Disney has staged a big retreat from internally-built games. And NBCUniversal is going to benefit from that, as it has hired Disney’s former mobile games leader Chris Heatherly to lead a new mobile game and virtual reality publishing group.
It’s a recognition that mobile games, which are expected to grow to $46.2 billion in 2017, are a big business and that the film and TV businesses aren’t growing like they once were.
NBCUniversal’s Universal Brand Development is announcing today that it will expand its strategic focus on games and build an organization to self-publish its own titles, taking a more direct role in the creative, development, marketing, and distribution of games based on its own intellectual properties, including those from DreamWorks Animation, Illumination Entertainment, and Universal Pictures.
“Universal has decided to take a strategic position in games,” Heatherly said in an exclusive interview with GamesBeat. “We are pushing heavily in the digital space. And they see there is no bigger digital space than games.”
Heatherly will be executive vice president of games and digital platforms within Universal Brand Development. He said he is excited to exploit the company’s brands in games. Those brands include Fast & Furious, Minions, Despicable Me, Jurassic World, and many others.
“It’s part of a larger plan to build evergreen franchises that support multiple products across multiple businesses,” Heatherly said.
Other executives include James Molinets, senior vice president of production; Timothy FitzRandolph, vice president of creative; and Fabian Schonholz, senior vice president of technology and operations. Molinets and Schonholz are reporting to Heatherly.
While the initial focus for self-publishing will be on mobile, Universal plans over time to expand to other platforms inluding VR. The first titles from the new publishing effort will launch later this year.
Universal will continue to license its IP to outside developers, strategically complementing its internal publishing strategy, Heatherly said.
Molinets most recently served as vice President of games at Disney,where he was responsible for production and general management of all Disney and Pixar mobile games. Molinets is a 24-year veteran of the games industry who produced the critically acclaimed Alice in collaboration with American McGee and later oversaw second party development for Sony and third party development for Disney.
FitzRandolph was an early pioneer on mobile with the indie success Jelly Car, and he later teamed with Molinets at Disney on the worldwide phenomenon Where’s My Water, which spawned three sequels, short-form animation, toys, and other consumer products.
Together, they built Disney Mobile into a leading publisher of mobile games with hits like Inside Out: Thought Bubbles and Disney Emoji Blitz. They also oversaw kids’ virtual world phenomenon, Club Penguin, and recently launched a successful mobile successor, Club Penguin Island.
Schonholz is a seasoned entrepreneur with a focus on “big data” and cloud services working for companies such as Internet Brands, where he was vice president of technology. At Universal, he will oversee Universal’s cloud-based game publishing infrastructure with an emphasis on leveraging data to drive value across the gaming network.
In addition to the new appointments, two Universal gaming executives are receiving new roles. Bill Kispert, a Universal veteran of 15 years, moves into a new strategic position as general manager of business development, reporting to Heatherly. Additionally, Pete Wanat has been named vice president of production, reporting to Molinets.
Wanat has produced dozens of games both at and prior to Universal, where he has worked for 16 years. He is known for producing some of the best regarded games based on movie IP including Chronicles of Riddick and its sequel, as well as Scarface: The World Is Yours.
For now, Heatherly said the company will attempt to hire about 50 people in the next year for the publishing operation. It will not build internal studios just yet. Rather, it will work with outside mobile game developers.
“80 percent of the focus is on mobile,” Heatherly said. “But we will also be looking at emerging areas like VR. We are leveraging the best talent that is already out there.”
Universal Brand Development’s Games and Digital Platforms business unit creates games and interactive experiences that extend engagement with the company’s franchises on mobile, console, PC and emerging platforms such as virtual and augmented reality. The team is also responsible for utilizing NBCUniversal IP through apps, personalization, and digital content.
“We are making a significant investment in this space with the team I am building,” Heatherly said. “This is not just a couple of titles. It’s about a network of titles.”
As for movies and television, Heatherly said that they are not growing at the rates they once did.
“The audience has changed,” he said. “Millennials spend their time with games. Brands like Overwatch have much more relevance for young audiences. I’m pleased to find that the leadership here gets that, and our film talent does too.”
Disney, meanwhile, has shifted to a model where it has relatively few internal divisions working on games. It invested billion in those studios over the years, but it has shut down or sold off various divisions, such as Avalanche Studios in Utah, where the company made its Disney Infinity games.
Heatherly will be part of a massive company. NBCUniversal is owned by Comcast, which bought out the company in 2013.
As for what he learned at Disney, Heatherly said, “I learned the value of building and owning a network. At NBCUniversal, we have clarity around the third-party publishing model. That will allow us to focus.”
As for VR, Heatherly said, “On the VR front, we are doing quite a few things. One of them we can announce soon.”
That said, he knows it is not yet a big business yet. And for that reason, the company will put its financial focus on mobile games.”
He added, “It’s not sexy. But it is legit and at scale. It may not have as much sizzle for venture capital firms, but for an entertainment company with lots of assets, it is a good fit.”
As for Universal’s previous history with games, it licensed the Despicable Me franchise to Gameloft, whose Minion Rush game has been downloaded more than 800 million times. That makes it the No. 4 most-downloaded mobile game of all time, Heatherly said. It still gets 1 million organic installs a week.