The Mouse That Gamed: Graham Hopper Talks Disney's Video Game Strategy

By Christian Nutt

Disney Interactive is still a studio not many people think about outside of the context of kids games, but general manager Graham Hopper sees things in the longer view. The company is concentrating on a huge variety of platforms and a number of high profile projects -- devoting time to preproduction and getting things right before moving forward.

"[Disney has] been in business for over 80 years, and we've always been in business because we've focused on great quality products, and thinking about the long haul," says Hopper, when questioned about the need for thinking long-term.

Whether that means giving Warren Spector's Junction Point studio plenty of time for preproduction, or not converting Kingdom Hearts into a cartoon series, for taking the IP away from Square Enix, Hopper earnestly argues that decisions must be made for the good of the medium and the long-term health of the market.

"We try to achieve creative success inthe medium. When we go out and make a game, our goal is to make that a great game franchise first and foremost," says Hopper. To find more about this creative and business philosophy, read on for a detailed look at the perspective of the man charged with stewarding the 21st century moves of one of the largest and most successful media companies in the world.

Disney has many successful IPs in either film or TV coming to games -- primarily Wii and DS, plus next-gen original IP and iPhone. That's a broad spectrum, and here we are in an period where the industry has so many different paths of evolution before it.

GH: You know, it's almost hard to credit that. After the industry having evolved, in particular the console world, for so long -- where the basis of competition was thought to be better graphics. And now it turns out that it isn't actually better graphics. It isn't the be-all and end-all.

It's actually about better connectivity; it's about more social gameplay; it's about a better interface with the game itself. That's really astonishing, in its change. Because I don't think peoplewould have predicted it a few years ago, where it was really about graphics.

So our line is evolving to deal with that. So we have games like Toy Story Mania!, which are just social: people can play together -- anybody can pick up and play. They're just a ton of fun. It's based on a theme park ride that has an hour long ride --

Oh, yeah! I rode that at California Adventure. It's really fun.

GH: Oh, you did? Yeah. It's great. And Split/Second is just a huge racing event, right? It's, if you like racing, and pretty much, you know, if you're eight years old, if you're 80 years old, you like racing games, you're going to really love Split/Second, because we're really doing something different, and trying to expand the genre.

http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4089/disney_splitsecond2.jpg
Disney/Black Rock Studio's
 Split/Second

When we first tested that game, the first time I actually saw it running was on eight PCs: very simple graphics, and we sat down and played it, in a multiplayer environment, to see whether it would be fun. To be able to trigger something, when you beat somebody, or open a new advantage for yourself. Just a few triggerable events, and a very simple track, very simple handling on the car, but right up front that game was fun to play.

It wasn't just about racing around a circuit trying to find the best line and doing it again and again. You know, that's what some games do, some racing games as well, but this one really struck us as being something different.

In some companies, developers might say there's a difficulty in getting people in higher positions, who aren't developers themselves, to understand prototyping. There's an emphasis on developing a vertical slice that looks like a final, polished game, and presenting it -- but you mentioned "simple graphics." What do you think of that give and take?

GH: I think there's no doubt that people are visual. The visual aspect is a big piece of how people interpret the world, so there is need for things like good concept art that show where the game is going to go.

But we've got to find the fun in games first, before we build it. So, building out the visuals so it looks good but it's not clear that you're going to find a gameplay mechanic there, it's utterly pointless. I think that if it's the route you follow, if you want to lose a lot of money in this business.

So what we're trying to do is, we're trying to start with great game mechanics. Show them simply, if necessary. Couple that with some concept art -- which, we're used to seeing that. Getting a vision of where it's going to go. And we progress our investment in the game over time, and build out different elements.

At some point along the line, vertical slices are very helpful. Not just for management, to see where the game is going to go, but also for the team itself, to set a visual bar. This is how the game is going to look; here is how it's going to handle; all the elements are going to work. So there's no key pieces of technology unproven before the game goes into full production.

So, it has its place, but we're making decisions around the game, way early on, and the more we can see prototypes, and see if the mechanic works, the happier we are.


Oftentimes people in marketing and other positions aren't necessarily savvy about the process of game development, and can't evaluate games on that level, early on. Is that something that you work to communicate, organizationally? To say, "Look: we'll evaluate it for what it is at this time, and move forward in terms of what makes sense."

