Interview: On Disney Universe's World-Merging Licensed Game Platform

Disney Interactive's Mark Orgel talks to Gamasutra about how the recently announced Disney Universe melds the company's disparate worlds, and serves as a platform for future Disney licenses.
The late May announcement that Disney was including over 40 of its characters in Disney Universe wasn't exactly a shock, coming from a company that had licensed its familiar film and TV characters into video games for decades. But the idea of combining so many characters into a single title does seem a little odd for a company that usually gives each distinct universe a licensed title of its own. "If you look at the Disney library, it's so vast, and really we can’t make a game based on every character," assistant producer Mark Orgel explained to Gamasutra at a recent demo. "These characters are beloved by game fans, and they want to see them star in games. So maybe they’re not stars in their own game, but we can incorporate them in to Disney Universe." Mashing a bunch of Disney characters together in a single game isn't exactly new either -- Disney's collaboration with Square on the Kingdom Hearts RPG series was the first to really include such a mix. But even then there were rules, Orgel explains. "Just letting characters meet is not something we traditionally do," he said regarding the Eurocom-developed title. "Like having Captain Hook run into Cinderella, you can’t really do that, and if we did, it would change our whole lore. So even when you’re looking at titles like Kingdom Hearts... they’re all isolated; they never touch each other in the storyline. So that’s something you really can’t do with Disney in general." Disney Universe gets around this in its own way, by letting players create avatars that then put on character-based suits that give them powers and abilities based on those characters. "You don’t have to be Sully [in the Monsters Inc. levels], and if someone’s in a Randall costume you’re not necessarily enemies. You can be friends and play together or you can be two characters that are traditionally friends and fight each other," Orgel said. One advantage of this approach is that the core Disney Universe platform can easily be adapted to incorporate future Disney properties through DLC, without the need to build an entirely new game from scratch for each new Disney creation. "If we have a new movie that comes out, maybe it wouldn’t be right for a game on its own, but instead of making a small release, we can add it in to a world in the Disney Universe and continue to expand an existing game," he said. The basic run-and-jump-and-attack-everything-that-moves controls will stay largely the same across all these different in-game universes, as will many familiar enemies and set pieces. But that doesn't mean each area will be a carbon copy with new art assets. Orgel noted that the creators at Eurocom (Goldeneye, G-Force) made sure that each distinct universe has its own feel -- an Alice in Wonderland level might be more puzzle-intensive, where Monsters Inc. may have more platforming sections. Disney Universe is being designed with families in mind, so balancing the difficulty so its engaging for up to four single-couch co-op players -- all of whom might have radically different skill levels -- was a concern, Orgel said. In this, the team was inspired by Travellers Tales' Lego games and co-op titles like Little Big Planet and New Super Mario Bros. Wii, where a stronger player can help guide a weaker player, he said. "Some of these jump sequences are difficult for younger players, so to make it accessible for everyone the game will pull the player back to the player farthest ahead if they fall so that it will help other players through," he pointed out during the demo. As a multiplatform game, the team had to make a conscious decision not to use system-specific features like Kinect, PlayStation Move or even the Wii's motion controls, in the name of uniformity. "We wanted that gameplay experience to be the same [across platforms]," he said. "All of the players can pick their preferred platform and play and feel like they weren’t left out or short changed in any way. ... Eurocom’s good at all [platforms], and they’re able to develop kind of one code based and propagate it to all the platforms." Despite Disney's recent focus on social games, exemplified by an acquisition of Playdom last year worth up to $763 million and the closure of internal console-focused studios, Orgel says the kind of console experience represented by Disney Universe will remain an important part of the company's mix. "I wouldn’t say [the console side] has gone away -- I think there’s always going to be a place for these types of games. And it’s really expanded -- the audience has expanded; it’s going to new areas. So it’s not about moving away from console games, it’s about what more can we do, how can we reach more fans," he said.

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