Q&A: Disney Interactive's Graham Hopper

A big cheese from the game development arm of the House of Mouse talks about the company's name change, creating Spectrobes, and the future of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Disney Interactive Studios' Graham Hopper.
Disney Interactive Studios' Graham Hopper.

Disney Interactive Studios has been pushing for a seat at the grown-ups' table of game publishers for years now. Formerly Buena Vista Games, the company has since 2005 acquired two studios--Avalanche Studios and Climax Racing Studios--and established two more in the Nintendo-specialist Fall Line Studio and Turok developer Propaganda Games.

It has also worked to bolster its portfolio of high-profile games, releasing the Desperate Housewives PC game, several Q Entertainment titles including Lumines II and Every Extend Extra, and of course, several adaptations of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Last month Disney Interactive Studios released its first game based on an original intellectual property, Jupiter Corp's Spectrobes for the Nintendo DS.

GameSpot recently spoke with Graham Hopper, executive VP and general manager at Disney Interactive Studios, to discuss the company's changing name and direction in the gaming world.

GameSpot: What was the reasoning behind switching the name from Buena Vista Games to Disney Interactive?

Graham Hopper: Well there are multiple reasons why we changed the name. One is the recognition that 90 percent of the product that we produce happen to be Disney branded and we're proud of the Disney brand name. It stands for quality and it stands for entertainment and so bringing it to games is actually a positive.

But we operate multiple brands. We operate Disney, we use ABC--which is the brand we released Desperate Housewives under--and we also use Touchstone. So overall the company is trying to align itself behind its major brands. So its major brands are Disney, ESPN, ABC, and they have smaller brands like Touchstone, which is well established in the movie business.

GS: Now when people buy a Disney product, they know what's going to be in it and have certain expectations in terms of the content. They know the tone of it. For Turok, how does Touchstone fit that specifically?

GH: Even as far as Disney's concerned, I'm not sure that people exactly know what to expect in the gamespace from Disney-branded content. I think they certainly know in other spheres and have an expectation. What we're also trying to do is make sure that Disney in games is positioned as a broad purveyor of products for a much broader array of ages than just younger kids.

What Touchstone is going to stand for is edgier content that does not fit under the Disney brand. That's why Turok is going to be published under Touchstone. It's a shooter action adventure and we didn't want to water it down by trying to squeeze it under Disney. It doesn't fit there. If it goes under Touchstone, it has a much broader creative space in order to flourish as a game.

GS: The Disney name carries a lot of clout, but there's still a legacy from decades ago when anything licensed pretty much was just shovelware thrown out there. How do you plan to court a gaming crowd that looks at something coming from a non-gaming entity like Disney with suspicion?

GH: Well I think the first thing they've got to do is see us as a gaming entity. We're just one other part of our company. Creation of new content is what we do all day long in our company. We make movies, we make TV, and we make games.

So that's part of it. The negative reputation around licensed games, it's there and it's real. We have a strong vested interest in changing that. So people can expect to see higher-quality content coming from us and hopefully over time, we can begin to really change the perception that people have of at least our content. But hopefully content based on movies in general.

GS: Some of the biggest or most valuable Disney properties are ESPN and Pixar. Their game deals are tied up with other publishers. Long term, is the plan for Disney Interactive to take more ownership of the array of Disney properties? Or will it always be separate from the established franchises like Pixar and ESPN so that they can shopped out to other publishing partners?

GH: Yeah, both of those relationships are long-term relationships. So it's quite some time for us to go before we really need to cross any kind of bridge like that. And right now there's so much opportunity available to us that we have very ambitious and aggressive growth plans. But they're all predicated on the opportunities that we have available to us today without having to worry about these two.

And frankly we can't do everything ourselves. So we actually think it's a strategic advantage for us to be able to do license arrangements with other publishers who have specific skill sets or specific assets that we don't have. We don't want to be sort of average at lots of things. We want to do a few things really, really well.

GS: What can we expect from Disney Interactive going forward as far as making use of your different studios?

GH: Well each of these studios has their own purpose. So Avalanche's focus is on Disney-animated properties. The Climax Racing Studio, as its name implies--and we will change the name as some point--is 100 percent focused on producing the best racing games out there. It's one of the world's best racing studios; it's going to continue to produce high-quality racing content.

Fall Line has its focus on Nintendo platforms and we're doing that because we see a lot of opportunity to do some really innovative things with both the Wii and the DS. We are the number four publisher of DS products and number two publisher of Game Boy Advance product behind Nintendo. And so we really feel like there's even more that we could do to even improve in our sales position even further on that platform.

And Propaganda's role is really about doing big action adventure-type games. So you'll see more of these cinematic-type games coming from them. Turok is an example of one of those but they have other things in the pipeline too that they'll be working on.

But we don't just allocate stuff to our studios and say, "Go work on this thing." Our studios decide what it is they want to work on and we also give them the opportunity to create new intellectual property, new games, entirely new creations. I think every studio has an idea that it's carrying around, that it would like to do, if only you could have the time, if only you could have the budget to go off and do it. So you will see each of our studios over time come out with stuff that is entirely original and a labor of love and a passion.

