The Walt Disney Company, mobile games
Bart Decrem has just flown into London from Beijing and is so jet-lagged, he can barely remember the password on his netbook. He’s running late, desperate for a half-hour lunch break as he prepares to address The Walt Disney Company at its plush headquarters on a glorified traffic roundabout in Hammersmith. As a result, his time with CNBC Business is being cut in half. Which is fine, strangely enough, because as well as being passionate and lucid, he’s also a very fast talker.
The term ‘whizz kid’ could almost have been invented for the 44-year-old Belgian, who speaks Mandarin, Korean and six other languages. He’s like a wiry, carrot-topped computer prodigy from one of the studio’s dimly remembered mid-80s feature films, suddenly all grown up and overjoyed to find that he’s senior vice president of Disney Mobile. When he talks, in a Flemish accent littered with Silicon Valley inflections, his clichés about the magic of Hollywood sound utterly sincere. Here is a man, you think, whose dreams really have come true: a geek who’s inherited the earth.
Today Decrem is keen to talk about Swampy, an animated alligator that, if Disney has its way, will be this century’s Mickey Mouse. This loveable, hygiene-conscious reptile is the star of Where’s My Water?, an annoyingly addictive game that has caught on across the globe. Soon we’ll be seeing vignettes on YouTube about Swampy and his fellow sewer-dwellers, Cranky (“who messes with the pipes”) and Ally (“a love interest, but they’re not quite dating, you know?”). After that, the bandwagon could conceivably lead anywhere, the big screen included. “Maybe if we’re lucky,” Decrem told his team when the game launched last September, “one day when we’re old we can go to Disneyland and see a character we created.”
Until a few years ago, the iconic coming-home-from-school scenario involved children switching on the TV. “Now it’s ‘I jump into the car with mom or dad, I grab the phone and I start playing games’. For a new generation of what we call guests, this is the first screen,” says Decrem, stroking his iPhone affectionately and observing that there are 550 million smartphones in the world. “I just came from China today. People over there don’t have a computer, by and large. This is their computer. So, how do we tell stories for this new era, for these new markets, for this new platform and for this new generation of kids?”
It’s a question that, one way or another, the Stanford law graduate has been trying to answer since 2008, when he founded the games developer Tapulous after a decade working on tech start-ups. Back when the iPhone was something of a novelty, his music game Tap Tap Revenge was one of the first to reach the top of Apple’s App Store chart. Decrem had assured his investors that Tapulous would get a million downloads in 18 months; in the event, it did so in about three weeks. As Jack Kent, a senior analyst at Screen Digest, explains: “While lots of companies could get huge amounts of downloads, Tapulous had a very good ability to monetise its audience, first through paid downloads, then by offering in-app purchases so people could buy additional content.” Disney took notice and bought the company in July 2010.
As a result, properties such as Minnie Mouse and Tron have gone down the mobile games route – but it’s Swampy who’s getting all the attention. He wasn’t the first original character on the iPhone, of course: the real trailblazer was Angry Birds , a pop-culture phenomenon from Finnish studio Rovio that has notched up an astonishing 700 million downloads. “It’s great,” concedes Decrem, “but at Disney I feel that we can build deeper, more interesting, richer characters. That’s what we’re best at. It’s our mission.”
With a six-person team, Decrem developed Where’s My Water? – a game he describes as “a physics puzzle”– in the space of six months. Deep beneath the city streets, Swampy sits in a bathtub, waiting for a player at ground level to funnel water his way. “But if it touches grass, the water makes the grass grow [and misses Swampy]. That’s one of the laws of physics, right?” Throw in a protagonist who smiles when you tickle him and growls when you overdo it, problems involving angles of descent, the idea that dirty water is poisonous and kills grass, DVD-style Easter eggs and 200 skills levels (encompassing everyone from five-year-olds to PhD physicists), and you have the makings of a runaway success.
Within a day of its release, the original 99c version of Where’s My Water? (there’s now a free one too) was the most popular paid app on the US App Store, beating Angry Birds into second place. In its first month, it was downloaded more than a million times and stayed at the top of the chart for three weeks. Since then, for one day at least, it has been the number-one app in 79 countries and the number-one game in 97. “It’s quite a compelling game and Disney really marketed it well,” says Kent. “They got a huge amount of buzz as it launched and, once you’re at the top of the iTunes or the Android market charts, it’s very easy to stay there because of the amount of eyeballs you get.”
Decrem, on the other hand, views building a successful game as more of a science. “Apps are consumable,” he says. “There’s about half a million. You play an app, you get rid of it and you get the next one. In a way, they’re like YouTube clips. Now, imagine if you’re Steven Spielberg and you’ve built this beautiful new movie that you’ve spent 10 years working on. It comes out on YouTube but the same day there’s this cool little video of a hamster doing something funny, and it’s bigger than your movie. That’s the App Store. It’s maddening and very challenging, but it’s amazing and awesome because it’s kind of a level playing field and anything can happen.”
