Disney’s Joy Story

I hope we don’t lose sight of one thing – it was all started by a mouse.”

Judging by this famous nod to humility, Mr. Walt Disney would be reassured to walk into the Hammersmith dwelling of his company’s UK interactive entertainment arm.

For not only does Walt’s diminutive big-eared icon loom large in the building’s foyer (resplendent in spangly pants, no less), but the pragmatic progression of the publisher suggests that the words of its genial overlord are most definitely still being heeded.

Matt Carroll – who bears the protracted title of country director for Disney Interactive Studios for the UK, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia – is certainly aware of the need to retain a sense of steady growth, rather than letting sudden success lead the company to forget its foundations.

However, the boss who has marshalled the publisher to extrapolating success over the past two years also understands the need for change in the fast-moving video games market – and that to remain a solely kids-focused outfit would suck out a sizeable chunk of trademark excitement from the firm’s portfolio.

We want to be the number one games entertainment brand for families – whether young or old, teenage kids or people who have left home,” he explains. We want to offer entertainment in a broad spectrum for every taste.”

Indeed, it might have given dear Walt heart palpitations to know that 85 years after he established his beloved business, Disney would be encouraging gamers to massacre man-eating beasts in the graphically gory Turok on PS3 and Xbox 360 (albeit on Disney’s ‘adult’ Touchstone label).

But according to Carroll, providing alluring content for every gamer – even those thirsty for a spot of virtual prehistoric blood – is a simple evolution of Disney’s ‘something for all members of the family’ ethos.

In the future, we will definitely be offering more games for people over the age of 18,” he adds. However, these will always be done in the context of The Walt Disney Company, maintaining our strong storytelling themes of good over evil, and optimism.

Going forward, about 70 per cent of our output will be based on the Walt Disney Company franchises, 20 per cent will be Disney-branded original IP and about ten per cent will be non-Disney, which is obviously where Turok fits.

We will spend up to $350 million a year in the next five years. $35 million of that will be invested in non-Disney IP, maybe on single formats. That should mean we have enough in the portfolio to keep all aspects of our audience interested.”

And that includes retail. Carroll reckons Disney’s upcoming slate is the strongest in the publisher’s short history – but admits that with no E3 this year, UK buyers haven’t been given as much exposure to DIS releases as he would like.

There should be an event where UK retail can see everything,” he says. What would have taken them three days of Hell is now spread over six or eight weeks in bespoke individual publisher events.

Without a UK expo there will be more and more publishers pinning their hopes on Leipzig. The industry will be kind of delayed this year as a result.”

Like other publishing luminaries, Carroll expects this Christmas to be the best of all time” – but he isn’t without his worries. He pleads with publishers to hold fire on pressuring retail to suddenly discount product in the gifting season.

But he reserves most chagrin for what he sees as software’s lack of prominence on the High Street – and is calling on his fellow publishers to demand a more eye-catching, engaging in-store presence.

Space and presentation need to be dramatically improved,” he says. It doesn’t feel like software is being used particularly creatively. Games is being led by other entertainment categories, and judging by the profit margin, that should be the other way round.

And it’s not just software. You can see with Wii and PS3 what can be done to really grab the attention of consumers in-store. But I’d argue that the DS isn’t being supported to the level at retail that its success deserves. You see it having equal space with many other formats, over which it completely dominates.”

Carroll is quick to add that he isn’t being selfish – but actually encouraging retailers to help themselves to a slice of such a buoyant market.

With the exception of GAME, the retailers in this industry are consolidating at a time when the publishers and other sectors are growing the market,” he explains. If retail was bolder with games, they would be growing the industry for all of us – and share in more of the wealth.”

Any disgruntled merchandisers reading would do well to remember that Carroll can speak from a point of some authority. Disney knows more about the recent lucrative explosion of mainstream gaming than most, having achieved its highest ever publisher position (a lofty eighth spot) in the publisher market share charts for June.

That was largely thanks to the runaway triumph of Pirates Of The Caribbean – whose success on PS2, Wii and DS in particular further proved the natural affinity of those systems and Disney’s family licences.

The rest of the firm’s 2007 is littered with key releases on these formats, including Anno 1701, Disney Princess, Power Rangers: Super Legends – and Singstar-style, mega-hit-in-the-waiting High School Musical: Sing It!

However, Carroll cautions his peers not to blindly anticipate prosperity from Nintendo’s nifty next-gen system.

We didn’t leave it too late on Wii and we’ve found a natural fit on that machine,” he says. But there are lots of publishers flooding to the format now, which means there will be losers. Not everyone can be successful.

PS2 is vital to this Christmas for us and part of our plan going forward. We will probably be one of the last publishers on PS2. It’s still bringing new people to the market.”

There’s little doubt that DIS is humble enough to remember that all this was started by a mouse”. But it’s the new breed of precious Princesses, singing students and Jurassic giants that it wants this – and the next – generation of gamers to remember.

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