ANAHEIM, California — Mickey Mouse. Donald Duck. Swampy Alligator?
There’s a funny thing happening at Disneyland. The California theme park’s familiar landscape is still dominated by attractions based on the company’s evergreen stable of world-famous film characters. Sleeping Beauty’s castle still stands at its center, a monument to a film released in 1959. There aren’t many pieces of popular culture with such longevity. Disney isn’t about to junk all this for the latest flash-in-the-pan obsession. If it’s at Disneyland, it’s got legs.
But walking around the two theme parks, one begins to notice some interlopers from outside the established Disney canon. Look through the rows of metal pins that Disney fans love to collect and trade, and you’ll see Swampy — usually down at the bottom of the rack, but there he is. He’s the main character from Where’s My Water?, a clever smartphone physics puzzle, the company’s first breakout hit original videogame.
Disney first licensed its characters for use in games beginning in the early 1980′s with titles likeSorceror’s Apprentice for Atari 2600, or The Black Cauldron for personal computers. It established its own in-house gaming unit in 1988, but the vast majority of games released since then have been based on pre-existing characters. Some were mediocre, some were excellent, but all were tie-in products to promote an existing franchise. Swampy is a whole different story; he became one of the top-selling iOS apps all by his lonesome. Now he’s threatening to climb even further up the ladder of stardom.
“This is maybe the first time in Disney’s history where we have a character that was created solely for a videogame product that is now branching in other directions,” says Disney Interactive Media Group vice president Bill Roper.
In fact, Swampy is just one of the ways that Disney’s stable of popular and lucrative characters is being shaped and changed by videogames. And he’s not even the most obvious.
Disney completed its billion-dollar renovation of the California Adventure section of Disneyland this summer. As you enter the park, it’s like stepping into Los Angeles in the 1920s, complete with cherry-red streetcars and jazz musicians. The first building you pass by as you saunter down Buena Vista Street is “Oswald’s Tires,” a mock gas station that sells merchandise themed after Disney’s pre-Mickey silent film star, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Walt Disney lost the rights to Oswald many years ago (which is why he created Mickey in the first place), but the company was able to buy him back in 2006. The black-and-white bunny’s big comeback wasn’t a cartoon or a film, but a videogame: 2010′s Epic Mickey. The creation of lifelong Disney geek and celebrated game designer Warren Spector (Deus Ex), the Wii game had a surprisingly heartwrenching story that fictionalized Disney’s abandonment of Oswald and Mickey’s later success, which forgotten Oswald felt should have been his.
A few years later, with Epic Mickey 2 about to launch, Oswald finally has his own permanent home in Disneyland. And it’s Spector, so passionate about Disney history, who deserves all credit for bringing him back there.
Bill Roper, a gaming industry veteran formerly of Blizzard and Cryptic Studios, has only been at Disney for a year and a half but has already internalized the company’s unique linguistic tics. Disney has no employees, only “cast members.” It does not have customers, but “guests.”
“I realize I’m immersed in the Kool-Aid,” he says.
Besides leading the creation of franchise games like Epic Mickey, Roper also has an “originals group” that is tasked with creating videogames from the ground up.
“We do the vast majority of our work with IP that has been created or is in creation with the Walt Disney company,” he says, but “we want to make sure we’re doing our share of coming up with worlds and ideas and characters.”
Roper sees a future in which characters created for games might become shows on the Disney Channel, or even the animated features that the company is so known for. It’s not much of a stretch, especially when one considers that Wreck-It Ralph, its next big animated film, is a loving tribute to the worlds of classic arcade games.
So far, Swampy the Alligator’s penetration into Disneyland has been through merchandise: pins, figurines, plushes, iPhone cases. Roper says he may be much more visible in the future: “There’s been discussions about, can we have Swampy be a walkaround character somewhere? For example, in Orlando in the water parks?”
Oswald’s visibility, too, might be significantly lifted by the release of Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two in November. The first game was released exclusively for Nintendo’s Wii console as the popularity of the machine was dropping precipitously. But this new version is on everything: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii U, PC, even the Mac. Oswald’s about to meet millions more fans.
So a few years from now, if your children are running around the park wearing felt rabbit ears embroidered with their names and fiercely hugging a man in a giant damp alligator costume, you can thank videogames.
“We’re not just additive to what’s being done,” says Roper. “We’re helping create the next things.”