It wasn’t that long ago where a team-up of Rocket Raccoon and the incredible Hulk could only be witnessed on comic-book pages.
Now those two superheroes — and big-screen box-office stars of Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers respectively — as well as 18 of their most powerful pals arrive in a new interactive way with the video game Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes, releasing Tuesday for Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and 4 and Nintendo WiiU.
The first iteration of Disney Infinity launched last year as part of the fledgling “toys-to-life” genre, with collectible Disney/Pixar action figures and characters such as Jack Sparrow, Mike Wazowski and Elsa from Frozen adding to and expanding the gaming experience.
Infinity 2.0 brings the Disney-owned Marvel Comics characters into the fray as they look to conquer video games the same way they rule comics and movies.
“We’re all family now, and the Disney and the Marvel brands together lift both brands up in consumers’ eyes,” says Disney Infinity executive producer John Vignocchi.
The initial lineup of Marvel Infinity characters are very familiar to the mainstream: an Avengers-themed starter pack ($74.99) includes Iron Man, Thor and Black Widow, and there are other play sets ($34.99 each) based on the Guardians of the Galaxy movie (with Star-Lord and Gamora) and the Ultimate Spider-Man cartoon (with Spider-Man and Nova) plus individual characters ($13.99 each) from Captain America to Groot.
Add-on power discs let gamers go deeper into Marvel lore, be it wielding Ghost Rider’s flaming chain, using the infamous Infinity Gauntlet to take down foes, or driving the hover car Lola from the Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series.
What was key in everything was “making sure the story feels true to the core fans as well as something that can be much broader because we’re talking to everybody,” says Peter Phillips, executive vice president and general manager for Marvel Entertainment’s Interactive & Digital Distribution division.
A comic-book veteran of all three primary segments of the Marvel Universe touched on in Infinity 2.0, writer Brian Michael Bendis worked on the story lines of the play sets and got the call for the job while his 6-year-old daughter was playing the first Disney Infinity game.
“A comic is like a shared experience between the authors and the readers,” he says. “In games you’re pushing the character along, so there’s a real interactive connection between comics and games that’s different than even TV and movies.”
“That sisterhood of storytelling makes it even doubly even more important that the games matter.”
Marvel initially had conversations about its role in the developing Infinity platform in 2011 — there was a discussion about putting superheroes in Infinity 1.0 “but it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do for the Marvel fans and that’s what was most important to us,” says Vignocchi.
He recalls there was a version of Captain America that was taken to Marvel for that first game. “Their response was, ‘One character? We’ve got 8,000!'”
“We agreed as a team that if we were going to integrate the Marvel superheroes, we were going to do it in a huge way.”
One of the trickiest aspects was re-creating them in the Infinity art style, which marries the values of physical toys with the digital world, says Vignocchi. The challenge there was having Tony Stark and Nick Fury stand next to Buzz Lightyear and Mr. Incredible “and feel like they were all still part of the same universe even though they come from totally disparate properties.”
Infinity allows Marvel fans to utilize their heroes along with past Disney characters as well as upcoming ones such as Stitch, Maleficent (with an Angelina Jolie-approved likeness) and Tinkerbell, whose in-game mechanics were based on Iron Man’s repulsor rays and flight abilities.
They’re also able to make good use of the various worlds of the Toy Boxes, with 15 million downloaded by users to date, and Vignocchi reveals that the Infinity creative team is beginning to play around with the idea of delivering free episodic content based on all the different figures available. So if Marvel wants to “synergize with a big comic story coming out and tell that comic inside the Toy Box, we can do that.”
Bendis would like to see the obscure heroine Squirrel Girl make an appearance in Disney Infinity — for those who think he’s joking, he reminds that a talking raccoon with a gun is in the biggest movie of 2014 so far. “There are no throwaway characters.”
While comics still primarily involve a male-dominated readership and industry, Bendis feels that Infinity bridges a gap to get new fans — young and old, all genders welcome — interested in these characters and stories.
“Superheroes are for everybody,” he says, “and imagination is for everybody.”