Roundtable: Use The Force, Disney
The GamesIndustry staff reacts to the huge buyout of Lucasfilm/LucasArts and what it means for gaming
On Tuesday, The Walt Disney Company announced it was acquiring Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion. The purchase will give the global media titan control of yet another beloved cultural touchstone, the Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. The purchase also happens to include LucasArts, the occasionally neglected gaming arm of the Star Wars-owning empire.
A LucasArts representative said it would be business as usual for the publisher. Disney executives said their gaming interests are turning more toward social and mobile than console, where they expect to be doing more licensing than publishing. Right now, those may be entirely compatible statements, considering the biggest Star Wars games in the recent memory--the Lego Star Wars series and Star Wars: The Old Republic--were both licensed deals. But will that change in the future? Should it? What does this mean for Star Wars 1313? Will we finally get a new Maniac Mansion now? Will the acquisition change anything at all on the gaming front? And how about from Disney's perspective? Was $4 billion too much? Too little?
It will likely be years before the impact of the move can be properly assessed and these questions answered with any certainty (except perhaps for the Maniac Mansion one), but the GamesIndustry International crew thought it would be more timely to share their first thoughts, concerns, and impressions following the bombshell.
I just can't get over the cultural consolidation Disney has achieved this millennium. In 2001, it bought Winnie the Pooh. It followed that up by acquiring The Muppets in 2004, and Pixar in 2006. Then Marvel Comics in 2009. And now Star Wars. In less than a decade, Disney has taken a quintet of beloved entertainment staples and added them to what was already an overflowing archive of cherished intellectual properties and filmic staples. It's incredible to think how many of my favorite childhood memories are all part of one (obscenely) big corporate family now.
"As an adventure gaming fan I'm hoping that means Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango and Loom will all get a second chance to shine on iOS"
In fact, video games are about all that's left of my younger self's cultural diet that Disney doesn't have a large presence over. Sure, it now has LucasArts and the greatest adventure game of all time in Sam and Max Hit the Road, but it doesn't have the big players. It's missing out on Pac-Man, Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, and Space Invaders, the instantly recognizable, industry-shaping icons. But if Disney is looking for further acquisitions, that's a natural next step.
Disney often deals in vaseline-lensed nostalgia, and it has already identified a rich vein of the good stuff in video games, just waiting to be tapped. Just look at this week's debut of Wreck-It Ralph for evidence of that. While the featured game in the 3D animated film is fictional, Disney packed it full of feel-good nods to other companies' intellectual property (perhaps knowing that's only a temporary situation). Some of the film's posters even feature actual game characters who make cameos in more prominent positions than the main characters, including Sonic the Hedgehog, Zangief, M. Bison, Q-Bert, and inexplicably, Neff the were-rhinoceros, final boss from Altered Beast. (I've been playing and writing about games for decades, and I still had to look that one up.)
Clearly, Disney has identified the potential of the gaming industry's vintage characters, with their visually distinct designs, instant recognition, and seemingly inexhaustible ability to be regularly monetized. All of that fits perfectly in the Disney portfolio. Combine that with an industry undergoing upheaval of a sort unseen since arcades gave way to home consoles, and there's an opportunity for an aggressive player with a considerable bankroll to add yet another wing to its museum of our culture's collective childhood.
Listen closely, and you'll hear the sound of a million sweaty palms clutching their Master Replicas Yoda Force FX Lightsaber in fear. (And possibly the gentle tinkle of golden coins as George Lucas takes a morning swim in his swimming pool of money.)
But I say worry not people who put "Jedi" on their census forms! For one thing, Lucas himself has already whored out the Star Wars franchise to the point of ruin, so how much worse can it get? And from a gamer's perspective it's actually an exciting opportunity.
Ignore the Star Wars mega titles and any Ewok versus Mickey wrestling games (copyright Rachel Weber 2012). My hope is the first thing Disney will do is comb through the back catalogue of games to look for hidden gems, things that can be easily tarted up and re-released digitally. As an adventure gaming fan I'm hoping that means Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango and Loom will all get a second chance to shine on iOS. I'm not na´ve enough to hope for new games in those series from Disney directly, but at the same time it isn't a company to ignore easy money.
There's a chance they could sell old IP, like a home buyer clearing out the attic of their new mansion. The passion among indie devs for some of the old titles means there will be offers, and some of them might actually get snapped up. We could be entering a new era of adventure gaming greatness! "Use old IP with new developer!"
The revolution probably won't start with Ron Gilbert though. "Dear Disney: I would like to buy the IP for a game I created called Monkey Island from you," he tweeted yesterday. "P.S. I have no money."
"If social's present downward spiral continues, Disney wouldn't need much more incentive to give up on the games market for the forseeable future"
I'm going to begin with a couple of bold statements. First, I personally don't care too much about what happens to Star Wars under Disney's care. I subscribe to the notion that it really can't be much worse than the indignities it suffered under the apparently careful eye of George Lucas, but I find the intensity of interest that Star Wars still inspires completely baffling. The original trilogy is evergreen; virtually everything since is tantamount to emotional abuse.
