Disney’s hit mobile game Where’s My Water? has dominated the App Store’s charts since coming to iOS a little over a year ago. The physics-based puzzle game starring affable alligator Swampy – the first original Disney character created for a mobile game – has been adopted by keen gamers of all ages, and was even named Apple’s landmark 25 billionth downloaded app earlier this year.
With global success and industry recognition, including the 2012 Apple Design Award, under its belt, Disney is looking to expand the popular franchise with a range sorts of themed offerings including a ‘webisode’ series, spin-off title Where’s My Perry?, a plush toy line, movies and more – phew!
Macworld Australia caught up with Disney’s Vice President and General Manager of Mobile Games Glendale, Jim Molinets, and Australia’s Senior National Manger of Disney Interactive Games, Scott Bagshaw, to find out how Where’s My Water? was created, the challenges of keeping up to speed with the fast-paced world of iOS and what the future holds for Swampy and his fans.
MW: How did the concept of Where’s My Water first come about? Who is the creative mind behind the game?
Jim Molinets: We actually have a team, which consists of about five people, and generally how they work on the introductories to a new franchise or IP is a simple process of brainstorming. The main idea behind WMW? came from us trying to figure out what on the App Store was interesting and fun. We really narrowed down on the idea of what we call (and it’s different to each group or individual) an ‘instant game’, and there’s a bunch of different things that we use to judge that but realistically it’s an idea of something which is a quick pick-up-and-play, simple product that offers successive, level wins, as opposed to level failures.
When we think about where WMW? came from, it was really the five team members sitting down trying to identify the right way to fill the idea of an instant game for Disney and what that means. So, how do we get story telling in there? How do we really nail the quality bar? How do we incorporate animation, interaction and discovery as part of the concept? For the most part this was done through iterations of prototypes and regular game production, but it all started with the idea that we wanted to do an instant game.
MW: What was the process like in bringing WMW? to iOS? What difficulties did you face along the way?
JM: The process started with a concept, we then developed a quick prototype. The main focus for us was trying to develop a robust physics simulation, because we had two things that required the physics, the first was the idea of water, being one of the key game components, the second was the actual drawing and interaction of the dirt – the cutting of the dirt and making it very smooth and very tactile and very one-to-one with the player’s finger movement and finger direction. That was imperative to the success, but also the biggest difficulty that we had because getting a physics system that was ‘arcade enough’ to be fun and easy to understand, yet simulating enough to make the gameplay feel interesting using everyday components like water and dirt.
That was the main obstacle, initially. I think the other big difficulty was how do we integrate character into the game. So we had the idea of the dirt and the water as a puzzle, we then said “OK what do we want to do with the water? How do we get it to do something that has an impact? How are people going to feel like there’s a driving force behind that?” And that’s where the idea of character came in and it was then, “OK let’s fill a tub with water because that makes sense”, followed by “well who’s going to be in the tub?” and that eventually led to a character idea, now known as Swampy.
We developed Swampy with the idea that when you’re in the sewers or underground there’s a myth in the United States about alligators being released in the sewers for people as pets. So that led to the fun interaction piece of Swampy being one of these types of alligators and then it ballooned into his personality and everything else that we developed along with him.
In terms of how long the development process took about seven or eight months overall from really initial development and prototyping through to first release and then we’ve continued to develop it over the last 12 months.
MW: Did you anticipate the response the game has had on a global level and in Australia?
JM: We were extremely excited about what we had with WMW?. We knew it was a great game and it’s amazing how it’s been received globally and really taken off. One of the great aspects of the App Store is that you’re never really sure what is going to resonate with people. We did a lot of focus testing and play testing to try to make sure we had something special, and we really felt thought throughout the development process that we did. But we didn’t expect that level of response.
We had no anticipation that people were going to consume the content so quickly or that it was going to resonate with basically all ages, all demographics and all walks of life so to speak, and it was a big shock to us when we started doing studies and found that that was the case.
Scott Bagshaw: The response from Australian gamers has been nothing short of amazing. I think core to the success and the reason why WMW? has been able to capture the imagination of people online and on-the-go is that it is a great game with a great character and story. The enjoyment and playability factor is very compelling.
MW: What is it about WMW? that is so appealing to such a far-reaching demographic?
JM: I think the thing that we found was that the accessibility and simplicity of the actual gameplay is the main driver behind that. We’ve got a lot of people responding to the fact that they play with their son or their daughter, mother, grandfather and so forth. The idea of solving puzzles and feeling smart at the end of the play experience is critical, and again bounces back to the original goal of having levels of success as opposed to levels of failure – we think it broadens the appeal far more than we anticipated.
MW: Can you tell us about the character of Swampy? Who is he? Why is he so loveable?
