Disney CEO Bob Iger says Disney is bad at video games, but actually … is it? The answer lies in Disney’s long and erratic approach to game development.
Its first crack at the game biz was Walt Disney Computer Software, founded in 1988. Disney wanted to publish a game to coincide with Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which was due in theaters in nine months. It couldn’t find a developer willing to do it in such a short time, so Disney had to do it in-house.
The Who Framed Roger Rabbit game was a success and made tons of money despite the short turnaround, which clued Disney into the fact that games make money. Since the market was still mostly cartridge-based, investing meant covering manufacturing and shipping. Rather than take on the full burden, Disney licensed out its IP for consoles and set WDCS to work on computer games and software.
Early on, WDCS had a lot of freedom because it was small and could be ignored. As it became more successful — and as games became a larger economic force — the game developer drew more attention from the higher-ups. 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.
In 1993, Disney licensed out Aladdin to Sega, while handling the animation in-house, with digitization from Virgin Interactive. The game was hugely successful, and WDCS became Disney Interactive. All development moved in-house, and Disney was back at it.
Then a few years later, 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. Disney 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 its IP.
But the quality of licensed games was an issue, and PC games and edutainment weren’t exactly rich veins compared to the consoles. In 2002, new leadership took over and started to spin up the in-house development windmill again. Two Disney-developed Game Boy Advance projects were published and did well, so Disney gave the games division the freedom to expand.
For the next six years, Disney would acquire eight game studios, but the rapidity of the expansion and the lack of commercial success made the games division look like a liability. By the mid-2010s, most of the game studios Disney had acquired were closed, with Disney Interactive following in May 2016.
That brings us roughly to the present and to the question at hand: Is Disney just bad at games? It’s 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. Pure licensing will always be the safest — if less profitable — strategy. Consider Star Wars Battlefront 2; the fallout of the loot box debacle rained down on Electronic Arts, while Disney hung out in the fallout shelter of hands-off licensing.
That said, it’s unlikely we’ll see games, licensed or in-house, that are closely linked with Disney’s movie franchises. Take Square Enix’s Avengers game. It was announced in January 2017. Here’s a list of Marvel movies that have come out between that announcement and the trailer reveal at E3: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, Captain Marvel, and Avengers: Endgame.
It would be difficult to anticipate the changes in the MCU in advance enough for a full, AAA-game production cycle. If you can’t intimately tie your game release to your massive movie universe, why not offload it? Let other developers deal with it.
Or maybe in another five years Disney will launch a battle royale game, and then Thanos can guest-star in that instead of Fortnite.
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