Smartphone and tablet apps are a major priority for entertainment giant Disney. Bart Decrem has been leading the charge into mobile games since Disney bought his startup Tapulous two years ago. Now Decrem is heading all of Disney’s mobile gaming efforts and he has had a string of hits, from Where’s My Water? to Temple Run Brave. In fact, this week, Disney had all three of the top paid apps in the Apple iTunes App Store. That’s an exceedingly rare occurrence, since top apps come and go often.
But Decrem has even bigger ambitions. He wants mobile games to spawn new characters who could become the basis of new Disney-wide characters. It might seem like it would be easy for film makers and TV show creators to dismiss characters such as Swampy from Where’s My Water? But Swampy is reaching millions of people, particularly a new generation of kids, through more relevant devices than other top Disney characters. Some day, Decrem may find the Mickey Mouse of mobile games.
Decrem spoke with Eric Eldon, co-editor of TechCrunch, in a fireside chat at GamesBeat 2012. Here’s an edited transcript of the talk.
Eldon: Your games have become the top three paid apps in the iPhone App Store, which is obviously an extremely difficult thing to do. So you were telling me backstage that you were coming up on a big milestone, what was that?
Bart Decrem: Well, I just had my two-year anniversary at the Walt Disney Company, and then tomorrow [July 11] is a four-year anniversary on the App Store. The App Store went live on July 11, 2008. We had a little bit of activity before then, after the jailbreak, we started a company called Tapulous which ended up at Disney. But yes, tomorrow will be the four-year anniversary of hitting number one for the first time with Tap Tap Revenge.
Eldon: So before we get into the modern era of what you’re doing right now at Disney, walk us through a bit. The last session was talking about how hard it was to get off the ground and build these new characters. What did you do?
Eldon: Well, mid-2007, I think it was June 29, 2007, the iPhone came out, and I had gone through six different phones in the last twelve months before that. The iPhone came out and I said, ‘Wow, this thing is it, this is going to be different.’ Almost by October of that year, the phone got jailbroken, and you could download these little apps through something like the App Store. I started doing that, and people in China started doing that massively, because it was the only way you could get an iPhone in China. By December of 2007, you could see this little ecosystem of hundreds of apps showing up. I was there with a couple of friends and we all said this was going to be big. We don’t know what’s going to be big, but it’s going to be about building apps on this platform, it’s going to be about building a community. In January 2008 we started the company. We put out three apps when the App Store went live, a little app that let you connect on Twitter and Facebook, and we had a photo-sharing app, and then we had a game called Tap Tap Revenge that came out in those jailbreak days. That went to number one on July 11, and we woke up as an accidental game company. Tap Tap Revenge became the first brand born on the App Store.
Eldon: How did you take it from this one hit that happened to blow up, you said it was an accident. Just walk us through the last four years. Because this is really important for a lot of different developers who aren’t with Disney right now. They’re building their own games.
Decrem: A thing that we were talking about is, when do you move on to the next title, and when do you sort of double down and tough it out? In the case of Tap Tap Revenge, we were just talking backstage. The game sat at number one on July 11, but by mid-August it was dropping down the charts, sitting at number 47 or something like that. We were about to give up on the game and focus on this app called Twinkle, a social app to connect on Facebook.
And then Apple did their fall announcement. At their event, Steve Jobs started showing off the new iPod Touches, and they were using these screenshots of Tap Tap Revenge. It ended up in all the Apple stores, all the marketing materials, you’d see Macy’s ads for the iPod Touch with Tap Tap Revenge. The game came back, and we kept doing upgrades and updates and adding new content to it. It became an institution, it became an evergreen, and that’s how we figured out that the App Store is basically. The closest thing to it is YouTube, and apps are by and large consumable. The entertainment experience is, go on YouTube, check out what’s new, play a few videos, talk to your friends about a couple of them, and maybe bookmark one of those videos. Go to the App Store, see what’s new, download a couple of things, play one or two, delete most of it, talk to your friends about it. It’s the same thing. So in a world where there’s half a million apps or more, how do you build things that are not consumable, that stick around? We were able to do that with Tap Tap Revenge. And then, for me, the hardest thing was doing it again. Certainly for me it took a couple of years to figure out how to build another hit. If you look at Rovio, they’ve been at it for a couple of years, their second title’s coming out Thursday.
Eldon: They’ve had some expansions, though, they’ve had some follow-ups.
Decrem: That’s right. But that’s evolving the franchise, like we’ve done with Tap Tap. There’s a playbook for that one, right? Once you’ve got a hit and you can make it be relevant for more than a couple of weeks, then you can do the expansions. We’ve done it with Tap Tap Revenge, you’ve seen it with Angry Birds, Where’s My Water?, Where’s My Perry? Building a new IP, building a new brand, is hard, and I feel like we’re now getting the swing of it at Disney.