JM: Sure, so Swampy is a very curious character who has an idea that all of the alligators that live in the sewers with him should want to be as exploratory and as fun-loving as he is, and he tries to bring culture to the rest of the alligators. How he does that is he finds things that are thrown away or dropped down to the sewers from the human world, that he then misinterprets, so he figures he sees something and he uses a football helmet, for instance, as a bowl for soup or water.
The idea of him being this amicable, light-hearted character makes him loveable, because he’s sort of an outsider, but sort of not, so he is viewed as the person who knows a little bit more than everybody else which kind of makes the other characters a little jealous. But Swampy is also somebody who is so exploratory in what he does every day that there are constantly new things coming up in the world of Swampy, and the alligators have adhered to that and they figure that this is going to be a character who discovers something new and interesting wherever he goes.
He [Swampy] is so loveable because he is accessible. Everybody knows what an alligator is, or crocodile is, or reptile is, but I think one of the main things we did in the game that makes him loveable is the fact that you can interact with him, so when you tap on him he actually reacts; if you do things in the game world he actually reacts, and that’s something we hadn’t really seen in a lot of these apps that were out there at the time.
MW: Which industry accolades has the game received that you are most proud of?
JM: It’s not necessarily a specific accolade but there are collectively hundreds and thousands of apps out in the App Store, and to reach the top of this chart is just an amazing feat in general, and to stay there for some time was a major surprise but also very rewarding.
We’re also really pleased that WMW? has maintained one of the highest user ratings in the App Store. The other one in particular that the team and I are most proud of is the Apple Design award for 2012, it’s kind of like getting an Oscar award or an Emmy award in the industry of your choice. It was the top honour from Apple and it was something that was very unexpected but just an amazing achievement and everybody was really proud of that.
SB: In Australia, topping the Apple charts and having a sustained presence as a top game is humbling. It’s great that Swampy has so many fans out there and that they continue to seek new stories from this franchise.
MW: Where’s My Perry? is a spin-off game to the original, are there more plans for further expansion in the WMW? franchise?
JM: We have plans to continue to support the WMW? franchise, so whether that means there will be another spin-off, we don’t really want to get into that right now but generally we want to make the point that we feel there is value in the franchise and we want to continue to support that moving into the future.
MW: For people who don’t know, you walk us through a synopsis of the upcoming WMW? webisodes? What can fans expect to see?
JM: This was an opportunity for us to really further explore the character in the world of WMW? in a way that we wouldn’t be able to do in the game. The webisodes are for us to situationally explore what Swampy does day-to-day.
We found that a lot of people were asking questions again and again around the idea that Swampy misinterprets things coming into his world, so one of the early episodes has something that drops in the swamps, a shower, that is a very standard thing that everyone should know what it does. Swampy looks at it completely differently, and then utilises it in a very unexpected way, and a sort of chaos ensues.
The ides of the webisodes is that we want to present a peek into the life of Swampy, we want to have Cranky, Allie and the other characters, including Pushy, Shovy and Karl, make guest appearances and be part of it. But mainly it’s about Swampy having fun, interacting with things differently and the reactions from the world around him. We currently have 12 webisodes planned and they will last through until mid-December.
MW: Gamers seem to love that WMW is continually providing new levels and bonus features to the game, keeping things fresh and new. Is this the approach you foresee for the game in the long-term?
JM: I think specifically we continue to explore ways to try and expand the WMW? universe, and deliver value to the consumer. We want to continue to provide them with content so we’ve got the webisodes, as well as other things happening online. In direct content and levels, yes, we will continue to support the product in the same way that we are doing right now.
We’ve got over 500 levels in the game if you end up purchasing all the levels and also get all of the free levels. We think that there is significant value for the consumer, but we still want to make sure that we continue to deliver more content to them so that they continue to play and enjoy and learn more about what the game is about; what the world of Swampy is like, who he is and so forth.
For the long term? Obviously that’s a question for our fans and how much they continue to support us and continue to support Swampy. But we think it is critical for us to continue to explore that relationship between the consumer and Swampy and WMW? further.
MW: How has WMW? performed on the iOS platform compared to Android?
JM: As far as app performance what we look for is trying to maintain chart-topping performance with our applications and we’ve reached the top of the charts, both iOS and Android. The download numbers are significant for both platforms.
MW: Where do you see WMW? 10 years from now? Do you anticipate ongoing changes, or are you hoping to keep the game as close to the original as possible?
JM: I think overall its really hard to say from an App Store and entertainment perspective where WMW? will be 10 years from now. Swampy is the first character to transcend from Disney interactive into the amusement parks, we’ve also got the webisodes , we’ve got actual entertainment and other types of opportunities, so we absolutely continue to anticipate support of the franchise and want to explore ways to broaden its appeal and to continue to maintain relevancy.
I’m not talking just the game specifically, but other opportunities as well, in hopes that we can become another billion-dollar franchise for the Walt Disney Company and deliver quality entertainment to our consumers and our fans.
