Disney Interactive recently invited GamesBeat to a screening of Disney Planes followed by a reception with hands-on time for the video game adaptation. However, this was more an opportunity to poke the game division’s vice president of product development, Bill Roper, with a stick and see what came out.
Roper previously held positions at Blizzard Entertainment, Flagship Studios where he launched ambitious-but-ill-fated massively multiplayer online game Hellgate: London, and Cryptic Studios as design director for Champions Online. The following interview touches upon everything from the broad appeal of Disney Infinity, the resounding effects of Epic Mickey’s failure, and the possible return of racing game franchise Split/Second,
GamesBeat: What was behind the decision to make the Planes games exclusive to Nintendo platforms?
Bill Roper: For us it’s really matching up the intellectual properties (IPs) with what we want to make as games and with the right partners to do that with. Nintendo’s been a great lifelong partner with us. They have very traditionally owned that sweet spot with kids and families. With Planes, as we looked at the product in association with the film and what was happening with that, it was obvious. It had the game mechanics written all over it. This was going to be an awesome flying game.
As the ideas for the game evolved, we looked at where would be the right place to put this. Everything formed around what a great partnership we could have with Nintendo to put this out. They were the right place to do it.
GamesBeat: The casual focus is not really anything new for Disney Interactive, and this is a casual, kids-and-family-targeted movie. But even over the past few years, you’ve shuttered some of the more core studios and products and focused more on those casual games. Do you think we could ever see more core Disney IPs come back to Interactive?
Roper: I think we will. I think what we’ve moved away from is relying exclusively on internal teams to do that. We’re finding the right partners to work with the IPs. It’s the challenge I think everyone faces in the gaming industry in terms of where you put your talent. We always try to keep great people inside the company. But a great example of that, although it’s still a little fresh to us a little weird to think of, is that Star Wars is now a property that we look after with the amazing team up at Lucas. We’re going to be back in the core demographic with Star Wars and EA.
GamesBeat: With Battlefront? (E3 reveal trailer)
Roper: Yeah, with Battlefront. That’s awesome. And I think there’s going to be some stuff coming down the pipe — that we’re obviously not talking about yet – that’s going to have people nodding their heads and saying, “Yeah, that’s cool.” It’s also just the focus on where we see players going to line up with—Again, in my mind, it’s always the right characters and stories, the right IPs, on the right platforms.
We’re seeing a lot of younger kids moving to mobile, which is why there’s been such an emphasis on mobile inside the company. As another great example, Kingdom Hearts 3 got announced at E3. That, I think, is something that’s always skewed a little more towards the core gamer. Square Enix has been an amazing partner with us for a lot of years. That’ll be on all the big ones. And to be honest, I think that even though we see a huge excitement around Infinity with kids and everything, the thing I feel encouraged by is all the gamer moms and dads I know. “Awesome, a game I can play with my kid.” Especially the building elements and the toybox. I think there will always be, to some degree, a mixture of the right properties and the right platforms.
But I do feel like – I’ll use Infinity as an example — when you go into it, even though you may be going through Monsters University – okay, it’s Monsters, it skews a little young – but when you actually go through and play it and you’re a more mature gamer, you see where the gameplay mechanics come from. “Wow, this feels kind of like Crackdown. But for kids.” Right? That’s one of the things we tried to make a nod to with the E3 “For Your Consideration” trailer we put out. We’ve got a lot of stuff in there that’s going to—I just think it’s going to blow kids’ minds. They haven’t played those kinds of game mechanics before.
GamesBeat: Because they weren’t allowed to.
Roper: Right, they weren’t allowed to. But now they can. For gamers like you and me, we’re like, “Yeah, this is great! This is just like—“ To be honest, The Lone Ranger is kind of like Red Dead Redemption. I’ve got horses and I’m riding around on adventures. I’m opening new areas. It’s an open world. We’ve built these family-friendly open world games. But at the same time—This isn’t just because I’m working on it. I play the heck out of it. I have a couple of buddies of mine that are in their 30s, and they’re like, “Hey, can we come over and screw around in the toybox?”
We see guys making side-scrollers and top-down racing games with all the logic toys and everything. That’s the interesting element to it, where we’re touching those core game mechanics and making stuff that core gamers will actually like. Not that we’re trying to sell it as a core game, obviously. But I think you saw that a lot with games like the first Epic Mickey. Core gamers were saying, “Hey, this is actually pretty cool.” So hopefully we’re going to hit the right notes with that.
GamesBeat: Going back Epic Mickey, did the failure of the series have a kind of butterfly effect on Disney Interactive’s feelings about venturing out and doing those types of games?
Roper: I don’t know if it did. That’s an interesting way of putting it. I hadn’t thought of it that way, the butterfly effect. I think, really, in that perspective—Warren was the guy who got me into Disney. Warren initially actually sent me a message on Facebook and said, “Hey, Alex Seropian” – who was the head over core at the time – “is looking for someone to come in and shepherd the Marvel stuff that we’re doing here. Would you be interested?” I said, “Well, I love Marvel. Yeah, I’d love to come in and interview.” And I started working there. So I have nothing but absolute respect for Warren.
