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Where’s My Water?, the new mobile game from Walt Disney (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 iPhone screen to guide water into his tub while dodging toxic sludge and collecting rubber duckies as prizes.
With the 99¢ app, also available for the iPad, 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.
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 (AAPL) App Store’s paid apps 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,” says Tim Nollen, an analyst at Macquarie Capital (USA). “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. “A new generation of Disney [fans] is growing up, and this is their main platform,” says 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 YouTube (GOOG) sometime in the first quarter of 2012, part of a recent 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 hopes to replicate Rovio Entertainment’s success in catapulting Angry Birds into something beyond a digital phenomenon. The Finnish game maker 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, says Jack Kent, an analyst with researcher IHS Screen Digest: “Disney is one of the experts in merchandising,” he notes.
Disney last year acquired social gaming company Playdom and mobile games maker Tapulous—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 does not 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. Says Decrem: “We want to create new characters that are born and sized for this platform.”
The bottom line: Disney is testing audience appetite for a new character, Swampy, with an app and a video series before committing to an expensive feature film.