Oh Disney Infinity, what happened to you?

3 weeks ago by Mike Cosimano

From invite-only fan conferences to 'a plague' on retailers, the toys-to-life fad left plenty of waste in its wake.

It’s a week before Christmas, and the Toys R Us in Alhambra, California is packed. The store’s remaining inventory, no matter how unsellable, has been tossed onto shelves in the hopes of enticing last-minute shoppers; enterprising families are outside the store offering a cheap gift-wrapping service. I’m there looking for some Transformers action figures. My roommate has tagged along, so we’re going through the “two guys in their early 20s looking around a toy store” checklist. Feigned surprise at how many toys there could possibly be in the world at any one time? Check. Legitimate surprise at how much everything costs? Check. Post-college ennui brought about by toys from our childhood being revived for a new generation? Check-a-roo.

We shuffled our way to the video game section, where a horde of toys-to-life figures from the Disney Infinity games were on sale for three bucks – down significantly from their manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $12.99. My roommate absentmindedly picked up a Kylo Ren figure off the peg and began examining it.

“Huh. This thing is pretty cool,” he said.

“Why don’t you buy it?” I asked. “It’s only three dollars. It’s practically free.”

He thought about it for a moment, weighing his desire to own a cool little bauble against his desire to keep those dollars in his pocket. “Nah,” he said, putting the figure back on the shelf next to an incalculable amount of similarly unsold Disney-themed statues.

Photo source: 8-Bit Central

Before the page was taken down, the Toys R Us site offered Disney Infinity 3.0 starter packs – which include two figures, a set of missions called “playsets,” and the USB portal that connects the toys and the game – for about two dollars plus shipping and tax. The site’s remaining stock of single-pack figures cost one dollar.

“Why don’t you buy it?” I asked. “It’s only three dollars. It’s practically free.”

This is the current state of Disney Infinity, the last console-focused video game produced by the Walt Disney Corporation.

Toys-to-life games and their equivalent plastic figures were slowly throttled over the course of 2017, as the hype machine started by Activision’s Skylanders (and refueled by Nintendo’s amiibo craze) slowly began to fade. Of the Big Three – Skylanders, Lego Dimensions, and Disney Infinity – only Skylanders has not been officially cancelled, even making an appearance on the Nintendo Switch’s launch lineup early last year.

Skylanders may have been first, but Disney Infinity launched at the perfect time: right after Skylanders popularized the concept of toys that could interact with video games, but still years before LEGO Dimensions rolled on the scene with its moving truck full of diverse intellectual property. Disney Infinity sold like gangbusters because it had characters people recognized and still widely trusted. Even if the company’s then-recent acquisitions of Marvel and Lucasfilm weren’t represented at first, it didn’t take long for Disney to start producing Avengers and Star Wars content for Infinity.

The Mouse’s video game publishing arm went full force when promoting Infinity. They rented out the Cinerama dome in Hollywood for the reveal of Disney Infinity 2.0: Marvel Super Heroes (an event I skipped Spanish class to attend). They held regular contests for Infinity fans to see who could make the wildest creations in the game’s player creation suite, the Toy Box. In fact, the Toy Box was such a major selling point that Disney held invitation-only Toy Box Summits: conferences where prominent members of the community spent a weekend attending Infinity panels and competing to make Toy Box levels. Avalanche Software even hired a fan to create official Toy Box levels full-time.

Disney Infinity promotional art

Reports from outlets like the New York Times and Kotaku claim the first Disney Infinity brought in between $500-550 million in worldwide sales, but those numbers precipitously dropped off for 2.0 and 3.0. One source, speaking to Kotaku, blamed overproduction for the game’s failure. “[For 2.0], they made too many toys,” the unnamed source said. “All those additional units [...] destroyed any chance for 2.0 to be profitable.” Disney planned for a level of demand that wasn’t quite there at launch, nor for months afterward.