But I think where we got to is, after Mickey 2 came out, we were looking out there and thinking about where we’re shifting the focus of the division. We have a massive platform that’s being done out of Avalanche with Infinity, which is probably going to eat up the vast majority of our focus on console as far as internal development. So it was just that—I think it was less of a butterfly effect in that way. It was more like that had finished. It had come to its conclusion at the end of Epic Mickey 2.
Now people were going in different directions. It almost sounds a little—I don’t know, I might be sounding a little romantic. There’s a much heavier focus now, obviously, on what we’re doing in the mobile space and what we’re doing with digital distribution – building our network, being able to have a lot of titles coming out in the mobile area, having a focus on taking some of the properties that make sense to work with other developers on and doing that. Infinity has always been in the hands of the guys at Avalanche in Salt Lake [Note: Not to be confused with Swedish developer Avalanche Studios, the team behind Just Cause and the upcoming Mad Max]. So that was just more of a, “Where is the company going moving forward?” that drove that decision.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like these Skylanders or Disney Infinity toys are a way to slow the industry’s transition to all-digital?
Roper: I don’t know if it’s to keep them from going all digital. I think that one of the things we’ve found is that there is an intrinsic value, if you will, to that physical element. You can show it off to your friends. It’s cool to pick up stuff and put it down, swapping this thing out. One of the things that we love doing, and that we found actually resonated super well when we started testing it, was the power discs, for example. “I’m putting this in! Here’s my toy!” Just like that—It’s some weird combination of pogs and playing in the yard with your GI Joes and your Transformers, all those classic things. There’s something to clapping stuff down and doing things with it, that physical element.
For me – I literally just thought of this – I used to play this game called Statis Pro Baseball, which was a card-based baseball simulation game. I was in a league. I was a super baseball geek. At one point, the guys were like, “Oh, the record-keeping is so difficult. We should do a better digital version.” It was a different game, but you got to put all your stats in and the whole thing. I played one game of it and I was like, “Yeah, I’m out.” Because for me, there was something about the tactile nature of flipping cards and writing down the score and moving my players in and out, there was some element that I could put my hands on. I think that’s kind of part of the magic to what we’re doing.
I love the all-digital stuff. I have a pretty long history in the industry working on MMOs and digitally delivered products. I definitely don’t come from a standpoint where I don’t like the all-digital stuff. It’s very cool. That’s one of the things that I think is a great place for people to expand into with Infinity. How do take that and make it so I can play on the go? I can always have a touch point into it from a digital standpoint. I think there is something to the physicality of it.
And to be honest, I think it’s a challenge for a lot of companies to find—Kids don’t have the same access to wallets that parents do, right? Or that adults do. So DLC traditionally has not done very well for kids. But if there’s a cool toy you can play with, a character, I’ve got it, I put it down and everything, and the discs to go with it, that resonates more.
GamesBeat: Do you think that if Disney Infinity is as successful as Skylanders, Disney would then pursue other physical/digital hybrid experiences?
Roper: I think that would be great. I think that’s the interesting thing. Right now, if you look at Infinity, you keep expanding your experience when you buy more of the characters or buy the playsets. You unlock more and more of the game that you’re playing. You could definitely imagine it being super cool to be able to say, “Here’s something I have, this physical thing, that changes and updates and grows because of something I do digitally.” I think there’s a lot of directions you could go with that kind of stuff. It’s exciting for me to be in a company where they have a long history of, “Hey, let’s dream up something cool and figure out how to make it happen.”
GamesBeat: As much as I enjoy Kingdom Hearts and am looking forward to Disney Infinity, my favorite Disney Interactive game of all time is actually Split/Second.
Roper: That is an awesome game.
GamesBeat: So I was pretty crushed when the developer got closed down. Now that the dust has settled, is there even the slightest possibility that Split/Second could eventually live on somehow?
Roper: It’s a great question. Those guys were before my time with the company, but I played Split/Second, and I thought, “Wow, this is such an awesome game. It’s so fun.”
GamesBeat: I describe it as if Michael Bay directed a Burnout game.
Roper: Yeah, yeah, it is. I always look at that idea, and – not to try to be coy – anything’s possible. It’s just trying to see if there’s a way that it makes sense that we do that. We’re also seeing a lot of changes in platforms and where that goes. The fun thing about a great game is that it can do one of two things. It can either evolve and live on in a new direction, or you find different ways to bring it back.
Looking at what we’ve been doing with DuckTales and Castle of Illusion and those things, that’s the same game under the hood, but it has new life breathed into it. We’re working with these great companies to give a completely new look to the game and everything. DuckTales was crazy. We just put out that trailer with the song, and it got an incredible number of hits on YouTube. People remember that game – “Oh, I loved that.” There definitely could be some fun stuff for us to try to figure out with Split Second, because I loved that game too.