Wii ambitions at Buena Vista Games

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There's a war raging among the three next-generation video game consoles and the battlefield is the family living room. Microsoft (Xbox 360), Sony (PlayStation 3), and Nintendo (Wii) each believes that capturing market share will require having a platform widely perceived as "family friendly" -- and each has its strategy to attain that goal.

Sony's ammo includes the soon-to-be released action game "Sonic The Hedgehog" for PlayStation 3 only. Microsoft brought out the big guns to publicize its just-released "Viva Pinata" for Xbox 360 only. It's a Pokemon-like game where players tend a virtual garden with the aim of attracting and retaining colorful creatures.

But there are many who believe that Nintendo's Wii won the "mass appeal" race right out of the gate. And that includes multimedia giant Disney which has taken its money and placed its bet by building a brand new Nintendo-dedicated studio, Salt Lake City-based Fall Line.

Last month, Disney's Buena Vista Games named Scott Novis vp and general manager of Fall Line (a snowboarding term meaning "the most direct path down the mountain"). He had been general manager of publisher THQ's Phoenix-based Rainbow Studios which developed the game "Cars" based on the Disney/Pixar animated film.

HollywoodReporter.com columnist Paul Hyman chatted with Novis about Disney's bet on Nintendo, on how he intends to differentiate Nintendo games, and the hurdles one would face trying to duplicate Disney's success.

The Hollywood Reporter: What attracted you to Disney?
Scott Novis: THQ was a great experience and quite a challenge. I mean, "Cars" had 90 different SKUs, which meant something like nine different game platforms and 10 languages. The lead team was at THQ's Rainbow Studios, but we were also managing five other developers worldwide. It was just an enormous project. What's neat about Fall Line is that we're starting with a clean field and building a team from the ground up.

THR: But why Disney?
Novis: Disney owns the hardest thing to get in video games -- properties. Most game publishers license other peoples' IP; Disney creates its own. And, long-term, Disney is creating a game publishing entity -- Buena Vista Games -- out of industry veterans, people who know how to make games, which is also very appealing to me. We'll be focusing on the Nintendo platforms -- the Wii and [handheld] DS -- where we can make games that just can't be made on any other platforms.

THR: What's the growth plan at Fall Line?
Novis: Right now we're doing a lot of pre-production, looking for key people. We haven't going into production on any titles yet; that'll probably occur sometime in January. My guess is that we'll be about 50 or 60 people by the end of 2007, which isn't even the size of a next-gen design team based on some of the humongous numbers I hear being tossed around. But we're being very careful and will grow organically. The plan is to bring in people who each have 8-10 years' games experience working on multiple platforms. We want a really veteran team that can bring a lot of horsepower with them.

THR: It sounds like you'll only be able to handle one game at a time.
Novis: I expect we'll grow to about 70 people over the next 18 months in order to have three concurrent teams.

THR: Let's talk about what your first projects will be.
Novis: Man, I would love to. But I just can't. What I can say is that what the Wii is doing for us is pushing us away from thinking about process, process, process and gotten us to think more about creativity and design. We're asking ourselves what can we do with these interesting controllers? [The Wii controller has become known for its motion-sensing capability, which allows users to interact with items on the screen via movement and pointing.] What can we do with motion detectors and accelerometers? What types of interaction can people have with their console, hopefully without hurting each other.

THR: The hottest game out of Nintendo these days seems to be how to avoid being hit by flying Wii controllers with broken wrist straps.
Novis: [Laughing] I have to admit that our conference room has a few scars on the walls. But the fact that we can design for a new kind of controller opens us up to more than just moving joysticks and pushing buttons.

THR: This will be Disney's fourth game studio, after Avalanche, Progaganda and Climax. How will Fall Line be different?
Novis: The other three are all working on Xbox 360 and PS3 platforms. Our plan is for Fall Line to be a small, focused studio, what we're calling a "Nintendo center of excellence." We won't necessarily be the lead studio in driving all the SKUs, all the platforms for a given game. But we are going to be the experts on making sure that a version of a game runs as well on the Nintendo platforms as it can possibly run. At the same time, we'll be working on original properties that we think are the types of titles that can only be made on Nintendo platforms.

THR: So it sounds like Disney is covering all its bases with the other three studios working on PS3 and Xbox 360, and you working on ...
Novis: Disney is on a very clear path to becoming a well-rounded, competitive publisher.

THR: Why dedicate a whole studio to Nintendo? Most publishers are also covering their bases by creating games for all the platforms.
Novis: You need to step back and look at the Disney brand. There's a tremendous overlap between the Disney audience and the Nintendo audience.

