Dec 11, 2023 - Technology

Exclusive: Disney "just starting" with ambitious gaming plans

Photo illustration of Sean Shoptaw surrounded by abstract shapes and screenshots of Spiderman, Dreamlight Valley and Star Wars Jedi Survivor.

Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photo: Courtesy of Disney; Courtesy of EA, Gameloft and Sony

Disney is "just starting" when it comes to pairing its top franchises with the industry's best game development studios, the company's longtime head of gaming, Sean Shoptaw, told Axios in Los Angeles last week.

Why it matters: Disney is once again a rising force in the gaming industry, not by making its own games but by offering its biggest characters to a who's who of competing publishers and elite developers looking to craft a winner.

  • That approach has produced hits like Marvel's Spider-Man 2, a PlayStation exclusive developed by Sony's Insomniac Games and released in October, and last year's popular Marvel Snap mobile game from Second Dinner, a studio led by ex-Blizzard veterans.
  • But a recent report from Bloomberg suggested a potential strategic shift, with some Disney brass supposedly pressing CEO Bob Iger to buy a gaming giant like Electronic Arts, maker of Madden and The Sims.

What they're saying: "There's a lot of conversation around: 'Disney should go do this,' and a lot of that's tied to big acquisitions and things," Shoptaw said, declining to directly comment on the EA rumor.

  • Instead, he cited recent hit video games made with Disney's current external development approach, including EA's acclaimed Star Wars Jedi Survivor and Gameloft's popular Disney Dreamlight Valley. "It's not just this easy assumption to say, 'Well, Disney could do that in-house,'" he said.
  • "We're very happy with where we are now strategically in the work that we're doing."

Flashback: Disney left internal game development and publishing in 2016, in favor of licensing its Star Wars, Marvel and Disney characters to outside developers.

Between the lines: Shoptaw leads a gaming group of about 100 producers, business development executives and others, primarily in Glendale, California, who are largely divided into teams to work on licensing games tied to Star Wars, Disney, Pixar, Marvel, 20th Century Studios and more.

  • The games they agree to are born from dialogues with top studios, he said, noting his team is leery of simply shopping a top Disney franchise to studios to see who'll bite. "You're probably going to get to an outcome that's not where we want to be."
  • In some cases, studios win Disney's favor with the right pitch. Microsoft-owned MachineGames and Bethesda executive producer Todd Howard pushed to get a deal to make an Indiana Jones game. "They pitched us a really compelling vision for Indy, and that resonated."
  • As projects get underway, Disney designates release windows to avoid having games in similar franchises stepping on each other. What if partner A is running late and at risk of colliding with partner B? "Everybody's running late," Shoptaw quipped, before saying that lateness is often no one's fault and something Disney tries to accommodate with all affected partners. "We do a lot of air traffic control," he said.

Yes, but: Some Disney gaming partnerships that looked great on paper have had issues.

  • Marvel's Avengers, made by the respected Tomb Raider studio Crystal Dynamics and released in 2020, was a critical flop that struggled to retain players. Eidos Montreal's Guardians of the Galaxy reviewed well in 2021 but sold poorly, leading to both of those studios being sold by their publisher, Square Enix.
  • A Marvel game made by the revered Civilization studio Firaxis got strong reviews in December 2022 but also sold poorly. "We've sort of postmortem'd that with [publisher] Take-Two and I think we collectively agree that, I think, that timing window was problematic."
  • "We would go back and work with those studios again," he said. "They're great studios, great partners."

The bottom line: "Games are really hard to make," Shoptaw says.

  • "If you've got great IP. If you've got a great story. You know, it's still a challenge."

What's next: Iron Man and Black Panther games are in the works at EA, with another Black Panther game set to come from Skydance.

  • A major Star Wars game is expected from Ubisoft next year.
  • And Microsoft-owned Arkane just teased a game based on Marvel's Blade at The Game Awards in Los Angeles last week.

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