GH: Yeah, we have a stage-gate process for tracking the evolution of the game. I play a lot of games, I expect all of my executives to play a lot of games, and frankly, I don't know how you could market a product if you don't physically get hands-on with it yourself. So, we expect a high degree of passion from everybody involved in touching the game.

If you want to be involved in any way in the creative direction of the game -- and that includes pretty much everybody in marketing, because they have a voice in this thing -- they need to have hands-on experience with games. And they need to learn the process of making a game.

And I think that, across the industry in general, marketing teams are more and more savvy about this, and are becoming good partners to development teams. Because you're not seeing two groups with completely different objectives and perspectives coming together; we're trying to get these two different areas to collaborate at the same goal, which is making a great game.

And part of that is understanding what the product is, and not expecting a polished game when you're a few months in, and just trying to find the fun.

The choice of platform is becoming increasingly important, and it's not just about hardware, now -- there's next-gen, Wii and handheld, plus the choice of packaged versus download, which service to use, and then is it casual, is there a PC version, what's the business model... 

GH: Yeah. Welcome to my world, Christian.

How do you make those tough decisions? You guys have a very large line-up. Larger than I had anticipated, I guess, and it maps across a wide array of platforms and IP. And within those platforms, different... You know, I don't know. We'll call them "hardware" and "platforms".

GH: We're trying to be as informed as we can about making those important platform distribution decisions. And part of that is tracking quite carefully who owns what. If we were focused only on hardcore gamers -- that is to say, people in the typical 18-34 age group – if that's all we were thinking about, our life would be a whole lot easier, because our platform decisions would be almost, in some sense, made for us.

But where we are, we have a broad sense of demographics that we try to serve, we really have to pay attention to who owns what box when, and try to make projections into the future, what we think the install rate is going to be on those boxes -- and use that very carefully, by really having a good sense of who we're making a game for.

http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4089/disney_splitsecond.jpg

If it's Split/Second, we know we're going next gen on that. If it's going to be something aimed at a seven year old girl, we'll look at the DS and see what we can do with the DS, because we know they own a lot of that platform, and we can customize the experience to that age group. So, I think, laser-like focus on the product and its customer base, and then understanding as best you can where the install base is going to be, is the thing we have to try to weigh out on every one of our properties.

If you have a little perspective on the games industry, and you look back a few years, and you had to try to imagine how many platforms we'd develop on... If you start to take telephone handsets, smartphones, digital downloadable games, shrink-wrapped DS games, all the way up to console, there's just a tremendous number of platforms. But that's what's making the industry so exciting, because there's so much innovation going on that we haven't had an opportunity to get stale, which is great.

I mean, what other great industry can you think of that is serving so many platforms at the same time? So much innovation happening, and the consumer experience is getting better every single year because the envelope is being pushed? You just don't see a lot of it.


You've had media from Japan like Spectrobes and Kingdom Hearts coming into America, and, Black Rock, who's also seen success in America, is in the UK. How do you look at gaming, as a global industry which allows for more global content creation?

GH: I think that's absolutely essential. And it's not like there is Hollywood and Bollywood and a few other centers of film production. In our industry, we really have complete decentralization: we have great developers all over the world, some of them in towns you've never heard of. And I love that.

It seems to be a very 21st century way to love. The creative team can live where they want to live, and they can produce great products, and the whole world will find it. And they will be made available to a global audience.

I think that's the way of the future. I don't see this changing. I think that one of the great strengths of this industry is encouraging this continuous innovation -- so we never get stale. Because when you get stale, that's when the consumer moves on to something else.

IP creation is especially key for large, multifaceted companies like Disney, and you do have a lot of games based on pre-existing IP from film and television. I'm assuming Spectrobesis, on the other hand, Disney Interactive's IP, and here are other products inthat vein. To what extent is IP creation a driving force within the strategy of Disney Interactive?

GH: It plays a very important role. We are keeping it down to about 30% of our business. That way we manage the risk, if you like. We can afford to go a little further out with a really great idea that's maybe a little riskier, and have some other, surer bets that are coming from known IP on the side. We don't have to bet the company every time we do something new.

http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4089/disney_spectrobesbeyond.jpgBut it is telling that we're able to manage these two pieces together: both existing content, plus the new IP, and bring something, especially, that's compatible with the Disney brand, and resonates well with consumers. And we do that effectively in different places.

I mean, you mentioned it earlier: different platforms, different age groups. We're able to be successful in all of them, because we focus on just creating great experience for whatever title it's going to be.