THR: It's kind of interesting that you perceive Nintendo games as being for a younger audience, and I wouldn't disagree with you. But if you say that to the people at Nintendo, they sort of gulp and say, well, you know, we're really trying to reach an older audience too. And, I think, if you talk to Sony and Microsoft, they'll say they want to capture a younger audience. So it sounds like everybody is out to reach as many people as they can.
Novis: [Laughing] Well, sure. But I didn't actually say that. What I said is that there's a tremendous overlap between our customers, not just kids. It's sort of what Pixar has been able to do. You might say that their movies are for youngsters. But if you take a look at the number of DVDs they sell, the number of tickets they sell, they're clearly reaching a mass-market audience. They're able to create entertainment that appeals to people on every level, and that's been a Disney hallmark as well as a Nintendo one. That's why Nintendo is such a great fit for us.

THR: How does one design for a Nintendo game? How is it different from designing for a Sony or a Microsoft game?
Novis: The first thing we ask ourselves is 'What is the human interface with the game?' Nintendo has clearly stepped out -- with both the Wii and the DS -- and said that they were going to change the way people interact with software, and that they are going to give developers the opportunity to use those new tools to come up with games that are new and different. That, I think, is one way in which Nintendo has separated itself from its competitors, rather than, say, trying to come up with the next generation of graphics. I think gamers might have a hard time differentiating between gameplay on an Xbox 360 and on a PS3, but they would immediately see the difference with a Wii.

THR: You're talking about the Wii controller.
Novis: Absolutely. That puts the burden on us to come up with something that one can do with the controller that's novel and interesting. How can we change the gameplay experience? What Nintendo did was not to give us a steep learning curve on the Wii hardware but, instead, a steep learning curve on this new interface. Because we no longer have two joysticks and a few buttons to deal with. We've got this controller that you can swing around. Trying to build a game for that is, believe me, very challenging and exciting from a design standpoint.

THR: The fact that Nintendo isn't differentiating itself with its graphics, that probably simplifies the game-creating procedure a bit, doesn't it?
Novis: I guess so. Because we know how to produce graphics for the Wii. There's not a big learning curve there.

THR: I understand that Disney wants to produce 80% of its games internally and, of those, 80% will be based on Disney movies and TV shows. In fact, [Disney president and CEO] Bob Iger has said that Disney can earn more from video games by developing its own titles than licensing its characters to other game developers. What does he mean by that? Does that mean that Disney will no longer license its IP to, say, THQ and other developers?
Novis: Well, I'm getting a little uncomfortable speaking for Bob Iger or for the company as a whole. But I think that what I can safely say is that Disney is seeing a superior return on developing and publishing its own titles. So why would it not do more of that?

THR: Does that in any way alter the way that Disney has done business in the past?
Novis: Disney is one of the top media companies in the world. It's in radio, TV, films, everything. And one of the major trends today is that games have become a major form of media. So Disney feels it needs to be in games in a big way too.

THR: But will there be less licensing to outside developers, like THQ, for example?
Novis: You know, I don't have any personal insight into what the long-term plans are for licensing, so I can't really answer that question. All I know is that Disney has always embraced new media. When it started in film, it got big in film. Then it got into TV. I would hesitate to say that Disney was early into games, but I can see that there's a tremendous momentum right now to become a major player. Games will be a significant part of the Disney business, just as the other popular media have become.

THR: It sounds like Disney is saying that turning its own IP into games is the way to go. But other movie companies have tried and haven't been as successful as they hoped to.
Novis: I think what sets Disney apart is that it's not just a movie company. It's a very broad, mature company that does a great job of taking its properties and converting them into other properties that preserve the essence of what's appealing about them. Whether it's attractions at theme parks or toys in stores or clothing lines ... you know, Disney Consumer Products is a fairly large company under the Disney umbrella that exists to make sure that, if you had a positive experience with one Disney brand, you're going to have many, many choices on how to bring that brand into your life in other ways. And I think that's one of the things that sets Disney apart from many other film companies. They've been doing that for a long, long time.

THR: What you seem to be implying is that if other film companies go down the same path, they may not have the same success ...
Novis: History has proven that it's a hard thing to do. And when you ask me whether Disney has the edge here, well, show me the consumer products divisions of all the other film companies and show me their history and what they've been able to achieve. I think you'll see that they don't have the same success that Disney has had.

THR: And now Disney intends to do the same with video games.
Novis: Disney has laid the groundwork by bringing game industry veterans in rather than going out and bringing in, say, the biggest ego it could find in the industry or a Hollywood star. It went and got solid management and experienced people and is bringing them all in. That's what's going to make the difference.

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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