If you're an adult gamer, where's the pleasure in playing a Hannah Montana game? Or making one, for that matter? "We're still real gamers," says Todd Dewsnup, lead artist at Disney's Avalanche Studio. "It's still a challenge to make these games. Lots of parents want games their kids can play. The goal is to make a game that kids like that adults won't hate. Just like the movies many of them are based on."
"Still, when we're playing Team Fortress 2 against some other video game developer, and they find out we're Disney, I usually hear, 'You're Disney? We'll kill you even more because you're Disney!' The thought of losing to us must be embarrassing, I guess."
Working at Avalanche manages to be a unique experience even though the work and the rules are the same as those you'd find elsewhere in the industry. The difference is that while other companies win press for innovation, personalities and daring development, Avalanche achieves stability without these things. "Independent developers have to sing for their supper," producer Jon Day notes. "Here, we're not making any milestones, but there's a certain sense of comfort in knowing that we're getting a paycheque."
Dewsnup agrees. "I used to work for a company like that. We wondered sometimes whether we'd get paid, and our fears started coming true. It was going under, and many had moved to Avalanche. I was able to transfer to Avalanche because of recommendations from my friends and it's different here, but I haven't looked back." The games are different to the ones the developers play for fun, but that doesn't discourage them. "It's no different here than anywhere else," says Dewsnup. "I could make the most brilliant piece of art in the world, and it may end up being trashed the next day."
"You have to have a thick skin here, there's no room for egos, just like anywhere else in the industry," adds Day. For Day, the point of pride isn't in the projects but in the actual work: "the fact stuff gets done on time, under budget, and with the team still happy. When that happens, that's my point of pride. And anyway, people who are not in the industry are still envious. We make games. That's cooler than not making games."
Part of Avalanche's unique status is its location. It's not in California, Washington, Austin or Boston. It's in Salt Lake City, a quiet town with a rich and highly conservative tradition. Even though it's considered a hot location by tech companies, even that sector of business in Utah is viewed through a more traditional lens. Videogame development is not traditional business, which is perhaps why so much of it is done in California. But at Avalanche, it's different; they have to be as innovative and creative as possible while still working under traditional business rules.
"When I tell people I meet that I work for Disney, they're always astonished there's an office here," says Dewsnup. Surprising, considering Avalanche occupies over three floors of a large, unlabelled office building on the corner of two high-traffic streets, quietly blending in with the city.
Projects at Avalanche or any other satellite studio have to be integrated with the massive Disney marketing machine. "Any project we do must be considered from the point of view of the entire Disney corporation," Dewsnup tells Eurogamer. "It's added pressure. Even more people check our games than they do at other developers. And it goes to all the other departments. "John Lasseter in movies? He sees everything."
At any time, Avalanche is working on three projects, most of them handed down from management in California, most of whom they've never met. The movie Bolt, for example, was announced in summer of 2007 and is going to be released on 28th November this year. The multiplatform game will be released on 1st November, almost a month in advance. Dewsnup and Day say Bolt has been in production for approximately a year and a half.
There are limitations to being a part of that marketing plan, but they make sense from a business perspective. "Disney stockholders don't want risk, they want returns. A corporation like that is simply much less likely to try something that isn't proven. Let's say you're going to make a game based on Pirates of the Caribbean. There's going to be a limited area for what you can do because they don't want to damage their IP."
While the infrastructure seems imposing, it doesn't mean they only make games based on movies. Before Avalanche was purchased, their portfolio had a variety of genres: sports, fighters, and non-Disney platformers.
New intellectual property can be submitted to Disney and if it fits, it can be accepted. Before Disney purchased Avalanche, Avalanche developed Tak: The Great Juju Challenge and Tak 2: The Staff of Dreams. They submitted the character of Tak to Nickelodeon, who made it a brand and later a TV show. Dewsnup is convinced that's one of the reasons Disney purchased them.
Adult gamers and especially game reviewers are starting to question the status of videogames as toys, but for those working at Avalanche, the question is perhaps ironic. The games they make are marketed that way and they have to think of them as such. "We get a bad rap," Dewsnup laments half-heartedly. "All the reviewers hate reviewing our games. I haven't seen one site that is dedicated to reviewing them for the purpose of helping parents choose. They don't review them with that in mind." Day adds without frustration: "If we get an '8' on anything at all, we pretty much consider that our '10'."
Still, they aren't too bothered by it, and perhaps they have good reasons for not being bothered by what reviews say about what they make. "My 11-year-old daughter always thought I was cool because I worked for Disney," says Dewsnup with a smile. "But when she found out I helped make the Hannah Montana game, she became star-struck."