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Evolving Disney: Graham Hopper Speaks

Last year, Buena Vista Interactive became Disney Interactive, and the company now spans High School Musical games to Turok - Gamasutra talks to GM Graham Hopper on the intriguing evolution and future of Disney's gaming efforts.

Last year, Buena Vista Interactive became Disney Interactive; the name change came along with other big changes for the company -- with bigger, in-house games and lots of studio acquisitions, including Warren Spector's Junction Point studio, and Climax UK's racing studio, now renamed Black Rock.

To find out more about the evolution of the major Disney division, which now spans games from High School Musical to Turok, Gamasutra recently sat down with Disney Interactive's general manager Graham Hopper to discuss this and a host of other issues.

I want to talk about how things are going with Disney. For a while, it was Buena Vista Games, and your business was more focused on licensing. There was publishing, but it was definitely a different model. Now you've acquired Propaganda and other studios, and are interested in bulking up. How has that been going? First of all, what was the motive behind moving into that space, toward being a more full-featured publisher?

Graham Hopper: As you correctly pointed out, we've been in the business since 1994, as a PC publisher. We had never really stepped into console publishing, and licensing was quite a big part of our business. We went through an evaluation of our business about four or five years ago when I came on board, to decide what we wanted to do.

At the top, we had to make a decision to either stay as a licensor and give our content to other people, or make a decision to get into this in a more significant way. We made the decision to get into it in a more significant way, because we think the gaming industry is moving in a direction that plays to our strengths as a company, in terms of storytelling, character creation, franchise creation, and ongoing franchise management.

We also think that our brand has not been properly developed in the game space, and as the more we got into it, the more we realized that there is more and more room for us to reach consumers, particularly male consumers -- boys and men -- that the Disney brand doesn't otherwise reach, except through video games.

From a company strategic perspective, it's a sector we still needed to be in. From a business perspective, it's a growing piece of media and standard business, and it makes sense for us to be in. And in terms of unexploited opportunity, it's also a big opportunity for us. In all of those there, it really felt like it was the right time for us to... you could probably argue that we could've done it before, but I think studios were jumping to this too soon, back in the mid-'90s, when they could see the potential, but weren't ready for it.

This time we've done it. I think we've gone into it at the right time, and I think we've gone into it in the right way. Most of the people in our organization are from out of the games industry. They know how to make games. It's not about just good visuals. It's also about great gameplay.

Joseph Turok grapples with a ferocious dinosuar

A lot of the companies that jumped in in the '90s jumped right back out again, and then they got back in again.

GH: Right. Again, I think our strategy is the right one, because it's starting with the right people and the right creative processes. We've been at this for a period of time. It's only now that some of the features that we've been working on are starting to come out. Our first efforts have been on handheld platforms, where up until... I haven't checked the latest numbers... but up until the end of September, we were the number two DS publisher in North America.

We hope our brand will be number two on handhelds for quite some time. It's really for us been... it's taking our success we've had on handheld, where we've been at it the longest, and have the shortest cycles, and now it's time to translate that to console. That's going to be where you'll see much more of us in the next few years.

As you rightfully point out, Turok is certainly different from Disney. Actually, this is coming out under the Touchstone label, right?

GH: Correct.


Can you talk about the decision to move into using the Touchstone brand for games?

GH: The Walt Disney Company has become a multi-brand company over the years. We have ESPN, we have Touchstone Movies, we have Walt Disney Pictures, and we have Miramax. Each of these labels, if you like, have their own sort of focus. The vast majority of what we're doing is Disney-branded content, because that's where we see the biggest sorts of opportunities for us, and the biggest market opportunity in expanding gaming to reaching to more players that are going to be playing today.

The Touchstone aspect for us is a terrifically small piece of our world, but an important one, because it's putting us at the cutting edge of game development, which is Pixar tools and technology-strong. We are taking a cinematic approach. It's not just about "bang bang bang." It's about really trying to tell a story, and creating immersive environments.

As a company, we're about building franchises, and sustaining franchises over the long haul. When we looked at Turok, which was a beaten-down franchise, it had a lot of success over the years, but then had some disappointing creative behind it. We felt that we could bring our creative and our storytelling and great play to it, and we could reinvigorate the franchise, like we've done for many others before. So that plays to our company's strength as well.

Did you have any reservations about the fact that, with Turok, the license is owned by another company? Did that fit in with your strategy? Did you like it because it had been a great franchise? What was the appeal there?