GS: How do you approach creation of original intellectual properties?

GH: I think we're the only publisher that has an explicit target. Now we allocate 20 percent of our product development cost to new intellectual property creation, to new games because we believe it's that important. We're lucky that we have a huge portfolio of properties available to us to work on. But we also think it's important to bring something new to the gaming community.

So that 20 percent number, it's unusual that somebody should have a target like that. There's no doubt that it's risky, but 20 percent we feel is a risk that we can manage. I think we're pretty good at creating stories in other parts of our company and we're pretty good at marketing things. So we have a lot of reach and expertise in that area. So hopefully we'll be able to have better odds of success than many publishers might have. But there's no doubt that it is not for the fainthearted.

GS: What are some of the lessons you've learned from Spectrobes as far as producing and promoting a new property?

GH: Well I think the first lesson for us was, where's the creative control for this going to be? Too often in big companies creative control gets dissolved in a lot of different places and it's not clear who's in charge. For us it was pretty clear. The creative director on this was in Japan and Japan was where all the decisions were made. Decisions around approval of artwork, approval of characters, and approval of marketing materials were done out of Japan to make sure everything was coming from one place. It wasn't some committee effort.

So that was lesson one. Lesson two was being innovative in how we introduce a new story to consumers. So we created webisodes also in Japan. These were introduced to consumers over a period of six months prior to release of the game. And these were 90-second pieces that introduced the backstory to the game in high-quality animation. A lot of people would have looked at that and would have gone off and done something simpler and cheaper but we felt that the consumer would really want to see these characters in their 3D glory as they would see them in the game.

So we hired a team of writers, got a Tokyo animation house to build this for us, and it was expensive for what it was. But it was absolutely worthwhile because it really allowed us to introduce the characters to consumers and generate that sort of enthusiasm. People wanted to know, well who are these characters? Where do they come from? How does it all fit together? We're particularly pleased about that, our ability to gain consumers long before the game itself came out.

GS: Are there plans for the property to expand further beyond the realm of games?

GH: Well interestingly enough, there are people knocking on our door who want to be able to do things like make toys and so on and this is happening on a worldwide basis. So we're pretty excited about that, but our first priority is to make this a continued success in games.

As I said, the sales start that we've seen has been very, very positive and not just here but also in Europe too. Our first focus is really working on the long-term plan for further games in the Spectrobe series. Nothing to announce yet, but I think we'd be pretty stupid if we didn't do something more.

GS: What about your licensed properties? You've got the game tie-in to the third Pirates of the Caribbean movie coming out soon...

GH: Yeah, so the reason why we've put so much effort into making Pirates of the Caribbean a great game is that we see this as not just any other game or any other movie. This is one of the biggest movie franchises out there and it's our ambition to build it into a game franchise of equivalent stature.

In many ways the model there might be something like Star Wars has done. That sounds very ambitious to say that but if you use that as a target, it gives you a sense of how we are looking at it. So we have active plans for additional Pirates of the Caribbean games that will release in future years when there is no movie. And the nice thing about that, is that there is no time constraint on us and we'll have the ability to really produce some really, really great games in the Pirates universe and really immerse people in it.

GS: How much latitude are you getting in terms of what you can add and take away from the Pirates of the Caribbean universe?

GH: You know we have a story bible, and obviously we work closely with Jerry Bruckheimer and his team to make sure that we stay true to the universe. But I think what's happening overall in Hollywood right now is that people who make movies are changing and they are understanding games in a very different way from the way that they used to.

It used to be that many movie directors viewed the game as being just a T-shirt. It's another thing that has some relevance to and some reference to the movie. But it's not a unique entertainment experience in its own right. But that's changing; it has changed.

Increasingly now people are looking at movies as one experience and then they look at the game as being a longer-form experience where directors can say, "I've got a really great idea, I couldn't get it into my movie but if I just give you this idea, could you pull this out into the game?" Plus we're getting ideas coming out of the game studio where the game guys are coming up with a really cool idea, showing it to the movie director and he's saying, "That's really good. In fact that leads me to another thought," and they start changing the script.

GS: How different is working with Disney on Pirates of the Caribbean from working with Classic Media on Turok in terms of the access you get from the license holder and how willing they are to tweak things to complement each other?

GH: I think it depends. The relationship with Classic has been good because when we picked up the Turok license, both we and Classic felt there was a lot of opportunity to reinvent it and really make it different. So that's how we've gone into it.

So there's been very little, if any, constraint from them at all about where we were going with it. Because the creative vision that we had for the Turok games and the vision that they had for revitalizing Turok and making it relevant again after some not-so-good games... We're totally in sync.

So that has been a very smooth and easy relationship. Working with our film studio on what is already one of the world's biggest and most burnished franchises, Pirates of the Caribbean, it's obviously a lot more complicated than taking something where everybody agrees you have to start from scratch, so to speak. But it works and it works well, and it works because we're both the same company. We're both trying to do the same sorts of things, and we have an ongoing working relationship on these titles and others.

GS: Thanks for the time.

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