The gaming arm of Disney has added some substantial muscle.
Alex Seropian, the founder of Bungie Software and co-creator of the "Halo" franchise has joined the company to oversee creative development across Disney’s in-house video game development teams.
"We're really trying to be a magnet in this industry for talent, as we are in so many other parts of the entertainment world," says Graham Hopper, executive vice president and general manager of Disney Interactive Studios. "Having someone of Alex's caliber join us is a tribute to the great people we have here already."
Disney is in the midst of tripling its investment in video games. The studio has 1,200 employees working on games, which is notably bigger than Microsoft's internal game-building team.
As a publisher, though, the company has been firmly stuck in a mid-level position, lacking a breakout hit beyond the studio's core products (such as "Hannah Montana," which come with a built-in audience).
The addition of Seropian (as well as 2007's recruitment of industry veteran Warren Spector) helps put Disney on the radar of core gamers, which could help it expand its gaming interests.
"We want to be bigger than what we are today – a lot bigger than what we are today," says Hopper. "We don't have the ambition of trying to unseat the top players in the industry, because we don't have the market share goal. What we want to do is build up and introduce new [properties] to the game industry - and to Disney - and expose the company in a new way to consumers."
As part of the agreement, Disney Interactive Studios has also acquired Wideload Games, the development house Seropian founded after leaving Bungie. The companies declined to disclose the purchase price.
Seropian, whose role Hopper compares to a coach, will work with Disney's game makers to improve their products and redefine how the company makes games. When he founded Wideload, he introduced a new system of game making, using contract employees to build upon ideas envisioned by his small team of core designers.
Those firms were paid for their contribution to a project rather than their time, reducing Wideload’s financial exposure.
While the model will likely be slightly different at Disney Interactive
(a division of Disney Interactive Media Group, which the company breaks out separately in its earnings report), Seropian says he remains committed to breaking the status quo.
"For me, it's about 'what do I want to do?'," he says. "I have some very specific goals for myself – redefining what the video game business is. And I did that with Wideload. [Disney and I] had this conversation about how can we take that kind of thinking and make it bigger."
Beyond changing how the company works on new products, he'll also be helping teams boost the fun factor of titles they're working on – much like Bing Gordon, former chief creative officer at Electronic Arts, used to do.
His chief goal, he says, will be making games that appeal to both the core gamer and the recent influx of casual players. It's a common ambition in the industry, but there aren't a lot of titles that have successfully achieved it. Seropian, though, thinks Disney is well positioned to find the secret sauce.
"Look at Pixar," he says. "They are successfully making films that appeal to both families and film nerds – and that opportunity exists in games."
Seropian's name isn't as well known as some other game developers, but he does have a strong pedigree.
In 1991, he founded Bungie Studios. In 2000, he orchestrated the company's purchase by Microsoft. The next year, Bungie released "Halo" – which went on to sell more than 4 million copies and is largely responsible for the Xbox's early success. And in 2002, Seropian left Bungie, just as "Halo 2" was coming to market.
Wideload hasn't come close to recreating Bungie's success – and its games haven't exactly been critical darlings – but the business model has remained an interesting one. The company is currently working on a title for Disney that's expected to be released in 2010.
It's too soon to say if Seropian will have any say on upcoming games based in the Marvel comic universe. Disney officials say that since the deal has not yet closed, and since Marvel currently has long-term deals with other publishers, there's nothing they can speak to on the matter.
It's a safe bet, though, that he won't be spending the bulk of his time focusing on the new Hannah Montana or Jonas Bros. title. To do so wouldn't attract new development traffic to Disney – and that's, in large part, what recruiting Seropian is about.
"It really is about building a team that can win," says Hopper. "We want to be sure we have a creative environment where the best game makers in the industry are comfortable working – and where they want to work."