Disney Interactive Exec on 100-Million-Downloaded Game's Move to YouTube (Q&A)
Bart Decrem tells THR about the next steps, including scripted shorts, for "Where's My Water?"
Disney Interactive continues to expand the world of its hit mobile game, Where’s My Water?, which has generated over 100 million downloads worldwide. Next up for protagonist Swampy the alligator is a 12-episode short form animated video series, Disney Where's My Water? Presents: Swampy's Underground Adventures. The videos will debut on Disney.com and Disney’s YouTube channel before premiering on Disney Channel beginning in November.
The series marks the first production from Disney Interactive’s collaboration with YouTube to bring original family-friendly video series to the Web. Disney has already expanded Swampy into a wide range of merchandise and linear entertainment is the next step for the franchise. Bart Decrem, SVP and GM of Disney Mobile Games, talks about the hit game and its transmedia potential in this exclusive interview.
The Hollywood Reporter: What do you think it is about this game franchise that has connected with such a wide audience?
Bart Decrem: It all starts with awesome gameplay. When you play Where’s My Water?, you can tell that the team that built it really loves the iPhone and wanted to build a game that was perfect for the platform, taking advantage of the touch-screen, the accelerometer, and other iPhone technologies to build a really fun, exploration-based game that ties back to very simple but powerful gameplay elements. Everyone knows what happens when you cut through dirt with your fingers... water will flow down. So it’s a powerful, physics-based puzzle that’s accessible to everyone. Then, we added character and little story snippets to it, and that makes the game so much more compelling... of course Swampy wants to take a shower, and you want to help him with that. That’s an important mission.
THR: How have you expanded this game since launching in the mobile gaming world?
Decrem: It’s been an amazingly productive game. When we launched a year ago, the game came with 80 levels. There was just the iPhone version, at 99c, with no in-app commerce or Facebook connectivity. Since then, we have released more than 500 levels, and a half-dozen new gameplay mechanics that really mix up the gameplay, created free, holiday, Android, Amazon and localized versions. We’ve also introduced a second character, Cranky, who comes with a slightly different kind of gameplay. We’ve also launched a line of merchandise and just this week, a new series of short-form videos that tell you more about the world of Swampy and his friends.
All in all, I would say we’ve expanded on this game about twice as fast as any other major game series, while continuing to put quality first.
THR: What opportunities have the latest smartphones and tablets opened up for game developers?
Decrem: In the grand scheme of things, these are still the very early days for the smartphone era. It still feels very much like the iPhone, and the iPad, and the great new Android devices, they’re a brand new, blank, canvas and we’re learning how to offer awesome new gaming experiences and tell stories here for a new generation. The pace of innovation on the device and software side continues to be very fast - and Apple, and increasingly Google, Amazon and other operators, are on the whole doing an awesome job curating marketplaces that showcases the best experiences... so we still feel like kids in a candy store every day.
THR: Angry Birds recently migrated to consoles. What new opportunities do you see for Where's My Water?
Decrem: The newest opportunity is the launch of the web series, Swampy's Underground Adventures, on Disney.com and Disney’s YouTube Channel. The series marks the first production from Disney Interactive’s deal with YouTube to bring original family-friendly video series to the web.
THR: How wide an array of merchandise is now available based on this property in terms of number of products and scope of offerings?
Decrem: It’s incredible to think how six months after launching on the App Store, consumers were able to buy Swampy plush toys, apparel and accessories at major retailers. Since then, the line of Swampy merchandise has grown quite a bit. You can get Swampy pins at Disneyland, a fun collection of Swampy’s favorite duckies, and Hasbro just launched a Swampy board game. For Halloween this year, we even have a Swampy costume.
THR: Are these products sold within any of the Walt Disney theme parks, and if not, are there opportunities there?
Decrem: Yes, there’s now Swampy merchandise at stores in the Disney theme parks. There are also collectible pins. One of my favorite moments this year was when, at the Typhoon Lagoon water park in Walt Disney World Resort in Florida this Summer, Swampy was everywhere, including posters on shuttle buses and placemats at the restaurants.
THR: We've seen Rovio partner Angry Birds with movies like Rio and Star Wars. What opportunities do you see with this franchise with so many Disney characters?
Decrem: Where’s My Water? is a huge opportunity for Disney, with probably more opportunities than almost any other mobile game when you look across the company. We’ve already done a fun mobile game spin off with Disney Channel’s #1 animated series Phineas and Ferb for Where’s My Perry?. In addition, we most recently did a movie partnership with Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie for a series of themed levels in the game called 10 Days of Frankenweenie.
THR: What has YouTube opened up for introducing original short format videos to a wide audience?
Decrem: It’s the perfect channel to tell the more than 100 million people who’ve already played the game a bit more about the world of Swampy and his friends!
THR: What's this new series about?
Decrem:“Swampy's Underground Adventures really treats viewers to original storylines featuring the imaginative and curious alligator, Swampy, Disney’s beloved star of Where’s My Water?, in his quest for acceptance, friendship, and adventure outside of the bathtub. We created 12 episodes that are launching weekly on Disney.com and Disney’s Network on YouTube. There are also plans to premiere the shorts on Disney Channel beginning in November.
THR: How might this short format be a precursor to an animated TV series or movies down the road?
Decrem: We already have plans to premiere the shorts on Disney Channel beginning in November, but have not announced anything beyond that.
THR: How can the Internet be used to fine-tune a game franchise and gauge fan reaction early and at a lower budget?
Decrem: We put out the simplest version of the game, with just enough levels to gauge players’ response. This allowed us to get to market very quickly, but one of the happy side effects was that it forced us to really focus on nailing the core of Where's My Water? -- which lead to a better experience for the players. We then used community feedback and analytics to get a really deep understanding of what was working for our gamers, where they got stuck, and to keep refining the gameplay.
THR: How much bigger do you think Swampy can become?
Decrem: Swampy’s a pretty big guy to begin with, but he just keeps getting bigger. Seriously, clearly both the gameplay and the character are really resonating with gamers and Disney fans alike, so we’re putting a lot of energy into expanding the gameplay and telling more of Swampy’s story over the coming year!
THR: How do you see the path Swampy has taken laying groundwork for other Disney games?
Decrem: This is such an important platform for the company. A whole new generation of Disney guests is growing up with their iPhones, iPads or Android devices as a primary screen -- not to mention huge new markets like China and India opening up for the company. We have a huge opportunity to bring existing Disney characters and stories to life on this magical new canvas, but also to create new Disney characters here -- characters that hopefully will stand the test of time.