Six years ago, Disney announced it was shutting down its games publishing and development arms, seemingly exiting games for good.
Today, with a showcase stuffed with Disney and Marvel licensed titles, it’s like it never left.
Alongside new trailers and updates for known games like Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Disney Dreamlight Valley, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, Marvel Snap, and Disney Speedstorm, we just saw brand new reveals of games including Tron Identity from Bithell Games, Disney Illusion Island from Dlala, and Amy Hennig’s mysterious project with Skydance Media: a Captain America and Black Panther game set in World War II. Disney-loving gamers are eating well today.
But if you told any of us back in 2016 that this smorgasbord of Disney games was on the horizon, we might not have believed you. That year, Disney not only shuttered its massive toys-to-life franchise Disney Infinity, but it also announced it would be shutting down internal development studio Avalanche and leaving self-publishing for good, transitioning exclusively to a licensing model.
At the time, most people interpreted this as Disney essentially throwing in the towel on games in general. It’s understandable, as at the time Disney’s game output had almost entirely tapered off following the heyday of Disney Afternoon Collection titles and every animated film getting a licensed game. Most of its library in 2016 consisted of mobile games like Disney Emoji Blitz or Disney Crossy Road. Aside from its long-standing relationship with Square Enix for Kingdom Hearts, it looked like big, blockbuster Disney games might be done for good.
But now in 2022, it seems that was never the case. It certainly was never the plan for Disney VP of Disney, Pixar, and 20th Century Games Luigi Priore, who’s been with the company working in the games space for 27 years now. According to Priore, the relative drought of games until the last few years, followed by the sudden explosion of releases, is all part of a strategy that began back in 2016 when the company ditched games publishing. The fruits simply weren’t visible until now.
We wanted to get out of publishing. We weren’t successful in it. We had great studios that were making great content, but it just wasn’t working.
“Before 2016, this was the plan,” he says. “We wanted to get out of publishing. We weren’t successful in it. We had great studios that were making great content, but it just wasn’t working. So we got out of publishing, we figured our strategy was to go and do more licensed products, and the best part about that strategy is it allows us to work with the best out there.”
Priore goes on to say that it was “really hard” for Disney to have its own internal studios. But working with partners not only is a more reasonable prospect for the content giant, but also allows them to produce games with a broader array of genres and scopes – everything from racing games to Animal Crossing-likes, and everything from small indie endeavors up to massive AAA.
That range was on display during today’s presentation, and Priore says he’s seeing a lot of individuals, teams, and companies approaching Disney with passion projects for Disney properties they’ve loved for a long time. Often, he says, they’ve been harboring Disney dream game ideas for years.
Once those ideas are greenlit, Disney appears to be taking a fairly middle-of-the-road approach in terms of how hands-on it is with the studios. It’s not micromanaging its properties, Priore says; there are no “hard and fast rules” on what partners can do with Disney properties, nor is Disney doing a lot of dictating what it wants others to make. For instance, right now, there aren’t a whole lot of standalone games based on Pixar properties, but that’s not because Disney isn’t open to it. Priore says if they have a partner show up with a good idea for, say, Toy Story, Disney would do it. “We’re up for that, it just has to be the right opportunity.”
But it is getting involved. For instance, in 2017 when Disney acquired 20th Century Fox, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora was already in development. “We were observers at first,” Priore says, “then we started helping out all we can.”
This showcase is a culmination of where we started at the end of the aughts to where we are now.
“We get to work with them and the filmmakers at Lightstorm. Jon Landau is very involved, the producer of the film. It’s super exciting to have that creative mind who works on these films to work on these video games as well.”
Priore goes on to say that this philosophy is generally true for Disney IP where the original creators of the film or TV show are available to help work on a game adaptation. “Every studio in the Walt Disney Company gets involved with the content they create,” he says. “We want it to be as authentic as possible.”
This, then, is Disney’s current and long-term strategy around games: it’s all-in on licensing. When I ask if we're likely to see Disney revive its internal studios or publishing arms, Priore dismisses the question (and Disney did not respond to a follow-up request in time for publication). But we’re likely to see many, many more adaptations of Disney properties into the gaming space in the near future.
“The whole idea is not the amount of things we do, but how important each thing is,” Priore says. “This showcase is a culmination of where we started at the end of the aughts to where we are now. You said 2016, 2017, think about it: it takes three to five years to make games. We’re now hitting those first games. We have those things to announce from a Disney/Pixar/20th Century perspective to put out now. So yes, you can expect us to grow, do more and hopefully have even more products that immerse you into Disney worlds.”
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.