The news of the closure of Disney Infinity and its developer Avalanche Software brings enormous disappointment for fans of the games and for the 300 staff just laid off.
While it's hard at times like this to look at the upside, it's important to set this in a broader context. A few voices have been calling this the 'death of a sector' – that's wildly wrong, and here's why.
I think of toys-to-life as an on-ramp for a much bigger market called 'connected play'. Connected play includes smart, playful toys like Sphero and Anki Drive, physical/digital hybrids like Osmo, and digitally enhanced tabletop games like XCOM: The Board Game.
"Disney Infinity is the Farmville of today: a huge hit, but ultimately hamstrung by an inability to innovate fast enough on its core proposition."
Alex Fleetwood, Sensible Object
Take a look at the games you find in an Apple Store – that's a pretty good indication of the spread. There's a ton of innovation and creativity coming through and its being driven by indies, small studios and start-ups. There's a lot more incoming too: companies like Jumo, WETA and Playfusion are developing awesome-looking games that fuse physical and digital in novel ways.
As we close in on shipping our first game Fabulous Beasts to retail this year, we at Sensible Object are right in the mix. We have had many conversations with studios, both large and small, who are excited about the game we've made and who tell us they are moving in a similar direction.
The sentiment that powered the commercial success over toys-to-life games isn't going away either. Parents still value games that combine digital fun with traditional play. And gamers of all kinds are still driven by curiosity about new technologies and what kinds of fun we can with them.
So there's a market, and a developer community. And there are efficient ways to put the two together. There is a set of tools for prototyping and scaling games cheaply, and a receptive retail environment for new games and companies. 3D printing, Arduino and Unity put physical/digital development within the reach of even the smallest teams. Crowdfunding and e-commerce provide efficient ways to scale. Shenzhen is ever easier to work with. And something's going to have to fill a lot of shelf space in the toys-to-life aisles in retail this Christmas...
"The great news for smaller studios is that the toys-to-life obsession with IP turned out to be a passing phase."
Alex Fleetwood, Sensible Object
I would argue that Disney Infinity is the Farmville of today: a huge hit, but ultimately hamstrung by an inability to innovate fast enough on its core proposition. Neither Farmville nor Infinity managed to move beyond their core demographics, or to move from Facebook and consoles to mobile as the main device. Finally, both Infinity and Farmville suffered from a similar misapprehensions about the line of best fit between gameplay and business model, gating content from players who chose not to spend heavily.
The golden age of smartphone gaming came after Farmville – a time when the big players no longer had all the answers, and a mix of innovation, creativity and the ability to execute gave a much wider range of developers a shot at success. It was also a time when IP and licensing played a much smaller role in the success of new game. The great news for smaller studios is that the toys-to-life obsession with IP turned out to be a passing phase.
My heart goes out to the amazing team at Avalanche. I hope that some incredible hardware game studios emerge from the situation there – they undoubtedly have the ability to make some awesome hit games that move the entire genre forward. We'll see a rich mix of titles on sale by Christmas 2017, appealing to different kinds of players and based on a wealth of different sensors and technologies.