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Disney's Graham Hopper

The executive VP on the success of self-publishing, reclaiming Pixar and the strength of Black Rock

Disney Interactive Studios is on a long road to becoming a top tier videogames publisher, and as the company continues to back its products and investments with financial clout, the company has already proven itself to the industry, as well as reached new consumers with alternatives to the cute animal titles of old.

GamesIndustry.biz recently sat down with Graham Hopper, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios, to discuss its successful progress so far, the evolution of its in-house studios, how it has managed to silence the doubters and why it thinks it can reinvigorate the Pixar licence.

GamesIndustry.biz What is the focus for 2009 and what are the priorities for this year?
Graham Hopper

The continued growth and evolution of our business is a number one priority. We've got an interesting array of product coming out this year that can add real opportunity to do something very different. We have G-Force coming out later this year and everyone who's seen the game just loves it because we've done something that doesn't typically happen with film-based games, and we've added innovation and some 3D elements in the next-gen SKUs as well. We've also got Toy Story Mania coming out for the Wii, and it will be the first time we've produced a game that seems to be very popular with Wii consumers right now, the party game, and it's based on a theme park ride. And we've just announced Split/Second out of Black Rock in Brighton and it's looking phenomenal. I'm really pleased with what I've seen of it.

GamesIndustry.biz Black Rock produced one of your biggest titles of last year – Pure. Were you pleased with the reception of the game as it was the first original IP out of Black Rock since Disney acquired the studio?
Graham Hopper

We were very pleased with the level of critical acclaim that it received. It's been universally recognised as pushing the boundaries of that kind of game. We were thrilled about that and thrilled that the studio has delivered such a level of quality. The good news is that the team there don't want to deliver that level of quality for Split/Second, they want to do even better. So they really are on a positive and creative roll.

GamesIndustry.biz Were you pleased with the sales of Pure, did they reach internal expectations?
Graham Hopper

They were perfectly satisfactory. We looked at a lot of other new racing games that came out last year and we were very satisfied with how we performed. We looked at how other off-road racing games performed and we were very happy with Pure. What we had hoped was that we could reach a broader audience, because this wasn't your typical off-road racing game, it has a fun appeal that could reach a broader audience. We had some progress, and when you have a game that good you want everybody to play it. We didn't quite get everyone to play it but we were quite pleased with the results.

GamesIndustry.biz It's a very busy genre, with multiple variations on racing and new products competing with very well established IP...
Graham Hopper

Amongst people that pay attention to the industry, I think they'll recognise it for what it was. But I think your average gamer who's not reading websites everyday and reading reviews everyday, of all the things they had their pick of... hopefully down the road Black Rock will get the level of prowess and acclaim. In the same way that when you see something that's made by Valve or by Blizzard 5t tells you something about the game, I think Black Rock is developing its reputation in the games industry too.

GamesIndustry.biz So is Black Rock a two project studio, do they have multiple projects in development there?
Graham Hopper

They're a two team studio. Part of what we try to do is have various projects in different forms of incubation. We don't want to be in the yearly annualisation business, we want to give projects the time they need to be successful and truly innovate. Black Rock is obviously working on other stuff right now.

GamesIndustry.biz Are you pleased with the momentum and growth of the self-publishing business at Disney Interactive Studios – are you starting to see results from the amount of investment you've put in?
Graham Hopper

Well, it's not an issue of acclaim. It really is a question of establishing a presence for ourselves and get in a position we think we deserve based on the product we make. Is the product better than it used to be? Unequivocally yes. Are we reaching a broader swathe of gamers than we were before when we targeted a younger audience? Yes. Are we able to be successful on a variety of different platforms – because in theory we're platform agnostic and we want to be successful wherever people are playing games. And the answer again is yes. But are we where we need to be eventually? No, I think we're still in the growth phase. And that will continue for us as long as we continue to see great projects that we can invest in, and the good news is we can invest.