Second, I don't see this deal having any significant impact on games - at least, not as things currently stand. Now, a $4 billion acquisition gets my motor running as much as the next trade journalist, but as a regular listener to Disney's investor calls over the last few years it's clear that the company is in the middle of a very public move away from gaming. Epic Mickey aside, it's only real interest in our industry is mobile and social, and despite a decent amount of effort it makes virtually no profit from either. If social's present downward spiral continues, Disney wouldn't need much more incentive to give up on the games market for the forseeable future.
Star Wars 1313? I just can't see it. That demo was one of the most visually arresting sights to emerge from E3 this year, but that's all it was: a demo, and the sort of demo that's released to the public before almost any other work has been done. Disney shelved Propaganda Games' Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned despite it being a whisker away from completion, and I have no doubt that it will end production on 1313 without a second thought if it doesn't fit into the company's wider strategy - which, to be clear, it doesn't.
Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm is a movie deal, a TV deal, a theme park deal and a toy deal, but a game deal? I guess you have to like Star Wars a whole lot more than I do to even want that to be true.
I think it's great that Disney has acquired Lucasfilm and is going to produce new Star Wars films. My fondest hope is that they would take all of George's creative suggestions and drop them in the wastebasket, unread. (I'm not a fan of episodes 1, 2, and 3, if you couldn't tell. And Han shot first.) With new films coming out and (hopefully) creating renewed enthusiasm for the franchise, it would be great to see games based on the franchise. Let's see FPS, RTS, and the rest of the alphabet soup on all sorts of platforms.
"Imagine if Disney had a disciplined team focused on using their IP to dominate every corner of interactive media"
Right now, though, neither Disney nor LucasArts has a coherent game strategy. The IP is being licensed out to other companies in a haphazard way. In the short term LucasArts can be slotted in to the corporate structure like any other studio, but Disney should take the opportunity to craft a new vision for interactive media that will maximize its galaxy-spanning IP.
Epic Mickey 3 with Mickey, Oswald and Yoda may be going a bit too far, though.
Disney's interactive picture is complicated. The Disney Interactive Media Group contains Playdom and Junction Point, as well as responsibility for Disney's web sites and multiple online experiences. LucasArts could become just another studio in that organization, but that still leaves open the larger question of just what games they create, and for what platforms. Disney produces a console title here and there, and some social games, and some mobile titles. Some properties are licensed out, some are kept in-house.
Disney now has an even more amazing array of IP to work with, and no particular vision of how that IP will be expressed in interactive media. Disney has a movie strategy, and a theme park strategy, and a licensed goods strategy, and a TV strategy, and they all do very well, thank you. Interactive media? Not so much. Imagine if Disney had a disciplined team focused on using their IP to dominate every corner of interactive media. (For instance, think about what Electronic Arts could do with all that IP, in the same way that EA has wrung every interactive drop out of FIFA.)
Disney also produces a steady stream of new best-selling IP through its various movies, TV shows, and comics. Sure, licensed games have a generally poor track record, but new platforms like mobile and social mean that games can be produced more swiftly, in time to catch the wave of enthusiasm for a new movie. The potential is vast, and I hope Disney can take full advantage of it.
I'm going to have to agree with Matt on this one. Disney is a fabulous company, and they've been making a number of very astute acquisitions lately. Lucasfilm appears to be a great fit for a company that already has a wealth of incredible IP with its Disney/Pixar characters, Marvel characters and more. The entertainment and crossover potential for movies, TV, comics, theme parks, etc. is enormous, and there could be some great video game potential here too, but I just don't have any faith in Disney's ability to truly leverage The Force for hardcore gamers.
"Disney/LucasArts could very much benefit from talent that knows both the social/mobile and console worlds, like for example, John Schappert or Neil Young"
It's become crystal clear since the purchase of Playdom back in 2010, and the layoffs and studio closures at console developers that followed, that Disney has little appetite for the video game console world. Disney Interactive was a disaster. LucasArts has been no better. The combination doesn't change that. If you're hoping that the deal leads to some wonderful renaissance of Star Wars games and old LucasArts IP, you're likely to be sorely disappointed. And let's face it: Star Wars has seen more than its share of terrible video games. Slapping the Star Wars name on something hardly guarantees quality or success.
It's a powerful license to be sure, but it needs to be treated with care. And if Disney has any real interest in becoming a force in the gaming world, then a number of things must happen. The company will either have to make another smart acquisition to bring on the development and executive talent necessary, or it will have to lure the right people to join its empire. There's plenty of great free agent talent out there at the moment, and Disney/LucasArts could very much benefit from talent that knows both the social/mobile and console worlds, like for example, John Schappert or Neil Young. People like that might be able to not only fulfill Disney's mobile interests, but cater to the Star Wars base and core gaming crowd as well.
There's a lot to like about this deal, but from a games standpoint, I'm not holding my breath until I see something substantial.
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