Developer Interview: Mathew Solie on Disney Infinity, Toy Box Inspiration and Future Potential
Posted by Ron DelVillano
Producer sheds light on infinite possibilities
At the time of writing, Disney Infinity has just recently launched in both North America and Europe. With its use of collectible figurines that can be used as playable characters in-game and the inclusion of cross-platform user generated content, the new title from Disney Interactive is making leaps and bounds to create an entirely new gaming experience. Whether you’re a newcomer or an old-school fanatic, Disney Infinity has something for everyone.
We recently took the opportunity to catch up with Mathew Solie, producer on Disney Infinity, to have a chat about the new game, the direction of the franchise, and his own humble beginnings.
Nintendo Life: Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us. Could you please introduce yourself to the Nintendo Life readers?
Mathew Solie: Sure! I’m Mathew Solie, producer on Disney Infinity. I work for Disney Interactive and I’ve been making games for over nine years now. It’s been a great journey and I’ve worked on a ton of fun stuff like a Spider-Man game, a James Bond game, even a Transformers game, then coming here to Disney was an absolute dream. I got to meet people and work on Pixar stuff. I got to work on a Tron game and now I’m working on Disney Infinity.
NL: What exactly is Disney Infinity and what sets it apart from other similar games that shall remain nameless?
Solie: [laughs] “The product that shall not be named?” The easiest way to break down how the two games work – there’s Disney Infinity and, of course, Skylanders. So, with both of the games the similarity is that we take a figure, put it on the base, and it appears in the game. That’s where the similarities sort of end. With Infinity, what we decided to do is go open-world. So we have the game software sort of divided up into two separate components: the Play Sets and the Toy Box. Play Sets are the cool, true to IP, original stories inside the worlds that we’ve known to grown and love. As you progress through those Play Sets you unlock toys that go into what’s called Toy Box.
The Toy Box is a giant world creator and game creator. We actually allow you to take everything you unlock inside those Play Sets and then play with them however you would want, similar to like when we were kids and we’d throw all of our toys on the living room rug. So that’s sort of the breakdown of the differences between Skylanders and Disney Infinity.
NL: The inclusions of Monsters University and The Lone Ranger as launch Play Sets seem to stem from their recent film releases. What went into choosing the other launch figures and Play Sets?
Solie: The way it worked out is that there were multiple facets on how we looked at all of the different stuff we wanted to include inside Disney Infinity. We track all of the awareness that people have with these franchises or characters through various means. Disney is one of the biggest media companies in the world so… they have their ways. [laughs]
That was one thing. Actually, this is one that blew my mind too, did you know that The Incredibles still tests in the top 10? Kinds still watch it over, and over, and over, and it’s an entire new generation of kids. You’ve got to remember it’s 10 years old so kids weren’t even born who are watching it right now. I like Incredibles, but, like, my nephews weren’t even born when that came out! We learned all of this stuff when we tested awareness, so that was really, really cool. And then, of course, the “nephew test” as I like to call it, when I ask my six and eight year old nephews if they’ve seen it and they say “yes” and they love it.
Another thing is that we want to make sure we have cool gameplay. With Incredibles it makes an insane amount of sense because they have superpowers, so we can do things with super strength, super speed, so it was like adding a new gameplay element that we could layer into the game itself. Finally, a really cool thing we try to do, and not to be too corporate speaky, but we “synergize” with other parts of the business. With Incredibles mainly it was that we have such a good relationship with Pixar that we were really interested in supporting their brands and stuff like that, and they’ve been so supportive of us during Toy Story 3 and Cars that it just made sense that it would be a really good fit.
NL: With the ability to create and incorporate new Play Sets into the core game, will this reduce the amount of future licensed games that we see from Disney?
Solie: [Disney Infinity] is a platform for everything Disney and we do evaluate everything that we include inside of Infinity. We announced at D23 that we have all of these new characters and they work in Toy Box and it makes sense for them to exist in that world. We were able to support a Jack Skellington figure and put him inside of Toy Box to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Nightmare Before Christmas, but if someone were coming along and wanted to make a really cool game, we wouldn’t stop it from happening necessarily. For example, Planes is another game that just came out and it’s not included inside Disney Infinity, but we’re still supporting it at Disney Interactive.
NL: Beyond the Play Sets, the big selling point for Disney Infinity is its Toy Box mode. Can you explain this a little further for our readers?
