean producer] Jerry Bruckheimer and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got no relationship with you, but I want to have Jack Sparrow dicking around with Sulley,’ that is just not going to happen,” says Blackburn.
After nailing down the necessary approvals, Infinity was almost ready to go. There was just one more step: Lasseter, an avid toy collector, had requested a line of figurines to match the redesigned in-game characters. “I wanted something that you would love to collect, where you could just get the figures and put them on your shelf,” Lasseter says. “Looking at these gorgeous renditions of characters, I was like, ‘Oh, man, wouldn’t this be awesome?'” Blackburn was into the idea, and from there it wasn’t a huge leap to incorporate the toys into gameplay, a strategy that Activision had pioneered with the massively successful Skylanders franchise. The last piece of Disney Infinity had fallen into place.
Now Disney just has to sell it to consumers. Interactive is its least successful division, posting losses in 17 of the last 18 quarters. But as kids increasingly discover their favorite characters via digital media, turning around Interactive is more pressing than ever. Winning over future generations will be hard unless Disney can start making games that are as popular and high-quality as its movies.
That is the hope for Infinity. “It’s incredibly sophisticated, but it’s so simple,” says Lasseter of the game’s interface. “It reminds me in a way of Steve Jobs, my partner at Pixar for  years–how hard everybody at Apple worked to make the interfaces simple and beautiful.” Disney CEO Robert Iger seems keen on the project, adding Infinity to a list of corporate priorities, which tells the entire company that the game is considered one of its key new products. Infinity is the first video game to make the list.
That honor won’t mean anything if gamers don’t take to the concept. There’s always a chance that Infinity could be a flop. But if it succeeds? “I think . . .” Pleasants says, then reconsiders. “I hope it will be a real sign that we have our mojo back.”
[Illustration by Jonathan Ball]