DISNEY & PINBALL
Date: 12th March, 2013
Report by: Łukasz Dziatkiewicz
My most recent article for Pinball News was about a tournament in New York. Two days after it took place - on January 14th - I flew to Los Angeles for three days. The main purpose of going there was to see a new Disney video game (although they prefer the term 'video game platform'). It is called Disney Infinity.
This is something new which probably will be a hit for the company, because it opens and brings together many worlds from Disney and Pixar where players will take part in adventures which extend the plots from movies such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles.
More than that though, protagonists from different stories could meet and interact. This will be possible in special zone called Toy Box.
There you can activate elements from different worlds or movies, modify them, and create your own universe. Figures - which the player(s) control - can co-operate or compete against each other. By the time of premiere in Summer 2013, there will be 17 different characters from 8 films.
Talking about figures, they will also have a physical form - as toys. But these toys will be interactive. A player could expand what will be saved in them, and then load them at any time onto any machine running Infinity. How is that possible? By plugging them into a special base which can read and write to them.
Before the presentation of Infinity which was organised in the historic, very ritzy movie theatre called El Captain and built in 1926, which belongs to Disney.
We were waiting outside the theatre and I was standing on the sidewalk, smoking - quite honestly, I was the only one who was. But before long another Disney guest came to me and asked about a cigarette. I gave one to him, so we were smoking together. That was a Belgian journalist specialising in video games.
I told him I had a subject for him which was close to his area of expertise - pinball. He said, "Yeah! Sure! I know it was popular in Belgium too - many people played it in the woods but it was outlawed."
"What?", I replied. "Pinballs in the forest?"
And this moment I realised he misheard me saying "paintball". We have the same problem with name of our country; we say "Poland", but some people hear "Holland". We laughed and finished our cigarettes.
OK, let’s get back to El Captain.
When our group of Disney's guests was going to El Capitan, I saw a stormtrooper (soldier of the Galactic Empire) trudging along slowly. I was sure he must work for some store or theme park, or something like that. I asked him if I could take a picture. He answered "Sure, but I work for tips!". I agreed, but he was very surprised that I didn't want to take a picture with him wearing his helmet.
When I went to pay him I discovered that I only had a $20 note, nothing smaller. Neither Spider-Man nor Wolverine could change that. Not even Catwoman. Finally some passing superhero did though. I think that $5 for this picture is a fair price.
The presentation inside El Capitan wasn’t exactly innovative, but maybe I was expecting too much. Three big fishes from Disney were talking about this game, how it worked, what problems they have, what else we could find on the game platform, how they want the Infinity name to be used, etc.
One of the main ideas was to give maximum freedom in playing, building, creation, and - what is perhaps most important - mixing different Disney and Pixar worlds.
I will not write more about this because this is a pinball website, but I will tell you about one interesting element.
After the presentation, media people were welcomed on the stage where a banquet was organised and Infinity was shown close up. We could ask questions to the staff who worked on it.
For one moment I noticed on the one screen that a car (or some other kind of vehicle) was driving along a road made from pinball bumpers! Wow! I immediately asked the man who was driving this car why & how these things were happening?
He said that they needed a suitable physical object, and because they know and like pinball, they chose these.
This guy also told me also that in one of mini games it is possible to build own pinball. Of course it wouldn’t be like a real video pinball, but rather some simplified version of a pinball game. He couldn’t show it to me for some technical reasons and I regret that I didn’t get to take any pictures of this road of bumpers; of course, there is no way to get it from Disney.
After the buffet, some of us had the opportunity to talk with one of main driving forces behind the project. I was able to conduct an interview with one of the people closest to heart of Infinity. John Blackburn is CEO of Avalanche Software; a video game development studio. In 2005 the company was acquired by Disney.
My first question was about the reason for having pinball in his game. He replied: "So we've got, not only bumpers, we've got the flippers, and we've got the ball which is essentially about that size (gestures). There's a rail editor, so you can put the rails side-by-side and so you can knock a ball into the rails."
"Just from a pinball perspective - and I'm a big pinball fan, so... - we don't have a tilted surface, there's probably not one which is at the right tilt for a pinball game, so the ball is going to go fast. But there are definitely a lot of (pinball) elements in there."
Then I asked him who decided to put those pinball elements into the Disney Infinity platform. John explained, "Just the designers. I mean, a lot of us have been in the games industry for years, and we grew up playing pinball machines, so it's just a natural thing for us. When we start thinking about gameplay, and we have these physics objects like the balls in there, we wanted bumpers and flippers and all that kind of stuff to go along with them."
I spent two-and-a-half days in L.A., always traveling on foot, and I didn’t see a single pinball. On the fourth day when I was due to take my return flight to NY, I went to Santa Monica in the morning. There - on the famous pier - I found a nice arcade with a reasonable collection of pinballs, and they also have some old-school video arcade games too. A good reason to go to Santa Monica.
Pinball inclusion in Infinity caused me to wonder why there so few pinballs based on Disney or even Pixar movies. You could find Disney’s logo on only two Stern machines based on feature movies Pirates of Caribbean and Tron: Legacy. Marvel’s pinball titles, such as Spider-Man and The Avengers don’t have a Disney logo despite the fact that Marvel Entertainment has been owned by Disney since 2009.
I asked several pinball specialists about this absence, and all of them answered that there is a big problem with Disney’s licensing; it is too complicated (for example separate licenses for the music, all the different characters, etc.) and it cost too much.
The other thing is that maybe Disney think pinball machines are unsuitable for children. But if that were the case why would they decide to make toy pinball (for example with Toy Story or Cars)?
I decided to ask the one person who could change it – Gary Stern.
He said, "Our product - pinball machines - is an adult game. Many are in bars. History has shown that children's titles do not do well in most cases – Bugs Bunny, Popeye, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, even Rocky and Bullwinkle; that used to be an adult title but became a children’s title. Adult location owners (pubs and bars) didn’t want kiddie titles, especially in the United States.
One might consider Shrek as an exception. First, this title - and the movie - were attractive to both kids and grownups. There is more adult humor than kids humor in the Shrek movies. Second, for adults only we made the similar game as Family Guy.
Stern Pinball is the only game licensee of Disney - and for that matter of Dreamworks (Shrek)."
"We've put a big bet on this", said John Blackburn. I have my fingers crossed because this game is really something – fresh, and even audacious.
But I think that maybe it is time for a real pinball based on Disney’s characters. Not Mickey, Donald, Pluto, or Goofy? OK, then how about Wreck-It Ralph, or The Incredibles or The Muppets (bought by Disney in 2004), Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Frankenweenie? Wow! That is an idea!
Tim Burton’s films are great material for pinball! Let’s imagine Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands or his Planet of the Apes pinballs!
Only the most obvious and commercial of his films, Batman, with Michael Keaton in the title role and Jack Nicholson as Joker was adapted as a pinball. But this is a completely different story because Burton started his career with Disney and was... fired, for using the company's resources to make the first, short version of Frankenweenie (1984). He subsequently never directed anything for Disney - the modern-day remake of Frankenweenie only being distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.
Anyway I’m almost sure that he would love the idea of some crazy pinball, because he also loves machines - scary, strange machines. So it wouldn’t be for kids anyway.
© Pinball News 2013