“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” opens in theaters across America on Dec. 18, 2015. But that’s not the only new “Star Wars” property set to be released by Disney in a couple of weeks. At the height of “Star Wars” fever, Disney Infinity 3.0 will be launching a new playset based on the movie, featuring stories and characters based on Episode VII.
This week, Latin Post spoke with José Villeta, Senior Director of Technology at Disney Interactive, about how he ended up in his career, what “toys to life” gaming is, the upcoming “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” release for Disney Infinity 3.0, and the challenge of producing it while steering clear of Star Wars spoilers.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Latin Post: You got your undergraduate and master’s degree in aeronautical engineering, particularly focused around testing experimental aircraft. That was also the focus of your first job. What changed after that? How did you end up pivoting to producing video games?
José Villeta: I was always a gamer, from the arcade machines to the Atari days to my first gaming computer, the Commodore64. Early on in my career, I worked for several years at different NASA Research Centers: NASA Langley in Hampton VA and NASA Dryden in Edwards Air Force Base in California.
During my time in California, I spent lots of weekends building video games as a hobby with my colleagues from MIT Media Lab. It was fun to not only play the latest games but also learn how to make them.
LP: What led you from NASA to then co-founding your video game company, Black Ops Entertainment?
JV: Once we got a Nintendo SNES Volleyball prototype working, we went around pitching it to publishers, but Virgin [Games] decided they had bigger plans for us. They wanted for us build a dream team based on our MIT Media Lab colleagues and build our first game around launch of the original PlayStation. We started Black Ops out of our home until we moved to our offices in Santa Monica.
LP: How did your experiences at NASA inform your career making games?
JV: Well, our first game was Agile Warrior, a flying shooter game — taking advantage of my NASA flight simulation experience and the 3D rendering powers of the PlayStation.
More generally, the first part of my career trained and inspired me to build games at larger scale. I programmed a large 360-dome flight simulator using latest Silicon Graphics supercomputer, with the power to recreate a whole 3D world and flight dynamics of latest experimental fighter aircrafts.
My MIT education and work experience at MIT Media Lab also opened my eyes to new technologies, not only around the aeronautical industry, but also on emerging entertainment and interactive game industries. For example, at the MIT Media Lab, I was exposed to new video displays, which eventually become the HDTVs of today. I also got a chance to see how interactive experiences can expand your imagination and curiosity.
LP: Encouraging imagination and creativity is a big part of Disney Infinity, but only one facet. To the uninitiated, the Disney Infinity toy-video game hybrid seems like a complicated system. Could you explain the various components and features for those who haven’t experienced it?
JV: So Disney Infinity 3.0 starts with a starter pack, where you get the software, the base, and you get a playset piece and sample toys with it.
For example, you get the “Twilight of the Republic,” it’s the playset based on the Clone Wars and the prequel movies. So you get the starter pack, it has the base, which is USB-connected to your console or Apple TV, and you can start playing.
The main modes Infinity has is playsets and toybox.
Playsets is the basic video game based on a chosen property — and gameplay that’s pretty common to classic adventure games. So there’s a few playsets available: Inside Out, there’s going to be all the three big “Star Wars” sagas, Episodes 4, 5 and 6 from the original, the prequel sagas in “Twilight of the Republic,” and then there’s “The Force Awakens,” the new playset for the movie.
So that’s one mode of play — you just use the toy and playset for that given property. So for example, I can put the Anakin character into the base with the playset piece and you can start playing. If you want to swap characters, you take them out of the base and put, for example, Obi Wan in and keep playing.
LP: So what’s the toybox mode?
JV: The toybox is probably one of the biggest software innovations we’ve done at Disney. If you know about games like Minecraft or Little Big Planet, where you can make your own creations and share with the community, toybox allows you to create your own map.
And that’s the place where you can mix everything. You can put stuff together like Marvel characters with “Star Wars” characters with Disney Pixar characters.
Anything goes — there are no rules in the toybox mode. You can build your own castle, put in your own vehicles, your own enemies, and build your won adventure. And the toybox gets saved and you can push it to the cloud, so you can share it to the community.
LP: You’re still using the physical toys for characters in the toybox mode?
JV: Yep, and the cool thing with the toys is that you can actually save your abilities — your skill tree and customizations — and that gets saved into the toys. So if I take my Anakin from my house and I go to your home and we play together, my Anakin will be different from your Anakin. Because there’s memory in the toy.
LP: What about the toys themselves? Do they do anything besides unlock characters and store your customizations?
JV: That’s probably the bulk of the emphasis, but there’s a something I learned about our toys. The quality is really good. These aren’t cheap toys — we’ve put a lot of emphasis on the collectable side of things. So there are people who have purchased these toys and collect them purely to put them on your desk. It’s not the most common use case, but we’ve seen some data that shows that.
LP: What gives Disney Infinity the edge over other toy-game hybrids like Lego Dimensions or Skylanders?
JV: We’re number one in the toys-to-life category right now by sales, and I think the reasons why are one, our software evolution has been great. We have a more complex software platform and we’re always thinking about how we can evolve the software.
