Disney’s vidgame topper exits

Hopper headed Disney Interactive Studios for eight years

Graham Hopper, who has guided Disney’s gaming division for the past eight years, is leaving the company.

Hopper announced his departure via an internal email Monday afternoon saying “the time has come for me to move on from the company and set my sights on new horizons.”

John Pleasants, former prexy of global publishing at Electronic Arts and CEO of the recent Mouse House acquisition Playdom, will take over responsibility for Disney Interactive Studios. Pleasants is also co-president of the Disney Interactive Media Group, which oversees Disney Interactive Studios.

Hopper leaves as Disney Interactive Studios is poised for a big holiday season. “Epic Mickey,” which hits stores later this week, is widely expected to be one of the biggest selling games for the Nintendo Wii this holiday season. “Tron: Evolution,” a gaming tie-in with the upcoming film is also expected to do well.

On a corporate level, though, Disney has been showing signs of moving away from the packaged goods software industry and focusing more on digital. This year, the company has purchased both social game maker Playdom (in a deal valued at up to $763 million) and mobile game maker Tapulous.

Playdom, at the time, was the industry’s third-largest developer of social games, behind Zynga and Playfish, with 42 million active users. Disney was reportedly interested in the company chiefly to expand its existing brands and characters into social games. This could mean anything from a “Wizards of Waverly Place” title for tweens to a “Tron: Legacy” tie-in for this holiday’s big release. Hopper is a well-liked figure in the videogame industry and is generally credited for making Disney a viable force among gamemakers. He joined Disney in 1991, transitioning to head of the interactive group in 2002. At the time, Disney Interactive Studios was a small division that chiefly focused on licensed titles for children.

Under his watch, the unit has broadened the focus, making bets on bigger titles that appeal to an older and wider audience. The success ratio, so far, has been mixed, but Hopper has said he believed “Epic Mickey” would be the start of a solid run of hits for the division.

“Were trying to build more content for families to want to bring into the house and play together,” said Hopper earlier this year. “We think there’s a dearth of high quality games like that.”

In October, though, one of Disney Interactive Studio’s biggest bets — “Pirates of the Caribbean: Armada of the Damned” — was scuttled, after an investment of millions of dollars. The company reduced staff at the developer and opted to let a licensed Lego “Pirates” game (built by an external developer) shoulder the franchise gaming tie-ins. That game will be released next year, in conjunction with the fourth film in the series.

Hopper is the second executive to leave Disney’s interactive unit in the past two months, following the exit in late September of Disney Interactive Media Group prexy Steve Wadsworth. Disney split his job between Pleasants and Jimmy Pitaro, a former Yahoo executive who was well-liked at that company, but whose appointment at Disney caught some off guard.

Hopper could not be reached — and a Disney rep said the company would not comment further on the departure.