According to that same report, Disney was considering a partnership with toy giant and existing Disney licensee Hasbro to reduce the risk of producing the Infinity figures. That deal would have put the onus on Hasbro to actually produce the Infinity figures, but it never fully materialized.

Disney actually did partner up with Hasbro during Infinity’s sunset years, producing a completely separate toys-to-life product called Playmation. Released in late 2015, months before Disney Infinity would be cancelled, Playmation is a little harder to pitch than Infinity, in part because it’s an AR game where most of the action happens in real life courtesy of a mobile app. The $130 Starter Pack touted an arm-mounted Iron Man-style “Repulsor Gauntlet” that tells players which movements to perform, like running around or dodging; an interactive radio play stapled to a gyroscope. Right now, you can buy the Playmation Starter Pack on Amazon for $14.

Disney Infinity 3.0’s failure was the last straw for Disney, which shuttered its games division in 2016 in favor of licensing its properties to outside studios, laying off the whole team at Avalanche in the process. You can see the results of that strategy in games like Star Wars Battlefront or Insomniac Games’ upcoming Spider-Man title, which is a fine way to minimize risk in an inherently risky business.

But risk management is for the investors and people who read the Wall Street Journal for fun. The rest of us here on the ground have to figure out what to do with Disney Infinity’s corpse before the rigor mortis sets in.

Photo source: Engadget

There is, as I alluded to much earlier, a glut of physical figures to deal with. I asked several retailers what exactly happens if an item refuses to leave the bargain bin. Toys R Us was the only company that chose to provide comment – according to a spokesperson, stores will “donate unsold merchandise to suitable charities in the area.”

Wanting to make sure, I spoke with a handful of former Toys R Us employees. One TRU alumnus, who also goes by Mike, was able to elaborate on the process for me. “Once [unsold merchandise] has been in the discount isle for ages, it’s either shipped to outlet TRUs, donated through TRU charity programs, sold back to distributors for a reduced price, or shipped back to corporate for who knows what fate,” Mike said. The other former employees I spoke with corroborated this account. So if those Disney Infinity toys me and my roommate stumbled across never get sold, there’s a chance they’ll be clogging a nearby Goodwill fairly soon.

“Honestly there's probably a warehouse somewhere that's full of unsold merch.”

I also managed to speak with current and former GameStop employees about Disney Infinity and the fate of unsold merchandise. Alex McCumbers, a former GameStop employee who worked at the store for about a year in 2016, told me that anything they couldn’t move was shipped elsewhere, or bought up by the store’s manager as Christmas gifts. “Honestly there's probably a warehouse somewhere that's full of unsold merch,” McCumbers said. “Disney Infinity figures were definitely the least popular [toys-to-life line]. We did have less of them used, though.”

A current GameStop manager, who wished to remain anonymous, ferried their comments for this story through a former GameStop employee, who also wished to remain anonymous. According to them, unsold merchandise was voided as unsellable, and “field destroyed” by the District Manager.

Field destruction was apparently common knowledge as early as 2014, if this IGN article about GameStop dumpster diving is anything to go by. The article mentions “field destroying” word-for-word, a mandate where employees will intentionally damage unsold merchandise to the point of being unusable before throwing it in the garbage. GameStop came under fire for the practice a year after the IGN article, when YouTuber JayPee filmed himself rifling through a dumpster behind a GameStop (below). The company later issued a statement through Facebook where it claimed the trashed merchandise was already unusable. According to the anonymous manager, however, JayPee’s video prompted the company to change its policy. As a result, now “the District Manager just picks up all the voided items and God knows what happens to it.”

The manager described toys-to-life games as “a plague,” to the point where they started lying to customers by telling them the store no longer paid for used toys-to-life figures, even though there had been no such directive from corporate.

“Adults would come in with their awful kids on the weekends, which are always the busiest, and they would come in with literally dozens of these stupid toys that they paid a ridiculous amount of money for. GameStop only takes them for like ten cents apiece. This led to a lot of raging parents because they frequently spent so much on this stuff only to find out it was worth nothing,” the anonymous employee said.