Solie: Like I mentioned earlier, there’s the idea that you can build out your own world and make your own games, but what does that mean exactly? Literally, you can go in and you can make magic castles, racetracks, anything that your little heart desires you can create inside there. We just give you the tools. It’s about having the player feel like we’re never saying “no you can’t,” it’s always about “yes you can,” at least as much as gamingly possible. With some of the toys inside Toy Box you can recreate Agrabah. There are even the rhino guards from the classic Robin Hood cartoon if you remember that one. You can literally start building out all of this crazy stuff how you want it to look. For the game side of it, I’m amazed at the flexibility and strength of it. One of our guys here actually made a working calculator, so that’s something that we’d like to put up as user-generated content later on because it’s insanely complex. A less nerdy example is the games that we’ve been able to recreate like Spy Hunter, Contra, Gauntlet, Joust, and levels that were inspired by Mario Kart 64. That’s like the big game making side of it.
People are going to be able to download new games and stuff inside the Toy Box that people build and we post, and that’s what’s super exciting. Basically the name “Infinity” lives up to it.
For myself, personally, I suck at Minecraft, so I suck at building stuff and it’s more exciting for me to see - once again the nephew question comes into play - I like seeing stuff he makes. It makes me excited to see that he’s so creative using that digital medium. What I’m really excited about is out whole user generated content program. Right now we have stuff up like a recreation of Disneyland, which is insane. There is the Tron meets Sugar Rush level which is really funky and pretty looking, actually. There are a bunch of other ones up that I won’t ruin for you.
People are going to be able to download new games and stuff inside the Toy Box that people build and we post, and that’s what’s super exciting. Basically the name “Infinity” lives up to it. This game can just keep going and going and going.
NL: We saw an early version of the Toy Box in 2010’s Toy Story 3: The Video Game. Can you tell us about your connection to that game?
Solie: It’s actually sort of exciting. Four years ago I joined Disney and the guys at Avalanche Software were working on Toy Story 3: The Video Game. Once again, in common Avalanche style, the game was divided into two parts. That game had a story mode that followed the story of Toy Story 3 and there was another mode that was more experimental that was called “Western Town” and would later be called “Toy Box.” In that you would play Buzz, Woody, or Jessie, and you were named Sheriff of Western Town, which was themed after Andy’s dream world like in Toy Story 3.
As you play in there you buy and unlock toys. As you put in new toys, because they start mixing and matching with each other, new effects start happening. It would get crazier and crazier the more layers you started adding into it. We basically got done with Toy Story 3 and it was the first time Avalanche had ever done an open-world game. We got everything up and running and it was playing really well and we realized that we had something there. It was a lot of fun and kids were loving it. The majority of kids games are not open world and that’s what Western Town was. After we finished Toy Story 3 we spun a bunch of guys off and were going to make what’s called “Buzz Lightyear’s Star Command,” which was a spiritual successor to Toy Story 3. It was all about Buzz Lightyear and you were a space ranger and you had to protect the Pizza Planet aliens from Zurg. As we started making it we wanted to include online multiplayer, and this is where the Toy Box from Infinity came from.
We wanted to create a virtual lobby, so we created a virtual island. It was literally an island with one palm tree and toys all around it. Kids would show up when they were queuing up to go into Star Command and they could mess around with these toys. What we found was that kids were enjoying it, just messing around and playing, and it was right then that we started figuring out that this was pretty cool. We started adding more stuff like the building component and stuff like that, and kids absolutely loved it. What we discovered is that kids were really enjoying the creativity of doing their own thing so much so that they weren’t going into Star Command anymore. So that’s sort of where we came up with the idea for the whole Play Sets and Toy Box as separate modes and then, of course, we added the whole toy aspect as well.
NL: The issue that Nintendo gamers faced with the Wii version of Toy Story 3 is that the Toy Box mode was missing some features that were present on other home consoles. How do the Wii and Wii U version of Disney Infinity compare to the other current generation home console releases?
Solie: The Wii U is the full 360/PS3 experience. With Wii we did have to change some stuff, but that’s sort of the nature of the beast. The Wii doesn’t have the same amount of horsepower as other consoles, so we did have to pare it down a little bit so we could get it to fit and run on a Wii properly. We had to make some compromises on the Wii in order to get the game to a quality that we wanted to ship to without sacrificing performance for that console.
NL: Are there any features that Wii U owners are getting that won’t be present on other platforms?
Solie: We do have the Nintendo GamePad touchscreen interface. You can actually hot swap equipable items on your characters through the GamePad. When you’re building inside of Toy Box that’s how you select the toys is off the GamePad. We also have walk-away-and-play, so you can actually play the entire game off the GamePad, which is pretty cool. So Nintendo Wii U has all of the unique features this time.
NL: The fact that Toy Box mode supports cross-platform user generated DLC seems to be a big part of the experience. Can you speak a little on what inspired this and went into developing it?
