Disney' determination

With its family brand and popular franchises, Disney sits where gaming hits mass market acceptance. Here, games boss Graham Hopper talks to Michael French about the recession, new IP and tween consumers…

At E3 many publishers were talking about tween gaming, but Disney has been in that space for a while. What are your thoughts on that sector?
I’d like to think that we were part of the creation of the tween gamer space. It was completely unattended by publishers before. We got into it slowly, with a little on GBA and then on DS, and over time have put a lot of energy into developing content girls like.

It’s not easy to do, for sure: it’s about thinking about what girls enjoy, what content they want, how they might play games differently, how the gameplay evolves and the difficulty grows. You have to talk to that audience – we have done a lot of focus testing. I’m glad other publishers are finally waking up to it and realising that there is a whole generation of gamers out there that will play provided we make games for them.

Likewise, Disney and others are eyeing the racing game space at the moment. What’s your strategy?
What we are trying to do is expand the market for racing games by bringing innovation to the category. So Split/Second has all the racing fun you’d want to have from a premier racing developer. That team, Black Rock in Brighton, UK, has really built on what they achieved with Pure, which was one of the highest rated games we’ve ever made and won lots of awards last year.

A number of publishers have said that it’s too hard to launch new IP at the moment given the generational cycle and the recession…
There is no doubt that a tougher economic climate makes consumers cautious. But cautiousness doesn’t mean they are not buying – they are just being more selective about what they are buying. So what’s happened is that launching something that is just a ‘good’ IP isn’t good enough.

You need something that performs at every level – that’s why we are excited about Split/Second. Because whether we launched in this economy or a better one, the pressure to get consumers up out of their chair and walk down to the store to pick the game up doesn’t stop.

One of the big stories in the industry at the moment is how games are out-stripping other mediums. Does Disney – which has a vast number of media interests – see that ‘distraction’ happening?
We definitely live in a time when there are more and more ways for people to entertain themselves, and companies in that climate have two options: you put your head in the sand and ignore it, or you embrace it. Embracing it is what we’re doing, and we’re finding that more choices isn’t leading to a decrease in the consumption of media it is leading to an increase in the amount of media consumers want.

If they happen to spend their time in games, that’s great. If they watch films or TV – well, we’re there too.
In the current climate consumers are happier to spend the money they have on entertainment like movies and games, which are relatively cheap compared to a holiday or trip to a restaurant. Our games, which have wide appeal and take in both original IP and franchise properties, put us in in a good position.

Does that mean you have to take a bigger gamble, spending more than you might have before on marketing to ensure games are successful?
Often there is this idea that it’s all about marketing. Marketing is important, but the product has to stand up first. If it’s a great game, gamers will come to it, they will tell their friends and make it special – marketing is about communicating that to the broader audience.

New IP aside, which are the key brand-based Disney games for you?

A big one for us will be Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned. The last Pirates game was a big success, it sold 3.5m units. Armada is not tied to a movie and really opens up the world. It’s an action RPG but has broad appeal.

We’ve also got Toy Story Mania coming out on Wii later this year. It’s based on a theme park ride that usually has a one-hour waiting line. We’ve taken the ride to Wii – the ride itself is a midway shooter and is interactive, so it’s a perfect fit. It also has 3D elements. We’re hearing a lot of retail excitement about that title. It’s good timing, too – Toy Story 3 is due in 2010 and the first two Toy Story movies will be re-released.

And what about the Toy Story 3 game? Isn’t it the first Pixar-related game to be handled internally?
Yes, Toy Story 3 will be published and developed by Disney Interactive [instead of THQ]. The decision to do that was made by management at Pixar by co-founders John Lasseter and Ed Catmull. Really, it was a decision about quality.

The goal for the game itself is to produce something that is really unlike any movie licence game that has been made before. It is going to be very innovative and will garner a lot of attention when it comes out.

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