The Walt Disney Corporation is ready to release social games based on its core intellectual properties through Sorority Life developer Playdom, more than a year after the $563.2 million acquisition.
Ever since the buy, it’s been a question of “when” Playdom would release Disney branded games more so than “if.” At the time of the acquisition, brands hadn’t seen much success on Facebook in the form of social games, but in the last six months they’ve come onto the platform from almost every direction — film, TV, music, core video game franchises, etc. During this time, Playdom was active on Facebook with big releases like Gardens of Time and ESPN Sports Bar & Grill, plus under-the-radar games like Deep Realms and Gnome Town. It didn’t, however, release any social games based on original Disney IP.
“As you can imagine, The Walt Disney Company is very protective of certain assets,” Playdom CFO Christa Quarles tells us. “There are things that have to have the right artists and art direction that can actually fit within [preset] standards. There’s an appreciation of that particular IP that’s required.”
Quarles explains that Playdom’s current development structure is what she calls a “federation of startups” that contains almost a dozen different studios, each working on different projects — not all of which are Disney-branded. Of this group, the San Francisco-based Dream Castle is likely the first that will make it to Facebook with traditional Disney IP. The studio already has ESPN Sports Bar & Grill under its belt and is now staffing up to tackle an unnamed social game that will leverage a familiar Disney brand.
“We’re not talking about specifics yet,” DreamCastle Vice President & Executive Producer Kenny Dinkin says. “We’re trying to get the word out there, though, that if you love Disney and you want to work on social games and you’re in San Francisco, there’s a team doing some really cool stuff here.”
Dinkin comes to Playdom from PlayFirst, where he worked on the Diner Dash casual games franchise. Through that IP, he developed a passion for storytelling in the casual games space — which is something he brings to Dream Castle’s unnamed Disney project. Currently, about half of his team at the studio is made up of existing Playdom employees and he tells us that the company is structured in a way where he can reach out to other Playdom producers at other studios for guidance on social game development.
“For me this is a really seductive opportunity to work with Disney, the mother lode of intellectual properties,” Dinkin says, “and to learn from Playdom, the experts in business analytics and social gaming.”
The appeal of working on a Disney video game has attracted several developers in the industry, most recently Deus Ex creator Warren Spector with Wii game Epic Mickey. Despite the draw of the brand, however, it’s difficult to create a product that both leverages Disney’s IP while still standing on its own as an enjoyable gameplay experience that consumers want to pay for. Brands are a stigma in the traditional video games industry where consumers have come to expect poor performance from games based on movies and comic books — which is why the success of games like Batman: Arkham Asylum or the original Kingdom Hearts comes as something of a shock. In the social games space, the marriage of branded IP and games is only barely consummated as brands based in film, TV, and even other video game franchises are just now finding success on Facebook with titles like The Smurfs & Co., The Sims Social, and the slew of newly-launched TV-based social games.
“You can’t just slap any [game] mechanic on any IP and think it’s going to work,” Dinkin tells us. “The IP is a leg up that gives you that emotional engagement [with the player], but at the end of the day, it’s all about the gameplay. You often see these inauthentic mash-ups of some character IP and some game mechanic. [Like] Sleeping Beauty and Aurora — I love my first person shooters, but that’s probably not a good match for that property. You have to think about what fits from the consumer’s perspective, but if what you picked isn’t fun, you’re broken. The gameplay has to drive it.”
Working with Disney brands is a double-edged sword for Playdom. On the one hand, user acquisition is cheaper and easier because everyone presumably recognizes at least 10 Disney brands on sight, so there’s no need to spend as much on advertising. On the other, these brands are so old and spread across such a wide range of mediums that developers have to collaborate with many branches of The Walt Disney Company to satisfy standards set for that brand. On top of that — almost as a third edge — Playdom is still actively learning best practices in social game development even as the Facebook platform continues to evolve.
“A lot of this is about how you de-risk projects,” Quarles says. “This is a hits-driven business and there’s tons of risk every time you embark on a new project. [A brand] increases the likelihood that more people are going to be exposed to that game, [so] it’s an opportunity in the sense that you can reach a much wider audience often for less money. [But] it’s a risk in the sense that you’ve got to get it right.”
Take, for example, the sale of Mickey Mouse ears. In real life, this head ornament is something you can only find at official Disney retail stores in major cities or at the theme park gift shops. It’s easy enough to recreate a set of Mickey Mouse ears to sell in a social game — perhaps as a premium item for Facebook Credits — but the presence of Mickey Mouse ears in a Disney-branded social game could actually wreck the authenticity of that game. It could also unbalance the economy of virtual goods, depending on the scarcity of Disney-branded items in general.
“Virtual goods like limited edition items is a big component of the game we’re building,” Dinkin admits. “I think it goes beyond Mickey Mouse ears. You can imagine buying different movies, rides… there’s so many different things in the world of Disney IP that you can imagine collecting, buying, unlocking. You want to take care that things that become common don’t lose their allure in real life.”
That’s about as much as Dinkin was willing to reveal about the mystery Disney game at Dream Castle, though he did say it wasn’t DuckTales. Based on those clues and on Facebook’s current demographics (with its lack of a 13-and-under audience), our best guesses are Pirates of the Caribbean, Toy Story, a “Disney Town” city-building style of game with various Disney characters, or something completely off-the-wall like Fantasia. You can find job listing for positions at Dream Castle here.