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Disney’s New Gaming Philosophy Is About Making Developers’ Dreams Come True

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“There was a time, 10, 15 years ago, when we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s make a movie-based game. We know what it is.’ That’s not what we’re doing anymore.”

Luigi Priore has a very clear idea about what a Disney game is – and isn’t – these days. The phrase ‘licensed game’ comes with an in-built wince for players of a certain age, bringing to mind wonky retellings of movie scripts achieved primarily through bargain-bucket action mechanics. The VP of Disney & Pixar Games has a very different idea about what that term means in 2021: “Our fans want new stories about the characters and the worlds [Disney’s created]. They want to play in those worlds. And so that’s what we’re going to deliver.” It turns out, those fans include the very developers making the games.

I’m speaking to Priore – alongside SVP of Walt Disney Games, Sean Shoptaw – at the tail-end of an E3 that’s had Disney repeatedly prove that commitment to new gaming ideas (and developers) for its franchises. We saw the reveal of Ubisoft Massive’s open-world Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, a game that tells a new story, in a new region of the movie’s Pandora setting, made in conjunction with creator James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment. We’ve also seen A Pirate’s Life, the deeply unexpected expansion that brings together Rare’s Sea of Thieves and Pirates of the Caribbean, itself telling a brand new story that bridges both worlds.

These aren’t the beginnings of a project for Disney – they’re more proof of an ongoing one. Earlier this year we learned that the Lucasfilm Games brand had returned, bringing with it an open-world Star Wars game, a brand new Indiana Jones adventure, and the promise of a return to the Lucasfilm (and LucasArts) back catalog. While Disney’s always taken this approach to some extent – Square Enix’s Kingdom Hearts and EA’s Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order are markers of that style – the last few months have seen Disney wholeheartedly commit to the idea. I ask Shoptaw, why now?

“I think the medium has demanded it, frankly,” he replies. “The games medium has demanded that you come with stories that are unique to this medium, and not retellings of things that might exist elsewhere. And so certainly for us on the games leadership side of things, we’ve been really, really focused on doing just that, which is empowering the best game developers and publishers in the world to tell unique stories with our IP. I think we owe that to our consumers. And certainly from a Disney perspective, we feel like that’s going to deliver the highest quality product.”

This idea of empowering “the best” doesn’t necessarily mean just handing projects to “the biggest”. While the early parts of this strategy have involved some of the industry’s most recognisable names, Shoptaw makes sure to tell me that Disney is looking for those who’ll make the best out-and-out games with their franchises, not those who’ll just make the most expensive-looking version of them. Shoptaw tells me that this extends to indie developers – even hinting that there may already be indie projects with Disney properties in the works already.

Star Wars, Predator, Indiana Jones, all of those deals have happened because of the passion that those people have for that particular IP.


It’s also about those who make the best case in the first place, and Disney has plenty of stories about those initial meetings already: we’ve heard previously that Bethesda Games Studio boss and Indiana Jones mega-fan, Todd Howard was personally involved in securing the license to make a new game based on Spielberg’s classic film series; Ubisoft Massive, after an enthusiastic first meeting with Disney about the Avatar game, convinced Shoptaw and his team to let it make a Star Wars game too; and Rare got the Pirates of the Caribbean license because executive producer Joe Neate and creative director Mike Chapman asked for a meeting with Disney and impressed them with a sheer depth of knowledge about the movies. As Priore describes that meeting, “It wasn’t just going to be, ‘Let’s put some skins in the game,’ and that kind of stuff. It was like, ‘No, we want narrative. We want story. We want to create this thing.’ And the more they talked about it, we left the meeting thinking… I knew. I’m like, ‘Wait. Mike doesn’t work at Disney. He sounds like he does.’”

Shoptaw and Priore actively want pitches from developers who think they could do wonders with a Disney property, and have the passion to back it up. “It really is about original storytelling,” says Shoptaw, summing this new philosophy up. “And it really is about working with passionate developers and publishers that want to work with specific IP. All those points you reference with Star Wars, with Predator, with Indiana Jones, all of those deals have happened because of the passion that those people have for that particular IP and those franchises. So it’s certainly easy for us to want to engage and have those conversations when that passion exists – and obviously being a really highly competent developer or publisher helps.”

