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The Future of Theme Park IP? Disney App Makes Splash in China


In March, Apple announced the 25th billion app had been downloaded from their App Store.  The significance of this particular app cannot be overlooked.  Where's My Water is a Disney app, created specifically for mobile gaming and downloaded in China. With the Angry Birds flying into theme parks this year, is this the future of theme park IP?  And what does this tell us about Disney’s strategy to win over the Chinese market?

Related:  Angry Birds Land at Särkänniemi Adventure Park: Interview with CEO Miikka Seppälä  / Gamepocalypse or Gametopia : What Can Gamification Offer Theme Parks And Attractions?  / “Kind of fun to do the impossible” – breaking ground at Shanghai Disneyland

Apps a Cost Effective Source for IPDisneys mobile app featuring Swampy in wheres my water

In Where’s My Water, Swampy the alligator, is desperate for a shower.  Players have to dig through dirt, avoiding obstacles and hitting ducks to deliver the water.  It is quite similar to Cut the Rope and other physics based puzzle games in that there is some logical thinking required, but Swampy is cute and has a back story to be exploited.

Significantly, Where’s My Water was created specifically as an app, rather than as a film or TV character.  This is a first for Disney – creating a mobile app character from scratch rather than using one of their established well-loved characters. 

At first glance this might seem to be a strange move.  However, the business model for apps offers low start-up costs and the potential to reach millions ofDisneys mobile app featuring Swampy in wheres my water consumers in a matter of days. 

Mobile platforms have turned everyone with a smartphone into a potential gamer.  Some analysts believe the smartphone market will grow to 1 billion smartphones by 2013.  The most successful app to date is Angry Birds with over 500 million downloads in little over 2 years.  Even UK Prime Minister David Cameron is an Angry Birds fan.

Disney created Where’s My Water with a team of just 5-6 developers over 6 months and now have full creative ownership of the Swampy character.  Later this year, Swampy will go beyond iOS devices when he appears in a 12 episode web series.  Appearances at Disneyland can’t be far away.

Angry Birds Fly into Theme Parks and Challenge DisneyAngry Birds activity theme park from Rovio

We are already seeing the move from app to theme park with Angry Birds.  Over 500 million downloads and sales of 25 million plush toys, have convinced the creators, Rovio, that the next step is to move into other areas of entertainment. 

The first official Angry Birds Land opens in Särkänniemi Adventure Park in Finland this year.  Rovio have announced their intention to continue to roll out Angry Birds themed activity parks under licence. The challenge will be to translate the success of a mobile based app to a physical adventure.  To this end, Rovio have teamed up with playground equipment specialist Lappset Group to create the adventure parks which will include large screens and interactive content. 

In an interview with Business Insider Chief Managing Officer Peter Vesterbacka stated that Rovio’s goal is to be “much bigger” than Disney.  Vesterbacka said of the launch of Angry Birds Space, the latest version of the game, “It’s not just the launch of a game, it’s the launch of a franchise. It’s bigger than most movie launches in Hollywood. Rovio is one of the first brands to launch from the digital to the physical world.”

angry birds iconEven the unofficial Angry Birds themed attraction in China does not shake Vesterbacka.  “You go shopping in China, you see Angry Birds everywhere. We are the most copied brand in China, which means we are the most loved brand.  We aren’t advocating piracy but we have millions of Chinese people who love Angry Birds.”

So how has Disney responded to this challenge? 

Disney’s App Factory

Bart Decrem Disney Mobile Senior Vice President and General ManagerWhere’s My Water was created by a team at Disney Mobile, a division headed up by Senior Vice President and General Manager, Bart Decrem (right).  Decrem, who only joined Disney in 2010, is a “veteran” of Silicon Valley.  Having worked on the original Firefox browser he has some mega-successful start-ups under his belt already, including social web browser Flock, sold to Zynga last year, and Tapulous, sold to Disney in 2010. 

With Tapulous, Decrem cut his teeth on the app market, experience that Disney is evidently keen to capitalise on – there are plans to build 10 new games this year.  Although Swampy was created just for the app market, Decrem also has a brief to build mobile apps for existing Disney characters.  Of course placing existing characters in a game environment takes some thought.  Speaking at a briefing for journalists and toy makers in London in March, Decrem said, “There is so much power in Disney characters, but what you have to do is build a fun game with great mechanics, and also think about the characters you have, and placing them in a world that makes sense."

What’s in it for Decrem?  WellDisneys mobile app featuring Swampy in wheres my water i love swampy tshirt it would seem that what Decrem brings to Disney in terms of a flexible tech start-up ethos, Disney can match with their massive marketing machine that has been put at Swampy’s disposal: "The company is really supporting it, with t-shirts and documentaries on the Disney Channel, and YouTube stuff. It's not something I could do if we were a little start-up."

The resulting marriage of Decrem’s entrepreneurial/technical expertise together with Disney’s network is working well.  Although there are no official figures for Where’s My Water downloads Decrem says, "When we started Tapulous, I told our investors we'd get 1m users in 18 months. We got them in 20 days. And this thing [Where's My Water] is exponentially bigger and faster. It's already bigger as a business than Tap Tap Revenge."

Disney’s Strategy for China?

Disney has employed some interesting tactics already to introduce themselves to a heavily regulated Chinese market.  One of the most interesting strategies that illustrates Disney’s intention to play the long game are the Disney English language schools.  Chinese children between 2 and 12 years are taught English by Disney characters, thereby creating the next generation of Disney fans.Mickey Mouse debuts in Steamboat Willie

But Disney are not just rolling out existing brands.  They are also creating brands and even a creative skills base in China with the objective to provide Chinese content for the Chinese market. In the words of Disney CEO Bob Iger, the aim is to create something “ authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese”.  Can we expect a Swampy themed attraction at Shanghai Disneyland? 

Swampy’s download in China is alsoDisneys mobile app featuring Swampy in wheres my water screen shot significant because it shows that Disney recognise the importance of mobile devices in the Asian market.  In 2012 research firm IDC anticipate that China will just manage overtake the US in smartphone shipments, with the gap widening in the future as China races ahead.  This is an readily accessible marketing channel for Disney in a heavily restricted commercial environment.  Disney were at the forefront of technology when Mickey Mouse starred in Steamboat Willie in 1928, one of the first cartoons to feature synchronized sound and Mickey’s on screen debut.

With Where’s My Water, Disney is again leading the way.  Swampy and other mobile apps will prove to be crucial for creating a market for Disney in China.

Decrem is an advocate of the freemium model in China.  Although Where’s My Water is a paid-up-front game, Disney now offers free to play versions on iOS and Android platforms.  In countries like China where many iPhones are “jailbroken” and very few Android handsets have a credit-card associated with the user's account, a freemium model allows access to a huge market and the potential to build brands.

Decrem says, "There are a lot of places where it's very hard to monetise a paid game, so by necessity freemium is going to be the dominant model.  Now, we can't just put a freemium model on top of Swampy without thinking hard about the gameplay. But the cool thing here is that it's at least as important to create new IP and introduce Disney to new countries."

And the ultimate goal – to build a game that reaches 1 billion people, a staggering one seventh of the world’s population.  Of course Angry Birds are well on the way, but Decrem has it in his sights. 

“Somebody's going to build a game that reaches 1 billion people. That's a big deal, even though the economics are small by Disney's standards. We can reach 1 billion people at near-no cost.  Boom, all of China knows who Disney is."

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