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From Disney to Discord

Ex-Disney Interactive head Graham Hopper is back with a new studio and a mobile card game

"Doing anything in the startup world is slower and harder than you ever anticipate it's going to be," Muti Labs founder Graham Hopper told GamesIndustry.biz last week. "Perhaps if people knew how hard it would be, I'm not sure people would try these things."

In 2011, Hopper wrapped up a 20-year stint with The Walt Disney Company, the last eight years of which were spent in charge of its gaming division, Disney Interactive Studios (which was still Buena Vista Studios when he signed on). The next year, he founded Muti Labs with a handful of fellow Disney veterans and a shared belief that they knew where the mobile world was headed.

"A lot of games that were being successful were using the same free-to-play mechanisms that were very effective in getting people to continue to play, but not necessarily that interesting or fun for players who wanted something a little bit deeper," Hopper said. "Our goal was to create something new, to build a completely new world for gamers, and to do that on the mobile platform, where we felt there was a huge amount of opportunity."

"When you're in the content creation business, you can't spend too much time worrying about what other people are doing. You've got to focus on what you're doing and making it great in itself."

Three years and multiple prototypes later, Muti Labs is on the verge of releasing its first game, Days of Discord. The strategy card game is set in the wake of a civilization-destroying asteroid shower, with four factions (ferals, beasts, plants, and bandits) fighting for control of what's left.

Of course, in the three years since Muti Labs was founded, there's been no shortage of other developers going after the same theoretically underserved core market on mobile. Some of them (Blizzard Entertainment and its own strategy card game Hearthstone come to mind) have even been hugely successful at it.

"When you're in the content creation business, you can't spend too much time worrying about what other people are doing," Hopper said. "You've got to focus on what you're doing and making it great in itself. When we saw Hearthstone, the reaction was that there was another large competitor in the space [Magic: The Gathering]. People said, 'Why would you challenge that brand that's been around for 20 years? That sounds crazy to me.' From our perspective, Hearthstone's success really proves there's a large untapped opportunity of people who are looking for something that's deeper and richer. It's a proof-of-concept more than any kind of a threat."

That word "focus" comes up frequently when Hopper talks about Muti Labs. It comes up when he explains why Days of Discord is a mobile game, with no PC versions planned. It comes up when he talks about growing the game's user base through community building and word of mouth more than through paid user acquisition. It comes up when he explains why Muti Labs has no other projects in the works.

"I've had the privilege of managing portfolios of projects before, and we decided this time we wanted to focus on just doing one thing, and doing it really well," Hopper said. "We set the studio up expressly to create Days of Discord and focus all this time and attention on one game as opposed to try to do a bunch of other things. As we grow we'll move on to do additional things, but for now, this receives all of our time, attention, and love."

Despite the arduous process of starting up the studio, despite the extended development cycle for Days of Discord, and despite the arrival of a hugely successful competitor in the midst of development, Hopper thinks Muti Labs has been pretty fortunate overall. He's been particularly happy with the composition and size (fewer than 20 people) of the Muti Labs team.

"Being in a world where budgets for games were many tens of millions of dollars... Those are great, but there's not a lot of creative freedom allowed in those spaces."

"We've got a great team of people where we have some who have been in the game industry 10-plus years of experience, and we've got people who've been in it shorter periods," Hopper said. "So we've got experience and fresh approaches to try to do something new. I think the big advantage we have being smaller and new is that we're able to do everything the way we feel it can be done. Communication is easier, getting things done is easier, the studio's more nimble and responsive. There are a lot of advantages you have being smaller. It's a very different kettle of fish from being in a larger 150-200-person studio where there are a lot of people working on who knows what. Communication becomes a challenge and things are slow and ponderous.

"There's a tremendous amount of creative freedom that comes when you're small and nimble, and that's part of what attracted me to this too. Being in a world where budgets for games were many tens of millions of dollars... Those are great, but there's not a lot of creative freedom allowed in those spaces. Whereas when you're working with smaller budgets, as you can do on mobile, you can create a high-quality product and have a lot of freedom at the same time."

Even if that's a far different situation than Hopper experienced at Disney, he can still pull plenty of lessons from his time at the global media powerhouse that can be applied just as well to a skeleton crew start-up.

"There's always space for additional quality entertainment, but if you don't hit the quality bar, that just makes it that much harder to be successful," Hopper said. "If you respond well and manage the property carefully, expand it and build on it, you can have something that will last for decades if you do it right. And I don't think there's anyone in the world better at building brands and sustaining them over the long haul than Disney. So this is not just chuck something in the pond and see what happens. This is really to create something new and a world that people want to be part of. And a community that gamers want to be part of that can continue to grow."

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