After helming Disney’s mobile game strategy as senior vice president and general manager for 14 years, Chris Heatherly left the company in 2016 to oversee NBCUniversal’s worldwide games and digital platforms division.
Since beginning in the role, Heatherly has helped build a team of around 70 people with decades of games development experience. For the time being mobile has become the focus for Universal's gaming ambitions, with two-thirds of the firm’s slate aimed at the platform.
With numerous big-name licenses from the likes of Fast & Furious to Jurassic World at his disposal, creating solid, original experiences that utilise the latest technology are exactly what the former Disney VP was brought in to manage.
We spoke with Chris Heatherly about his new role, Universal’s mobile strategy and how using a variety of known licenses was key for its latest release, Series: Your Story Universe.
Heatherly will be a speaker at Pocket Gamer Connects Seattle on May 13th and 14th.
PocketGamer.Biz: What’s been your biggest challenge since starting at Universal in 2016?
Chris Heatherly: Building a team and a slate from scratch is hard work. Gaming is competitive right now because the industry is on fire, so recruiting always takes longer and is harder than you want. Finding the right culture fit is important. We want people that are very collaborative, but also that can give our partners the right amount of creative freedom.
We make all our games with external studios and you have to be respectful of their autonomy and ownership of the game, while giving them the guidance and oversight that’s required to deliver success. It’s a fine balance and launching an all-new slate inherently means you are going to have hits and misses.
I wanted to focus on getting good at publishing first and then look at acquiring studios as a second step. We don’t have a burning need to buy studios.Chris Heatherly
That is why we decided to start with mobile because we can just get more shots on goal than we can with big console titles.
The good news is that this is something Universal understands because the movie business is hit-driven as well. Universal has a slate strategy that manages risk across the portfolio, so it’s very analogous and the broader company understands it.
Has Universal ever considered an internal studio as opposed to licensing properties?
We still license selectively but in point of fact we are doing a lot less licensing these days. Most of our games now are either co-financed or entirely financed by us, and we are very active creative and publishing partners throughout the process.
We work with third-party studios in part because other entertainment companies who have tried to go into games have bought too many studios too soon and really been burned.
I wanted to focus on getting good at publishing first and then look at acquiring studios as a second step. We don’t have a burning need to buy studios. We like the flexibility that third-party partnerships provide.
We would only buy something if we thought there was a long-term need and the studio provided a really specialised expertise, something proprietary and differentiated.
How does Universal choose its development partners and what's the process for bringing together a game concept?
We look for partners who love our IP and want to partner with us. Licensees that view us just as a user acquisition arbitrage won’t result in a great game. We want developers that have a passion and a vision for the game itself. We look for a track record of success.
If you haven’t made a successful game before, you probably aren’t ready to make a game with us. We look for someone who wants to partner, we like to give our developers as much creative ownership as we can, but because we have other creators (like the filmmakers), we need to respect the process.
How do you work with studios on these games and how autonomous are they?
Sometimes we generate a concept and prototype in-house. We have a creative and design team that’s very talented. So sometimes we are shopping a concept we’ve already fleshed out a little.
Other times the developer comes to us with a passion for a specific IP. We meet with literally dozens of developers a year and just try to feel out their sensibilities in order to see if we have a project we can match them with.
If you haven’t made a successful game before, you probably aren’t ready to make a game with us.Chris Heatherly
We generally do a prototype phase, and if everyone likes the prototype, we move ahead. It’s very important to have a strong vision for the game that they prove out in software.
A lot of projects go off the rails when the game vision isn’t clear, when people have different pictures in their heads of what the game is going to be, or when it’s trying to be too many things.
The developer needs to have that clarity because you can’t have it for them, but we do a lot of brainstorming together. If a developer is strong in one area but weaker in another, we can shore them up. It’s a very collaborative process.
Of course, I would love to sit back and just have the game “happen,” but that’s rarely the case. We get the filmmakers involved and they often have input since they know the property best.
Our filmmakers understand games and they respect the creativity and the latitude you need to make a great game. We’re very fortunate in that way and I can’t say that of every studio.
Could you tell us about your most recent game?
We’ve just global launched Series: Your Story Universe, which is an interactive storytelling game for mobile.
It’s more than a game, but a platform for interactive stories including original content inspired by Saved by the Bell, the world of Law & Order, Vanderpump Rules, Bridesmaids and others.
And we will be introducing more IP, as well as our own original stories to the platform over time.
We have a lot of IP that can work well in this format that may not make a good puzzle or RPG game, for example. I’ve always loved finding ways to expand the reach of the medium.
What is Universal’s strategy for mobile games going forward?
We’ll be doing four to five mobile titles a year in different genres. Interactive storytelling is clearly a focus. We also have some strong titles in the puzzle space coming that I think will bring something new.
We announced that we’re publishing Payday: Crime War on mobile in partnership with Starbreeze.
We’re doing some very creative things but also looking at licensing other IP. We want to build our group into a top mobile publisher.Chris Heatherly
We’re doing some very creative things but also looking at licensing other IP. We want to build our group into a top mobile publisher. We don’t want to be a movie games company; we want to be a games company inside of one of the biggest entertainment companies in the world.
How do you think the industry will shift with new ventures like Apple Arcade?
There are only a few details out there on Apple Arcade, so I think it’s too early to tell how it will work and how it will change the industry. More broadly, I think things like game streaming or subscription services are going to be the next big phase of growth for games.
With streaming, you are going to see a lot of the friction of playing games - like downloading and starting the game - go to zero. Currently, a big console game can take 12 hours or more to download. How many games are you willing to do that for? You’ll play a lot more games when they are instant. Think about the difference between iTunes 10 years ago and Netflix today, that’s how massive the shift is going to be, and subscription removes the payment friction.
With game streaming, I can see something I’m interested in and I can just play it. I think it’s going to lead to a lot more games and a lot of smaller games breaking through.
The idea that every game has to be 100 hours long or a game-as-a-service is ridiculous. Look at YouTube, where there are one-minute videos all the way to two-to-three hours interviews. And there’s demand for all of it.
Free-to-play and games-as-a-service, as well as the triple-A model, have been really constraining for creatives for a long time - only certain types of games work for those models and only a small number of companies have the capital and willingness to make those games.
I think we are going to see a creative revolution like we’ve seen with video streaming models such as Netflix.