GH: Typically, unlike most other game publishers, we own almost everything that we do. So yeah, it is an anomaly for us to be working with what is, for us, a licensed property. But we felt that this was a game franchise that needed to be reinvented, and we thought we could do a great job of it, in terms of bringing the full cinematic, immersive experience. That's why we picked it out.

It's not symptomatic that we're going to be taking lots of licenses from other people. It's just really an opportunistic move, and we felt this was a great business opportunity for us, and we wanted to show gamers what we could do.

Speaking of moving away from licensing out Disney's core properties to other publishers to work with... is that a blanket policy? Is that something that's going to phase in over a course of years as the contracts expire, or are you not really discussing that?

GH: The key thing for us is being flexible. We never said that we wanted to move away from licensing, and we don't intend to. Great examples of licensed games that we make that we would love to continue to make those licensed games.

A great example of that is Kingdom Hearts. It's a great collaboration between Square and ourselves. Disney characters are in there, and Final Fantasy characters are in there. It's the kind of collaboration that works, and where we see other opportunities like that, we will do them.

We've got a relationship with THQ, and things with Konami. It's not an aberration for us to be licensing. They stay part of our portfolio. But a big piece of the focus is that we didn't feel that purely following a license would give us the right kind of investment focus on quality, and building our brand in games where we thought we had the potential to do.

Our moving to those handheld games... when that started, people were laughing at us because they thought it was stupid, they didn't think there was a business opportunity there. I can't tell you how many senior executives in the game business told me, "That doesn't make any sense. Girls don't play games." What I think we're doing is we're bringing girls into gaming at an early age, and giving them a great experience, and they'll move on to play other things at the time, too. I think it's ultimately good for the industry.

 


THQ had some not-great financial recently, and a lot of the analysts are saying, "We've got to watch out, because their Pixar deal runs out in a couple of years." People are theorizing that it's going to be pulled back in. Obviously I have a feeling that you don't want to comment on that, but it's a situation that people are taking notice of, and they're wondering where the future goes with the licensing versus internal development.

GH: It's a long-term relationship with THQ, and that will continue. We work well together, and we like having them as a licensing partner for us. We have been growing a lot. We have a lot more growing to do. We can't do everything ourselves as a company. We create more content than we can actually develop for ourselves. For us, the possibility of being both a publisher and a licensor gives us, in my mind, the best of both worlds.

Certainly I think, not that you've suggested this, but I think that Kingdom Hearts is a fantastic example of Square Enix doing something with your characters that you couldn't do yourself. You couldn't replicate that, because it's got Square Enix's stamp all over it, but it still retains the Disney just as strongly. Obviously it would be, without my theorizing on the relationship, would be a great thing to continue in that vein.

GH: Yeah. I think it would be a sad day for gamers if there were to be no more Kingdom Hearts. We love the franchise, and Square Enix loves it, so we want to see it continue, and they have more games coming out.

Yeah. There were three at TGS, so there's definitely going to be more Kingdom Hearts.

GH: There's a lot of life left there. There's a lot of stories to tell.

I can't remember the DS game's title. It's so awesomely horrible. What is it... 365 days over two...? No, 358 days over two -- which is the subtitle. It's so incomprehensible, it's so great. Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days.

GH: What I can tell you is, trust Nomura-san. He always delivers --

He delivered about half of the Square Enix Party, their big event in Japan last year. He delivered literally half of the games on show, I think were his responsibilities.

GH: He's a tremendous talent.

And as I understand it, he's a complete workaholic, so it's kind of a win-win for Square and him, because he doesn't have any interest in doing anything else anyway.

GH: Having been to dinner with Nomura-san at 11 PM at night in Tokyo is... we're jetlagged, so it works well for us.

That's nice. So getting back to your business, as you fleshed out from a licensor to a publisher, you started a more full-featured publisher. You started acquiring studios. Obviously Propaganda is that, and there are some other examples. Can you talk about that process, how you made those decisions and what acquisitions you made?

GH: Well, for us, up to pretty recently, our studios are our lifeblood. Our company's built in creativity in everything we do. Whenever we've strayed away from focusing on creativity, even to make money, it's never been a good end story for us. It's very clear in games, like everything else, creativity will drive what we do. The creativity from our internal studios is of vital importance.

So what we're doing is we're going out and trying to acquire studios that have a focus, and culturally fit with what we're trying to do, and focus on quality. It probably would be very easy for us to substantially increase the output of titles that we're putting out, whether it be through publishing or licensing, but that's not what we want to do.

