Articles

Is Disney bad at video games?

September 7, 2019


Disney’s CEO Bob Iger says Disney is bad
at video games, but actually, are they? Why aren’t they doing a better job? The answer lies in Disney’s long and erratic
approach to game development. Their first crack at the game biz was Walt
Disney Computer Software, founded in 1988. They wanted to publish a game to coincide
with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was due in theaters in 9 months. But they couldn’t find a developer willing
to do it in such a short time. So they had to do it in-house, the game dev
equivalent of a shotgun wedding. The Who Framed Roger Rabbit game was a success
and made tons of money despite the short turn-around, which gave Disney an idea: what if…. more
money? Games at this time were mostly cartridge-based,
which meant investing in manufacturing and shipping, and that’s a great way to
not get money immediately. So Disney licensed out their IP for consoles
and set WDCS to work on computer games and software. “Disney Presents The Animation Studio” was a
big seller, and proved that there was something to this whole software idea. Early on, WDCS had a lot of freedom because
they were small and could be ignored. As they became more successful, and as games
became a larger economic force, they drew more attention from the higher-ups, like the
Eye of Sauron turning on Frodo. Sauron: I…. SEE…. YOU… According to employees at the time, it was
nearly impossible to get projects approved because Disney didn’t know what it wanted
to do with the whole concept of games. WDCS would lay dormant with no projects for
over a year in the early 90s. Then in ‘93, Disney licensed out Aladdin
to Sega. But they did the animation in-house, with
digitization from Virgin Interactive. The Aladdin game made thick stacks, selling
over 4 million copies, reminding Disney once again that oh right, money. So in ‘94, WDCS and its eight remaining
employees became Disney Interactive. All development moved in-house, more staff
was hired, and they started cranking out both entertainment and edu-tainment. Pooh: [adorable laughter] But then in 1997 the winds shifted again;
game development costs were rising, but more importantly, Disney’s new financial standards
lead to a quarter of Disney Interactive’s staff being laid off – about 90 people. They went back to dealing with just PC games,
and let other companies handle consoles. In some cases, like Kingdom Hearts, the projects
were quasi-collaborative; Disney provided talent and guidance for their IP. But quality was an issue – not every licensed
Disney game was a Kingdom Hearts. Plus PC games and edutainment weren’t exactly
rich veins, compared to the console market. So in 2002, new leadership took over and started
to spin up the ol’ in-house development windmill again. Two Disney-developed Game Boy Advanced projects
were published and did well, so Disney was like, fuck it, go crazy. And EXPAND THEY DID. Disney acquired Avalanche
Studios in 2005, Black Rock Studios Limited in 2006, Junction Point and the Club Penguin
property in 2007, Gamestar in 2008, Wideload Games in 2009, Tapulous and Playdom in 2010
and LucasArts in 2012. [pained intake of breath] Additional studios were formed too: Propaganda
Games in 2005, Fall Line Studio in 2006. It was like the Winchester Mystery House approach
to studio development. If you look at that list and think that’s
too much, then, yeah, uh, that’s what the non-game bits of Disney thought too. This studio-golem had some successes: Hannah
Montana on the Nintendo DS sold over a million copies. But Disney’s attempts to chase a young male
audience with new IP never quite matched those numbers. And the animation licenses weren’t as valuable
– gone were the halcyon days of Aladdin. It was the mid-2000s bog of DOA franchises
and low-quality sequels. Remember Home on the Range? No. Nobody remembers Home on the Range. Plus by the late 2000s, the gaming landscape
had once again shifted: Facebook and mobile gaming were lucrative markets that Disney
wasn’t in. Thus came the reaping: hundreds of jobs, and
a myriad of in-development titles, with Disney Interactive Studios itself officially closing
in May 2016. And we’ve found over the years that we haven’t been particularly good at the self-publishing side. But we’ve been great at the licensing side. Which obviously doesn’t require that much allocation of capital. And since we’re allocating capital in other directions, we’ve just decided that the best place for us to be, in that space, is licensing. That brings us roughly to the present and to the question at hand: Is Disney just bad
at games? They’re often a few steps behind the rest
of the industry – going in to PCs when consoles are popping off, missing the moment on Facebook
gaming. On the other hand, Disney Infinity was successfully
on top of the “toys to life” trend, before that market fell out. More than anything, Disney is big enough that
it could weather changes in the game market, if it wanted to. It’s less about being “good” at games
and more about a conservative business strategy. Disney only really has three options. One, license their properties out. Two, stick their thumbs in the game pie and
hope for a big ol’ plum. Or three, some mixture of Disney oversight on
licensed products, like they had with Aladdin and Kingdom Hearts. But pure licensing will always be the safest
– if the least profitable – option. Consider Star Wars Battlefront II; the fallout
of the loot box debacle rained down on EA Games, while Disney hung out in the fallout
shelter of hands-off licensing. So will Disney pivot back to self-publishing
anytime soon? Given that Iger is the wellspring for the
“Disney is bad at games” water, probably not — at least, until his contract is up
in 2021. Who knows what game plan for the next leader will be? That said, it’s unlikely we’ll see any games,
licensed or in-house, that are closely linked to Disney’s movie franchises. Take, for example, Square Enix’s Avengers
game. Avengers Trailer VO: The Avengers were everything I imagined. Clearly – clearly – it has nothing to do with
the multi-billion dollar franchise Disney has developed for the last decade. Who are these people? Who are these strangers? That is not my beautiful Hulk! But honestly, there’s no way this game could connect to the MCU. It was announced in January 2017. Here’s all the movies
that have come out in the Marvel Universe between that announcement and this moment: Wow! It’s too many! It would be impossible to
anticipate the changes in the MCU far enough in advance for the long triple-A game production
cycle. Not to mention adjusting for audience reactions. Remember how Marvel released Black Panther
in February because they thought nobody would care? Basically the game can’t be part of the
same universe. The best it can do is wait for characters
to become big in the MCU and then ride that wave into DLC content. So if you can’t intimately tie your game
release to your massive movie universe, why not off-load it? Let other developers deal with it. Or maybe in another five years Disney will
release a battle royale game, and then Thanos can guest-star in that instead of Fortnite.

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