Do you think that as you create more successful IP, it's going to flow outward through the company? You imply 70% of your IP is flowing inward from the organization, so do you see that shifting?

GH: There is no doubt in my mind that that is going to happen. I mean, one of the reasons why Disney is investing in the games business is because we believe it has a potential to be a content creation engine at the same level as the studio is, and television channels are. So that is, most certainly, the long term goal.

I think it's been something people have been looking for a long time to see happen, and there have been some early successes with, for example, Lara Croft; and there has been a lot more interest more recently, with the convergence of movies made with game IP. I just think that's going to continue. You see a lot of filmmakers in Hollywood paying attention to games in a way that they haven't before -- bringing onboard people who actually know about the games industry.

Directors like Gore Verbinski and Guillermo del Toro have made comments about moving into games. Stephen Spielberg was famously at E3 this year. But there has been a struggle in getting it to mesh. The movies based on games have largely been B-movies.

GH: I don't think they've all lived up to their potential, but again: the future doesn't always arrive exactly when you want it to. What you have to watch are the trend lines. The trendlines are heading in the right direction. It's going to happen.

I don't know if it's going to happen next year, or the year after, or five years from now, but the trend line is absolutely clear. And I think that's what's so exciting about our business right now, is that a lot of the future trend lines are very obvious. We just need to jump on them and make the future happen.

Butat the same time, I guess there's a slight risk in trying to push it. You have to do it so it works.

GH: Yeah. Our philosophy is: we don't double down all over the company on something new. Otherwise, if we did it all the time, we'd put the company at risk at some point.

We try to achieve creative success in the medium. When we go out and make a game, our goal is to make that a great game franchise first and foremost. It's not about, "Well, it has to be changed a little bit to make it, well, it might be a movie one day, so let's do this...And it might be a toy one day, so let's do that..." and so on. It's not a conscious commercial activity; it's about making a great game franchise first. Once that happens, other stuff will naturally take care of itself.

I can always easily imagine Kingdom Hearts animation or something like that, coming down the road, but it's not something you ought to expect; it's something you can imagine. Those are the things you have to look at, and actually understand whether or not they make sense.

GH: That's right. And, you know, the world of television is a different medium. It tells stories in a different kind of way, and the way it gets programmed, there's a limited number of slots that are available that you're able to be on.

There's also the question of creative resources being on Project A or being on Project B; which one is going to be the most valuable one? So when you get down into the nuts and bolts of it, it does get quite complicated. It's not as simple as it first appears, to move apiece of IP from one medium to another.

But all that said, it's going to happen, and we will see more of it.


I'd like to ask you some status reports on certain elements in the organization, andanswer to the best of your ability: First of all, there has been discussion ongoing as to whether or not Pixar games are going to come to Disney Interactive. Can you comment on that?

GH: Well, I'll say this: we have a great relationship with THQ. They still have additional movie-based games that they will deliver under that contract. We recently -- about a year ago, now – went through a creative bake-off for Toy Story 3. We let them make the creative decision-- put it in the hands of John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar. We let them pick the game idea that they liked the best, and the game idea that they picked was the one put forward by our Avalanche team in Salt Lake City.

And that's the game that we're making for Toy Story 3. And that's going to be developed by us, published by us, and I think, based on the little bit of it we've shown behind closed doors, the reception is tremendous. So I think we've got something good there. But in the meantime, we've focused right now on Toy Story Mania!

You guys do manage the relationships -- when you work with an outside publisher, like THQ or Square Enix, you guys also still are deeply involved in that process; in a different way, but as deeply as you would be when you're publishing a product yourselves.

GH: We know, as a licenser, all our brands are at risk, and we view it as a strategic advantage. We can't make all the games against all the IP that we have that has potential to be a game. So to be able to go out and to work with the bodies that can do it, that have the skill set, or technology, or a set of creative assets, in the case of Square Enix...

Whatever those things might be, we don't feel like we have to do it all ourselves to be successful. We're operating under both kinds of models. And what we don't want to do is do it just as a money-making exercise and get poor quality products. I think it's bad for our brand, and bad for movie-based gaming in general. So we're selective about what we do, selective about who we work with. I think it's a strength of ours.

This may not be the road you're going down now, but I could still see some companies pulling back and saying, "Okay, Square, now we're going to farm a Kingdom Hearts crappy sequel out to someone else," and, you know, kill the cachet of the series. It might make more money at first, but I think it's going to kill the IP.

