Disney interview: Big games coming with Avatar and Pirates of the Caribbean

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Disney had a big week at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) with the announcement of Ubisoft’s new open-world game, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. The title has cinematic graphics that replicate the imagery of the movie and the environments of the beautiful moon of Pandora.

Microsoft’s Rare studio also announced that characters from the Pirates of the Caribbean films, like Jack Sparrow and Davy Jones, will be integrated into Sea of Thieves. Both are examples of Disney’s return to triple-A games after changes to its strategy for games over the years.

Disney had triple-A games in the past when it had its own game studios. But it closed down or sold off the studios, and more recently it has been licensing its properties to outside companies, mostly mobile game publishers such as Glu and Jam City. And now it’s clear that Disney has been licensing its properties out for triple-A games as well.

I talked with Sean Shoptaw, senior vice president of Walt Disney Games, and Luigi Priore, vice president of Disney and Pixar Games, about Disney’s presence at E3 and the latest on its strategy for games.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Above: Pandora looks beautiful as an open world.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: What’s new for Disney Games?

Sean Shoptaw: I guess that’s a pretty loaded question. There’s a lot going on. It’s been a great week at E3 with some of the announcements you’ve seen. The business is doing well. We’re super excited about the products we’ve announced, and a lot of the products we have in the market already as well. We’re very excited about the status of games at Disney.

GamesBeat: What was announced altogether this week?

Shoptaw: The Avatar title and the Sea of Thieves integration were the two big ones so far.

GamesBeat: How long has Avatar been in the making now?

Priore: That predates us, obviously, because Disney didn’t acquire the 20th Century Fox properties until a couple of years ago. That started well before the acquisition. The great thing moving forward is we’ve been lucky enough to be able to work with Ubisoft and the team at Massive with Lightstorm, James Cameron’s production company, and Jon Landau, who worked on Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora. They announced Massive was working on it a while ago, but this is the name announcement and the first glimpse of what that game is going to be. We’ve gotten very good responses.

GamesBeat: The animation almost feels like it is the movie.

Shoptaw: Yeah, after the trailer, people are finding out that it’s very cinematic. The quality is extremely high. We’re super excited about that title.

GamesBeat: How does that relate to the movie releases, the next Avatar movies? Are they slated for particular dates yet?

Priore: Yeah, the next one is holiday 2022. Sean can get into our general strategy, but on licensing games like this these days — there was a time 15 or 20 years ago where playing the movie was something. You bought the game and played the movie. Things like the classic Aladdin game on Sega Genesis. You played the film. That was popular at the time, but gamers expect more now. They want to interact with their favorite characters and worlds, but they want to play new stories and do new things with those characters and worlds.

On Avatar it’s the same thing. What James Cameron and Jon Landau created is an amazing science fiction world. Pandora is awesome. They have great heroes. It’s a great playground to play in. This is a brand new story with new characters. It’s going to become part of the canon. The whole idea is to have it be part of the storyline of that giant franchise on Pandora, but it’s not a “play the movie” game. It’s an all new open world, new characters. That’s why it’s called Frontiers of Pandora. It takes place on another frontier, another area of the moon of Pandora.

Above: The environs of Pandora.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: How much will we recognize it? Is it a replication of the movie world, or is it more Ubisoft’s imagining of a new part of the world?

Priore: No, we’re working directly with the filmmakers. Jon Landau is involved almost every day on this. This is the same world. It’s just that you’re going to meet new characters, new clans of Na’vi, and your role is going to be different. I don’t want to go too much into it because we didn’t announce everything yet. But it’s a whole new story with new characters on the same planet, in the same canon. Jedi: Fallen Order was a new story about a new Jedi in the Star Wars canon. It’s the same idea here.

GamesBeat: On your level, how are you involved, compared to Ubisoft’s responsibility?

Priore: Massive is the developer. They’re one of the best in class at open world games. Division, Division II, amazing games. They’re working with the FoxNext team and Lightstorm, working directly with the filmmakers. Where we come in is we’ve brought our expertise in working on IP, working on games. We’ve talked about this a bit. We have a collection of producers, game designers, artists, writers that work together with our partners to get the best out of what they want to do.

Although we just joined this game production recently, since we acquired the 20th Century properties, we’re working directly with Massive and Lightstorm to help them make the best game possible. It’s our job to make sure that Massive has everything they need and that the brand is as authentic as possible working with Lightstorm.

GamesBeat: It still feels like there are so many opportunities for Disney in games. How do you approach which ones to take on, how many of them to do on what platforms?

Shoptaw: There’s no shortage of inbound interest to work with all of our franchises, thankfully. That’s something we’re grateful for. We try to take the approach that — we need to align our partnerships around people’s passions for IP. When we sit down and meet with a developer or publisher about an idea, a lot of that is driven by their passion to go make a specific game with a specific IP. Ideally we’re matching that up with a best-in-class partner. To the point about Massive, about EA, about the partnerships you see now and will see in future, it’s about matching that passion with best-in-class partners to go make what we hope are the best games we’ve made for whatever genre or IP it might be.