We absolutely have to have ongoing changes. The App Store is an amazing, frightening and exciting place to live in, and realistically it changes constantly, so in order for us to maintain our relevancy we have to change as well.
Years from now we want to be walking around the parks and we want to see the Swampy ride, we’d love to see a Swampy movie, we’d love to see a Swampy show on the Disney channel, you know, the opportunities for us are very ambitious but endless.
SB: What’s exciting for us at Disney is that Australians continue to be early adopters of any new technology, whether it be the iPhone 5 or newer tablets. Pushing the boundaries of what is available in terms of devices is exciting for content creators like Disney – it challenges us to continue to deliver compelling content. I think WMW? challenges the status quo and is a fabulous example of how a character and franchise can originate from a mobile game. Swampy really is a break-out star for today’s mobile generation.
MW: When fans offer feedback on the game, what are the most common things you hear?
JM: Generally the feedback is fantastic – they love the game. I think the most common revelation is how many people play with other people, so the fact that you’ve got a friend or family member come together and figure out a way to solve a puzzle, that’s the thing that really surprised us most. We often hear “fantastic product”, “great quality”, “love Swampy”. There’s also a lot of subtle team interaction we’ve built into the game, and we love the fact that a lot of fans have found our hidden levels and hidden interactivity pieces in there.
MW: Do you play WMW? personally? What is your favourite feature?
JM: Absolutely. As part of the development team, in the studio I have to play the games to make sure that the quality is there and that we have the things that we promised we were going to deliver. I’ve had a couple of experiences in my professional career where you find products that you enjoy playing, and this is absolutely one of them. I reset my game even when we don’t deliver new content or new updates about four or five times just to replay the levels, I really enjoy them.
I think my favourite feature is the fact that I feel like I can solve the puzzles in ways that weren’t intended by the team and the developers. So if I look at a level and they’re digging through the dirt, and they say “this is the way that you can solve the puzzle”, I always try to find a different way to try to get the water to Swampy’s tub. I think this is a great interesting feature and something that we really tried to explore when we were developing new game bonuses and characters – it’s almost a challenge for me to go try and figure out ways to beat my team and beat what they have set up.
SB: Of course! For me it’s similar to what Jim mentioned earlier about playing with family members; I play the game on the iPad with my young daughter and it’s one of the only games we play where our ability is on an even keel (probably says more about my gaming prowess than anything!). She has a more creative brain and tackles the puzzles in a different way than I would go about them. More often than not her way leads to success and it’s really rewarding as a parent to see the satisfaction she gets from this success. Of course, I do occasionally cheat and read the developers walk-throughs beforehand!
MW: Will Disney’s mobile platform continue to grow? Is iOS a significant part of its gaming future?
JM: Absolutely, but I don’t want to call it a platform, I want to call it mobile opportunities because when we look at this, really the objective of Disney Interactive, and the mobile group within that, is to continue to deliver at the highest quality to our consumers in all ways. We are even looking at opportunities in emerging countries, where they are using some of the older type of phones. It is a significant part of our growth opportunity, and we have to go to the place where our consumers are looking for content, and that is in the mobile space.
Is IOS a significant part of our gaming future? Its not just IOS, its, again, mobile gaming in general. Right now IOS is a significant portion of that, but we anticipate, like anything else, that we can deliver a lot of content that is relevant to our consumers wherever they may be.
MW: How many people work on the development and upkeep of WMW? What is a typical day for the team?
JM: I would say overall that we have about 25 people working on both Where’s My Water? and Where’s My Perry? Simultaneously. Some of the engineers, designers and artists kind of bounce back and forth between them
A typical day for the team? This is pretty fun, the first thing that they always do is come in in the morning and do a scrum or a stand up, meaning they talk about what the objectives of the current sprint are, and we usually have about two-week sprints where the team goes through and delivers a new version of the game that’s updated every two weeks for production purposes.
From there they go off and do their specific tasks that are required for that day and continue to move through our production cycle. For the most part, we work in a really open environment; we have no cubes, we don’t have any walls. We’re moving to a new office soon where we literally have no walls, no offices, or anything, which should be fantastic. Overall there is a lot of fun and playfulness in the team and I think at least once a day a nerf war breaks out so its pretty enjoyable from that aspect.
MW: Are there any hot tips or game secrets you can share with Macworld Australia readers?
JM: There are a bunch of hidden levels within the game, if you look on some of the screens you can see maybe the artwork or if you have other apps installed, you may see a little surprise on a couple of the screens, so definitely look for that. The most sure tip is that a lot of the levels can be solved in multiple ways – just be experimental and have fun with it.
The idea of Tri Ducking is something which we coined when we were working on the game that resonated, when you do tri-ducks, if you tri-duck a pack, you get to look into your bath tub and get the duck that you tri-duck. Once you get all the tri-ducks, you can also find a way to unlock hidden content that way too. So, there’s a lot of fun little interactive things in the game that you can explore and discover.