GH: We've been in business for over 80 years, and we've always been in business because we've focused on great quality products, and thinking about the long haul. The company was there long before I came along -- before I was born! -- and it's going to be there long after I'm done. So, stewarding franchises over the long haul? That's what we've got to do. And making money in the short term? When you sacrifice quality, it's a sure road to destruction. As many companies have found out -- in this industry and others.

http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4089/disney_khbirthbysleep.jpg
Square Enix's
 Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep

While we're on the topic -- there are three Kingdom Hearts products currently publicly announced, though not all for North America. There's the DS game, 358/2 Days, and there's Birth by Sleep for the PSP, and there's a mobile game for DoCoMo in Japan. How do you feel about that series' direction right now, from the perspective of your organization?

GH: From what I've seen of them, both games are going to be outstanding for the platforms. And the same is true for the mobile game, which I saw recently on a trip to Japan.

Square Enix's ability to drive a platform very hard, and really deliver outstanding graphics and great gameplay is phenomenal. So I'm very happy with the fact that we have more Kingdom Hearts content coming out. I think consumers are ready for it; they want to see it. It's a very successful and great collaboration, one that I'm very, very happy with. We love the franchise. We love [KH director Tetsuya] Nomura-san. We love Square Enix.

I got to play the PSP one in Japan; it just looks like a really, really strong game.


So, Warren Spector. What's up?

GH: Well, uh, one of these days you'll find out.

(laughter)

Have to ask!

GH: Warren is hard at work. He's got a team working on a great project, and we're going to show it when it's right and ready. We're very encouraged by what we've seen. I think you'll be very pleasantly surprised.

How big is Junction Point now?

GH: Gosh, I'm not sure of the exact number right now, but I mean...

Is it one team? Two teams?

GH: It's one team. It's one team, still in the process of building out. I think when we acquired it, it was roughly 20 people, and it's more than doubled since then, but I don't know the exact number right now.

One reason games can suffer from a lack of polish or creativity is that development cycles don't allow for enough pre-production. The film industry, of course, is known for its long, long, long pre-production times. When it comes to a talent like Warren Spector and Junction Point that you're involved with, how much creative leeway do you allow for pre-production, iteration, evolution, stuff like that?

GH: A lot. In fact we try to do it as much as possible. Frankly, the bigger the game, the more preproduction time  it needs. I don't think you can be in business and try to deliver high quality product-- and stay in business -- and rush into production too soon. Because the odds of you doing something great at the end are minimized, and you'll eventually be out of business. The only way to do it is -- you have to give it the right amount of time.

The project that Warren's working on is something that we've had creative ideas about for a long time before we found the right guy to make it -- which was Warren.

Warren has taken that and changed it a lot along the way and made it better, and we've given him the time to do that. We're into a very, very extensive prototyping and technology phase on the game. Right now he's building levels. To get to that point took a long time. That's why we've been quiet. But that's what the game needs to be successful.

There are other games that we haven't announced we're working on that are on equally long gestation periods, and they just need them. The cost of developing new IP these days is so high, to try and save some money here and there by shortchanging that process doesn't make sense.

And frankly, I don't think it's fair to the people who work on the teams. I think about this: if I'm working on a team and I'm going to bust my gut for two and a half to three years or longer on a project, I want to know that what I have to show for myself at the end of this is worthy of the sacrifice that I'm going to make.

I think we owe it to our teams to give them the time that they to need to be successful. There's always attention to cost and everything else, but at the end of the day wherever possible we defer to giving our people the time that they need. Great people create great things, but they don't do it on impossible deadlines.

I'd agree.

GH: It's true for you too, I'd imagine, right? (laughs)

http://www.gamasutra.com/db_area/images/feature/4089/disney_pure.jpg
Disney/Black Rock Studio's
 Pure

Yeah, well, I'm an online journalist, so impossible deadlines are par for the course. Speaking to what you were saying earlier about allowing the prototyping for Split/Second: how are things at Black Rock? And how do you feel about that part of your organization right now?

GH: I love it. I think we've got a great team down there. I think they're doing great work. I think they know it. It's so gratifying to see a team of people that had delivered really good, if not great, stuff in the past but did it under the constraints of being a third party developer -- always struggling to find the money to move on to the next project, and never really able to do something that could feel was their own.

And to see that team get the opportunity from us to be able to go off and do that, and actually rise to the occasion, and flourish... We have a great creative culture there, we have a leadership team over there, and they're just doing great work. And it shows up onscreen. So, I'm absolutely thrilled.

