Interviews// Disney Boss, Graham Hopper

Posted 20 Jul 2007 15:53 by
Graham Hopper (pictured here) joined Disney Interactive Studios in October 2002 and as the executive vice president and general manager, he oversees product development, manufacturing, licensing, marketing and sales for the interactive entertainment affiliate of The Walt Disney Company. Basically anything to do with games at Disney (or its Touchstone publishing brand, for older gamers) Graham’s the man.

Under Hopper's leadership, Disney Interactive Studios has substantially expanded its video game business over the last five years, making the most of its own Disney branded content and developing new intellectual properties.

Disney Interactive Studios' now owns five development studios around the world including Warren Spector’s Junction Point Studios, Avalanche Software, Fall Line Studio, Propaganda Games and Black Rock Studio (formally Climax Racing in sunny Brighton).

Hopper is a board member of the video game industry’s Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the Entertainment Software Review Board (ESRB). I was glad to catch up with him for half an hour out of his busy schedule at E3 last week. Read on.

SPOnG: Hi, Graham, before we go on to talk a little more about your E3 line-up this year, and your various studios, I just wanted to find out what you thought about the new E3 format.

Graham Hopper: Well, I’m still forming my opinion. Let’s wait till the experience is over before we pass judgement on it! I like the idea that it’s a more focused event. That’s the key advantage. There’s a lot less wasted effort in comparison with the old E3. There are some drawbacks as well that we need to think about once it’s over.

SPOnG: Such as? Anything in particular?

Graham Hopper: Well just getting from place A to place B seems to be a problem. Although doing it right by the water (indicates the beach outside of the hotel window) – that’s pretty nice!

SPOnG: It sure is! So, what have been your major announcements this year?

Graham Hopper: One of our big announcements was that we added a studio - we acquired Junction Point Studios and, in particular Warren Spector, the founder of that studio. Warren is a luminary of the games industry and we really are thrilled to have him on board. We’ve not announced yet exactly what project it is that Warren is working on, but suffice to say it’s something we’re all pretty excited about.

Also I think we announced last Friday, just prior to the show, the renaming of the former Climax Racing studio in Brighton to Black Rock studio. That team is continuing to do good work for us. We have Avalanche software in Salt Lake City, hard at work on animated titles for us. We have Fall Line – our DS and Wii studio – also in Salt Lake City, which is now around 70 or so people, doing some really cool and innovative stuff on Wii and DS, which we’ll show you downstairs shortly.

And of course we also have Propaganda Games up in Vancouver which is about to ship its first game, Turok, early in 2008. The game is not yet complete, but it’s nearly there. We are very happy with that one in particular. You really need to check that one out.

SPOnG: Yeah, we’ve already covered Turok in some depth (see latest screens right here). I’m excited about seeing where it’s at right now straight after this interview. So do you know when you’ll be making more announcements about Warren Spector’s first project for Disney?

Graham Hopper: We haven’t decided when, no. It will be a while, its not going to be imminent. It will be worth waiting for though [enigmatic grin!]

We’re also showing our stable of new music titles. Clearly music has become a bigger category in gaming of late. Disney’s got a strong history with music. The Disney Channel here in North America has built one star after the other over the years. So we’re very excited about our Hannah Montana and High School Musical titles.

High School Musical is a global phenomenon - it really is Grease for the current generation. We have a phenomenal level of support for the franchise. And we have the High School Musical karaoke game on Wii and PS2 – which will be one of the first games on Wii to have a microphone – and it’s just a fun game to play for families and kids, being able to play and sing the various songs.

As for Hannah Montana we have two games – one is a Wii game, which is a dance game, where you basically act out the singer on stage’s actions, using the Wii Remote – so its fun, physical and very cool, playing the air guitar and so on. There’s also a really innovative Hannah Montana DS title as well, which has a guitar function in the game – so the ‘creative play’ portion of the game allows you basically create your own music tracks through overlaying guitar, bass guitar, drums and so on. Four people can play it together via wireless multiplayer to jam and create a track together. What I’ve been hearing from other people who make and know about products like this is that it is probably the best experience of the genre yet. But of course you should judge that for yourself! [I do so straight after this interview - make sure to read the Preview soon!]

SPOnG: What did you think to Nintendo’s conference – particularly the Wii Fit announcement?

Graham Hopper: Well, I saw Wii Fit and I knew that I had to have one. It really is that simple. And I think Nintendo’s strategy of speaking to a broader audience – core gamers and a mass audience – it really is the right thing for the future of games. The industry will ossify if it only serves the hardcore… I mean, we love hardcore gamers and they are a very important consumer base. But we also have to talk to all the others – if it’s that much fun for us, then we know it has to be fun for these other people too! We just have to create product for them that works.

Part of it sometimes is trying to get over the challenge of the interface. Where the Wii helps people to overcome their antipathy to control pads and those types of controllers, with a far more natural and intuitive feeling interface, is a good thing for the industry. It’s a good thing for games. So, Nintendo’s success in innovating and pushing out the boundaries of gaming to include more and more people is clearly a good thing for us.

We’ve already seen it on the Game Boy Advance (GBA) and, more recently on the DS – we created and we own the girls’ tween market on handheld. We created it where it never existed before and everybody was saying to us “girls don’t play games… if you are an eight-year old girl, then you don’t play games”. Well, guess what, they do! And we think there are still lots of opportunities out there to expand the market using the power of our brand and our innovation.
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