Jeff Bunker spends a large portion of his day playing with toys. One minute he’ll be thinking up new poses for Mickey Mouse and the next he’ll be detailing the newest Darth Vader combo attack. He’s a lucky man.
Bunker has been the VP of art direction for Avalanche Studios for nearly 20 years and when it was acquired by the Walt Disney Company he began work on some intriguing new projects. One of these projects was the highly ambitious Disney Infinity, a toys-to-life title that brought various Disney-owned IPs into a virtual toy box. Since its initial launch in 2013 the series has gone on to sell millions of copies and corresponding figures, and is currently about to launch the new 3.0 edition which focuses on the Star Wars universe.
I sat down with Jeff to discuss his process and the newest Infinity iteration. He is involved in all figure development, as well as the in-game mechanics for current and upcoming characters. This is no small feat, especially considering the outrageous amount of characters produced for each Disney Infinity title. In fact Bunker is the big man in charge of actually picking which characters, new and old, make the final cut. I asked how he chose each character, those from the distant Disney past and present, to add to the roster every Disney Infinity season.
“You know that really comes from our community,” Bunker professed, “We really try to pay attention to what they’re telling us. We watch the forums and we have the community leaders that we’ve hired internally that listen to the fans. We just try to draw as much of our selection from our fans. That’s the number one places that we try to get our information.”
In fact Disney recently launched their “Player’s Pick 2015” where Infinity enthusiasts can vote for their most wanted character by name. The ballot is chalked full of Disney favorites that span the company’s long history. The top two nominees, by a staggering margin, are currently the always dangerous Darkwing Duck and the adorable Mabel Pines of Gravity Falls. Bunker assured me both characters have fans on the inside as well and that he wouldn’t be surprised to see them pop up in the future.
Though when I asked if winning the “Player’s Pick” meant a promised spot in a future Disney Infinity title Bunker acknowledged, “It’s weighted heavily. They may pick a character that they really would like, but we may struggle find a really good gameplay mechanic for. So it’s not a given.” Even Bunker himself has favorites, citing that he would love to see Kronk and Ezma of The Emperor’s New Groove show up in the future.
And while fan involvement seems to play a big part when it comes to who makes the cut, Disney isn’t one to shy away from the business aspects of any project. Many of the characters who make their Disney gaming debut are selected by filmmakers who think their properties would be a good fit for the ever-expanding sandbox world. Bunker explained that internally the team talks about which characters they feel would work best and bring fresh gameplay mechanics, while also representing a chosen franchise.
Once a character is selected the creative team at Disney starts the arduous process of choosing a proper design and figure pose. From the start, Bunker and his crew approach all aspects artistically, studying the source material and noting the iconic aspects. In their mind these figures are works of art—small sculptures for fans and players alike.
Once a few sketches have been fleshed out they are sent to the actual filmmakers or creators for input. Many times filmmakers have a much different take on how their character should act or look. “And so we go back and forth,” Bunker explains, “We take their feedback and we do the pose again. Try to incorporate what they’re telling us that would feel more appropriate for the character and over time we eventually get something that we’re happy with and they’re happy with. We always feel that if we’re making the creator of that character happy we’re making the fans of that character happy as well.”
Speaking of making fans happy, a few weeks back the Infinity team finally announced a tie in many had been awaiting — Kingdom Hearts. The announcement came during Disney’s D23 expo, and attendees even walked away with a special Kingdom Hearts power disc which would transform everyone’s favorite Disney icon into the daring King Mickey. The fabled Keyblade was also announced as an ultimate unlockable item, one that could only be used when players registered every figure the game had to offer in it’s prestigious “Hall of Heroes”. I asked Bunker if we would see more of Kingdom Hearts in the future and he just laughed, stating that his team was aware of the hype surrounding the series and were taking it into consideration.
As mentioned above, the third Disney Infinity will have a strong focus on the fan=obsessed sci-fi juggernaut Star Wars. There are hardly any franchises in the universe (pun intended) as iconic and Bunker was excited at the opportunity to handle both classic and contemporary characters. As they do with all figures, the beginning of the Star Wars process dealt with taking a lot of cues from Lucasfilm, with the same thought that what made them happy would also resonate with fans.
We’ve already gotten a glimpse of figures in action (and in their iconic poses) so it’s nice to know that Disney really did their homework when it came time to get Star Wars right. Even the newly announced Finn and Rey figures from the upcoming Force Awakens look the part.
In fact, in the near future Infinity will be releasing their first line of “LightFX” Star Wars figures, each with their own glowing lightsaber. “There are just six of them that we’re doing. It’s certainly not all of the figures,” Bunker assured, “We narrowed it down to six that made sense to us. And our thought there was that we don’t want to do anything contrived. We don’t want to start making Elsa’s eyes glow or anything. As we were working on those characters we thought, ‘Man… these are lightsabers! It certainly isn’t contrived to light them up.’ It was just something that came up while we were working on the original figures and it made sense to us.”
On the topic of Star Wars I asked bunker who his favorite character was from the nearly dozen that would launch in wave one of Infinity 3.0. After the hemming and hawing that a parent might go through when asked to pick their favorite child, he settled on Yoda. “He’s just such a blast in-game. He’s super quick with his combat, he’s very good with his force attacks, and he’s just a lot of fun to play with. I also think he came out pretty sharp in the figure department,” Bunker admits.
He also mentions two of the lesser known characters, Sebine Wren and Zeb Orrelios (concept art and figures seen above), both from the recent Star Wars Rebels cartoons series. Bunker considers them both dark horses due to their lesser known status, but feels that many will become fans of their characters through the game.
As I mentioned in the opening, Bunker is in charge of the characters both in and out of the game. After discussing Yoda’s quick combat skills and the newly implemented force mechanics we discussed how combat has evolved over the years within the world of Disney Infinity. It may be a game targeted at children, but it’s no slouch in the action department. It’s probably the only game in existence that can legally feature a fight between the Hulk and Obi-Wan Kenobi. And who wouldn’t want to see that?
Bunker states that the combat in Infinity 3.0 has been improved substantially from past iterations. He describes it as “satisfying and fluid”, which makes me very hopeful. As someone who mashed his way through the last two Infinity titles, it would be nice to actually chain together a few combo attacks when fighting new enemies. The force mechanics are also a point of pride, as Bunker explained how players can use them as both an attack and a defensive maneuver to gain better footing. It’s a Star Wars game after all, you have to have some solid force combat.
With our time at an end I asked Bunker why he thought folks would be drawn to the newest Infinity title. He didn’t hesitate for a moment. “I think considering 1.0 was an amazingly innovative and fun game. From Disney Infinity 1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0 I really can’t think of a system that we haven’t enhanced and improved. So what was already a very strong game, I think we’ve made it much more accessible and fun. It’s easier to access what’s available to you as a player, especially in the Toy Box. The series started out great and we’ve made it much better over the years.”
It’s nice to see the team behind a series with such potential and such a big fanbase has put so much time and effort into making sure their games improve and expand. Especially when the company behind it is a powerhouse like Disney. Here’s hoping that Disney Infinity 3.0 is the best so far.
Disney Infinity 3.0 launches on August 30th for PS3, PS4, Xbox One Xbox 360 and Wii U. It features a ridiculous amount of characters including Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka Tano, Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Boba Fett, Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Ezra Bridger, Kanan Jarrus, Sabine Wren, Zeb Orrelios, Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust, Anger, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Sam Flynn, Quorra, Mulan, and Olaf.
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You can follow Ben Bertoli on Twitter @SuperBentendo. The force is strong with him (usually).