In 2018, GamesIndustry.biz told the story of a small, Essex-based indie studio that landed a $3 million deal with Disney – only to have the project cancelled before launch, forcing the team to adapt their entire business.
In 2022, Aj Grand-Scrutton – the CEO of that same indie – sat on stage at Disney's first ever games showcase to debut Switch-exclusive Disney Illusion Island, a co-operative platformer starring Mickey Mouse and his friends. Dlala Studios had once again landed a life-changing deal, but much has already changed in the interim.
"We were arrogant in 2014, 2015," Grand-Scrutton tells us when we visit the studio. "We were five guys in a garage who signed a $3.5m deal with Disney to make this game. We thought it was a guarantee. We thought we'd make that, and even if it comes out and flops, we've been trusted with Mickey and friends. As long as we made a good game with that IP, if it flopped for other reasons then why wouldn't other people be knocking down the door?
"As long as we made a good Disney game, if it flopped for other reasons then why wouldn't other people be knocking down the door?"
"It's now seven years later and that's not how the industry works. What this will do, similar to what I thought it'd do in 2015, is I hope it says to people 'Hey, Disney has trusted these guys with these characters. You know you can trust them with your IP.' There's not much more iconic than Mickey. But I don't think anything is guaranteed anymore. I don't know if it ever was."
The deal for Disney Illusion Island began in 2019, a year before Dlala released its revival of Rare classic Battletoads – another established IP with which the team had been entrusted. At the time, Battletoads was the biggest game in the studio's career, and Grand-Scrutton was having an informal call with Dlala's agent at US-based Creative Artists Agency, discussing what could be next. The idea of getting back in touch with Disney came up.
"We laughed, but then stopped and were like 'Why don't we go speak to Disney?'" Grand-Scrutton recalls. "There wasn't bad blood. Yeah, they're not publishing, but they're licensing now. We have great relationships with publishers, we can probably easily find a publisher for a Disney IP."
The agent reached out and a meeting was arranged for October 2019. Despite already landing a deal with Disney years before, Grand-Scrutton admits he was "super nervous."
"We wanted to go into it and show how we have grown because 2015 we were a very different studio. I don't just mean in size, I mean in maturity. We weren't ready for that first deal. The game wouldn't have done us or the IP justice then. But now we felt like we were ready.
"The big thing I knew for them was that I was awful at taking feedback on the original project. I was super defensive. I convinced myself I was protecting the team, but it was always 'we know best'. The publisher was giving us notes and we didn't really want to hear them. So I wanted to explain about how we improved on that for Battletoads, how our processes have changed and it was lovely. I think everyone left the call with this really good feeling, like 'Let's do this'."
Grand-Scrutton drew up a new concept for a Mickey & Friends game, a four-player explorative platformer. While the cancelled title had also been a Mickey-based platformer, and the amicable split between Disney and Dlala meant the latter would have been allowed to pick up where it left off, there were some practicalities to account for.
"We weren't ready for that first deal. The game wouldn't have done us or the IP justice then"
"4K wasn't a thing back then, so nothing we did [on the original game] was in in 4K," Grand-Scrutton explains. "If we're ever looking to take this to other platforms, we would have had to have redrawn all the assets.
"What we did back in 2015 was great and fun, but it wasn't this. What we did back then felt very much like the game version of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy. With this, we've tried to do something that feels like the cartoon, but is designed for play. With all that in mind, it didn't make sense to reuse anything."
The growth of Dlala also made it less practical to dust off an unfinished project. When working on the cancelled game, the studio only had one internal artist. Disney Illusion Island, meanwhile, is the company's first project with a dedicated art director, Lucy Kyriakidou.
"Lucy is a world-class character designer," says Grand-Scrutton. "So when we decided to do this, I wanted her to have her stamp on these characters because how many times in your life can you say you've done a retiteration of four of the most iconic characters even created, right?"
At first glance, it may seem that Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy have been lifted straight out of the 2013-2019 series of Mickey Mouse shorts, which bore an unusual art style trying to be both modern and harking back to the characters' origins at the same time. But during our tour, Kyriakidou talks us through the iteration process, the use of shapes and colours, and shows how each of the four is subtly distinctive for the game but still instantly recognisable. These truly are the Dlala versions of Mickey & Friends.
"Disney wanted that," Grand-Scrutton explains. "Disney said to us that this is a Dlala games, so what does a Dlala version of this look like? As cheesy as it sounds, it's one of the biggest honours of my life, definitely my career. There will always be a Dlala version of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy [in the Disney vaults] – and that's absolutely insane."
Disney's archiving process means Dlala's stamp on the series goes beyond that. As we learn more about the animation, art and audio, we're told that there have never been footstep sound effects recorded for any of the iconic foursome. While the lack of footsteps is less noticeable in cartoons, it's something players subconsciously expect in video games so Dlala has created the first such effects for Disney (fun fact: the sound of Donald walking is a recording of one Dlala team member slapping their exposed stomach).