That’s where the toybox mode, the multiplayer online, the capabilities of matchmaking and sharing with friends or the community — all of this stuff we’ve innovated in that space. Our competition doesn’t have any of that.
And as far as our intellectual property, you know… it’s huge. We have Disney Pixar, we have Marvel, we have Star Wars. There’s something for everybody — it’s a game that’s not aged too young, so you actually can have a 25 year-old or 35 year-old have some fun with a character that he likes. The software is sophisticated enough that you quickly grow out of thinking of it as a kid’s game.
LP: The toybox mode — this open system has super customization and building features, with all of these mini-game modes and tools. How do you balance all of that with keeping it accessible and simple enough for younger kids, or adults, that may face a learning curve?
JV: This is something we’ve been involved in since 1.0: If you give somebody all of this power, and you don’t know how to start, it can be overwhelming.
So we have something called the toybox hub, where you can learn the toybox by going through different guides that explain the parts of the game. So you want to learn about combat, farming, platforming, or creations in the community, the toybox hub can be the beginning of your journey.
We also have a thing called toybox games — if you just want to mashup and mix all your stuff together and have quick fun. So like Mario Cart racing, we have speedway racing, with four characters. And that’s a great opportunity to go online, and have friends join you for a quick race.
But if you want to create some great stories and level design, we give you an immense number of tools and toys you can use. We’re a little different than Minecraft and others, because we give you smart options called creativity toys. They allow you to make logic connections, create scoreboards, and you can add logics to open doors or connect interior levels to outside locations. You just have all this power.
And we’ve seen some great stuff, not only great levels created from content from Disney. We allow you to create your own presentation of levels. So you lead the players, and then let the kids be the next designers.
LP: And that’s where the fan-generated community content comes in?
JV: We’ve seen that’s the future of the evolution in our game. We’ve seen a lot of power in the toybox.
And we’ve seen our fans stay with Disney Infinity because once they’re done with their playsets, you can go back to the toybox and have fun there by downloading new content, by building their own stuff, or by playing these toybox games.
LP: What’s your role in developing Disney Infinity? And what challenges have you run into?
JV: I’ve been working on this game since its inception, so since the beginning when it was nothing. Initially, it was just software, and then we worked out how to work with the hardware and the toys.
It’s definitely been a learning curve. Disney Infinity has been my first experience with the toys-to-life category, but I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been involved in all of the hardware parts of it, like the toys component and all the FCC regulations needed for the toys’ near-field communication (NFC).
I also worked on all the online-related technologies, so all the online services, the website, the community tools — my team does that.
And then, of course, a very important part of my job is actually closing the game. I work a lot with first-parties: manufacturers like Sony, Nintendo, Apple, or Microsoft. They control approval of what goes to the market or not, so we have to make sure we’re compatible with all of their requirements to maintain the highest quality possible.
LP: Speaking of Disney Infinity being a wide multiplatform game: How do you see its future as virtual reality or the HoloLens start emerging?
JV: A good friend of mine once mentioned, “The DVD’s going to go away. The Blu-Ray’s going to go away. Everything is going to be digitally downloadable eventually. But the one thing that’s never going away is toys.” You’re always going to have physical toys you want to play with.
So I think the toys will evolve, and for us, the toys could be used in more ways. Like you mentioned, they could be used in augmented reality like the HoloLens, or different ways as a mechanism for owning a particular character, or to recognize you in different locations. So there’s definitely a lot possibilities on the toy side.
But I don’t think it’s going to go away, it’s going to evolve. People love high-quality toys. The problem would be if we evolved the toys’ capabilities but they become too cheap, people would lose their collectable feeling. Like, “This looks like a cheap toy from a drive thru.” Then I think the nostalgia, and the toys, will go away. So we’ve put a hard line on the quality of the toys, to avoid getting into that.
LP: So about the “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” playset — this is being released at the same time as the movie, right?
JV: Correct. Right on Dec. 18, the game will be playable. You can already pre-order and have it available right on that day. So the concept is that you see the movie, have a great time, and immediately you can go home and boot up Infinity and relive those moments.
LP: Since it’s a story mode, were there “Star Wars” spoilers that you were privy to? How tied to the actual movie’s plot is the new playset?
JV: It’s 100 percent tied to the story. We have been faithful to the story elements — and to security, to making sure the secrets are kept as tight as possible.
It’s very hard when you work with interactive, where people have to test the game, they have to be able to validate it.
That’s one of my duties as well, as security officer for my team: to make sure that my team does the best possible to protect the movie and not to spoil it, because no one wants to spoil a good experience at the movies.
LP: So you’re saying you know the details of the movie?
JV: I don’t want to spoil it for you either! Or for the fans. We’ve been exposed to it, but we’re all here trying to learn as little as possible so we don’t spoil it for ourselves, either.
So some people have, of course, seen the whole thing, and read the whole script. But other people have to just have a little glimpse of it while they test the game. All my friends and colleagues here actually want to learn as little as possible so they don’t spoil the movie.
But yes, we have access to all the content.