"Disney Infinity" characters stand just a few inches tall. But for Utahn Jeff Bunker, each toy figure is a huge undertaking — one that requires careful character selection, meticulous design, consultation with Disney filmmakers, branding considerations, digital sculpting and multiple trips to overseas factories.

"There’s a lot of passion and a lot of blood, sweat and tears that go into each one of these," said Bunker, vice president of art development for Avalanche Software.

It's all in an effort to produce a game that appeals to families. And it's the Salt Lake City-based Avalanche Software that brings these iconic characters to life in the "Disney Infinity" video game series, which continues this weekend with the release of version 3.0 and a new Star Wars theme.

Bunker, who studied illustration at Brigham Young University in Provo, has been part of Avalanche Software since the Utah company's founding in 1995. Avalanche was acquired by Disney Interactive in 2005 and has since produced games based on titles such as "Chicken Little," "Bolt," "Meet the Robinsons," "Toy Story 3" and "Cars 2."

But "Infinity," which debuted in 2013, is a much more expansive project — part of the growing hybrid toy/video game market that gained popularity when Activision introduced its Skylanders series in 2011. "Infinity" gameplay is based on the use of toy components such as character figures, "Play Set" pieces and power discs. The physical piece imports the digital version into the game.

"Infinity" allows for both traditional, objective-based gameplay, through the use of themed Play Sets, and a creative mode called "Toy Box," where gamers create their own environments and challenges — a large-scale mash-up of Disney-themed characters and settings.

The target audience, in keeping with the Disney brand, is the family, Bunker said.

"Early on in my career in games, the types of games we were doing were single-play action/adventure, and I always imagined the player being in a dark basement playing by themselves, and that wasn’t very gratifying or aspirational to me," Bunker said. "So we as a studio really wanted to tap into what Disney’s all about. If you go to the parks, or you go to a Pixar film, you rarely think of doing that by yourself. It’s almost always about making memories with your family. There’s just no reason why interactive ought to be different."

But in order to create a family experience, the game's designers must appeal to broad audiences — from young kids to more advanced gamers. The Toy Box mode — with its vast library of elements — is one area where game designers can do just that. Bob Lowe, a Woods Cross native who studied computer science at the University of Utah and Weber State, is the game director for the Toy Box. Putting newer characters more familiar to children alongside past classics makes for a shared experience, Lowe said.

"We've gone to a lot of effort, especially in the Toy Box, to add content that only a parent or someone who's a little bit older will recognize," he said. "And it creates that magical experience."

"Disney Infinity 3.0" is sold as a starter pack ($64.99) that includes the game disc, a Play Set piece, a character platform and two character figures, Anakin Skywalker and Ahsoka Tano. Other character figures are sold separately for $13.99, so the game can get pricey for those who want to experience more characters.

And there are plenty to choose from. Over the three versions, the lineup includes princesses, fairies, automobiles and comic book superheroes. In Toy Box mode, Queen Elsa can play alongside Baymax and Donald Duck can team up with Rocket Raccoon.

Bunker's job involves selecting characters. In doing so, the team looks ahead to current Disney productions ("Inside Out" characters are part of "Infinity" 3.0) and back to the vault of older films (Tinker Bell and Aladdin were part of "Infinity" 2.0).

Designers then have to determine if a character is "gameable — if there is something fun about that character we can bring into the game," Bunker said.

"After all those factors are evaluated and a character is selected, then there’s a process where we have to find an appealing caricature," Bunker said. Concept artists try to make it distinct from the original character, since it is a toy version, but also maintain its "essence."

"That's a real challenge," Bunker said.

Concept art and digital sculptures are also sent to filmmakers for their feedback, and the two teams "just iterate back and forth," according to Bunker.

"I’m trying to do what’s right for our look and our brand, and they’re trying to do what’s right for their character and their brand, and for the weeks and months of effort that way we come up with something that makes both of us happy," Bunker said.

Then there are the steps of creating the physical toy and animating the digital version.

"I take quite a few trips to China to make sure we are getting our initial vision all the way through the process," Bunker said. "While that’s all going on, we have the game team that is taking that model and rigging it, putting bones in it, animating it in the game, giving it all the game mechanics, effects, audio, and the crazy amount of work that is happening in parallel with these characters to the final product."

The "Infinity" series offers characters from films such as "Monsters University," "Pirates of the Caribbean," "Cars," "Frozen," "Toy Story" and "The Avengers." This time around, the Avalanche team had the opportunity to produce some of the most iconic characters of all — from Star Wars. Bunker said they've "been out of their mind with excitement."

"It seems crazy we are getting to work with characters like Yoda, Darth Vader, Leia and Han," Bunker said. "Those are characters from our youth and favorites of ours."

"It is just an absolute dream," Lowe added, "because it's our childhood."

Email: ashill@deseretnews.com

Twitter: aaronshill