As most people remember, about a month ago Disney officially discontinued Disney Infinity, but the news some people may have missed, or just not noticed, was the other part of the announcement made that fateful day,
After a thorough evaluation, we have modified our approach to console gaming and will transition exclusively to a licensing model. This shift in strategy means we will cease production of Disney Infinity, where the lack of growth in the toys-to-life market, coupled with high development costs, has created a challenging business model. This means that we will be shutting down Avalanche, our internal studio that developed the game. This was a difficult decision that we did not take lightly given the quality of Disney Infinity and its many passionate fans.
Obviously most eyes immediately went to Disney Infinity which would be ceasing production, but mine went more to Avalanche Studios. Avalanche was a subsidiary of Disney Interactive, which made all in-house games from Disney. Now of course Disney is no stranger to using other companies to make games, which would of course be then published through Disney Interactive (i.e. Kingdom Hearts). While this does still save us Kingdom Hearts fans, as the games are produced by Square Enix- not Avalanche- almost every other game from Disney is produced by Avalanche.
Without Avalanche, there will no longer be games based off of movies from Disney (which isn't really a major loss), Disney Infinity is not only the biggest loss, but also the biggest reason why the studio is closing. The thing is though, this isn't the first time Disney has had such a massive failure that it caused an entire studio to be closed. Back in 2010 Disney released a little game some people may remember as Epic Mickey.
Epic Mickey was basically a game where Mickey Mouse gets transported to Wasteland, a disneyland-esque world full of forgotten Disney Characters, led by Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. It was a decent game, better than most other games to be released under Disney Interactive. The game was well enough received to warrant a sequel. The sequel, however, was not as good as the original (pretty common theme there) and bombed. Like, really bombed. Quickly. The studio that developed the game, Junction Point Studios, closed its doors in January 2013, less than 3 months after the release of Epic Mickey 2.
The greater question here isn't just why can't Disney make a good game, it's how can they make better games? Disney's one true runaway hit was Kingdom Hearts, released in 2002, the game was a smash hit- especially for a Disney game. So what can Disney learn from Kingdom Hearts to ensure that no other game, and studio, face the same fate as Epic Mickey and Disney Infinity.
Knowing Disney properties aren't just video game poison, with Kingdom Hearts being a prime example, the question isn't exactly why do these other games suck, it's also why doesn't Kingdom Hearts suck? The Kingdom Hearts franchise features original characters in the leading roles, with Disney characters rounding out the supporting cast, and Final Fantasy and The World Ends With You characters scattered around in cameo roles throughout the series.
This is a big one, because not only is it a massive difference from Disney Infinity and Epic Mickey, it also makes the appearances of popular characters that much more special. Throughout Kingdom Hearts players never saw Mickey Mouse. Donald and Goofy were in the party after the beginning, sure, but Mickey Mouse- by far the most popular Disney Character- never makes a full appearance, just a cameo at the end. What does this mean for Disney? It means that a game, and a good one, can be made without the main mouse.
Another big difference between Kingdom Hearts and Epic Mickey especially is the ability to revisit worlds. Epic Mickey was a beautifully designed game, with incredibly interesting lands, but the biggest problem with it (and probably what did it in) was the fact that you couldn't revisit the main story portions of these lands, which meant that there were, as always, cool secrets and Easter Eggs left undiscovered. Kingdom Hearts, on the other hand, has always had the worlds able to be revisited whenever you want (except Monstro, that iffy little whale that never wanted to show up and sends you to Atlantica almost every time you want to go there). So now we have to major points that can help Disney actually make a good game, don't rely on the characters featured, and allow us to visit the worlds more than once.
That leaves us with Disney Infinity the sandbox game that couldn't. If Disney has taught us anything since 2011 it's that they know how to tell stories again. Disney Infinity obviously wasn't a story-based game, it was just a sandbox thing that you could race in. It was a decent game, but it could never keep me occupied for more than 20 minuted, I always felt like there was nothing to do, even though there were "infinite" possibilities. Of course that's more of a personal thing, but Disney makes great movies, so why they can't make a decent game is the same reason games don't typically make great movies, films are linear, games are like a blob of adventure and exploration.
Epic Mickey was, in a lot of ways, made like a movie. The game was very linear, so much so that exploring was pretty much not an option, unless you try really hard. The lack of ability to explore was a problem, it was too story oriented and not very do-whatever-and-don't-die oriented. Disney Infinity was the complete opposite, all based around do-whatever-and-don't-die (and even dying wasn't a big deal) without any story, save for some story packs that were really just quests in a cool looking place that didn't really have a plot.
What does this mean for the future of games from Disney Interactive should they choose to try again? They need to remember how to tell a story, but still keep in mind that exploration is good for a game. The odds of Disney having another smash hit like Kingdom Hearts are slim to none, especially in the RPG genre which they seem to be a nice fit for. Should Disney try again? I'd like to think they should, after all it is Disney and if any company has the funds it is definitely them.
Speaking of Disney Games: