The Mouse That Gamed: Graham Hopper Talks Disney's Video Game Strategy

Disney Interactive president Graham Hopper is pursuing a broad array of avenues, and here he discusses the careful approach the company's numerous gaming brands.

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

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.

Oftentimes people in marketing and other positions aren't necessarily savvy about the process of game development, and can't evaluate games on that level, early on. Is that something that you work to communicate, organizationally? To say, "Look: we'll evaluate it for what it is at this time, and move forward in terms of what makes sense."

GH: Yeah, we have a stage-gate process for tracking the evolution of the game. I play a lot of games, I expect all of my executives to play a lot of games, and frankly, I don't know how you could market a product if you don't physically get hands-on with it yourself. So, we expect a high degree of passion from everybody involved in touching the game.

If you want to be involved in any way in the creative direction of the game -- and that includes pretty much everybody in marketing, because they have a voice in this thing -- they need to have hands-on experience with games. And they need to learn the process of making a game.

And I think that, across the industry in general, marketing teams are more and more savvy about this, and are becoming good partners to development teams. Because you're not seeing two groups with completely different objectives and perspectives coming together; we're trying to get these two different areas to collaborate at the same goal, which is making a great game.

And part of that is understanding what the product is, and not expecting a polished game when you're a few months in, and just trying to find the fun.

The choice of platform is becoming increasingly important, and it's not just about hardware, now -- there's next-gen, Wii and handheld, plus the choice of packaged versus download, which service to use, and then is it casual, is there a PC version, what's the business model... 

GH: Yeah. Welcome to my world, Christian.

How do you make those tough decisions? You guys have a very large line-up. Larger than I had anticipated, I guess, and it maps across a wide array of platforms and IP. And within those platforms, different... You know, I don't know. We'll call them "hardware" and "platforms".

GH: We're trying to be as informed as we can about making those important platform distribution decisions. And part of that is tracking quite carefully who owns what. If we were focused only on hardcore gamers -- that is to say, people in the typical 18-34 age group – if that's all we were thinking about, our life would be a whole lot easier, because our platform decisions would be almost, in some sense, made for us.

But where we are, we have a broad sense of demographics that we try to serve, we really have to pay attention to who owns what box when, and try to make projections into the future, what we think the install rate is going to be on those boxes -- and use that very carefully, by really having a good sense of who we're making a game for.

If it's Split/Second, we know we're going next gen on that. If it's going to be something aimed at a seven year old girl, we'll look at the DS and see what we can do with the DS, because we know they own a lot of that platform, and we can customize the experience to that age group. So, I think, laser-like focus on the product and its customer base, and then understanding as best you can where the install base is going to be, is the thing we have to try to weigh out on every one of our properties.

If you have a little perspective on the games industry, and you look back a few years, and you had to try to imagine how many platforms we'd develop on... If you start to take telephone handsets, smartphones, digital downloadable games, shrink-wrapped DS games, all the way up to console, there's just a tremendous number of platforms. But that's what's making the industry so exciting, because there's so much innovation going on that we haven't had an opportunity to get stale, which is great.

I mean, what other great industry can you think of that is serving so many platforms at the same time? So much innovation happening, and the consumer experience is getting better every single year because the envelope is being pushed? You just don't see a lot of it.

You've had media from Japan like Spectrobes and Kingdom Hearts coming into America, and, Black Rock, who's also seen success in America, is in the UK. How do you look at gaming, as a global industry which allows for more global content creation?

GH: I think that's absolutely essential. And it's not like there is Hollywood and Bollywood and a few other centers of film production. In our industry, we really have complete decentralization: we have great developers all over the world, some of them in towns you've never heard of. And I love that.

It seems to be a very 21st century way to love. The creative team can live where they want to live, and they can produce great products, and the whole world will find it. And they will be made available to a global audience.

I think that's the way of the future. I don't see this changing. I think that one of the great strengths of this industry is encouraging this continuous innovation -- so we never get stale. Because when you get stale, that's when the consumer moves on to something else.

IP creation is especially key for large, multifaceted companies like Disney, and you do have a lot of games based on pre-existing IP from film and television. I'm assuming Spectrobesis, on the other hand, Disney Interactive's IP, and here are other products inthat vein. To what extent is IP creation a driving force within the strategy of Disney Interactive?

GH: It plays a very important role. We are keeping it down to about 30% of our business. That way we manage the risk, if you like. We can afford to go a little further out with a really great idea that's maybe a little riskier, and have some other, surer bets that are coming from known IP on the side. We don't have to bet the company every time we do something new. it is telling that we're able to manage these two pieces together: both existing content, plus the new IP, and bring something, especially, that's compatible with the Disney brand, and resonates well with consumers. And we do that effectively in different places.

I mean, you mentioned it earlier: different platforms, different age groups. We're able to be successful in all of them, because we focus on just creating great experience for whatever title it's going to be.

Do you think that as you create more successful IP, it's going to flow outward through the company? You imply 70% of your IP is flowing inward from the organization, so do you see that shifting?

GH: There is no doubt in my mind that that is going to happen. I mean, one of the reasons why Disney is investing in the games business is because we believe it has a potential to be a content creation engine at the same level as the studio is, and television channels are. So that is, most certainly, the long term goal.

I think it's been something people have been looking

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