Disney's mobile division scored some unexpected publicity this month when Chunli Fu from China opted to download the firm's Where's My Water? iPhone app, triggering the 25 billionth download on Apple's iTunes App Store (and earning her $10,000 in the process). But such a flurry of attention was not really needed, as the paid puzzle game had reached number one in 69 countries following its release last year, and won a string of industry awards.
As with most great mobile games, Where's My Water? is wonderfully simple. Swampy the Alligator lives in the sewers and loves a good shower, but the underground plumbing has been damaged and it's up to the player to reconnect the pipes and get the water flowing. Swampy, Disney's first character created just for mobile, will soon get his own animated web series, suggesting that mobile is no longer a sideshow for Disney, but becoming the main event.
Bart Decrem was the founder of games maker Tapulous, but became Disney's head of mobile after selling his company to the US entertainment giant. He feels that mobile is a "really critical" platform for firms like Disney, because there is now a "whole generation of kids growing up for whom the smartphone is their first screen".
"These massive new markets are coming online, such as China and India, where people may not have a TV or computer at home, but they have a smartphone with them," he said. "There are 650m mobile devices out now, there will be a billion by next year, so we have a network where you can reach a billion people with the click of a button; we have never had a scale of network that big before. So there is a massive business opportunity for us to introduce The Walt Disney Company to new audiences."
Decrem feels that The Walt Disney Company, founded almost 90 years ago by Walt and Roy Disney, has always been "a leader in deploying innovations to bring magical moments to people". The firm helped pioneer mainstream animation in 1928 with Steamboat Willie, and then went on to innovate with the multiplane camera in the late 1930s and early auto-animatronics in the 1960s.
"Innovation is in the DNA of the company, and I know I might seem like a PR, but I really do believe that," said Decrem. "I have been at Disney for a year and a half, and the company really embraces change. We were among the first, I believe, to put TV content on iTunes and iPhone. And of course [the late Apple co-founder] Steve Jobs is our largest shareholder. So the company really gets into these things and deploys real capital. The cool thing for me when I joined the company was that nobody told me what I had to do. They just told me that I must focus on creating great ideas."
The ultimate goal for Decrem and his team is that one day they will go to Disneyland and see a character that they have created featured in the park. This may be Swampy, or it could be another character, but he feels that it is this ability to experiment with ideas that makes mobile such an important platform.
"Creating characters for TV or movie platforms is expensive, and Disney can only place so many of these bets in a year as that can take hundreds of millions of dollars in development," he said. "With Where's My Water?, it took six people six months to pull together a core of a game, release it and then see how people respond. We can experiment and we can create new characters, and then see what works. But we can't just throw anything out there; it has to have passion, and be five-star rated."
Many mobile developers try to cram everything into mobile games; social network integration, m-commerce, thousands of levels. But Decrem said his team opted to be "pretty ruthless" with Where's My Water?, by making a simple game, priced at $1, offering 80 levels but without needing the bells and whistles.
"We started with a simple core idea. We wanted to make water go somewhere, following physics and then we added a story around it," he said. "It's very, very simple, but very powerful. Working for such a short period of time, it makes you really focus on the essentials. If the window gets longer and there are more people in the team, you actually run the risk of losing that innovation."
Despite having revenues of more than $40bn and around 156,000 employees worldwide, Decrem claims that Disney is not hindered by excessive red tape. He admitted that the business can get "bureaucratic" due to the "layers of decision-making", but he feels that the company is also "decentralised", allowing his team to innovate.
"Disney.com has a partnership witty YouTube, and they wanted to do an animated show. We had full control over the Swampy character, and so worked with the team in Europe to make it happen," he said. "Disney is a very decentralised company. It can get bureaucratic as there is all these layers to decision-making, but in this case we have really been able to leverage the power of the company."
Most interestingly, Decrem has been able to encourage Disney that churning out weak games just to capitalise on a Disney iP is not the way to succeed. When Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides came out last year, the fourth movie in the franchise, his team started making a companion game, but opted to delay the development even past the DVD window to get it right. Pirates of the Caribbean: Master of the Seas, a role-playing game similar to Zynga's Mafia Wars, has since rated well on the App Store and crucially made the most of the iPhone platform.
"We need to be creating these great new characters and ideas, and then make them come alive on mobile," said Decrem. "There are lots of people doing things around smartphones at Disney and we are trying to do 10 to 12 games each year. So you just start with the basic premise - 'Do we have a gaming idea that people will want to play?' If the answer is no, then don't do it. We are trying to make great games, rather than think that there is a movie coming out and we should make a game for it. That is not how you build great games."