|Feature: Hot Water|
by Chris Thomes
The inside scoop on Disney’s successful mobile game, Where’s My Water?
In the world of storytelling through games, Disney has thrown the baby out with the bath water — kind of. They continue to expand their world of new characters beyond movies, television, and theme parks into the digital realm of mobile apps with Swampy the alligator, Disney’s newest original character and the star of the new app game, Where’s My Water? Developed by the team behind the top-selling JellyCar franchise, Where’s My Water? follows the story of Swampy the alligator and his quest to be clean. While this physics-based puzzle game for iPad, iPhone and iPod touch may seem a like a familiar puzzle solver, the story behind how Disney made this game is all about the reconception of storytelling itself ... with a little pixie dust thrown in, of course.
Water, Water Everywhere: Cutting Through the Clutter With a Killer App
The Apple App Store features more than 500,000 apps, 100,000 of which are game and entertainment titles. To cut through this clutter and rise to the top of the game charts (an absolute must if one’s game is to have any chance of success), a game must be designed to fit what Bart Decrem, executive in charge of Disney Interactive Media Studios’ Where’s My Water? calls the "Twitter era.”
Every impatient person seems to have an iPhone or iPad. Mobile devices are now baked into the fabric of everyday life and gaming is a major part of that. According to Decrem, the mobile gaming platform is in its infancy but shows tremendous promise for entertainment.
"We are at the very early stages of figuring out how to engage users, what a story is, what a character is ... we don’t really know how to play on this canvas yet... There is a growing generation of people, kids in particular, for whom this is their home. This is their main device. It’s not the computer, it’s not the phone, not even the TV. The reason you see so much activity around the iPhone is that it is disrupting a number of industries. It’s disrupting how people consume most of their content, movies, TV, video rentals, all that.
"As opposed to the laptop,” continues Decrem, "which started out for productivity, the core of these mobile devices is that they are made for fun. The adoption is being driven by consumers who love it and they want to do fun things on it like talking to friends, Facebook, watching movies or TV, and playing games. Entertainment is the ‘killer app’ on this platform. So this is a really important platform for the Walt Disney Company.”
You Can Lead a Horse to Water: Captivating an Audience With Killer Mechanics
Where’s My Water? features 120 levels of challenging puzzles, rich graphics, humorous effects, and a story that unfolds over time. Yes, a story — but perhaps not the kind most people are used to. In games, story typically takes a back seat to a more important element in game design: mechanics. Game mechanics are systems of rules intended to produce enjoyable game play. All games utilize mechanics, from Candy Land and Monopoly to trendsetting video game franchises like Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto. Theories and approaches differ as to the integration of mechanics with story or theme. But in general, the process and study of game design are efforts to come up with game mechanics that allow for people play- ing a game to have a fun and engaging experience.
Bart Decrem believes that starting with a great character and then making a game from it is a backward way of making a game. Instead, he suggests the inverse is true, that "we start with a game mechanic that is going to be really great. We had [designed] this really cool mechanic around digging. We played around with it and prototyped it until it felt really good. Then we spent several months asking ourselves, ‘What are we digging for? What’s going on down there?’ And we realized that there are alligators there, living in the sewers. As we kept brainstorming, we found Swampy, who’s a little different and likes to take showers. And the game fell into place from there.”
This runs counter to what most marketing groups in big studios do with TV and movie IP. Typically they license the game rights out to a developer/publisher like THQ. From there, the game is typically reverse-engineered to fit the plot or story of the original linear media. Decrem suggests that the most effective and successful games start with great game play, and back into their stories. It’s the inverse of linear content development.
Making Waves: Microstories
When stories do make their way into games, Decrem notes that they often show up as "microstories.” These short bursts of narrative or emotional engagement help create a deeper connection to the characters and their mission. These moments of story can be an animated character’s disappointment, as is the case with Swampy when the game player fails to solve a level’s puzzle challenge. They help motivate the player by moving them with pathos, however simple and light.
Similar to Where’s My Water?, the now-classic Angry Birds uses "cut scenes” to show the conflict between the green pigs and the angry birds. These are merely camera moves on still illustrations — simple stuff. Which goes to show that story in games really does take a back seat to game play, since you don’t need much story to engage the player/audience. Players are really there for one thing — playing.
Troubled Waters: Swampy’s Story
But when story does appear in a game, Disney is not a minimalist. As a company known for great characters and IP curation, Disney takes storytelling seriously.
Swampy’s story was no simple matter. Other existing Disney characters were initially considered. When they did not fit the game play, new characters were proposed that fit the activity of the mechanics. Sketches were made, designs and character back story were carefully crafted, and a plot thru-line was developed for the game, appearing as animated panel "breaks” where the story unfolds between levels.
In this way, we learn that Swampy the Alligator lives under the city and yearns for a more human-like existence. He is especially fond of cleanliness. The other alligators do not take kindly to Swampy’s eccentricities and have conspired to sabotage his water supply.
Swampy is cute, he’s funny, and he just wants to take a bath with his beloved rubber ducky. Richly detailed graphics and animation bring Swampy and his subterranean world to life. Even the music is part of a compel- ling story. Its quirky beats and chimes are as whimsical as Swampy himself, and make playing the game more fun as they provide the heartbeat of Swampy’s world.
Wet Behind the Ears: Managing Game IP
So now that Disney has started to master story in games, how do these pieces fit into their otherwise linear franchise machine? Disney is well known for managing its franchises like no other. (They even have a central group for franchise management.) So how will they greet and manage Swampy? With open arms, of course. But that doesn’t mean they have a process for it — yet. Decrem notes that now, when they are placing characters into games, they are asking new questions.
"We start with a great game. But where’s the heart? And where’s the family? Disney’s stories have these at their core. Can we think of a character that has heart and is aspirational? If we do that, we will have a more franchisable character... Disney has taught us as game makers to think deeper and harder about character and the story arc and a world that is aspirational and rich so that the whole Walt Disney Company can go and contribute to and build on it as a franchise.”
So even for a master franchise management company, there is some-thing new to learn about interactive IP; from how it’s made, to extensions into other media and consumer products. Angry Birds may be the textbook example to follow — take an ingeniously designed game with unknown IP and get everyone to play it, then carefully extend it beyond the game into partnerships (like Angry Birds Rio) and ultimately into consumer products (I just bought my Angry Birds key ring) and then into TV and movies. (Marvel Studios Chairman David Maisel was hired in July to advise Rovio’s fledgling movie division.)
Will Swampy be on a key ring or in a TV show? Well, in November, YouTube and Disney announced a deal that will distribute an original animat- ed Web series based on Swampy and his world. So, I guess the answer would seem to be: "very likely.”
Every Drop Counts
Decrem calls developing games for existing IP a treacherous assignment. It runs counter to the notion of developing a great game mechanic first. Fun comes first. Character and pathos will find their way and follow, and if care- fully done, the results can be magical.
"Always start with the game,” Decrem dictates. "Ask yourself, is it fun to play, and do people care about the characters? As we talk to people about the game, we hear them say, over and over, ‘We need to help Swampy. He gets sad when he can’t take his shower.’ That’s why I’m so proud of the game. It’s a character that’s worthy of Disney.”
Chris Thomes is the Chair of the PGA New Media Council.