We'd rather have fewer, really good titles out there. There are enough bad titles being made in the industry. We don't need to add to it. We want to add to the stock of great titles. Our internal studios are keen to that. So whether it be Propaganda, Avalanche, Fall Line, which is our Wii and DS-focused studio, or whether it be Black Rock, which is our racing game studio, or...

Which was Climax UK, right?

GH: Yeah, it was Climax Racing. Or whether there's Warren Spector's Junction Point. Each one of these are highly creative studios with a particular focus on what they're doing.

 


I think the Junction Point acquisition was a surprise, and from Warren's comments when that happened, he was like, "Everyone's like, 'why Disney?'" I think there's probably skepticism that remains, but at the same time, I think everyone's excited to see what will happen.

GH: Don't forget, Warren has been privy to what it was what we're doing on the inside, so he knows. He's seen more than perhaps what most people on the outside have seen, so the question that people might have asked about why he would make this step is crystal-clear to him.

From our perspective, to have greater talents like Warren on board and part of our creative system is absolutely essential. It's not that different, if you think about it, to what happened at Pixar over the years. Pixar has grown on finding great and talented directors to work with John Lasseter.

Like Brad Bird.

GH: Exactly. Brad's a great example of that. For us, having great creatives actually feed each other, we get better work, better results, and better creativity. And that's really what we're trying to do. So we are, first and foremost... this is a product-led renaissance, and that product is credited to great people and great contents that gamers love so.

It sounds pretty simple when you put it that way. I think part of the problem... well, not the problem, but the perception is that it's sort of like a syllogism. Like, "Kids' games are crappy, and Disney makes kids' games, thus Disney will be crappy as a publisher." You know what I mean. It isn't necessarily true, but that's probably the conclusion that people are reaching, to an extent. And also Disney doesn't fit the Deus Ex, hardboiled, incredibly complex, mature image... stuff like that is probably what people were thinking.

GH: You know, Christian, you look at the broad spectrum, yet a lot of people are trying to produce games that appeal to, say, the 18 to 34 or 18 to 40 age group, if you like -- of hardcore titles. That's one segment. But there's a whole other part of this business that we appeal to, too.

I talked to a lot of people, particularly people that have kids, about what they're looking for, and why aren't these people looking for games that they can play with their kids. And they were gamers. I don't know how many gamers you've talked to that have stopped gaming because they got married and had kids, and it just didn't fit into their lives anymore the way it used to.

I think for us, to create great content that appeals to a broad audience, it's not just about selling to kids. We want something that grown-ups will want to play with their kids, and that gamers will play. I think Kingdom Hearts is a great example of what they can do. There are plenty of single guys in their 20s who love Kingdom Hearts. There are plenty of families that have played it, and kids that have played it, and that's the kind of model we're looking for.

Not everything we do is going to be designed to appeal to everyone, so when we create a game like... we just had a [Disney] Princess Wii title. When we create something like that, we're bringing young girls into the world of the Wii, and into gaming for the first time ever. When we saw what we could do with the controller, think of it as a magic wand moving through a world. It creates magic and excitement and joy for kids. Would a core gamer want to play it? No. But if it was designed for a core gamer, no kid would be able to access it.

We try to focus our product to specific segments, and make sure that we are appealing to them. People will see some games and say, "These are not right for me." They shouldn't assume they are of bad quality. In fact, I think they are high quality to the audience they are intended. They are designed with accessibility and ease-of-use to a specific audience. When you play Turok, that's done as a brand new game for us, but that is a hardcore-type game. We know that we're designing for the right audience.

Oh yeah, definitely. But I mean, at the same time, a lot of kids' games -- and this is something that's been a big topic with the resurgence of Nintendo with the Wii and the DS, is how do you compete with Nintendo? That's been a big topic of discussion. It comes up all the time. Ubisoft has come out and said, "We'll compete with Nintendo by making our games as good as Nintendo's." And everyone's like, "That's a bold statement!" A lot of publishers brought half-baked games on the Wii and thought they would sell, just because the Wii's popular, and then some people end up retreating from that. My point is that not all kids' games are created equally.

GH: They're not. One of the things we have a strong, vested interest in is the whole notion of licensed games based on movies or Disney properties or so on. The games are not generally as good as they could be, so everybody gets lumped in the same box. But because we own so much of our own content, we have a strong, vested interest in changing that, and we are trying to change it.

