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Disney takes on toymakers with massive ‘Infinity’ game hybrid

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(Credit: Disney Interactive)

Captain Jack Sparrow attending Monsters University? Lightning McQueen racing The Lone Ranger? What the heck is going on at Disney these days?

Previously confined to the imagination of children, these sorts of mashups will become reality on August 18, when Disney's long-awaited Disney Infinity hits shelves.

The game, which blends real-world toys with a video game, removes the walls that have previously separated its franchises.

It's one of the biggest bets to date for Disney Interactive, the gaming arm of the Walt Disney Company. And it's shaping up to be one of the division's biggest hits, something that's certain to be a relief to the company, since video games have been an area Disney hasn't had a lot of luck with over the years.

If it wasn't for many of those past failures, though, Disney Infinity might never have been created. Rather than starting fresh every time the company would make a game based on a single Disney property, the team decided instead to create a cohesive world where these characters could interact.

"We love the idea of creating Disney Legos," says John Vignocchi, executive producer at Disney Interactive Studios. "The concept being with Legos you would buy a gas station or fire engine set and you would build those experiences, but the bricks were always compatible with each other - so you always felt, as a consumer, you were investing in a broader collection of stuff."

[Related: Disney Infinity screenshots]

Disney Infinity will combine physical figures with virtual adventures. Gamers use the 'Infinity reader' to transit their action figures into video game worlds based thematically on the various franchises -- the more characters a player owns in a certain franchise, the more areas they'll be able to explore in the associated game.

The game's starter set will cost $75 and will come with Sulley from “Monsters, Inc.,” Jack Sparrow from “The Pirates of the Caribbean,” and Mr. Incredible from “The Incredibles.” Additional play sets with other characters will cost $35, while individual characters can be purchased for $13 each.

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Starter set figures (Credit: Disney Interactive)

If that sounds eerily familiar, it should. Because the game combines figurines with virtual play, the comparisons to Activision’s billion-dollar Skylanders franchise are inevitable. And given the outrageous success of the Skylanders franchise, some argue that Disney will have a hard time wooing that audience.

The team making Infinity contends that the similarity is only skin deep, but acknowledges the hurdle it faces in helping consumers realize this.

"Our biggest challenge with consumers is to make sure they understand our game is fundamentally different than Skylanders," says John Blackburn, CEO of Avalanche Software, the studio making Infinity. "They both use collectible figurines, but that's where it stops. ... We don't think of this as one series of games, we view it as one big playset."

Among the differences is the ability for players to create their own worlds in the game’s massive Toybox mode and even share those experiences with friends, as the game features an online component for up to four players. One of two mobile apps accompanying the game will let players build those environments even when they're not in front of their consoles.

The game is also somewhat future proofed. As Disney rolls out new films, expect those characters to be made available for Infinity. The company will also be introducing familiar faces from its extensive catalog, including Disney Princess Rapunzel and Mickey Mouse, both of which will be out by next January. Blackburn and Vignocchi say the character rollout for the next 18-24 months is already set at the company, but (of course) aren't ready to divulge details on who's next after Mickey.

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(Credit: Disney Interactive)

Like Epic Mickey before it, Infinity gives Disney the chance to resurface older characters who haven't been in the spotlight for a while.

"There are a lot of kids who probably don't know all about, say, Dumbo, these days," said Disney Interactive VP Bill Roper earlier this year at the Game Developer's Conference. "Could we make an entire game about Dumbo right now? Probably not. But we can insert him [into Infinity]."

The team is also not ready to talk about next-generation plans. Disney Infinity is being made for current-gen consoles (the toys will work across them all, so you don't need to buy a new toy for each system you own), but not the Xbox One or PlayStation 4.

However, they tease, there is at least one more revelation still looming about Infinity.

"There's one big surprise that we're not going to talk about for a while," says Blackburn. "What we're excited about is it's the last part of the Infinity puzzle."

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