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Interview: Disney's Hopper On Nintendo, 'Withholding Mickey'

Interview: Disney's Hopper On Nintendo, 'Withholding Mickey'

February 26, 2010 | By Kris Graft

February 26, 2010 | By Kris Graft
More: Console/PC

The legendary Walt Disney once said, "Animation offers a medium of storytelling and visual entertainment which can bring pleasure and information to people of all ages everywhere in the world."

Replace the word "animation" with "video games," and you get an idea of Disney Interactive Studios' core strategy.

Disney Interactive Studios executive VP and general manager Graham Hopper says that the studio is striving to evolve storytelling, and entertainment itself, by leveraging properties across the wide range of media pipelines that reside under the Disney umbrella.

But taking that lovely idea and making it commercially viable is a challenging proposition.

Head-To-Head Against The Pure-Plays

Disney Interactive Studios is going up against experienced pure-play video game companies that generally know how to work the market and the gaming audience. But Hopper says his multi-faceted mega-company has its own skill set and resources that will help it go head-to-head with the big pure-plays like Activision and Electronic Arts, and some analysts agree.

"I think [pure-plays] have certain advantages [over media conglomerates], like the trust and loyalty from core gamers around certain franchises," Graham admits. "But as we've seen with the rise and fall of franchises and individual publishers over time, that by itself is not necessarily a sustainable advantage."

He explains, "The one thing that media companies have is broad reach across multiple [forms of media] to reach consumers. What we've seen is that when people identify with a franchise, they want more of it. There isn't a built-in inhibitor where people say, 'I enjoyed that movie, but I don't want any more of it.' If they really like it, if they really like the characters, they want to see more about it."

Media like TV, film, DVD, online, and books are all at Disney's fingertips, and video games are just part of the equation. Even theme park presence is an option for Disney IP. Combined, the different pipelines can deliver multiple ways to experience a single property.

"We're actually trying to build stories that complement each other," says Hopper. "I think that's what people are looking for -- not the same story five times over, but five different stories, each uniquely suited for the platform they're on."

"I think that's the advantage we have that the other publishers are chasing after."

Protecting Mickey, Eying Nintendo

The highest-profile game due out of Disney Interactive Studios is Disney's Epic Mickey, a new game from game design guru Warren Spector's Junction Point Studios, which Disney acquired in 2007. Hopper and Disney Interactive Studios have been watching Nintendo's strategy in hopes of achieving success on a platform known for being tough for third parties.

"I think we've tried to learn from the things Nintendo does well," he says. "One of the things that Nintendo does on their own platforms is they give their projects the time and appropriate resources to be successful, and they iterate until they get there. And I think we're doing the same with Epic Mickey, giving it the time and resources to be successful."

He adds, "I'll tell you that I don't think all other third parties are approaching the Wii in the same way. If there's a third-party game that I think has potential to be as successful on the Wii to Nintendo levels, I'd like to think it's Disney Epic Mickey. We're following the same playbook."

Disney Interactive Studios is also known for its franchise-based games -- the company would crank out video game titles based on Hannah Montana and High School Musical regularly, leveraging the popularity and recognizability of the brands among younger players.

So it's rather strange that Mickey Mouse, the iconic anthropomorphic rodent upon which Disney was founded -- who's lovable and eternally kid-friendly -- is in so few games these days. Meanwhile, Mario is doing everything from kart racing to DDR.

"This has been a conscious approach, to try to withhold Mickey from the marketplace a little bit," says Hopper. "I didn't feel that we've been doing him justice in the games business. Simply using him as an icon or an avatar in a game really doesn't do a whole lot for us, and it doesn't agree with the value of who Mickey is as a character."

"We came up with the idea a few years back for Epic Mickey, and have been assembling the right creative team. It took us a while to find the right creative team and visionary to put behind it. Warren Spector has taken that idea and really evolved it. I think it'll be an awesome game."

Commitment Beyond Nintendo Platforms

Recently, Disney CEO Bob Iger said that in the face of declining revenues at Disney Interactive Studios, the company would be "a little bit less reliant on highest-end console games." He also said, "While we're going to continue to make games for the high end, we'll be very, very judicious in how many and which ones we choose."

At the same time, Iger noted that "Disney-branded" games performed better on Wii and DS. While some took that as Iger saying Disney Interactive Studios was pulling major support of big-budget PS3 and Xbox 360 titles, Hopper says that Iger's comments were misconstrued.

"I think the remarks made were taken a bit out of context," Hopper says. "For us, the Nintendo demographic, particularly the DS and the Wii, fits very well with a chunk of the Disney business, which is kid-oriented. So those are important platforms for us."

Along with Nintendo-friendly products like High School Musical, Epic Mickey, and Guilty Party from the recently-acquired Wideload Studios, Disney Interactive Studios is also home to more core-oriented games like Black Rock Studios' Pure and the upcoming racer Split/Second. Turok developer Propaganda, also an internal studio, is developing TRON: Evolution, a prospect which already has core-minded geeks salivating. And Iger said that the recent $4 billion Marvel acquisition could open up new opportunities with core players.

These games have have better chances of success on some platforms than they do on others, and that's what the studio needs to be more mindful of in the future, says Hopper.

He adds, "For some of the biggest properties that have the biggest and broadest reach and appeal will be on multiple platforms. Something like Toy Story 3 is going to be on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii and DS. We also have other titles coming that will be only on PS3 and 360."

Disney Interactive Studios has made strides in the game industry over recent years with acquisitions and renewed focus, but its work is far from over. In the long run, it has the potential to become a true video game powerhouse, but leading industry competitors won't make it easy.

But that challenge may be just what Disney Interactive Studios needs right now. As Walt said, "I have been up against tough competition all my life. I wouldn't know how to get along without it."

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