Warming to his theme, he talks about combining “beautiful, magical” experiences with smartphone-enabled social transactions and bite-sized, stackable content. “We live in an ADD era. You’re on the go, you’re waiting for a meeting that starts late, you’re on the bus, whatever – you want 30 seconds or 60 seconds or entertainment. With Tap Tap Revenge, I used to have three-minute levels, full song. But increasingly I’m focusing on the 90-second version of a song because three minutes is a big commitment. That’s the nature of the culture we live in.”
The abundance of apps makes the ‘free or 99c’ model essential, he says. “You also have to focus on building a network. What I mean by that is the technology building blocks, literally: the computers that tie everything together.” Beyond that, there’s the brand. “In a world of infinite options you need things that are trustworthy and reliable and so a lot of these are offline brands from before. What I’m doing at Disney is essentially saying: ‘Look, this is a new canvas, it’s a magical device, let’s bring the magic of Disney to these devices.’ Sometimes it means bringing existing Disney characters to the smartphone, but that’s the old way. ‘Oh, there’s a movie coming out, let’s make a game.’ I’m trying to do less of those opportunistic or event-driven things.
“One of the reasons that a lot of these traditional games end up not successful over the long term is that they start with a character and then try to fit a game to it. What happened in the case of Where’s My Water? is that we thought about the core mechanic first. The team had this great idea of digging. There’s soil, I can dig through it, then water will come down and I can move it. We said: ‘OK, that’s really fun. Why are you digging? What are you looking for?’ So we did a bunch of brainstorms, like: ‘Oh, they’re seeds and they’re growing.’ We kept talking, and we would hang around with people from the Disney animation studios. Then one day, somebody said: ‘You know, there’s an alligator living in the sewer and he wants to take a shower.’”
In March, the App Store announced its 25 billionth download after a young woman in China acquired the free version of Where’s My Water? “Yesterday I went to the Apple store in Sanlitun, Beijing, and every employee had the game on their phone,” grins Decrem. “They were using it to demo the thing.” With this kind of momentum behind him, his overriding ambition in the next year or two is to reach a billion people “by creating these new characters that are magical and aspirational: the fairies or the princesses or the superheroes that are part of the Disney family”.
He’s certainly in the right line of work for this. “Mobile games in general are going to see a huge amount of growth,” says Screen Digest’s Kent, “and in terms of its overall concept proposition, Disney wants to have content across every single device and every single platform. Mobile isn’t an area it can afford to ignore. All of the big studios now offer some form of mobile games, although they haven’t launched a mobile-specific game that’s seen the kind of success that Disney has. They’re all looking at it, though. As well as generating revenues from selling games, or selling advertising around the games, they see it as a way to enhance or promote their other content.”
“You want to push the thing aggressively,” says Decrem, getting back to Where’s My Water? “When you have a hit you really want to build on it, right? But it needs time to find its place. There’s a pacing to these things that you can only force so much. The team has always been sensitive about never wanting to diminish the quality. We are working on some merchandise. We have announced a partnership with YouTube. We’re doing quite a lot of local initiatives, starting with the name of the characters in markets like China and Europe. Mostly the focus has been on adding more levels, and then slowly creating merchandise and supporting content. Getting the thing out there but not doing it so fast that the world doesn’t care and isn’t ready for it.”
Did he go into the project envisaging Swampy: The Movie in five years’ time? “No,” he maintains. “That’s kind of arrogant. We’re at The Walt Disney Company and you have to prove yourself. The market has to certify that a new character is worthy of that kind of investment.” A platform like the iPhone offers creative teams a chance to launch their projects quickly and inexpensively, he says. “Six people for half a year – that’s an experiment. If it takes off, you can then double, triple or greatly expand the team.”
With its money and manpower – not to mention an historic reputation for innovation stretching back to 1928 and the first cartoon talkie, Steamboat Willie – Disney appears well placed to meet the challenge laid down by Rovio. As Kent points out, there’s been much talk of Angry Birds films, TV shows and soft toys. “Disney saw what Rovio was doing there and realised that it had already got expertise across those areas. From previous experience it’ll be very difficult to do, but if anyone can do it, it’s Disney.”
Meanwhile, Decrem’s aspirations keep on growing. “We’re getting better at creating characters and telling stories,” he says. “Half of my team has been at Disney for a decade so they have that in their DNA. The other half is like me, brand new to Disney. But I’m learning.”
Tired and hungry as the interview draws to a close, he asks the PR if he can remain in the meeting room for lunch. Ironically, he looks like he needs a drink of water.