Let’s face it, when it comes to mainstream media, Disney is a beast. Disney’s license strategy with the acquisition of Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm, and now 20th Century Fox, has given the Mouse a veritable treasure trove of licenses. That’s not to mention the core Disney-centric characters and films. Disney dominates the global Cinema Box Office and, in a year of lockdowns, the streaming service Disney+ has leapt out of the gate.
There is one media outlet, however, that the House of Mouse has really struggled to dominate. That’s right, it’s video games!
No Longer Its Own Publisher
Disney, like its main competitor, Warner Bros, originally kept a lot of game development under its own Publisher banner; Disney Interactive Studios, Inc. This division had been under a fair different titles but had been the consistent name since 2007. Disney Interactive Studios had a set of first-party developers, as well as licensed content that it managed. It had its own product lines, such as the Toys-to-Life Disney Infinite franchise.
Mainly though, the studios worked on major Disney tie-ins. It led to a set of games of dubious quality, often designed to cash in on the hype for a new release.
In the end, this was a disaster. As a result, Disney Interactive shuttered completely back in 2016. Which is ironic as at this time other media divisions of Disney were hitting the stratosphere.
Game development was/is hard. And, it has been suggested that Disney could never quite agree on any one strategy for the division, continually killing titles (and with it, studios). Disney was [and, arguably, still is] risk-averse, only working on what it felt would be “safe” releases to support its army of brands.
Successes were few and far between. Disney Infinite sold well, but the toys/games combo was already on the decline in the market. Disney saw the writing on the wall.
Instead, CEO Bob Iger announced the intention was to better manage the risk ‘that the business delivers by licensing instead of publishing’. This meant that yes, games would be released, but no longer published by Disney itself.
There were still some awkward hangovers from this era though. EA had signed an exclusivity deal for Star Wars games in 2013 which was binding at the time.
Fast forward to 2021 though, and we are seeing Disney finally start to realise this strategy.
Movie Licenses No Longer Work…
When it comes to AAA development, the traditional licensing model has become outdated and doesn’t work with the demands of the industry. From the start of home gaming, all the way through to the early and mid-Noughties, licensed games were often made to tie into a movie release. Remember when a film would release and on the same day you would see tie-in games on the shelves for all current platforms? Sure, they were often not very good, but they were there to cash in on any and all hype.
That is now practically impossible. For a new game start, from pre-production through to delivery, you are often looking at a minimum of three years. This can be even longer, depending on budget and resources.
Most large movies are turned around in two years or less. Marvel announced its “Phase 3” line-up in 2014, and by 2019, had released 11 blockbuster movies. Some of them even sequels to themselves.
In terms of games, even yearly franchises, such as Call Of Duty, rely on several really large studios rotating the license every few years to different dev teams. At the same time, the dominance of Disney and its licenses means audiences are familiar with large franchises. We don’t necessarily need a Marvel or Star Wars game to tie into a particular release. It is enough that it IS a Marvel game to get brand recognition.
Disney’s License Strategy – You Get a Game and You Get Game.
With the announcement that Lucasfilm as a division to manage games, it cements Disney’s license strategy of the past few years. Instead of doing long term deals with licenses, it now focuses on giving individual licenses to developers. Disney cares little for who is doing them, only the pitch.
The early model has been the wildly successful LEGO games. There are numerous titles that are Disney licensed, such as Star Wars or Marvel. Interestingly, these are developed and published by a major competitor of Disney, Warner Bros. Interactive.
In 2018, Sony released Marvel’s Spider-Man, a critical and commercial success. At the time, many assumed that it was because Sony still held the web-head’s film rights. They do, yes, but they don’t own the game rights. They still sit with Marvel, and therefore, Disney.
Instead, a deal was done for Sony to bring out a licensed game. A game, interestingly, that was a platform exclusive (more on that below).
Not Afraid of Platform Exclusives
Two years later, Square Enix released Marvel’s The Avengers, Square’s own licensed game featuring more of Marvel’s iconic characters. That game featured Tony Stark, AKA Iron-Man, a character who would also get their OWN exclusive in 2020’s Iron-Man VR. Iron-Man would also turn up in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 – this time, a Nintendo Switch exclusive.
With Lucasfilm Games now an entity [again], it has licensed out a Star Wars license to Ubisoft for a large open-world game. With a release date of (at least) 2023, this conveniently gets around the current exclusivity deal with EA.
In turn, EA is not out of the Star Wars loop entirely. It will still be able to negotiate its own titles, as rumours to a sequel of Jedi: Fallen Order start to gain traction.
Coupled with this, a new Indiana Jones game is in development at Bethesda, now owned by Microsoft. It seems possible (some may even say probable), that this newly licensed game might be a Microsoft exclusive.
What it shows is that the days of exclusivity with Disney properties are now at an end. Games can be pitched at Disney, and licenses awarded. This is the same for other franchise licences; Games Workshop, for example, allows licensing of its brands to a multitude of developers. With mixed results, it must be said.
The Disney one though is unique due to the volume of franchises it owns. You could see a franchise or character released across different platforms by different publishers. They may even be platform exclusive.
Is Disney’s License Strategy Good for Gamers?
Is this good news for gamers? Possibly. No longer will a fan favourite Disney franchise be held by any single company that has little interest in producing said content [cough-EA-cough].
At the same time, it’ll need to be involved in some sort of quality control to avoid licenses being worn out in quick cash grabs. As Square’s Avengers game proved, expensive does not equal quality. As publishers yearn for more brand recognition, we may see more and more of these licensed deals. I, for one, cannot WAIT for a Frozen-themed Battle Royale title.
What do you think about how Lucasfilm Games demonstrates Disney’s new game strategy? Looking forward to more Star Wars and/or Marvel games? Wish they would finally make that Daredevil game based off the Netflix series that we pitched four years ago?! Sound off in the comments below. And remember, the Mouse always wins!
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