In late 2010, the future direction of Disney Interactive Studios appeared uncertain. Earlier in the year, the publisher had released the conceptually promising arcade racer Split/Second for consoles to generally positive reviews but underwhelming performance at retail.
Disney’s Epic Mickey followed in November. The high profile Wii title featured the company’s most prized intellectual property, and development was spearheaded by one of the industry’s greatest luminaries, Warren Spector.
But even this combination couldn’t entirely turn the publisher’s console fortunes around. In turn, two of its proprietary console development studios, Black Rock and Propaganda, were shuttered.
At around the same time, the first rumours that Disney would restructure to focus on mobile and social gaming began to surface, and these were verified shortly thereafter by Disney CEO Bob Iger.
Unsurprisingly, specialist gaming press framed the restructuring as Disney sending its interactive division to the glue factory, and the publisher has had little voice amongst core gaming media ever since.
But Disney has proven to be a newly nimble company with the advent of social and mobile gaming. Gameplanet recently caught up with Bart Decrem, senior vice president of Disney Mobile, and John Spinale, senior vice president of Disney Social Games at Disney Interactive, to learn how the publisher has discovered new success in the fastest growing sector of gaming.
Spinale and Decrem joined Disney after their respective companies, Playdom and Tapulous, were acquired to help the publisher compete against the two then-giants of social and mobile gaming, FarmVille and Angry Birds.
Since these acquisitions, Disney has enjoyed several substantial victories. A breakout hit, Where’s My Water? features a simple but engaging gameplay mechanic wrapped up in a brief premise: Swampy, an alligator, wants to bathe and has no water. Players must create canals to direct water sources to Swampy’s bathtub. Where’s My Water? was the top paid App on the iPhone App Store in 79 countries, and retained the top position in the US for 45 days. However, the success was not only in sales, according to Decrem.
"After it came out and blew up, we started getting phoned from the other parts of the company. I think people felt like this was a Disney character."
This didn’t take Decrem and the team by surprise. Swampy is the first original character created by Disney Interactive Studios for mobile platforms. Concept art for Swampy clearly reflects Disney’s television animation style and aspects of its more involved feature work. According to Decrem, “There are people on the team that love the iPhone and gaming, then there are people who love Disney characters and stories.” There are staff on the development team who have been involved in both of these facets of Disney’s business.
With Swampy toys, iPhone cases, a Youtube series, and a promise of more intellectual property extensions later in 2012, Disney Interactive is moving aggressively to franchise Swampy.
"We've executed at three times the speed of Angry Birds," says Decrem.
The two executives present a rather different image of Disney that runs counter to its frequently lampooned image as an insular corporate juggernaut. They’re unafraid to mention the industry frontrunners and competition by name, and they similarly aren’t afraid to utilise some of their more successful ideas.
Integration with other media properties is one such strategy. Rovio's Angry Birds tie-in with the Fox animated feature Rio was a big success for both companies. The game has lived on long past the limited shelf-life of a theatrical release.
Disney is hoping to replicate this success with Where’s My Perry? The recently-released cross-over utilises characters from Disney’s Phineas & Ferb, one of the most watched cartoons on television in the USA, and the gameplay of Where’s My Water?
Although this kind of ‘corporate synergy’ is enticing on the surface, such a marriage doesn’t always end happily. Spinale acknowledges that Disney has a history of creating shovelware - those hurried licensed games that are released to capitalise on a movie.
"Within the world of Disney, a long time ago it was more just a licensed business. You made a Pixar movie and you fire off some toys, and T-shirts, and games."
Spinale feels that, despite the constant temptation of quick financial reward, Disney is now able to avoid this, and the key is ensuring that game releases aren’t tied to movie launch deadlines.
“For Avengers we made an Avengers game that wasn't tied to the Avengers movie because usually that means you have to make too many compromises.”
“Now games are a first-class citizen of the ecosystem, and games are where new intellectual property is created, new characters and stories are built.”
Nonetheless, Decrem is wary of shoehorning characters into game mechanics that don’t make sense for the property, and has no interest in “putting out a random game that's kind-of sloppy”. For its mobile offering connected to Pixar’s latest feature movie Brave, Disney instead sought out Imangi, an independent developer with three staff and one of the most popular games across mobile platforms, Temple Run.
“I do think when you have platforms that are this dynamic, there are so many talented people with good ideas out there that you want to be able to be part of,” continues Decrem.
While Disney does publish a number of free games, neither Decrem nor Spinale view game production as a marketing exercise. Brave (the game) does not rely on a freemium model as the original Temple Run did. Instead it is a paid product; a gamble that is paying dividends as Brave: Temple Run has quickly became the top-paid game on iTunes with over 80 million downloads.
These tie-ins are not the end game for the new Disney Interactive. Riding high on the success of Swampy, Decrem contacted Phineas & Ferb co-creator Jeff “Swampy” (no relation) Marsh, to see about making a Swampy show.
Marsh told him, “You can't just show up with a character and say make a TV show,” before proposing a Phineas & Ferb game, which Decrem shot down in a similar fashion.
Despite such minor setbacks, Decrem believes it’s just a matter of time. “When we started down this journey a year ago I told our team that if we do a good job one day we'll be able to go to Disneyland and see a character we helped create. That's the goal, and I feel like with Swampy we're on our way there.”