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.
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.