GamesIndustry.biz And you feel that the business has proven itself to the doubters?
Graham Hopper

What I'm most pleased about is that in the early days when we first got started we had to confront some scepticism in the greater community about whether we could be a serious and viable contender producing great product. And I don't hear that any more. We have Black Rock working with us, we have Warren Spector working with us. We have no difficulty right now in attracting really strong and creative talent to our business. We're primarily a product company, and great products are easy to market, easier to sell. That's what our brand stands for, and it really starts with great people.

GamesIndustry.biz There seems to be a focus on fewer, high quality games rather than pushing out multiple titles and seeing what sticks. Is that a fair assessment of Disney Interactive Studios?
Graham Hopper

We came to a basic conclusion pretty early on that there is a lot of average games out there. We didn't need to add to that pile of clutter. We want our brand to stand for something in this case, which is quality games for the audience they are generated for. Our Hanna Montana titles are very different to something that's aimed at the core racing fans. Being able to target is very important for us.

GamesIndustry.biz Are you getting to a point where Disney Interactive Studios is deciding to focus on one particular side of the business, are you leaning towards one market more than another?
Graham Hopper

Our strength is in our brand and in our intellectual property. For us it's really working with that first and foremost. Secondarily it's about building new IP within the organisation. We're one of the few publishers that actually has a specific goal, we've set aside 20 per cent of our investment fund to developer new IP, which is unusual. We would expect, in the next few years, to be stronger and more dominant in the younger end of the spectrum than we would trying to dominate the M-rated games or first-person shooters. There's a lot of competition in those areas. But until we've really filled out our ambitions on the family orientated market using the IP that we have, plus new IP we can develop, it would be foolish for us to try and advance at all fronts at the same time. We want to consolidate our business around our core strengths.

GamesIndustry.biz How closely does Disney Interactive Studios work with Disney Online, and are there plans for closer collaboration in the near future?
Graham Hopper

More and more. As of the middle of last year, there was an internal reorganisation where Disney Internet Group and Disney Interactive Studios were merged. The whole point of that was to facilitate what was already starting to happen. It didn't start with a merger, it was almost an end result of the kinds of things we were already doing.

The first thing that popped out of that in a way that really illustrates why this makes so much sense was Club Penguin. People play for free and collect points, and if you subscribe those points can be used for different things. When we built a DS game for Club Penguin we didn't know how big it was going to be, but we wanted to connect it to the virtual world that is so powerful and so strong. We build in the ability to upload coins from the DS game into the virtual world. Those of are the kind of things that no one else is doing. Club Penguin was the break-out hit for us last holiday, and it is still our number one SKU in North America. It's just launched in the UK and it's doing very well there as well. Those are the kind of things you can expect us to do more and more. We're beyond the point of doing simple things like codes and unlocks. We're really trying to move now to far more seamless integration.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you find that users expect that crossover now, whether it's with software or hardware, as standard in their products?
Graham Hopper

The challenges is that it sounds fine on a piece of paper to say “we're going to do this.” The teams that work on console, or on-line or DS products all think about these things and so it's an interesting challenge to get the two teams together and ask them what they can do differently. Then we have to nail it down to a collection of feature sets we can fit on a time line, and so on. I think we're only at the beginning of where we're going to get to and I think you're right – consumers expect this and demand it. And there are very few companies that are able to deliver against those promises, especially in the traditional game space, that can achieve the mix of capabilities.

GamesIndustry.biz Looking at the Disney/Pixar licences, THQ has said that it's not seeing the same level of success that it originally achieved with titles like Cars. Do you have plans to reinvigorate that market once the rights to Disney/Pixar titles revert back to Disney Interactive Studios?
Graham Hopper

Games like Cars did phenomenally well, absolutely phenomenal numbers, the kind of things that would blow most games out of the water in terms of volume. Those are really very high watermarks. We still think Toy Story has tremendous potential, it has pre-awareness, kids around the world know and love it. It's a natural. We have high expectations for how that's going to do.

Part of what we're doing is seeding the ground with Toy Story Mania, coming this holiday, which will be very different kind of gameplay to what we'll be doing in summer 2010. But we think they will be complimentary kinds of experiences. If there's one thing we know how to do it's manage franchises. We're going to do a good job with Toy Story and hopefully it will reset the bar in the right place.

Graham Hopper is executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios.

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Matt Martin


Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.