Disney and Warner Bros. lead charge

Hollywood isn’t playing around when it comes to competing for a piece of the $20 billion videogames biz.

While every major studio has a growing games group on the lot, Warner Bros. and Disney in particular have opened up their wallets over the past several years to buy up successful publishers that can quickly get them into the game of releasing interactive titles featuring their most popular characters and franchises.

In contrast with the traditional licensing pacts that studios made with videogame publishers in the past, where much of the creative was handed over to an outside publisher, the goal these days is to build a library of games that the studios can control, own and exploit themselves.

While the broad goal for the studios is largely the same, both Warner Bros. and Disney have embraced decidedly different corporate strategies of how to monetize gaming.

Disney is investing most of its resources in building games for social media networks such as Facebook or MySpace, or launching online realms like its World of Cars (which raced out of the development garage last week), the Disney Fairies’ Pixie Hollow and one for “Pirates of the Caribbean,” after building a lucrative financial following with online kids playground Club Penguin. An online world featuring Marvel Comics characters is in the works.

Warner Bros., meanwhile, has focused much of its efforts on creating games that appeal to all demos — from the kid- and family-friendly “Lego Batman” to the grittier, more adult “Batman: Arkham Asylum” — for play on consoles from Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony.

The two approaches primarily reflect the different audiences Disney and Warner Bros. are trying to reach. Kids and families that are the typical Disney consumers want to play casual games that can simply be picked up and played at any time, while WB’s target gamers prefer to invest more time in a game’s plot and tougher levels. They also want the high-end graphics that require the heavy-duty computing power of consoles.

The Mouse House made its latest acquisition last month, picking up social gamemaker Playdom for $563 million and mobile venture Tapulous for an undisclosed figure.

“We concluded that the (company’s) games strategy has to reflect, basically, how consumers are playing games, and as we look at the sector we see a diversity of platforms and experiences, from the console games — which we will remain in — to the social games, which we have just bought into, as well as mobile apps and casual games online and virtual worlds like Club Penguin,” said Walt Disney Co. president and CEO Robert Iger while discussing the company’s third-quarter earnings results last week.

A greater focus on creating games for social networks is unavoidable.

“We’re all aware of the rapid growth of social networks and the huge popularity of games on them,” Iger said, citing the 40% of Facebook’s 500 million members who play games on the site, and that the social games market, in general, is expected to grow 30% each year.

Some 42 million people each month are drawn to titles like “Social City,” “Sorority Life” and “Market Street” from Playdom, the No. 3 creator of social games, which competes with top shop Zynga’s “FarmVille” and “Mafia Wars.” Tapulous makes popular music games like “Tap Tap Revenge” and “Tap Tap Radiation” for the iPhone and iPad.

Studios have been forced to take gaming more seriously — especially as a growing source of revenue — as their home- video divisions have taken a beating amid the recession and shifting appetites.

“You can’t have a conversation about digital media without quickly realizing that there is more competition for people’s entertainment time, social games being one primary example of that,” Iger said. “The DVD market is challenged and will continue to be challenged.”

The strategic shift to online gaming comes after Disney first tried to target older gamers with racing and action-based console games only to realize that its most loyal audience is the younger set that gravitates toward the Mouse House’s stable of animated characters and gets parents to pony up subscription dollars or to buy digital goods to spruce up online avatars.

A single game also can be adapted for a variety of digital platforms, from websites to mobile phones. And as games become more expensive to produce and market, Disney can save money by promoting its titles to the more than 50 million people it has attracted to its Disney, Marvel and ESPN brands on Facebook.

“We like the opportunity,” Iger said. “We begin with a very, very solid base of people to market to.”

Disney will mimic the Club Penguin model for its newer online worlds, requiring members to pay a monthly subscription fee and collect revenue from ads and micropayments for goods through its own sites and Facebook’s new Credits currency. “Tap Tap Revenge” is free to play, but it charges users to add new songs from the likes of Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga.

Online worlds aren’t a guarantee for success, however. Kids have a notoriously short attention span, and companies like Disney need to figure out new ways to keep them interested.

Club Penguin, which Disney bought in 2007 for $350 million, was expected to make double that sum in revenue if it met earnings targets through 2009. But it didn’t, with monthly visits shrinking, according to a recent Disney filing. The venture hasn’t disclosed its number of subscribers (who pay $5.99 to play each month) since 2007, when it reported some 700,000 subs.

Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, on the other hand, has its own kid-friendly success story with the Lego games franchise, produced by TT Games, which makes titles based on “Star Wars,” “Indiana Jones,” “Batman” and “Harry Potter.” WB bought the gamemaker in 2007, the same year it started to aggressively build its WB Games label through the acquisition of other publishers.

Those include “Arkham Asylum” producer Rocksteady Studios, Midway Games (adding “Mortal Kombat,” “Spy Hunter,” “Wheelman” and “Joust” to its game library) for $49 million, Snowblind Studios, and a significant distribution deal with Eidos (which gave it the film rights to the “Tomb Raider” franchise).

Assets from those acquisitions have helped open a newWB Games studio in Montreal to focus on creating games based on DC Comics characters. Its latest is a game based on its “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” animated series. New “Lord of the Rings” games are also planned, starting with September’s “Aragorn’s Quest,” after WB bought back the gaming rights to the franchise from Electronic Arts.

Warners also is upping its presence with the pre-school set with an exclusive rights deal to make Sesame Street games for consoles, starting this fall with “Elmo’s A-to-Zoo Adventure” and “Cookie’s Counting Carnival.”

Like Disney, Warner Bros. had to figure out where most of its target audience was playing games.

The WB audience skews older, and tends to play action-oriented titles that require the high-end graphics and hardware of consoles. As Microsoft launches its motion-control system Kinect, Sony introduces its Wii-like Move and Nintendo rolls out a 3D version of its DS handheld, WB also wants to produce games for those platforms.

That’s not to say that Warner Bros. is completely eschewing online gaming.

In fact, the studio is aiming to generate 25% of its revenue from online games over the next three years, up from the current 10% such titles currently generate.

“Ninety percent of our revenue is packaged games,” says Martin Tremblay, president of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment. “In the future, that won’t be the case.”

That shift could come via the introduction of smaller social network games to more advanced massively multiplayer online games like “Lord of the Rings Online,” which is being revamped and relaunched as a free-to-play title that will make money from the sale of such virtual goods as weapons and powers.

“We’re looking at the videogame market as platform-agnostic,” Tremblay says. “We are obviously strong on consoles and have made investments to make sure we can compete, but we’re working on social networking games also.”

Driving much of that growth area is WB’s April acquisition of Turbine, which produces “Dungeons and Dragons Online” and “Lord of the Rings Online.” Although the pricetag has been reported to be around $160 million, the actual figure is said to be closer to $50 million, with additional payouts promised in the future should the company reach certain performance goals.

Just as WB produces multiple versions of games around a property for different age groups, it also aims to launch online versions along with a console counterpart.

“It’s about time,” Tremblay says. “We were talking about the growth of digital as the future of online gaming since early 2000. It took a long time to be where we are today. Online is a serious business and we have to be there. It’s not a choice. It’s an obligation.”

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