I think sometimes it's regrettable that there are some segments of the gaming press that don't recognize when a game is trying to be different. It's easy to say, "This is for kids. It's not fun," or whatever. But I'm hoping that there is going to be recognition that games are designed for different audiences, and should be viewed and rated and judged appropriately.

The other thing to this is that some people who sometimes people feel that games that aren't suited for core gamers are somehow diminishing the industry. I don't think that's the case. And I think the gaming industry has a long way to go in terms of growth and appealing to more people. I don't see a situation where core gamers are being left in the dust, with no games being made for them, because kids or families are being addressed.

That's become a bit of a debate with the success of the Wii, because you look at the new audience, who bought it expecting Wii Sports, and then core gamers respond, "Well, is Nintendo going to abandon us, the fans it's had for years?" Obviously that's not the case, and I feel that Super Mario Galaxy is an obvious example of how Nintendo's not abandoning its audience. But it is definitely a debate.

 


The market is growing in different ways, and I think that Disney is probably better suited to capitalize on some of the ways it's growing to the younger audience, and the older-than-core audience, and the more casual audience, almost more than you would expect the company to be able to capitalize on the audience that would buy Turok, actually, in a certain sense.

GH: I think you'll be surprised. I think you'll be surprised over the next few years when you see the content coming out. Certainly, a lot of what we do is going to appeal to, in essence, audiences new to gaming. I love games, and I love playing games, and I would like everybody in the world to play games.

I think playing games is like TV was, and like radio and like movies. There's not a person on this planet, when they saw it for the first time, saw a moving image on a screen and said, "I don't want to watch that," or heard a radio and said, "I don't want any piece of that." It's a universal desire, in my opinion, and I think what we're doing and what Nintendo's doing, is a great job of is expanding the experience to more people.

It doesn't diminish, and it doesn't take away from the core gamers' wants. I just think it's a broadening of the entertainment landscape in games that we're happy to be a part of, and I think we will look at these games that the core gamers will like. I'm obviously talking about things here that have not been announced, but I think over the next six to eight months, you'll start to see some things come out of us as we start to show you what the titles are. I think perhaps it will make people sit back and say, "Hmm. Maybe not everything they do is right for me, but they are games that I want to play."

Another shot from Touchstone and Propaganda's upcoming FPS, Turok

If Turok is a glimpse of what could be, on one hand... obviously, this isn't a one-off. I would assume, whether or not the Turok franchise sticks around, you're not just saying, "This is our one time making an M-rated action game, and the rest of the time it's going to be Disney Princess." I think that no one would infer that, probably.

GH: Right. You look at any piece of our business. You look at our movie studio, and we produce movies that are for younger kids, and movies that are for families, and art house movies, if you like, and we produce Jerry Bruckheimer, big blow-em-ups, spectacular summer movies. We do all of those things, and we do them all well. Again, they've each had their own focus, and they're not just a mish-mash of things. They are designed to appeal to different audiences to delight and entertain them, and we're going to do the exact same thing in games. We'll probably just need a little more time for people to see it through.

Right. Getting back to the Touchstone brand question -- Touchstone is a mainstream film brand that's now being pulled over to games to launch Turok. So I'm sort of extrapolating... is there a chance we'll ever see a Miramax game? Like, something a little bit more edgy, or more mature and artsy, do you think?

GH: It's possible. We don't want to maintain a bunch of different labels. I think it's potentially confusing for consumers. Whether it might be Miramax in feel, it may not be labeled as Miramax. It may just go out under Touchstone. Frankly, I think it's more fun to do really interesting things within certain guidelines, also within the Disney brand, as long as it sticks to the Disney brand essence. We know we should be doing some really good stuff there, too.

We're not trying to set out to manage lots of different labels. We simply want to create great games, and then we need an avenue to publish them. And then if a great game like Turok comes along and doesn't fit the Disney brand, we want to be able to do it anyway, and we have Touchstone to do it.

Do you see a lot of limitations on what kind of games you guys could be making?

GH: I think we have certain, if you like -- how should I put this? -- philosophical reservations in the kind of game that we want to make, so I would really not expect to see a Grand Theft Auto game coming from us. It would come from other people, but it won't come from us. But the idea of cutting-edge, high-quality, great entertainment is something you can expect to see from us on an ongoing basis. Some of it's going to be younger, and some of it's going to be older, and some of it's going to be mass, and some will be quirkier. It will be all of those things.

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