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Disney's Digital Head Bets Big on Marvel

Strategy shift: Disney Infinity will be the last of the console games developed in-house by Disney.

Disney is calling in its heavy hitters — Marvel’s superhero team The Avengers — for the second installment of its successful Disney Infinity console game, due out in the fall.

Disney Infinity: Marvel Super Heroes will feature a roster of characters who are familiar both to comic book aficionados and moviegoers, including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Black Widow and Hawkeye. It seeks to build upon the momentum of the original title, which generated an estimated $500 million in global retail sales since last August.

The Burbank entertainment giant is touting Disney Infinity as evidence that its new, more focused games strategy — which followed a major restructuring that resulted in hundreds of layoffs and high-level departures — is working. The unit’s president, James Pitaro, explains his plan for the future.

Re/code: What does the success of “Disney Infinity” mean for a division that’s still trying to find its way in interactive entertainment?

James Pitaro: Over the past four or five months, we have made several changes within the division. … We very quickly decided that we were going to start divesting ourselves from products that we didn’t think could truly scale, products we didn’t think we could truly really impress with.

There was kind of a misperception that Disney Interactive was just shrinking down. But that really wasn’t the case. What happened was we were narrowing our focus, and at the same time saying that we were going to be investing in products that we thought could define us as a division.

What does that mean, exactly? Can you provide examples?

The most obvious is Disney Infinity. From the get-go, we identified Infinity as a platform. What that means to those of us within The Walt Disney Co. is a growth engine that would be fueled by new characters and new intellectual property and new game play. Infinity was never meant to be a one-off game that would have sequels. Infinity was meant to be a platform on which we would build.

There were some products that we shut down and others that we minimized the investment in, but there were other products we were investing in and where we continue to invest.

What are Disney Interactive’s other priorities?

Mobile gaming is, of course, a huge priority for us. Today, we’re focused on really two things, what we call mid-core gaming — it’s somewhere in between casual and core — and leveraging “Star Wars” and Marvel intellectual property.

We are still invested in the casual gaming space, creating new intellectual property. That is a smaller focus.

We have some big projects going on right now — new projects that we haven’t disclosed publicly — that are in the kids gaming space. It’s a really interesting area, because you can have challenges either way. If you create a lousy game, that’s obviously a challenge. But if you create a wildly successful game that appeals to kids, that’s a different challenge. You could be in a scenario where you are potentially upsetting parents because kids are out there spending a lot of money on games.

It’s a tough space to be in, especially for the Walt Disney Co., because our currency is trust. So that’s one thing we are not going to jeopardize.

What does all this mean, going forward, for in-house console game development?

We’re launching Fantasia at the end of the year. The game did incredibly well at E3 [The Electronics Entertainment Expo industry trade show in Los Angeles], so we are excited about this game. But that will be, outside Infinity, the last vertically created and published game in the console space that we do within Disney Interactive.

Everything else will be licensed.

Does this mark a return to Disney’s old video game strategy, in which it would license its game development to third parties?

Actually, I see it as 50/50. Infinity is so large, and it’s such a priority for our entire division, to my mind that doesn’t mean that we’re doing significantly less in that space.

What’s the collaboration with Marvel been like?

These guys define passion. They care deeply about these characters. So for us, the idea of bringing Marvel into this game was daunting, because, of course, we said to ourselves either we’re going to do these characters justice, or we’re not going to do it.

One of the things that’s amazing, and really differentiates the Marvel characters from pretty much any other superhero character, is that these characters are all real, with real-life problems. They’re not like other superheroes that you see that are perfect. They’re very complicated, dynamic individuals. That is what resonates with me the most.

Captain America is my favorite Marvel character, by far. The thing I love about Captain America is that this guy was a really weak human being — physically weak — but his character was so strong. Making him a superhero was able to augment his character. That’s a beautiful story. I love that.

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