In terms of limiting its costs and maximising its returns, Disney’s decision to call a halt on all internal game development in 2016 was a sensible one.
With companies ranging from EA, Netmarble, Kabam, Rovio, Konami, Jam City and Warners already competing with each other to make a success of mobile games based on iconic Star Wars and Marvel IP, Disney doesn’t have to pick winners.
All it has to do is decide if it wants to accept a licensing proposal and then sit back and wait for the royalties to come rolling in.
In that context, the announcement it’s now actively working with four developers to release new mobile games is a surprise.
Even more surprising is Disney’s choice of developers.
With all due respect, Gameloft, Glu Mobile, Ludia and PerBlue wouldn’t be many people’s first draft picks. But there is some sort of logic behind Disney decisions.
The first thing to point out is we don’t know what “Disney franchises” these developers are working on. But given the success of Disney’s existing licensing model, it seems unlikely to be Star Wars and Marvel games.
Instead, this decision only makes sense if these are licences Disney needs to support for some reason with mobile games, and hence has actively reached out to find developers for.
Hence we need to look at each company’s expertise in turn to see why a partnership with Disney would make sense.
Gameloft is the most obvious. Now owned by Vivendi, it’s been struggling with its external IP over recent years. In 2017, high hopes for its games such as Iron Blade, Gangstar: New Orleans and Modern Combat Versus weren’t fulfilled.
In fact, in recent years, its most successful games include licensed titles such as Minion Rush, Paddington Run and - yes - Disney Magic Kingdoms. Revisiting that game seems like an obvious step for both parties.
For each of the four developers involved this is a massive opportunity.
The situation with Ludia isn’t as clear cut in terms of an existing specific title, but the Canadian mobile developer only works on licensed products.
Its current portfolio includes the likes of Battlestar Galactica: Squadrons, Family Feud & Friends (a Disney licence through ABC) and Ninja Turtles: Legends, so the game could be almost anything from Disney’s IP treasure chest including forthcoming titles such as Pixar's Incredibles 2.
The smallest of the four companies Disney is working with is US developer PerBlue. Originally a location-based developer, it’s since focused on mobile strategy games and RPGs with its title DragonSoul acquired by Japanese publisher GREE in 2016. This deal seems likely to be the most midcore of the four.
Disney’s most new interesting partner, however, is Glu Mobile.
Well known for games ranging from Kim Kardashian: Hollywood to Cooking Dash, Tap Sports Baseball and Deer Hunter, its turnaround is being fuelled mainly by interior decoration app Design Home and in part by Covet Fashion.
On that basis, it’s tempting to speculate Glu Mobile’s current expertise in casual mobile games for a female audience based around a makeover or fashion reality show is the thing that appeals to Disney.
Still, given Glu’s also planning to release a WWE game in 2018, it’s perhaps best not to try to be too clever when it comes to such predictions.
To be confirmed
Indeed, the sheer lack of information from Disney means at this stage the ‘unknown unknowns’ far exceed the ‘knowns unknowns’.
For example, as happened with similar deals for Disney Crossy Road and Temple Run: Brave, will Disney publish these games itself?
That seems unlikely, although in recent years Disney has worked closely with Spanish outfit Genera Mobile, which has quietly developed the likes of Frozen Free Fall, Maleficent Free Fall and Star Wars: Puzzle Droids, which Disney has published itself.
One thing that is clear, however, is that for each of the four developers involved this is a massive opportunity. What’s harder to see is how much of an opportunity it will turn out to be for Disney.