That philosophy requires openness to new ideas too. While Disney has its own ideas for potential projects – Shoptaw says that Disney was already looking to make an open world Star Wars game before it found Ubisoft Massive, for example – it’s clear that developers’ own ideas are key to how Disney wants to make games now. That means allowing for different kinds of projects. Unlike Disney’s other recent announcements, Sea of Thieves: A Pirate’s Life is a Disney property being built into an existing game, rather than a wholly original production – something which requires a whole other level of thought around how you mesh two different sets of ideas into one cohesive whole.

But rather than a difficulty, Shoptaw and Priore see it more as opportunity to do something truly unusual. “I think this is authentic, creative storytelling, right? This works perfectly,” enthuses Priore. “I mean, obviously there’s a lot of similarities between Pirates of the Caribbean and Sea of Thieves. But even then, there was a lot of foundational stuff from a creative perspective of how we get those characters in here, how it doesn’t break the Sea of Thieves to bring these characters in here, and how it doesn’t break the Pirates of Caribbean stories to bring those characters in there. And so that passion worked out for this specific execution. And I think we’re open to these types of things. What’s the new creative story? What can work?”

Shoptaw follows up: “And I would just add to Luigi’s point, we’re not going to be one-size-fits-all, and say that this is now definitively where we’re going. I think it is about being open. It is about pushing what we can do creatively, what we can do to push the boundaries while still respecting the stories, characters, and IP. But doing those things that I hit on earlier around things that are unique to this medium. And being open-minded and empowering really high quality partners, like Rare, to go do things with the IP that we haven’t done before.”

With the sheer amount that Disney has to work with, from Star Wars, to Marvel, to its own legacy original game series, it’s a truly exciting project to think around. Disney’s not just talking about making these kinds of dream projects happen, it’s actively announcing them (and still has plans to announce more this year). Where a normal developer-publisher relationship can constrain the imagination a little – by way of IP ownership, developer bandwidth, and the like – Disney’s new licensing approach feels truly like it could lead to any number of pie-in-the-sky developer-franchise combos.

We want creative ideas. We want to think about things that maybe haven’t been thought of before. At least ask the question, right?


So I pitch one. What about, once Pirates of the Caribbean is released, Sea of Thieves and Rare take on another famous pirate yarn from Disney’s archives – Monkey Island? It speaks volumes that Shoptaw and Priore don’t react by simply saying “no”, they seem to enjoy the idea. Of course, they don’t go as far as saying it’s happening, or even that it could happen, but they do make clear that the thinking around these kinds of combinations is wide open:

“We don’t want to speak for Rare,” says Shoptaw, “but I will say I’m a huge Monkey Island fan as well. So I like where your imagination has gone. Generally speaking, yeah, look, I think that that’s exactly the point: we want creative ideas. We want to think about things that maybe haven’t been thought of before. At least ask the question, right? We can always say no. But I think asking the question and having exploratory conversations that are all creative-led, that are really about people’s passions and creative ideas to go tell and do things with these stories and characters that have never been done – we’ve got to have the conversation.”

Priore agrees, and points to a huge Disney success story that would also have seemed far-fetched before it became a reality, almost two decades ago: “I’ll reference one of our most successful relationship partnerships and games, Kingdom Hearts. And that’s coming on its 20th anniversary. And Kingdom Hearts III just came out not so long ago. So that partnership is alive and well. And so that’s where you think about, ‘Do we want long-term relationships with these best-in-class partners?’ Yes, we do. And did we talk about pushing the envelope? Yes, we did. So who knows? Like Sean said, we’re willing to hear and talk about those opportunities like that.”

To me, the very fact that these conversations are being entertained at all bodes well for the future of Disney’s games – the best games come from developers who are inspired to make something they love, with few restrictions placed on what they can or can’t be. If Disney helps just a few great developers to make their dream game, it’s a successful philosophy. Especially if it means Monkey Island turns up in Sea of Thieves one day. After all, what is Disney about if not making wishes come true?

Joe Skrebels is IGN’s Executive Editor of News. Follow him on Twitter. Have a tip for us? Want to discuss a possible story? Please send an email to [email protected].

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