Written By Julio Martinez
To the outside world, Disney Studios might seem to be represented by the picturesque movie lot built in Burbank by founder Walt Disney. But hidden away in Glendale is a totally different dream factory known as Disney Interactive. “This is where I work,” affirmed Puerto Rican-born José Villeta, Disney Interactive’s Senior Director of Technology. As he settled onto a couch facing a huge video monitor, he chuckled, “This is also where I play.”
Villeta proceeded to demonstrate the company’s latest release, Disney Infinity 3.0, a video gaming playset, utilizing characters and situations from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh episode of the franchise, which had opened to the public on December 18, 2015, the same date as the release of Disney Infinity 3.0.
“The wonderful thing about this video game concept is its versatility in terms of how you can play it,” said Villeta as he fluidly manipulated characters, action and settings. He even incorporated costume changes. But what was almost startling, was the range of characters at his disposal, which seemed to include, not only figures from Star Wars, but the whole history of Disney filmmaking, from Mickey Mouse to Buzz Lightyear and beyond, as well as Marvel action figures and Pixar characters. “This is not just a static game,” Villeta promised. “It will grow with the user.”
As Villeta continued to play, he explained how the gaming system worked. Disney Infinity 3.0 basic system is a starter pack, which includes the software, the base (which can be USB-connected to a console or an Apple TV) and playset toy pieces. The modes of operation are playsets and toybox. What was truly fascinating to watch was not so much what was happening on the large monitor, but observing how intently Villeta and one of his cohorts were involved in the seamlessly endless display of video action. He did pause long enough to clarify to this video game novice what he meant by “playsets” and “toybox.”
“Playsets is the basic video game based on a specific property,” he explained. “For example, there are all the Star Wars films, now including The Force Awakens. To play a specific game, you just use the toy and playset for that film. And you can keep adding toys.” For Villetta, the really big news is the creation of Toybox. “It is probably the most advanced gaming software innovation we have done at Disney. That is where you can mix everything, putting Marvel characters with Pixar characters and Star Wars characters. You could have Obi Wan fighting The Incredible Hulk. And there are no rules to the games. You build your own gaming world. And once it’s created, you can save it to the cloud.”
Villetta paused to make sure I comprehended what he meant by the “cloud.” Then he handed me one of the toy pieces, a solidly constructed miniature representation of Darth Vader. “We want these pieces to be considered collectibles, so we make sure they are well made. You know technology just keeps advancing. Soon, DVDs are going to be obsolete, the same with Blu-Ray. But people are always going to want physical toys to play with. And the memories within these toys can be customized by the player. So, my Darth Vader will actually be different from your Darth Vader.”
Villeta admitted to having his own share of prized toys growing up in Puerto Rico. And he certainly was into video games. He must have learned quite well as a child because his first trip to the U.S. mainland was to attend M.I.T., while still a teenager, receiving his BS in Aeronautical Engineering (1990), followed by an MS from George Washington university (1992).
“After college, I worked for Rockwell International for four years,” he recalled. “Then I co-founded Black Ops Entertainment and developed video games for a number of years. I went from that to Heavy Iron Studios, which brought me to the attention of Pixar. That brought me to Disney in 2010.”
Aside from his extensive duties at Disney Interactive—he’s been involved with Disney Infinity since its inception—Villeta also finds time to teach. He has been an Instructor at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, Computer Science Department under the USC Gamepipe Program since 2007.
“I am really excited to be exactly where I am now,” Villeta concluded. “This is a great frontier and it is only going to expand further…much, much further.”