“Oh yeah, people would bring in hundreds [of figures] at a time,” McCumbers confirmed. “Overstock is the word for that. It was our least favorite item we carried and just took up so much room. Most of the time they just sat in piles in storage.”

I also spoke with a former Best Buy and GameStop employee, who told me that Disney Infinity toys would usually sell fairly well during the launch of a new wave, but would quickly fall into clearance not long afterwards. “At GameStop, we would trade and circulate inventory [with other stores] to try and maximize selling potential,” the employee said. “Every now and then we'd send things back to HQ or whatever, but I don't know where they went from there. Maybe they're still swirling around the proverbial drain somewhere, or piled up in an outlet mall.”

Photo source: Disney Infinity Codes Photo source: Disney Infinity Codes

With the fate of Disney Infinity’s physical remains still in limbo, the game’s remaining fans have to make do with the Infinity-inspired line of “Toybox” figures. Rather than letting the game’s unified visual aesthetic go to waste, Disney has instead repurposed those designs as a line of fully articulated action figures, launching in Marvel, Star Wars, and Pixar flavors. They’re exclusive to the Disney Store and produced by Disney’s “Merchandise Sourcing and Distribution” arm, which allows them to circumvent the general retail Marvel and Star Wars toy licenses the company has with Hasbro.

Long-time toy reviewer yo go re (not their real name) from the action figure review site OAFE helped break down toy licensing for me. “If one company gets a master license for something, that means they're now in charge of everything within their industry/market,” yo said. “[Toy companies] can make action figures in whatever size they want, they can make RC cars, they can make dart guns, they can make yo-yos, they can make board games, they can make whatever they want, as long as it's covered by their license.”

“Licenses also get divided by product type. You know how Funko has licenses for everything, right? Well, notice that their Star Wars Pops all stand on little display bases, while the other Pops don't: that probably makes them a different product category, and thus a license separate from Mattel's,” yo explained. “And notice that the Marvel Pops are all bobbleheads, which is again a product category that Hasbro clearly didn't own. Playmates has the TMNT master license, but put a removable loop on a TMNT Minimate and now it's a ’keychain‘ and totally legal to sell. Like any legal document, there are people dedicated to finding the loopholes to squeeze through so they can make their money.”

Side-by-side comparison of several lines of Star Wars Rey figures. Photo source: Yakface Side-by-side comparison of several lines of Star Wars Rey figures. Photo source: Yakface

So, because Disney Toybox figures exist as specialty figures for a specialty market – in this specific case, Disney Store exclusives – the company doesn’t have to worry about bumping up against Hasbro’s action figure licenses. A similar thing happened when Warner Brothers used action figure molds from the toy company NECA to produce an action figure based on the 1989 Batman movie. Although another toy company, Mattel, had the Batman movie license, NECA was able to produce a toy based on the Batman NES game, and Warner Brothers repurposed that tooling for a “real” Batman figure they sold themselves. That’s how Disney can sell the Toybox figures while Hasbro peddles similarly-sized Marvel action figures.

In the span of three games, Disney Infinity went from holding invite-only conferences with its biggest fans to a profit liability.

As for the piles of unsold, unwanted Disney Infinity figures, a best-case scenario is that all ends up at a children’s hospital, where it will decorate every common area until well after the human race has turned to dust. But with nothing standardized between retail chains, as well as stores within those chains, the smart money is on a bunch of landfills getting just a little bit bigger.

In the span of three games, Disney Infinity went from holding invite-only conferences with its biggest fans to a profit liability for electronics sections everywhere, hitting a level of unwanted saturation we haven’t seen since the horde of the plastic instruments. And hey, if you’ve read all this and you’re still itching to play a mediocre licensed platformer, let me share a tip with you: I hear you can get Disney Infinity for pretty cheap at Toys R Us.

At time of publication, GameStop’s press contact did not respond to queries related to this story.

Top image source: Infinity Inquirer.