Solie: The good news is that the way we’re sharing Toy Box is universal across consoles and iPad as well. The way we got the first parties on board is that we approached them all and told them that we were going to use what is called a Disney ID System. The Disney ID System is a console agnostic way that we can track all of the game stuff that you’re doing. We wanted to create a unified Disney login system for all of Interactive. The nice thing about it is that the Disney ID system works as an intermediary between all of the consoles, and we worked for many, many years to make sure they were all cool with us making this Disney ID system where it could link a Sony account, a Nintendo account, and a Microsoft account, that we just asked them if we could do this cross-console user generated content and they all thought it sounded cool and couldn’t wait to see it. There was a lot of groundwork laid initially with the Disney ID. Readers at home: I recommend you sign up for a Disney ID!
NL: The 3DS version of the game, Disney Infinity: Toy Box Challenge, has been described as a “multiplayer ‘party game.’” Can you tell us a little more about the gameplay?
Solie: Yeah, I’ll do the best I can, but I didn’t have a lot of fingers in that one. Basically how the 3DS one works is it comes with a base and you can put figures on it and they appear in the game, but it is exactly how they describe it. It’s more of a Mario Party series of mini-games and challenges that you use to unlock experience and currency. It’s a different type of game completely [than the console version] because we can’t fit Toy Box on the 3DS, so we purposely designed it to be a different game. It’s a pretty cool game.
NL: It was announced recently at the D23 Expo that Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey is an upcoming figure. What is the reasoning behind not including other Disney icons such as Donald Duck or Goofy as launch figures? Did the release of DuckTales: Remastered and the upcoming Castle of Illusion play any part in that?
Solie: We haven’t announced everything yet, but it didn’t matter with Castle of Illusion or DuckTackles: Remastered being released. I mean, part of the reason we held Sorcerer’s Apprentice Mickey this long is that D23 was the perfect avenue to sort of show him off. Plus, the thing I always joked about when we announced [Disney Infinity] back in January is that when we did that event, everyone wanted to see every figure, but the whole thing is that if we lay everything out to everyone the first day we come out the gate, then there’s no reason for, say, you, to come talk to me after launch and ask if there’s more stuff coming out! We have more stuff that’s going to be announced coming out and the biggest thing is that we’re just trying to be very strategic about how we announce it so we keep people excited in the long run.
We went through so many different versions of what the starter pack was that it would blow your mind. The configuration that we ended up with, that was something that was made as a very, very high-level call. That was something that I was not personally involved with.
NL: Which properties would you personally like to see as future Disney Infinity Play Sets?
Solie: Ohhh- I would love to see a Tron Play Set. It would have to be original Tron with young Kevin Flynn. Plus I like that art style a lot better and I like the classic look of the Light Cycles a bit more. I would do the story between when Flynn uploaded Tron to take over for Legacy, because that’s the whole thing: he copied Tron and that’s why he’s in Legacy, or the system he had in Flynn’s arcade. It would follow that whole thing about why Flynn wanted to go off and want to make a new system outside of ENCOM. That way we could have Tron and Flynn talking about why he did it. For hardcore fans it would be cool and create a connecting bridge, and for people who hadn’t been involved in the universe, it would have the original baseline guys and the main hero [Tron]. Then we just get someone to sound like Jeff Bridges when he was like 20, then it’s pretty much perfect! [laughs]
NL: Of the current Play Sets, which is your favourite?
Solie: I’m gonna have to go with Pirates for 500. [laughs] The ship-to-ship combat is super, super cool. Absolutely love that one. Plus, the idea of sailing around the open sea and playing split-screen with my nephews. It’s a lot of fun to play.
Second would have to be Lone Ranger, to be honest. The quote of the century that I’ll go to my grave with is when we had a playtest six or seven months ago and an eight-year-old was playing it for five minutes when he stops, looks back and says “oh my god. It’s Red Dead Redemption except my mom’s gonna let me play it!” [laughs] So, that was like, the quote of the century for me.
NL: Are there any parting thoughts that you’d like to share with Nintendo Life readers who might still be on the fence about Disney Infinity?
Solie: I would tell them that what’s so exciting about Disney Infinity is the fact that it’s the first time ever, and I do mean ever, that Disney is allowing you to take every one of its characters and various brands and play with them how you want. I know that a lot of people have been wanting this ultimate mash-up game. Well, you got it. And then we threw everything in and the kitchen sink. Not only do you get to play with everything Disney the way you want, but we allow you to make your own worlds and your own games. And that’s super exciting, and it’s a lot of fun, and no one has a stone-cold heart. Everyone has one Disney character they like, and they will love playing with inside of Infinity as a whole. Definitely give it a shot, give it a chance, you will not be disappointed! Three years of blood, sweat, tears, and we’re still loving playing it even to this day!
We’d like to thank Mathew for taking his time out to speak with us.