You may have heard by now that Disney Infinity is shutting down, and the reason given was slow growth in the toys to life market coupled with relatively high production costs. As a fan of toys to life games, and Disney Infinity in particular, I wanted to take a moment to detail some of the reasons why I think this is so, based purely from personal experience with writing and doing videos about these sorts of games.
1 – Overly aggressive DMCA and a disconnect with the games press
I stopped covering Disney Infinity on my YouTube channel because I couldn’t make any money doing so. The music would get flagged by DMCA claims, and I’d lose all the revenue. Disney isn’t the only company making this mistake: Nintendo still doesn’t have a YouTube partnership program in Canada, so I don’t do videos on Amiibo either. At the end of the day, I love video games, but my YouTube channel is a business, so I focus on companies willing to do business with content creators like me. If they don’t appreciate what I bring to the table, I don’t cover their stuff. Simple. Again, this is a symptom of a much larger disconnect between multimedia properties and the games press. These brand managers are so afraid of the noise and the bad news that they don’t realize how powerful our relationships are with our audiences. People like me do have influence because our engagement levels are high. It’s just not the sort of influence that’s easily measured
2 – Toys to Life is expensive
To complete each yearly Skylanders set, parents are shelling out $300 on an annual basis. It’s the number one complaint I get from people who got their kids into Toys to Life stuff on my advice. Now that there are three Toys to Life franchises even without Disney – Skylanders, Lego Dimensions, and Nintendo’s Amiibo – that’s nearly a thousand bucks a year for those fully engaged. I can see parents wanting to have one fight and saying no to it all, instead of having to weigh the merits of purchasing every figure. Overall, I think that Toys to Life is currently too focused on the Toys part of the equation, instead of creating add-on content that can be played with toys you already own. It’s an imbalanced business model that in part is because core gaming sites neglected coverage of Toys to Life products, but that’s not completely an excuse for creating a buying churn instead of products that provide ongoing value for money. It would have kept parents happier if more game content had been developed for existing toys, because kids are going to want the cool new figures and cars anyway.
3 – Toys to Life creates a lot of clutter
I have no idea where to put any more figures. There is a critical point involving real life stuff where I don’t want to add another Rubbermaid bin to store all those figures. I’d been saying since Skylanders Giants came out that storage needs to be something that’s meaningfully addressed, but I didn’t see it happen. Instead, another 40 figures come out each year per game, and I ran out of places to put them. The difference between enduring brands and fads is that kids form an attachment to brands that endure, and this attachment doesn’t happen when a product focuses on quantity over quality time with each figure.
4 – The rarer figures were too hard to get
I heard about fights breaking out between parents in stores over certain figures. My husband had to contact the Disney PR people because the Stitch figure was completely sold out. People can’t buy figures they can’t find, and it seems that Toys to Life, across the board, has sacrificed accessibility for collector fever. These are products for kids, guys. Make the toys available to anyone who wants them, even if it means running a second issue of them. Parents getting into fist fights isn’t the kind of press that’s healthy long term.
5 – Disney Infinity neglected story in favour of the Toy Box
I get the reasons that the Toy Box was originally the central focus – Disney Infinity‘s playtesting indicated that kids didn’t want to be told how to play the game as much as they wanted to make their own fun. But with subsequent waves came a marketing challenge: it’s easier to sell a new product than it is to sell improvements. Therefore, “Skylanders, NOW WITH CARS!” is an easier sell than “Toy Box 3.0” — so each cycle had diminishing returns because it wasn’t easy to explain why people should buy the latest thing when the previous one worked just fine. Meanwhile, it’s difficult to review a building tool as a game. The actual game element of Disney Infinity were Playsets that provided short campaign stories, and I don’t know why there weren’t more of those that matched some of the fan favourite characters. Going back to Stitch, there were levels for him, but no actual campaign. There was no feeling of completion. So I got two hours of enjoyment out of that figure instead of six, because my attention is too divided to play something without a narrative.
6 – The brands are just too lucrative to produce games in house
Why should Disney bother making Star Wars games when EA will do it for them and pay them a license that’s pure profit? Why should they tie up those Marvel characters when they can license them to a third party and again take no risk? These franchises are just too big for the profit margins that in-house video games can offer, since Disney’s internal approvals process is a slow, bottle-neck heavy ordeal. Disney is now free to license Star Wars and Marvel characters to Lego Dimensions, who already did Star Wars Lego games, and have Batman all through Dimensions. It’s smart: create an ally out of a competitor and cut your costs in the process.
It’s ironic that Disney bean counters now have the reigns of the company, but the balance sheets don’t lie: Disney knows how to make Intellectual Properties, but it’s never quite understood video games, so it makes more sense to do licensing business with game makers instead of trying to paddle around making chump change in a business they don’t get, and perhaps don’t even like. To Disney, video games are no different than bags, t-shirts, stuffed toys, and kids’ costumes, because they aren’t interested in developing unique game IPs for consoles and PC. Because of this, it makes financial sense for Disney to get out of the video game business. Long term, as video games become a more native form of entertainment, suffer from less stigma, and become a driver of all ages entertainment beyond Nintendo, this may be short sighted. But when that day comes, Disney can just hire on a new bunch of game makers and open up their interactive division again. They’re closing this door, not bricking it over.
(Note: A reader mentioned on twitter that the heavy restrictions on which characters could be used in Play Sets hampered their enjoyment of the game. I don’t think this would have been an issue if more all-character-friendly Play Sets were produced, hence my point about more game content overall. However, it is a specific criticism of Disney Infinity, so I thought I’d add that my understanding was that these restrictions were imposed on the developers by Disney higher-ups. The developers wanted more freedom but Disney brass thought the integrity of the characters was more important.)