"There will always be a Dlala version of Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy [in the Disney vaults] – and that's absolutely insane"
Another reason the team started from scratch is because it had learned a lot from working on Battletoads – principally, Grand-Scrutton says, "just how the hell you make a game."
"Everything we had done before hadn't been a start-to-end. Even Overruled, that was five of us making this fun little thing where we winged it. Battletoads was with Microsoft – you can't wing a game for Microsoft.
"We made a lot of mistakes on Battletoads, a lot of mistakes. We suffered for it at the end. We didn't have a hardcore crunch for Battletoads but we definitey had extra hours that would have been avoided if I made better decisions early on or braver decisions."
One of the biggest lessons was cutting to scope. At the end of pre-production on Illusion Island, the production and art management laid out how long each element of the game would take to build, drawing up a timeline, and Grand-Scrutton forced himself to cut large portions of the game to keep the project management. The fact the game is debuting exclusively on Switch was also a factor; Dlala wants its open-world 2D platformer to be seamless with no loading, which impacts optimisation.
"We never did that on Battletoads and we suffered," he admits. "We were still changing design two weeks before cert. Battletoads was pried from our cold dead hands to go into certification. We knew we couldn't do that this time."
Compared to work on Battletoads, the studio also has a stronger management structure now. Previously, Grand-Scrutton sat above the only audio designer, as well as people who didn't have a lead, and was handling a lot of the art direction – "And I can't do art direction," he laughs.
"At one point I had about 20 people reporting into me and you can't direct a game with that many people," he says. "Battletoads was amazing but we just made it badly. Getting the scope right on this early was super important. Knowing about character design in terms of simplicity, the Battletoads lead characters were super complex and that meant that animations took a long time. We knew when we were designing our Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy that they had to be iconic but the simpler the designs were, the more animation we could get done for them. That fidelity is important for a Disney game, right?
"Battletoads was amazing but we just made it badly. Getting the scope right on this early was super important"
"We've not made this game even slightly like we made Battletoads. The only thing that's carried over is that there's a chunk of the Battletoads team on this and we have our 2D toolkit. The rest of it we burnt to the ground and started again."
The unveiling of Disney Illusion Island is also a major step forward, since the previous game was never even announced. Dlala's presence at D23 not only shows that Disney continues to trust the UK indie, but that it is open to working with indies of all kinds – something the company's Sean Shoptaw recently reiterated to us, saying no IP is off limits to smaller studios.
For Grand-Scrutton, finally being on stage to show off the Mickey Mouse game his team had been working so hard on was a career highlight – not least because he was sharing a stage with Mike Bithell, who was presenting Tron: Identity, which amused the Dlala CEO because "ten years ago, we were just two guys working at Bossa together."
The fact Disney is entrusting some of the world's biggest IP to some of the industry's smallest studios is significant and, to Grand-Scrutton, understandable. AAA titles take longer and are far more costly to develop, he says, and not every IP necessarily warrants a high-end game. What does a AAA Mickey Mouse game even look like?
"The closest we had was Epic Mickey, but we've had it. You'd just be making another Epic Mickey," Grand-Scrutton says. "I think with a smaller studio... it's a lot of the cliches. We can be quicker at change and making decisions, but also I think we bring a different thought process to it.
"I won't be waiting for this to come out before I do our next deal. I'm not going to take the 2015 arrogance and bet the team on it"
"As a business owner, I want to make Disney lots of money because I want Disney to think we're great at making money. But that isn't what has driven the decisions on this IP or this game. When we enter a room, we're a bunch of Mickey Mouse fans talking about how much we love Mickey Mouse and what we would do with the IP. I'm not necessarily sure that's what AAA would do. AAA probably has an approach of 'Here is some very important and accurate data of how we can work together and be a successful partnership'. Whereas what indie or smaller studios bring is 'This is why we love this and this is what we'd do with this love'.
"Mike and the team at Bithell Games, they are so into Tron. They are so pumped on Tron. They were like kids in the candy store at D23 with all the Tron announcements... I'm not going to sit here and say 'passion' because it's the most cliche answer. It means nothing. There's a buttload of people at AAA studios who are passionate, but I think what we bring is love. They can make sure that the people they are signing this IP over to care about the IP. It's easy to get that guarantee when you can take the entire studio out to dinner than it is to sit there with 250 people at a large studio."
Dlala has come a long way from the cancellation of its original Mickey Mouse game. Grand-Scrutton once believed he would never get the chance to work with Disney again, but reports the relationship is even better this time around. And, in even more ways than he was when we spoke in 2018, he's happy that the previous game was cancelled.
"We needed that reality check," he says. "The worst thing I think could have happened is it came out, did mediocre, we signed another deal that was alright and we probably would have ended up being 12 people for the rest of our existence. What I hope this does is show the quality this team brings, I hope it shows the growth from Battletoads.
"I won't be waiting for this to come out before I get the next deal done. I'm not going to take the 2015 arrogance and bet the team on it."
At GI Live: London in September, Grand-Scrutton offered indies advice on how to pitch for established IP, which you can read on the GI Academy.
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