Making video games is hard – just ask the folks at Disney. After years of trying to work with studios around the world, the media giant shut down its game development business in 2016 and switched to a licensing model only. At the time, that decision seemed like a surrender, but over the years it has started to look more like brilliance. Today at Disney, some of the world’s top game design talents work on its assets without the real financial risk of managing hundreds of multi-content teams. How did the mouse do it?
The answer is bigger than Disney itself, and includes half a decade of fundamental changes in the way games are made, sold, and experienced.
For most of the past decade, they were AAA developers pivotable aggressive towards the “Games as a Service” model – you think fate and Division 2. You don’t want players to just show up, have a few weeks or months of fun, and then go away for new experiences. Instead, they want their players to live in the universes they create, spending years solving puzzles and devouring lore as they hunt for rare weapons and random loot. Big games don’t get expansions anymore, they get seasons – and it’s best to show up at the beginning of the season to get the most out of your cheap entry fee.
From a pragmatic point of view, the approach makes economic sense. Why pay to create new worlds every six months when you can just shuffle the environments, enemies, and mechanics over and over again? The fact that highly committed players are more likely to spend money on in-game items certainly doesn’t hurt.
These virtual worlds are absolute catnip for marketers – a captive audience with a detailed demographic profile used to popping up in the same place online year after year to spend small sums of money on the privilege of keeping up with the gaming Joneses.
Meanwhile, Hollywood still needs its movie connections. So why spend millions to make a dud? Fast & Furious Intersection when you can jam a poster for your upcoming movie into a far more popular game – like we saw with Dom’s car a few years ago Missile league?
Such film links to established games have existed for years. The terminator connection to Course 5 comes to mind. But those c onnections pale in comparison to what we’ve seen so far at E3 this year. Three great examples come to mind spontaneously.
What we’re seeing is the Fortnite-ification of games, where the most popular titles work with the most popular movies, TV shows, comics, and musicians for maximum marketing synergies. But back to Disney, which has the ability to go one step further.
Where most games and movies are almost on an equal footing, Disney is the reigning king of the media world. Every company wants a place at the table for part of its financial party. And so we see that Disney Studios can choose not just as a temporary partner, but as a creative substitute.
The boss among these deputies? Electronic Arts, the second largest video game publisher in the United States. Despite the disastrous start of Star Wars Battlefront 2 In 2017 the company took off Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order two years later, followed by Star Wars squadron last year. Both were commercial and critical successes, all without Disney doing much more than providing creative support. Rest assured that more games are on the way.
Now Bethesda – mind you, recently bought by Microsoft – is getting involved. You have Machinegames, the developer behind the hugely successful Wolfenstein reboot, working on a new Indiana Jones game. We don’t know the start date or the start window, but we do know that there is already content from four films, of which a fifth is in preparation. It sounds like the perfect opportunity to create a rolling franchise that fans of the whipping archeologist may never want to end.
Finally the big E3 bomb: Avatar: Limits of Pandora. Now Disney is partnering with a third major publisher, Ubisoft, to create an unprecedented corner of James Cameron’s billion dollar sci-fi franchise. While the trailer was showing over the weekend, it shows a section of the Na’vi western border, but remember that Avatar 2 is just the beginning. Three more sequels are on the way by 2027. That should give the team plenty of time to build the technology underlying The Division, arguably Ubisoft’s most ambitious Games-as-a-Service franchise, the time to build something in the world of Pandora.
Also on Ubisoft’s drawing board? A story-driven, open-world Star Wars game announced earlier this year.
Mind you, these aren’t just cheap connections – the kind of license spam that Games Workshop deserves, for example a bad reputation in video game circles in the past decade. Neither are the inferior ties of the early 2000s or even the mid-budget partnerships of the early 2010s like Ubisoft’s previous Avatar project.
These are the largest publishers in the world, each with hundreds of skilled developers, and none of them are on Disney’s payroll. Shortly after Disney closed its studios, the company and like-minded partners began capitalizing on the appeal of their intellectual property to put their beloved characters at the center of today’s most popular games. No, they don’t have full control of the games, but neither do they bear all the burden of expanding into a format they don’t have expertise in – an arena that costs hundreds of millions to compete and has no guarantee of success. (Just ask Amazon and Google.)
Quite a twist for a company that went out of business less than a decade ago after another failed project.