Reinvigorated by a US$40-million shot in the arm from Disney Consumer Products, which is keen to build on an 80% video game revenue increase it has posted over the past two years, Buena Vista Games is focused on growing its presence in the handheld market and creating higher-quality games based on ’05 Disney film properties such as Chicken Little and Chronicles of Narnia.
The extra cash should also let BVG break away from the Disney portfolio to work on original game properties, at least two of which are in development for 2006. ‘We’re essentially moving from being a property licensor to a full-range video game publisher,’ says BVG’s senior VP and GM Graham Hopper, adding that this is the main reason why the company split its gaming arm into two units – Disney Interactive and Buena Vista Interactive – in 2003.
‘[Producing original games is] risky, but we have a strong appetite for new IPs,’ he says. ‘We have many divisions to help us create them – from publishing, to TV, to movies and videos/DVDs – and that gives us a leg up and brings down the cost of investment by reducing the risk.’
Despite widening its scope, BVG will still spend much of its time and resources on Disney-branded games, which have traditionally been very lucrative projects. Five million units of Kingdon Hearts, co-produced with Japan’s Square Enix, cycled through retail last year, racking up US$200 million in sales. And TV-based games have also picked up steam lately; Lizzie McGuire, Kim Possible and That’s So Raven Game Boy releases moved more than a million units collectively in 2004. Fanning that momentum, BVG is developing a line of games under the Jetix banner for 2006.
To keep up with the increased workload, Hopper has grown the studio’s staff by roughly 60% over the last year, with a few hundred people now working on game development. In his mind, this beefed-up creative team should help evolve the shop’s output from companion games that simply retell a movie’s story, to titles that form an intrinsic part of a larger storytelling experience. ‘We want to create games that would sell even if they weren’t based on a movie, and that’s not typically how licensed games are treated by other publishers,’ he says.
Story line expansion is also a great way for the company to breathe new life into library films with established cult fanbases. BVG will be bringing the Nightmare Before Christmas property back from the vault this Halloween, with a game that tags along as the movie’s hero, Jack Skellington, sets out to rescue kidnapped holiday icons such as Santa and the Easter Bunny.