Interview: Buena Vista's Good View - Graham Hooper on Disney's Plans for Winning Hearts

In the last 10 years, movie production houses that were once making games fled the interactive side of entertainment. But Graham Hopper has helped Buena Vista chart a new course. Hopper talks about Disney's role in allowing Buena Vista to focus on a core gamer audience.

In the mid 1990s, most of the movie production houses that were publishing or developing games made a semi-graceful exit from the industry. Buena Vista, as Disney's game publishing arm, was one of the few that stuck around. Now in its eleventh year, the company has made another shift, changing the name to Buena Vista Games, and changing the focus to the more core gamer. With the power of Disney behind them, and the acquisition of a few key individuals from established development houses, Buena Vista Games hopes to be a major industry player in both the short and long term. Senior vice president and general manager Graham Hopper spoke to Game Developer about Buena Vista's new initiatives in the core-gamer space.

Brandon Sheffield: How has Buena Vista evolved over the years, and what has prompted this renewed interest in the console gaming space?

Graham Hopper: Our business started about 10 years ago; in fact it was 10 years ago [as of December 2004] that Disney Interactive was formed, and it was predominantly a PC publisher for a long period of time. We did achieve a great deal of success on the PC platform, right throughout the 1990s. However, we have not been known as a significant console developer; we tended to license all that out, so we had sort of a dual model where we published certain things ourselves, mainly on the PC, and we licensed out the rest. Of course what we realized is that as the console market has become bigger and more valuable, there was a real opportunity for us to expand our business by starting to publish on console as well. So that was stage one of the evolution of our business, which went into motion in 2002 and 2003.

Nightmare Before Christmas

We started looking at different genres of products, as opposed to just the traditional Disney branded products. So for example, we worked with Monolith Studios on Tron 2.0, and we also started work with Capcom on developing a, shall we say, sequel to Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. And again, we've started thinking about developing original properties. I think what we realized pretty quickly is that as powerful a brand as Disney Interactive is, it does of course limit what we're able to do in the gaming space. And the key evolution for us was realizing that the game business has changed from something that kids did, which would be true of 10 years ago, to something that is now an entertainment medium which everybody enjoys. You come home from work, and you can decide what you want to do to entertain yourself, you can switch on the TV and watch ABC, owned by Disney - yes, please watch it (laughs)-or you can play a game, and it makes sense for us to be able to offer entertainment that crosses whatever different choices [consumers] want to make.

So we changed the name of the company to Buena Vista Games, or BVG. Underneath that, we have two labels. Label one is Disney Interactive, which used to be the company name but now is just a label of ours, in which we do all Disney-branded product. I don't like to call that kids products, because the Disney products appeal to a very broad audience, like for example Kingdom Hearts. Our second label, our newer label, is Buena Vista Interactive. And Buena Vista Interactive is, much like we use Touchstone and Miramax within the company to distinguish between Disney-branded products and non-Disney-branded products [for movies], Buena Vista Interactive allows us to do the same thing.

One of the things we've been quite involved in over the years was developing the games themselves. However, we often handed them off to third parties to publish. So we had deals with the likes of Sony, who publishes games, but in many cases we were the ones who secured the developers, worked to develop the game, then handed a finished product over to a publisher. And we realized that our capabilities in publishing could easily expand to cover the console products. Disney as a company is a top-ten vendor at Wal-Mart, for example. And so those retail skills that we have give us a size and heft in the marketplace that is much larger than our actual size, and much larger than any other company in the game space, that's for sure.

BS: Publishing aside, will you be incorporating development as well?

GH: Yes, one of the things we did is we repositioned the business. Just to give you a sense of the extent of the changeover - PC was a large portion of our business, close to 60 percent three years ago. And today throughout North America it's about 10 percent of our business. Before, we'd been invested in PC development studios. So what we did was spin those studios off, but we will get back into development; ownership of development studios and development capacities will support our console strategy going forward.

BS: Will you be making developer or publisher acquisitions to that end?

GH: Yes, to the extent that they make financial sense.

BS: So what will happen to those developers that previously worked on your licensed titles?

Graham Hopper

GH: We plan to continue operating as a license business in addition to our publishing capacity. In other words, we have an open mind about how to approach publishing a game. If the right way to develop a game happens to be to secure the unique expertise of a particular company that requires us to take a licensed approach, we'll want to do that. I think Kingdom Hearts is a great example of that, where they have brought the Final Fantasy characters together with ours. So there will be a licensing component to what we do. We have licensing arrangements with THQ which run forward into the future, and those will continue as they are. But I think you can expect that with properties like Chicken Little which come out of feature animation, we'll be more likely to publish those ourselves than we would be to automatically license them out like we would have before.

BS: What do you think about other film companies, such as Warner Brothers, getting back into game development?

GH: I think they see the same strategic value in the business that we do - but I think the difference is that different companies have different starting points. So the fact is that we've stayed around for 10 years, and we have a profitable business, and we have the right kind of talent, having brought people on board like Mike Ryder who used to head up Sierra, people like Ed Bainbridge out of Eidos. We view our investment in talent out of the gaming industry as being the critical differentiator between us and other companies. The big lesson that we learned in that mid-'90s period where everyone got out of the business is that this is not the film business. We understand the differences. There are significant convergences, but we understand the difference in that we are trying to build a gaming company, not a company that does a bit of games on the side.

BS: How are you different from other companies, then?

GH: Well let's think about what this means for the development community-thing is, as we enter the core gaming space, we have pretty much a blank sheet of paper. And one of the problems that developers have is getting publishers to pay attention to new intellectual property ideas. In many cases that's because the publisher may already have a number of driving games or shooters, and then when somebody comes up with a new twist on these. As a publisher you have to say "is this cannibalistic, or is this something that I should be publishing as well?" We as an organization have very few of those sorts of potential conflicts. And we're actively looking for new intellectual properties to develop. Disney's very renowned as a marketing company-also renowned for developing and managing franchises. I mean we've built some of the biggest franchises in the world, I think out of the top five, three of them are owned by Disney. And these are things that we've either nurtured over the years, or simply developed in a relatively short period of time. Our ownership of media, like television channels and so on, allows us to evolve and grow franchises in a unique way. We're essentially throwing open the doors to the development community to come to us with great ideas.


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