- Disney has a long history of trying, and failing, to succeed in the video game business.
- But the past few years have produced a few notable exceptions in 2018’s “Marvel’s Spider-Man” and 2019’s “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.” Both games were rare smash hits for Disney characters.
- Those successes were no accident: They’re part of a years-long plan at Disney to put the company’s most valuable properties into the hands of major game studios it doesn’t own.
- “We want to tap into the power of creatives across the industry,” Sean Shoptaw, senior VP of games and interactive experiences at Disney said during a talk this week in Las Vegas.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
The world’s largest entertainment company doesn’t make its own video games.
Disney – the folks behind “Star Wars,” Mickey Mouse, Disneyland, everything Marvel, ESPN, and hundreds of other iconic characters – instead licenses its incredibly successful properties out to other companies. It still makes mobile games, but Disney’s out of the “big” game business; the stuff most people play on stuff like the PlayStation 4 and PC.
Across the past few years, that approach has seen massive success with two games in particular: 2018’s “Marvel’s Spider-Man” and 2019’s “Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order.”
The former, a PlayStation 4 exclusive game made by Insomniac Games, sold over 13 million copies. The latter, a multiplatform “Star Wars” game with original characters and story, is on track to sell 10 million by March. At approximately $60 apiece, each game is grossing nearly $1 billion in sales thus far.
Notably, neither game was actually made by Disney – a company notorious for keeping a tight rein on creative control.
Instead, the company farmed out work to established game studios: Insomniac for “Spider-Man,” and Respawn Entertainment for “Star Wars.”
“We want to tap into the power of creatives across the industry,” Sean Shoptaw, senior VP of games and interactive experiences at Disney, said during a talk this week in Las Vegas which The Hollywood Reporter attended. He made the call out during DICE 2020, an annual video game industry event where talks are given and awards are handed out.
“I’m here for one specific reason,” Shoptaw said. “To empower you to do really unique things with our [catalog].”
It’s a strategy that Disney established when it outright divested from the production side of the video game business back in 2016. “We feel like we’re better off managing the risk that the business delivers by licensing instead of publishing,” Disney CEO Bob Iger said in the investor call when the news was announced.
He had a good reason for the move: In the span of 10 years, Disney purchased and subsequently closed at least six game studios. Hundreds of employees lost their jobs, and countless games were canceled. It was bad for Disney’s business, and bad for employees’ livelihoods, and bad for Disney fans who wanted good games.
How did the world’s biggest, most successful entertainment company completely fail at gaming? At the time, Business Insider spoke with several former employees who explained what went wrong with Disney’s video game initiative; Disney declined to comment.
One common refrain emerged: Disney knows how to make movies, TV shows, and theme parks. The company also knows how to run media businesses, from ESPN to ABC to Pixar. But when it comes to video games, we were repeatedly told that a lack of institutional knowledge kept the company from ever really investing.
In the years since, Disney has leaned into working with outside studios to produce games based on its properties – the upcoming “Avengers” game, for instance, is being overseen by Square Enix, the maker of “Final Fantasy.” Not only has that approach paid off financially, but it’s also been huge for quality: Both “Spider-Man” and the latest “Star Wars” are critically lauded titles.
From Shoptaw’s sentiments, it sounds like that approach isn’t stopping anytime soon. Better still: It’s been Disney’s first major success with gaming in years.