With blockbuster movies like Inside Out, the upcoming Captain America: Civil War, and today’s teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Disney Entertainment has maintained its position as one of the biggest and most successful entertainment companies in the world. That success extends into Disney Interactive, which has published the popular toys-to-life game Disney Infinity 3.0 and the recently released TRON RUN/R for PC and consoles. The company has also found tremendous success with licensing, demonstrated by games like Marvel Contest of Champions and others.

Today saw the release of Disney Crossy Road—a game that takes the mobile mega-hit, Crossy Road (which has over 120 million downloads), and gives it a distinct Disney makeover. The game features hundreds of Disney and Pixar characters, all looking to cross busy roads without being run over, set in worlds inspired by Toy Story, Zootopia, Wreck-It Ralph and many more. Developed in partnership with Hipster Whale, Disney Crossy Road is part of a broader strategy to further grow the publisher’s video game presence, particularly on mobile devices.

Chris Heatherly, SVP and GM of Disney Mobile Games, talks to [a]listdaily about how Disney is growing games as a service, and its plans to create an interactive network that covers a multitude of devices, platforms and demographics across the world. If there’s any company that has the brand power to take advantage of mobile gaming’s explosive growth, build-out to a wide variety of cross-media promotions, and create a lifetime’s worth of engagement, it’s Disney.

chris-heatherlyThe Star Wars and Marvel licenses have clearly been big hits for Disney. What opportunities do you see for further growth?

Licensing is very successful for us, but our mobile business is not just focused on licensing. We are also a Top 25 publisher in our own right in Western markets.

Our published mobile network is a huge asset and we have strong plans to grow it. The organic interest in our brands is so strong because people already know our characters and franchises, which makes it a lot easier for us to get them to download our games. If we can keep people in our network over a lifetime, with multiple franchises and games to play, and also give them videos, e-books, and apps, we can cross-promote those users ourselves instead of having to reach them again through marketing.

For example, Marvel: Avengers Alliance was Disney’s most successful Facebook title, so it made sense to extend the storyline and create a new game, Marvel: Avengers Alliance 2, which we launched last week. In this new title, we bridged the storyline from the old game to the new one and also created a custom comic book with Marvel that tells the story behind the game, which deepens the connection between the game and the Marvel Universe.

If you put our licensed and published business together, The Walt Disney Company is globally the #4 brand according to App Annie. While the mobile market may be maturing, it’s still projected to grow strongly over the next 5 years, especially in markets like Asia and Latin America, where Disney has a strong presence. We have great opportunities if we continue to grow with the market, especially if we can bring those users into our network.

What are the challenges of growing a brand as big and well-known as Disney?

We are far from hitting our limitations, and our growth is outpacing the market. Two years ago, we had very few top-grossing hits. Today The Walt Disney Company has ten Top 100 Grossing titles, which is more than any other brand. However, of those, only two are in the Top 20 Grossing in the West, and of course, there’s one massive hit in Asia with Disney Tsum Tsum. With the global cultural strength of our brands, we don’t see any reason we can’t maintain multiple Top 20 titles. And Disney, Marvel, Pixar, Disney Animation, and Lucasfilm are all at the top of their game with a phenomenal film slate over the next few years, so we will have the movies and the marketing reach to do it.


 In what ways has Disney Interactive learned to adapt to the mobile market?

You will hear the same from us that you hear from almost every other successful publisher, which is that a focused strategy of fewer, better titles has been a lot more successful for us than a lot of “shots on goal.” Disney has always been about quality, and we’re proving that when we deliver that quality—not just in gameplay, but storytelling and animation… the things we are known for—that we can have repeatable success.

But we’ve also learned that mobile games, and apps in general, are not products you put in a box and ship. They are live services connected to millions of users over the Internet. If you want to be successful, you have to think both in terms of individual apps and in terms of the network. If you are not using data in smart ways to identify and super-serve your audience, and then build that audience into a self-sustaining network, you will struggle to find success. Or if you do, it won’t last.

 What are some of the long-term goals for Disney Interactive’s mobile business?

Long-term, we’d like to be one of the biggest brands on mobile globally, whether directly through our network or through our partners with licensing, and then grow with the market into new regions as mobile continues to reach more and more people around the world.

We think mobile will be the way most people connect with Disney and its brands, and games will be a big part of that. We also believe that what we currently call “mobile” technology and ecosystems are going to expand beyond smartphones into virtual reality and interactive TV and whatever else comes next. So the expertise and network we are building around “mobile” is really about creating a multi-platform, multi-device, multi-experience, and multi-demographic global interactive network of the future.

How did the partnership to create Disney Crossy Road come together?

They are big fans of Disney. We are big fans of them. We met at GDC and we said, “Hey, let’s do something together.” And that became Disney Crossy Road. The team at Hipster Whale are so great to work with, and have been incredible partners. They saw the value we could bring by publishing the game through our network, even though in their own right, they have one of the biggest games in the world.

We are pushing Disney Crossy Road not just with our mobile network, but with our online video network through Maker Studios, who have brought incredible YouTube talent to the table like The Diamond Minecart. We are also making a series of interactive short animations to go along with the new franchise. This is a multi-pronged push on our part to get Disney Crossy Road out there, both as a game and as entertainment.

With games like Disney Infinity, Ducktales Remastered and Castle of Illusion, do you think there will be a lot of overlap between PC, console, and mobile games in the future?

The PC and console platforms have a lot more in common than either have with mobile. Mobile is a different type of device, used in a different way, and we think that game brands may cross over—you may have a mobile version and a PC/console version of a game—but they will be different games for the most part. What all these platforms have in common is the long-term trend towards digitally-delivered, live-operated games-as-a-service.

This is already the reality on PC and mobile, and console will get there soon. But we think there is strong potential for TV gaming to get disrupted, probably not replacing traditional consoles, but creating a new explosion of casual gaming and games that appeal to non-“core gamers” on the TV. And of course, VR will be a theme as well. The user experiences will be different by device, but the skillsets and how you operate the games is going to converge, and the successful ones will all be live-operated games with strong communities.

 Will Disney Interactive be experimenting more with VR, since Jakku Spy launched last fall for the Star Wars app?

Yes, you can count on it. It’s worth noting that Disney has funded and partnered on a lot of the pioneering work around VR for the last 20 years. Everyone else is just getting into this space. Disney has been doing it for decades.

How will Disney games stand out in the increasingly crowded mobile games industry?

We’re not worried about standing out. The maturing of the market is good from our perspective. You will see fewer venture-backed companies who can spend gobs of money unprofitably to grow topline. The focus has already shifted to running mobile as a real business. That’s a market in which Disney can strongly compete and our brands have never been stronger.