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Why Disney entrusted Mickey and Friends to an indie studio

Industry Commentary
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Cast your mind back to the beginning of the ‘90s. The console wars are in full swing, with Nintendo’s moustached plumber and Sega’s hedgehog mascot fighting to win the hearts of gamers and more space on shop shelves. But while many consider Sonic The Hedgehog to be the pinnacle of 2D platformers on the Sega Mega Drive, Disney’s Castle of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse, released a year earlier in 1990, was one of the first games to throw its hat (or rather marbles) in the ring against Mario. 

Castle of Illusion was well received by critics and gamers alike, with its success leading to three sequels – notably the co-op adventure World of Illusion starring Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck – several ports, compilations, and even a HD remake in 2013, where the franchise has laid dormant ever since. Until now, that is. 

Disney Illusion Island for Nintendo Switch - Nintendo Official Site
image: Disney

Disney is placing the IP into the very safe hands of Dlala Studios after it announced the release of Disney Illusion Island, an all-new 1–4 player cooperative adventure platformer. That’s a great fit for Dlala, given the studio is best known for developing the brawler Overruled and rebooting Rare’s 1991 beat ‘em’ up, Battletoads, as a three-player co-op game. 

It’s worth exploring how and why an indie studio with just a handful of shipped releases under its belt managed to get its hands on a Disney IP. Conveniently, Dlala’s CEO, Aj Grand-Scrutton, shared the studio’s pitching process that led to it working with Disney in a recent Gamesindustry.biz Academy article. The full piece is worth a read, but we’ll share some of the biggest learnings below. 

It’s worth mentioning that this technically isn’t the first time Dlala has worked with a Disney IP. An unannounced title was in the works but eventually canned after Disney shut down its gaming publishing arm, Disney Interactive Studios, in 2016. Despite this, Grand Scrutton says he pitched his idea for Illusion Island in 2019. Knowing the ins and outs of the IP you want to work with is key. 

"Before pitching this to Disney, I went and I watched all the cartoons on Disney+, I read the comics, I've read the Bible-length '90-year History of Mickey Mouse.' I went back and played the old games, I went into the Disney fandom Wiki. I made sure that my passion for Mickey was supported by my knowledge of Mickey,” he tells Gamesindustry.biz 

There are plenty of other reasons why this partnership makes sense for both Disney and Dlala. 

  • While the studio hasn’t worked with any major IP outside of Battletoads, its staff have, so Grand Scrutton included this in his pitch deck for Disney Illusion. 
  • Dlala’s team of hand-drawn 2D specialists lends itself perfectly to the art style and aesthetic of this IP. 
  • Rebooting a Disney IP on console/PC makes a lot of strategic sense for Disney. Disney still has a strong presence in gaming despite the closure of Disney Interactive Studios, largely thanks to the success of its mobile games and the recent release of Disney Dreamlight Valley – but its software line-up on console and PC falls far short of the numbers it's doing on mobile. Similar to Battletoads, rebooting the Illusion IP could help engage veteran gamers familiar with the franchise while attracting new players. 
  • As a co-op adventure platformer, the release of Disney Illusion is perfectly timed and a great market fit right now. Co-op games are thriving, and two of the best-selling ones – Streets of Rage 4 and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Shredders Revenge – just so happen to be sequels for dormant IPs. 
  • Finally, this game has two clear target markets: families and retro gaming fans. The couch co-op nature of Disney Illusions is a great fit for the Nintendo Switch in particular. 

It’s worth mentioning that these are just our thoughts on why the partnership makes sense. If you’re interested in hearing more about Dlala’s work with Disney, you’ll be able to hear from Grand Scrutton himself on how they successfully pitched Disney and what it’s been like working with the IP in our next podcast. 

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