That, to us, is the recipe. It’s about working with high-quality partners that have passion for Disney IP, whatever it may be. It gets to be a much easier conversation once you’re in that world, where you see that passion. They have a track record of developing high-quality products. Then it’s about figuring out exactly what the execution is going to be, working closely with Luigi and our other teams internally to map to what ultimately is the final product. But that really is, at the top, our focus, to match people’s passions and the highest quality of partner we can find to go make a certain game.

GamesBeat: There’s a lot more coming than what we’ve seen here at E3, I’m sure.

Shoptaw: As I said yesterday, our slate has never been better. We’ve never been more excited about the slate we have. Some of that’s been announced and some hasn’t. But we feel like we’ve been fortunate to do some exciting partnerships with partners that have a high bar on quality and thankfully have a passion for our IP. We look at our pipeline of product and it’s never been healthier. The quality bar has never been higher.

GamesBeat: Star Wars: Hunters is another one of those coming.

Priore: Very excited about Hunters. Both mobile and Switch, which is very exciting for us. We’ve wanted to get more content on the Switch. We’re excited about what that game represents within the Star Wars universe. We think it’s a unique take, both creatively and from a genre perspective. It’s a very differentiated experience, one we haven’t seen so far in Star Wars.

Above: Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora is coming in 2022.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: Zynga is an interesting choice there. They haven’t done a console game before. When I was talking to them about their Harry Potter game, though, I was pretty stunned by how much work went into that. Several years, the biggest team they ever had. How much they put into all the animation and everything else that keeps players immersed in that universe was very interesting. It wasn’t as much of a surprise to see them do a Star Wars game.

Priore: They came to us with a good idea, with a team that we had a lot of respect for. They have a lot of passion for Star Wars. It made a lot of sense to us as we sat down and mapped out what a game could look like here. You’ll see that passion and quality in the final product. As I said, I think it’s a unique take on Star Wars, and knock on wood, our fans will agree. We’re pretty bullish on that game, excited for the world to see it.

GamesBeat: Is there anything else announced in Star Wars?

Shoptaw: We announced the Massive title as well not too long ago. We’ll do an open world Star Wars game with Massive. Similar to Zynga, we feel like it fits a need within the Star Wars universe that hasn’t been fulfilled, and we felt Massive was a perfect partner to execute on it. We’re huge fans of David [Polfeldt] and the team. We aligned quickly on a vision and an experience for Star Wars that, again, fans and gamers will flock to, hopefully. We feel good about the team making it, and we think the idea behind it is great.

GamesBeat: I take it that it’s just not the time to show a glimpse of that?

Shoptaw: We’re still a little ways off, but at the right time I think people will see why we’re so excited about it. We had Avatar to show this time. We didn’t want to show too much at once. With Star Wars, we’ve seen such a great response to Star Wars recently. Jedi: Fallen Order continues to perform. We just hit the 20 million user milestone recently. That title was another great example of telling a truly original story within that universe, something that hadn’t been told before. Allowing people to go be a Jedi and play a fun game like that has proven to work well and continues to resonate.

We’re not looking to flood the market and put one game on top of another. We want to be disciplined and focused on the best experiences. It’s not about making as many games as we can possibly make. It’s about making the right games with the right partners. When we do that, we see that we’re able to have a good amount of success. We feel fortunate about that. We’ll continue to do things that we think fans and gamers will be excited about with the right partners in the right genres on the right platforms. If we can keep that discipline I think we’ll continue to raise the bar on quality and continue to deliver products that will meet the moment, meet the level of quality that we want.

GamesBeat: What’s the strategy around platforms, especially mobile?

Above: The Avatar game has been years in the making.

Image Credit: Disney

Shoptaw: Mobile is a huge market globally. We’re always going to have more mobile products than we have console products, just by the nature of the platform. It’s pretty simple. We want to be where it makes sense for our IP to be, across genres, across markets. That might mean local products like Twisted Wonderland in Japan, which is a very unique, specific take on Disney in a market that is hugely passionate about Disney specifically. That execution is a great example of being very locally focused, an execution we know is going to resonate with a certain market. We certainly have regional looks as well, products that make sense in certain parts of the world. Asia is a good example. And then we have a fair amount of products that are global.

We look at it through a local, regional, and global lens. We want to make sure we match franchises and IP with markets in genres that resonate most powerfully. Twisted Wonderland is an incredible example of a local execution. A lot of our titles, obviously, are global, and they’ve been massive successes across markets. We’ll continue to look at big global opportunities like Galaxy of Heroes with EA. Obviously the Marvel portfolio has had a lot of incredible success across mobile.

We’re not one size fits all. We’ll focus on the right execution in the right market with the right partner and the right genre. We don’t want to flood the market, again, with a bunch of duplicative titles, or just put our brand on any title that we get some interest in. We’re going to be disciplined, and we’re going to make sure we apply that sort of strategic thought to every game we do, regardless of market. That approach over the last few years for us has shown that it works well, and we’ll continue to have that view of the world. It needs to make sense. It needs to be really high quality.

