Disney's new video game strategy: To Infinity and beyond?
Buzz Lightyear, Jack Sparrow, the characters from "Monsters Inc." and "The Incredibles" are all getting ready to play together and interact in a new kind of virtual universe.
It's a big weekend for Disney's struggling Interactive division, which is overhauling its strategy with a brand-new video game platform due to hit stores Sunday.
The new product called "Disney Infinity" is a departure from the media giant's strategy in a number of ways: It brings together characters from far-flung Disney and Pixar worlds, in an unprecedented mashup, and it ditches a strategy of creating stand-alone console games.
The game platform starts with a $75 starter pack—comes with three game figurines, which have accompanying video game content, and a base, which plugs into any of the consoles.
When gamers put the figurines down on the base, it recognizes them, and they appear in the game. Additional purchases allow players to add extra characters and locations—another $30 buys a pack of three figurines.
A "Toybox" mode allows gamers to create their own backdrops and levels, making the experience, including the crafting of the game, interactive.
This replaces Disney's money-losing strategy of introducing a stand-alone $60 console game for each big movie release—Disney's Interactive unit has lost $1.4 billion since 2008.
Recently the division slashed its employee numbers and closed a number of studios that make stand-alone games, as it looked for more profitable ways to tap into the value of its brands. This new approach works under the assumption that just kids enjoy collecting Disney consumer products, they'll want the toys, as well as the content that comes along with them.
Video game analyst Michael Pachter, who spent several hours testing the new game, predicts Disney's investment will pay off in Drives.
"I think this game has billion-dollar potential on an annual basis," Pachter said. "And I would guess at a 50 percent margin or higher, so I think this has the potential to generate $500 million in annual profit."
He was impressed by the fact that the technology creates a "smart" game. "The playing pieces have a microchip built in and they actually learn from what the players have done. So your little game piece, which is a character, has unique ability, powers, personality—something that assists you in playing the game."
The natural comparison for Disney Infinity is Activision's hit Skylanders franchise, which also involves plastic pieces that work with video games.
Pachter said it generated $750 million in sales last year, $250 million of which was from high-margin figurines. While it's unclear if Infinity threatens to compete directly with Skylanders and eat into its business, it's clear that Disney has a big advantage: built-in recognition of its characters.
And that's already playing out ahead of its launch; even though no consumers have played with Infinity yet, its Facebook page already has more than half a million likes more than Skylanders has.
The pressure is on for this bet to pay off for Disney: If it doesn't work the media giant may have to consider moving to a strategy of just licensing its characters to outside game developers, rather than making its games in-house.
—By CNBC's Julia Boorstin. Follow her on Twitter: @JBoorstin