Eldon: What had worked for you before you had this massive repository of Disney characters to draw upon?
Decrem: Well, in my case, we had one hit and we doubled down on it the same way Rovio has with Angry Birds. We invested in Tap Tap Revenge, and it took a number of trials, creating new IP. But also, at Disney, taking existing Disney characters and building hit games. Disney was at it a couple of years before we hit it big with Where’s My Water?
What happened, actually, for me, was not unlike what Dean was talking about, about a year ago, sitting down with a guy named John Pleasants, who is my boss, and saying, I don’t feel like it’s working. I don’t feel that we’re winning. What should I do differently? He said, well, you’re trying to do too many things, you’re trying to think about strategy and all this other stuff. Why don’t you focus on building great games, and then everything else will take care of itself? There was a small team in our LA studio that had built this very simple little game. You could feel the fun in it. What we did is we just supported the team, we didn’t let people distract them, we gave them the time that they needed. They had the mechanic, but we asked them the one question, it’s the Disney question, it’s what makes us special, and I do think it’s what drives the success of our games…
Eldon: Just to back up a little bit, how do you figure out which Disney characters and franchises to build around? How do you work with people in other parts of the company who have these other ideas about the art and how it should be used? Some of these characters have obviously been around for decades and have a lot of brand value to them.
Decrem: It’s a simple question, and I was just getting to it. You start with a thing that you do with your finger, you start with what you call a core mechanic. What’s the fun thing that you’re doing? In the case of Where’s My Water?, the fun thing was, you cut through dirt with your fingers to get water to go somewhere. That’s the fun. And then we asked, the one question was, why are you doing that? What’s going on here? And so then the team thought about it, we said, well, we think there are seeds down there, if you give them water, they’ll sprout. But nothing interesting came from that.
And then one day Tim FitzRandolph, the game-maker, came and said, we think there’s an alligator down there. He wants to take a shower. There’s alligators in the sewer below the big city, we all know that story. So we said, well, that’s interesting because it’s funny and unexpected, and alligators aren’t necessarily cute when you think about them. So we went with that idea. To answer your question, it’s about finding the fun in a game, the core thing that you do, and then we ask ourselves, why are we doing that, what world is this taking place in, where does it fit?
Traditionally, when you look at entertainment companies, they do it the other way around. There’s a movie coming out, it’s called blah blah blah, you need to build a game and it needs to ship that day. That’s a recipe for shipping a poor-quality game. You’re shipping against the date and you’re building a game based on a character and a world. If you want to build a great game, you’re going to first figure out the fun, and then figure out what world it takes place in and ship it when it’s ready. By doing it in that sequence, it’s how we build successful games and that’s how we figure out what IP to use. When we started Where’s My Water?, we didn’t have a bias for or against Disney characters. We just asked, what’s going on here? And the answer was an alligator. It was a new alligator, so we went with that. Sometimes it’s a new Disney character and sometimes it’s an existing one.
Eldon: You’ve also been developing some original IP. How do you communicate that with the rest of Disney? You have all these different marketing channels, all these brand departments. How do you bring that together with the rest of the company?
Decrem: Disney is good at two things. At our best — and we’re frequently at our best, if not always — we create amazing entertainment experiences. And more often than not, there’s a character in the world and story that rolls out of it. Like any Pixar movie, Brave, that’s what we do at our best. We do that, and then the second thing that Disney does, we then blow it out on a global scale with a massive marketing machine and distribution power.
So that’s what we’re trying to do on the App Store. We’re trying to build really exceptional quality gaming experiences, and then you want to market them and use the global platform of the Walt Disney Company. The way that connects with the company is that we tell folks, hey, we’re trying to build a business, we’re trying to build awesome games, you’re trying to build awesome TV shows, you’re trying to build amazing park experiences, you’re trying to build awesome movies. That’s what we’re doing. We have a character here that fits with this game and presents an opportunity to work together, or you’ve got a character that fits our game, let’s work together. That’s the conversation, and Disney is about IP creation, so they understand that commitment to quality. That’s how we engage. What happened when Where’s My Water came out, people just loved the game. And because they loved the game, they wanted us to make a T-shirt for it, they wanted it to show up somewhere else. And you go from there.
Eldon: It’s fascinating for me, having been covering this stuff since I was back with Dean at VentureBeat. Having seen the Playdom acquisition go down, I think both Playdom and Playfish, there’s a lot of doubt, it’s all about growth numbers and monetizing right now. There was a lot of skepticism at the time, about both of those acquisitions, saying that it’s not about the character. What’s happening now in the App Store? A lot of developers are complaining that it’s harder to get users, the top rankings aren’t changing as much. Is this natural maturity, is this what Apple wants?
