Last week, Disney Online merged multiple online divisions into a single entity now called Disney Online Studios. I had a chance to talk to the Senior Vice President in charge of it all, Steve Parkis, about the vision for one of the world's most recognizable brands as it tackles the fast-rising casual online gameplay market.
Before now, Disney's online efforts spanned over many different areas: developing Flash based casual games; acquiring the online community, Club Penguin; and building the successful family-oriented MMORPGs ToonTown Online and Pirates of the Caribbean Online. Steve's mission is to bring all of those together to make Disney.com a dedicated casual games destination.
He believes that casual players are more than just Women 35+ and that there is a large, untapped market of players that Disney's brand can draw in. But how does he plan to do that?
Steve identified four key strengths of the Disney brand that appeal to gamers: strong storytelling, immersive experiences, quality entertainment and safety. That last one is a key ingredient to bringing families to the table. Having already established themselves as kid-friendly online, they are now directly appealing young girls with the upcoming Pixie Hollow, an MMORPG extension of their Disney Fairies site and young boys with next year's Cars online game based on the Pixar movie.
On the subject of virtual worlds, Steve sees them as a chance to expand upon the storytelling of the franchise they are based on. A good example is the teen and young adult oriented Pirates of the Caribean Online. For moviegoers, the story ended after the third film, but now online gamers can explore Jack Sparrow's world and experience new stories surrounding its inhabitants.
I asked him about plans to develop games based on original material. He told me that they are interested in doing that down the line as long as that material is best told in the non-linear storytelling style of games. Until then, he has quite a library of Disney franchises to explore as well as Pixar's well regarded titles.
When I questioned him about launch dates of Pixie Hollow and Cars online, I was surprised to hear they are taking Blizzard's "when it's ready" line. This is the stance they took when PotCO launched later than the last movie premiere date and they continue to hold to it for their upcoming titles. Truth be told, it's preferably to the days when online game companies put out product on the announced date regardless of whether or not it was ready.
At this point, you're probably asking yourself why should hardcore gamers playing World of Warcraft/Lord of the Rings Online/etc. care? Because we're having children of our own and we want to share our passion for gaming with them. I have two young children that I would like to introduce to games. We already play board games and Wii, but one day I would like them to share my long-standing passion for MMORPGs. I don't feel comfortable doing that with WoW or LotRO until they are much older. Disney's casual-friendly, family oriented strategy is very appealing to me as a parent who is also an avid gamer.
Disney Online has competition in the form of other established free-to-play casual online games such as Maple Story, Habbo Hotel and Sony Online Entertainment's upcoming Free Realms, as well as Cartoon Network's foray into turning well-loved children's programming into virtual worlds, Fusion Fall, and Sanrio's recently announced Hello Kitty Online. But Steve is confident that the Disney brand will give him the edge to dominate the market and bring new players to the casual MMORPG genre.