Disney's games strategy is no dinosaur


SAN DIEGO -- Walt Disney Co. is looking to expand its video game business with some help from an old strategy that did the same for its film and TV divisions.

Last week, Disney Interactive Studios drafted the Touchstone label for the release of "Turok," which is based on the Classic Media comic-book license.

Gamers accustomed to brand extensions of Disney's roster of kid-friendly franchises will see something quite different this time out: "Turok" is a hardcore gamer's game, filled with plenty of guns, knives, battles and, yes, beautifully rendered blood that warrants its mature rating.

Well aware that it's unlikely to appeal to its usual target audience, Disney Interactive decided to bring it out on the Touchstone label as a way of separating "Turok" from the family-friendly fare the studio has made a specialty.

It's a move the parent company used successfully in film and TV with Touchstone Pictures and Touchstone Television. While Touchstone TV was rebranded last year as ABC Studios, the studio still uses Touchstone Pictures on occasion for more mature releases, although it currently emphasizes the Disney brand label for its movies.

Using Touchstone for "Turok" is also a sign Disney realizes that diversifying its video-game strategy is necessary for fueling continued growth in the sector.

"Touchstone has always been a bit of a stepchild at Disney because it doesn't always focus on family values," noted Michael Goodman, an analyst with Yankee Group. "But it's always had some interesting properties there that appeal to a different portion of the market, so there is potential there when is comes to games."

Disney Interactive wouldn't comment directly on the Touchstone strategy, but a spokeswoman for the company explained that the division has flexibility with its label branding.

"We have the option of publishing under three consumer-facing brands: Disney, Touchstone and ABC," she said. "While each brand has its own attributes, one studio is not beholden to a specific brand."

Disney first used the Touchstone label in movies, founding Touchstone Pictures in 1984 and scoring a hit right off the bat with the PG-rated "Splash." Touchstone Pictures released its first R-rated movie, "Down and Out in Beverly Hills," in 1986 and has emerged as a top source of film income for Disney thanks to film such as "Pretty Woman" and host of hits from producer Jerry Bruckheimer, including "Con Air," "Armageddon," "Enemy of the State" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds."

The television production studio Touchstone Television is best known for groundbreaking series such as "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost" before is was renamed ABC Studios in 2007.

"Turok" was a hit gaming license more than a decade ago for the now-defunct Acclaim Entertainment, but Touchstone and developer Propaganda Studios stress this is an entirely different version for the Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360 that features new plot lines and settings as well as Powers Boothe, Timothy Olyphant and Ron Perlman as voice actors.

The new version of "Turok" is set on a mysterious planet in the near future and centers on Joseph Turok, a former Black Ops commando who battles both soldiers and dinosaurs on a mission to take down a war criminal.

"For Disney, this makes a lot of sense to keep 'Turok' in the Touchstone side of the house, because it enables them to do older material," added IDC gaming analyst Billy Pidgeon, noting the early February release gives Turok a fairly clear field to really attract avid gamers. "There are not a lot of new games coming out in Q1 or Q2 this year, so now is a great time to put it out."

David Cole, president of San Diego-based game market research firm DFC Intelligence, stressed that not every company can make than transition from family titles to the hard-core gaming market.

"It really comes down to execution," Cole added. "With licenses such as 'Hannah Montana,' you can sell a lot from the name, but now the games are going to have to sell on the game play."

But Turok is further proof of Disney's commitment to interactive entertainment, according to Goodman.

"You don't necessarily think about Disney being a major player in the game space, because they're kind of quiet, but they are," Goodman said. "They spent a lot of time thinking about how to grow the business and now they've got lot of irons in the fire, ranging from 'Pirates of the Caribbean' to all the games on Disney.com."