Decrem: I’ve been at this for almost five years, come November. I think it’s an amazing platform. I still think it’s a blank canvas, I still think we’re trying to figure out how to connect and craft amazing entertainment experiences. And I think it’s such an egalitarian platform.
Eldon: Having a hit helps…
Decrem: Yeah. But if you look at the App Store, tomorrow Tiny Wings 2 is launching. That’s a dude. Maybe it’s five people out in Germany. But that’s the thing that may push us out of one or two tomorrow. There’s no big machine behind it. He doesn’t have an Apple relationship manager. It’s a dude in Germany. And it’s because Apple and Steve Jobs built a platform that’s kind of magical. The iPhone, the iPad, people think this is a magical device. And then Apple did a really amazing job curating the App Store and showcasing the good stuff. So now people want the good stuff. I think the good stuff still wins. Because we’re Disney, because you’re Rovio, and you have that kind of distribution power, then you will go to number one, you will go high on the charts.
But you’re not going to stay there if you don’t have an exceptional experience. It depends on what’s going on in the App Store. This is a great moment, for us to have those top three spots. It’s very special, and hopefully we can make it last a little bit longer. But we’re trying to find our formula, and our formula I think is going to be about finding passionate audiences for games that are truly great. Dean was talking about this for Rovio, about building something that you’re really proud of. And then the other half is, live in the world of the data. That’s what you get from Facebook or Playdom or Playfish. The power of numbers and analytics and understanding who your users are and understanding how you can make people come back the next day. There’s real power there as well. We’re trying to combine the science as well as the art.
Eldon: You have your own launch coming tomorrow, right? Tell us how you’re thinking about that.
Decrem: Well, we’ve got a big launch of a really big game that’s coming up, tomorrow night. I’m not supposed to disclose it, but it is an anniversary…[The game was Tap Tap Revenge: Tour].
Eldon: Before we open up to questions, what advice would you have for guys who are trying to get in now, just one developer or a small team, they have that one hit and they’re not sure what to do next? What can you tell them besides, hope you get featured by Apple?
Decrem: Well, we got featured by Apple because we built a great game. It worked that way for us. I remember when we were at Tapulous, calling Apple and trying to get featured, and we didn’t have a relationship manager, nobody knew who to call, people would tell us to go away, and they get a little bit cranking if you push too hard at them. I tried that. So we learned.
But Apple will come to you, they will feature you, and Apple featuring is important. There are other distribution channels, and I’m a little less binary about them. Free App a Day, and there’s other user acquisition channels, and I don’t have anything against them. I think there’s a way to use these things in a strategic way. But again, what I said earlier, if you build a great game, it will float to the top and you don’t necessarily have to do crazy machinations. It’s not mechanistic like that.
Play Draw Something, it’s a simple game, it’s really powerful. But then you look at, say, Tiny Wings, it’s one guy, doesn’t have a fancy business model around it, but it’s beautifully done, it has a sense of power and passion behind it. I’ve got a couple of guys who left Tapulous around the time of the acquisition, they put out three games. One of them was a zombie game, one was a first-person shooter game, and the other one was a kids’ game. They all went to number one. I said, dude, what did you do, what’s your vision, what’s your strategy? He said, I don’t know, we just built these games that we love. And he did. It does work when you do that. That’s the most exciting thing, and it is the key to success.
Question: We believe there’s a huge untapped potential for transmedia games. Our experience so far has been that TV and film guys don’t really understand how character and story work in games. And games guys don’t really understand how character and story work in film. How do you bridge that gap?
Decrem: Well, I remember my first meeting at Disney Channel, it was actually a really great one. We said, look, we’ve got this game called Where’s My Water, it’s at number one on the App Store for a couple of weeks, and we think we should make a TV show around this. And one of the guys said, you know, that’s so insulting. Because they had Phineas and Ferb. That didn’t come out of nowhere, they thought about that, they thought about those characters they developed and that world for ten years. They were dying to tell that story. And that’s why the TV show is so good.
When we came in there and said, hey, build me a TV show… We just didn’t understand what it takes to build quality television and be successful. And then we said, alright, what’s on your mind? Well, they said, we’ve got this TV show called Phineas and Ferb, we think you should build a couple of iPhone games for it. And I said, that’s so insulting. [big laughs] When we build a game, it starts with a mechanic, we sweat over that thing. What we’re trying to do at Disney is bridge those worlds. When you look at Where’s My Water, there are guys from the animation studios that help figure out what that character is and how you draw it. They literally wrote the book on animation and character animation, the little stories in there… We do that cross-fertilization. But in general, the reason that most media companies have not succeeded in gaming is because of that, and a lot of game characters don’t cross over to other media because of that. So that’s a core challenge, and very few people pull it off.
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