“Where’s My Water?,” the new mobile game from Walt Disney Co. (DIS), stars Swampy, an alligator who lives in an underground sewer.
The googly eyed reptile likes to lounge around in his subterranean bathtub while he scrubs his back with a brush. Players swipe their fingers across an Apple Inc. (AAPL) iPhone screen to guide water into his tub while dodging toxic sludge and collecting rubber duckies as prizes.
With the 99-cent application, also available for Apple’s iPad tablet, the House of Mickey is attempting to do something it has never done before: spin a multimillion-dollar franchise out of a character that made his debut on a 3.5-inch screen, Bloomberg Businessweek reports in its Nov. 21 issue.
So far the Swampy experiment is going swimmingly. Following its Sept. 22 release, “Where’s My Water?” quickly jumped to the top of the Apple App Store’s paid applications chart, displacing the record-setting “Angry Birds” game from the No. 1 spot for three weeks.
The logic behind Disney’s new release is simple. A movie takes three to five years and hundreds of millions of dollars to make, and as with “Mars Needs Moms,” Disney’s big theatrical release this past spring, success is hardly guaranteed.
The cost of a mobile game runs in the hundreds of thousands. It took a crew of seven people seven-and-a-half months to produce “Where’s My Water?” If Swampy becomes a hit with kids, a follow-up movie could have a ready base of fans eager to buy tickets.
“This is a very, very cost-effective way to develop characters,” said Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie Capital USA Inc. in New York. “It’s a new way of doing things.”
About 52 percent of kids 8 and younger have used a mobile device for games and other activities, according to a recent survey of 1,384 parents by Common Sense Media Inc.
A new generation of Disney fans “is growing up, and this is their main platform,” said Bart Decrem, senior vice president and general manager of Disney Mobile, a 150-person unit. “My gut feeling is, over the next few years, someone will create a game with a billion gamers on it. We want to be that company.”
Disney already has Swampy’s career plotted out. A 12- episode animated series will air on Disney.com and on Google Inc. (GOOG)’s YouTube sometime in the first quarter of 2012, part of a deal that will have the two companies spend as much as $15 million on co-branded content. A book and a movie featuring the cute green gator could follow, Decrem says.
The company aims to replicate Rovio Entertainment Oy’s success in catapulting “Angry Birds” into something beyond a digital phenomenon.
The Finnish gamemaker sells 1 million plush toys a month -- along with T-shirts, school lunch boxes and other gear -- and publishes a comic strip online. There are also plans for educational books and a movie.
There’s no reason why Disney, with its amusement parks, hundreds of stores and a cruise line, can’t do the same, said Jack Kent, an analyst at researcher IHS Screen Digest.
“Disney is one of the experts in merchandising,” he said.
Disney last year acquired social-gaming company Playdom Inc. and mobile-games maker Tapulous Inc., where Decrem was chief executive officer.
Working in this new medium required some adjustments for Disney’s animators. Swampy had to be able to show emotions within the constraints of a tiny phone screen.
The company says it solved the problem by developing a special technique that doesn’t require gamers to download large files. It also has put more effort into character development and storytelling than is typical for a mobile game -- an investment it hopes will pay off as Swampy makes the progression from mobile devices to streaming video, and perhaps eventually the big screen.
Disney is confident enough about its alligator’s ability to navigate the digital shoals that it’s already considering two more original characters for mobile gadgets.
“We want to create new characters that are born and sized for this platform,” said Decrem.
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