Simba keeps John Vignocchi awake at night. Specifically, the young lion's touchy sense of dignity.
Vignocchi is in charge of Disney Infinity, the game-and-toy franchise that allows players to mix-and-match their favorite animated characters in an open-world virtual toy box. In theory, this game allows you to take Tinker Bell and have her hang out with Spider-man or make Donald Duck ride around on Lightning McQueen. It's just like playing with a bunch of your own toys, except it's all inside a video game.
You can do things in Disney Infinity that would never, ever be allowed in an official Disney production. But even in the anything-goes world of Disney Infinity, there are rules. and it's Vignocchi's job to figure those rules out.
Simba isn't just a lion. He's a king
"Take Rajah and Simba," he says, as we sit in front of a large table of toy characters, and a demo of forthcoming Disney Infinity 2.0. "Rajah [Princess Jasmine's pet tiger from Aladdin] is a mount. So can you take a character and ride on Rajah? Sure you can. He's a tiger. But what about Simba? Simba is a lion. Can you ride Simba?"
"That would be wrong," I say, my eyes widening with an animated-style dawning of understanding and horror. "Simba isn't just a lion. He's a king. He's like Jesus or something."
"That's right," says Vignocchi, delighted that I see the dilemma. "You can't ride Simba."
One of the obvious reasons for this is that "Simba talks." But for Vignocchi, this talking rule is one of a host of aberrations that he has to sort out. After all, Lightning McQueen talks and you can climb onto him and ride around.
The rules are all on "a case-by-case basis." Each rule has to be negotiated with people at Disney who represent the best interests of the character. For example, nothing can really be done with Maleficent without the approval of "Angelina Jolie's people." Nothing can be done to Jack Sparrow without the consent of "Johnny Depp's people."
Disney is a large and sprawling empire made up of many fiefdoms. Not all of them are sympathetic to the needs of a video game, in which the guiding principle is that it must allow children to play as freely as they play with their own real toys. Vignocchi has to go around and talk to them all.
What he says is roughly as follows. Disney Infinity represents a rebirth for Disney's approach to games. In the bad old days, Disney would figure out that it had a movie coming out and would sell the license to a games company which would knock out a platform adventure-romp that might sell well and might scrape past 65 percent on Metacritic.
Now the company has its own virtual platform that allows it to create bespoke adventures around its properties as well as a Minecraft-style creative environment where kids can just create their own worlds and play with their favorite characters any way they please.
Vignocchi literally explains to the execs he meets that "you wouldn't dictate how kids play with Disney toys..." so why do it in the virtual realm? This argument is aided by the fact that Disney Infinity is also a platform for the sale of figurines which are attached to the game via a portal.
This toys-to-life technology was pioneered by Toys For Bob's Skylanders series (incredibly, rejected by Nintendo) and allowed Disney to start over with its video games effort, doing something the company understands really, really well; selling toys.
I laugh and say to Vignocchi that I have worked for big companies and I know how hard it is to get universal sign-off on anything, let alone something as emotive and potentially fraught as Disney characters jumping on the back of Marvel superheroes and doing whatever weird stuff a six-year-old might imagine.
He says that, yes, it's a lot of work, adding that some people at Disney are cool about the whole thing right away, while for others, it takes some persuading and some detailed negotiating. Thus, Simba will not allow Iron Man to just jump on his back and demand to be ridden around. Such a thing, I think we can all agree, would just not be right.
So Disney Interactive has to do this for dozens of characters, some of which are still very popular but not high on the parent company's priorities right now. A recent poll by the company found that the character players most wanted to see in the game was Stitch.
Disney Infinity 2.0 comes out on Sept. 23 (aka Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes) and includes over 20 superheroes ranging from Groot to Venom. Not only must the company get the depictions of these characters right (digitally and with the models) keeping fans and execs happy, they must also ensure that they interact with one another, and with Disney's native characters, in ways that are proper.
I look at the models and I play a level of the game and it all seems perfectly obvious to me why Disney would make sure Vignocchi has the power to knock on Jerry Bruckheimer's and Tim Burton's doors to get these rules sorted out. Disney Infinity was the tenth biggest grossing game of the year. This year, I think Marvel is going to make it even bigger. It is a sure-bet that Star Wars characters will be added in the near future.
Compounding the opportunity / headache, the game's fans are forever sharing their toy box creations, which 2.0 is tooled to make even easier. It's a nexus of Minecraft-style freedom-to-create (albeit on a lesser scale than that game) and the extremely powerful draw of wonderful characters like Elsa and Rocket Racoon and Simba. I look at the toys and I know for a fact that I am buying this game for my kids and I kinda want to collect all the figures too.
And although I want to do weird stuff in the game, I'm glad, really, that there are rules, that there are people at Disney who are paid to say "thus far and no further." Because there is a balance to be had between the freedom to play with these characters, just as you please, and the right of the characters on-screen retaining something of themselves.
Simba is not for riding.