Even if we think we’re missing something, if there’s an opportunity for a genre or a certain IP is underserved, we’re not going to rush and just do a game because we think we need to. We will wait and make the right game with the right partner. That’s as important as getting any games out there. That’s something we’re focused on as much as we are getting products to market and satisfying the demand that we fortunately have for our IP. We’ll continue to be disciplined.

GamesBeat: Did the pandemic change your thinking in any ways?

Shoptaw: No. Fortunately the game industry overall, and certainly our business within Disney, had been doing very well prior to COVID. People’s perception was that video games benefited a lot from people staying home, working from home. There’s certainly some truth to that. But video games have been growing rapidly as an industry prior to COVID. It would have continued to grow rapidly if we never had COVID. So it hasn’t changed any strategic thinking for us. Fortunately our products and releases, nothing was impacted too dramatically by COVID. Again, strategically it hasn’t changed our view of the world.

Above: The humans are the enemy in Avatar.

Image Credit: Disney

GamesBeat: It seems like the video game opportunity is a lot more clear than it used to be in the wake of the pandemic. I’ve been writing all these stories about how much more money is coming into the game industry. I think it’s $49 billion in the first five months of this year in terms of investments and acquisitions and public offerings. That compares to $33 billion for all of last year. At the same time I know the movie industry is contracting. Does it make some sense to argue the case for games as a bigger slice of the pie going forward, a bigger opportunity? Is it time to double down on video games?

Shoptaw: We look at games as that pillar, regardless of what the model is. For us we feel like playing in the space where we’re playing gives us the highest quality products that we can scale across the world. When you look at internal development, obviously that comes with a considerable amount of investment and volume to go hit the aspirations that we have in this space. Again, that’s to work and deliver the best products across the world — console, mobile, PC.

Generally there’s no shortage of investment still happening on the linear side. To your point around film, streaming has taken a considerable bite out of that traditional film apple. But the investment in linear content is still extremely material. I don’t think that’s been diminished in any way. From a games perspective, again, our focus has been, and will continue to be, on quality, on being able to scale this business and meet the demand that exists in video games.

We feel like right now, that strategy is to go license and work with the best partners in the world to deliver on that demand. We’ll continue to do that as long as we can meet that bar of quality, of volume, and making sure that our reach is where we need it to be. Again, we’re fortunate to have the IP that we do. We owe it to consumers, fans, and gamers to make sure we’re delivering at that level. That will continue to be our focus.

We’re excited about where this business is and where it’s going. We think it is a pillar, regardless of model. As long as we’re delivering products like we are, games will continue to be a foundational part of the overall entertainment medium. Certainly from a Disney perspective we do that very thoughtfully. We’ve given a lot of attention and focus to it internally. You’re seeing those results in products today, and you’ll continue to see them in the future.

GamesBeat: Can you tell me a little about the Sea of Thieves integration?

Priore: We’re excited. The team at Rare — this goes back to what we were saying about best-in-class partners. They’ve made the best pirate game ever with Sea of Thieves. We’re excited to have A Pirate’s Life, something authentic to Pirates of the Caribbean that’s also authentic to Sea of Thieves. It lines up with what Sean was saying about doing it the right way, making it authentic to what we do at Disney. Just as we said about Avatar or Star Wars, we want to do that all the time, and we feel like we’re having success with that.

I’ve been here a long time. I’ve been at Disney in games for 25 years. I’ve been on the roller coaster, and I’ve never been more excited about the opportunities we have lined up. You’re seeing some of them, whether it’s Massive and Ubisoft with Avatar or Rare and Microsoft with Sea of Thieves and Pirates of the Caribbean. We’re excited about what’s coming next.

GamesBeat: Call of Duty has an interesting funnel these days, where they start with Call of Duty Mobile. They have 500 million people that way. They have Warzone, a free-to-play console and PC game, 100 million players. That feeds into Cold War, a $60 packaged game that sold 40% better than the previous game in the series. It seems like no accident. You widen that funnel and eventually you widen the market for the franchise’s premium games. It seems like only the biggest companies can do that. I don’t know if Disney has looked at that strategy as well, where there’s a purpose to each game in that funnel.

Shoptaw: People’s strategic view of a game and that game’s purpose are going to differ greatly. If you’re developing a game like Call of Duty, that’s a significant franchise and an incredibly successful one. There’s a lot of ways you can continue to funnel users and grow that pie across platforms.

From a Disney perspective it’s obviously different. We’re working with partners to create experiences. Our strategy is, again, to bring as high a quality of product as we can to market. It’s not about platform-building. We’re not doing this vertically, building out platforms and doing things that might be the strategy of a big game developer.

For us, we’re certainly open to playing in a space that creates these multiplatform experiences that drive audiences in meaningful ways across products. It’s something we’d be happy to engage on if that kind of execution made sense for a franchise of ours. But again, our focus is generally tied to working with partners that can go elevate the IP, that can bring it to consumers in new, unique, innovative ways. If that outcome happens, to your initial question, that’s great. But it’s not core to our strategy because we’re not a developer. We don’t think about it through that lens. If they can leverage our IP in a similar way to Call of Duty, sure, we’re happy to engage on that conversation.

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