And that's something I'd like to see replicated, over time, over all of our studios with that level of creative success and that virtuous cycle of getting better and better and wanting to beat themselves. It's not about beating someone else in the industry anymore, it's about topping themselves.


How many studios do you have now?

GH: Well we've got Black Rock in the UK; we've got Junction Point down in Texas; Avalanche in Salt Lake City; Propaganda in Vancouver; Gamestar in Shanghai and Wuhan in China; and we also have two mobile studios, one in Beijing and another one in Prague. Pretty much all over the place. Wherever the talent is, is where we are.

Do you fly to all those places on a regular basis?

GH: I try to get to most of them. You know, I have to admit, I have not gotten to Wuhan yet. But yeah, I do try to get to most of them. I like to meet with the teams and give them an opportunity to show us what they're working on. And get a sense of the pulse there, because successful teams, you can feel it when you walk in, and it shows up onscreen.

What about Propaganda? I don't know the exact sales of Turok, but I get the impression it didn't go quite as well as was hoped. Would that be a fair assessment?

GH: I wouldn't say that. It sold very well... in its niche. But, obviously, it was not Halo or Call of Duty. I think we were pleased with where it was, but it wasn't a blockbuster. But it sold well.

How do you feel about Propaganda right now, and what they're working on, and how things are going for them? Because I know there was a certain point where they did have some layoffs.

GH: Yeah. That team is, you know, we have Dan Tudge now in as general manager of the studio, who just joined us from BioWare. And the focus of that studio now is going to be far more around developing an expertise in action role playing games. So that was part of the hiring of Dan, and we've been bringing key talent in over the last few years, who have that RPG experience. And we're not trying to build the hardest core of RPGs; we want accessible, open, RPG-type games coming out of that studio. The studio loves that vision.

You should really take a look at [Pirates of the Caribbean: Dark Armada]. You'll see that we've done something really cool. It's not tied to a movie, so the project's got the time that it needs to gestate and be really effective. We've built a lot of technology that we need to build a really good role playing game. So, Dan's come in, thrilled with what he's seeing there. We have high expectations for that game.

Coming up, Microsoft has Natal and Sony has its wand and camera system. What do you think about those expansions? Do you think they can expand the audiences for thosec on soles? Do you think that those products are something that could catch on? Though they're gestating right now -- those products aren't really products yet.

GH: Again, like everything else: all technology needs software to bring it to life, and to make it real. But again, to my point about trend lines? The trend is very clear as to what people are looking for, so I was really excited to see both of those.

I think there were a number of announcements that struck me as being potentially seismic changes in the future of our industry. Seeing Facebook be embraced by manufacturers, and recognizing that social networks have broadened beyond the game consoles themselves – and are connected to a much broader sense of social community. That, I think, is a big move.

The progression of the human-machine interface: making technology accessible and open to people, I think, is huge. It's going to impact, I think, every other industry, of a kind that's involved in technology.

Most technology companies make boxes, and don't spend too much time making it easy for consumers to work with. In our industry, that's what we think about first and foremost: how do we make it easier and comfortable for the person to interact with an experience that's powered by technology? So I think these new interfaces we saw from Sony and from Microsoft are really showing the way of the future of technology in general, not just in gaming.

From our perspective, we look at the world and say, "Okay, we have a lot more women playing games right now. We have a lot more people of different age groups playing games. But it's still like78% male, 22% female." We still have lots of people who start playing a bit of games, but start getting intimidated by buttons on the controllers, and they put it down, and they don't want to play.

I think the future evolution of the industry isn't going to be about abandoning core gamers and the games that they like to play at all. That core is going to grow -- but it will grow from bringing more people in to the industry who get to see what the industry is all about, and the stuff that we make. Some may choose only to stay on the more casual end, but other ones will migrate to become core gamers. And, frankly, the more core gamers there are, the more we can make great games that they want. I think it's in everybody's interest to expand the industry overall.

And I hear some of the anecdotes about somebody's grandparents buying a Wii for the grandchildren, and the next thing they know, the grandparents are playing it more than the kids are, and so on.And that's just phenomenal.

We're starting to live up to the promise. We've always spoken about how we're "bigger than the box office", and" bigger than movies", and we're this, that, and the other, but a lot of that was sort-of hype before the reality. But I think we're now on our way to becoming a true mass market medium. Not there yet, but we're on our way.

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