Tim FitzRandolph has a dream. In that dream, he arrives at Disneyland in California with his six-year-old daughter just in time to watch the parade of Disney characters marching down Main Street USA.
All the well-known faces are there – Mickey, Cinderella, Buzz Lightyear and the rest – but in FitzRandolph’s dream, there’s an extra character bringing up the rear: a green alligator called Swampy, the star of Disney Mobile’s smash hit game Where’s My Water?
“If you went to Disneyland and sat down for the parade, and one of the things that came by was a character from a game I worked on, that would be incredible,” says FitzRandolph, the game’s lead designer and VP of creative at Disney Mobile. “Oh, man, that would be amazing.”
It’s not a pipe dream. Since its launch in September 2011, Where’s My Water? has racked up more than 200 million downloads, even knocking the feathered furies of Angry Birds off the iTunes Store’s top spot for paid apps. More than just a game, it’s a cross-media franchise spawning two sequels – Where’s My Perry? and, more recently, Where’s My Mickey? – a web cartoon series, and a tonne of merchandise from plushies and backpacks to clothing and even iPhone covers. “We call it a ‘synergy title’,” says Bart Decrem, Disney Mobile’s head of creative end product.
While FitzRandolph’s dream of meeting a life-sized Swampy in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty Castle isn’t yet a reality, it’s surely only a matter of time. “From what I understand, it’s not out of the question,” he says. “Discussions are moving forward but I don’t know what point they’re at.” Swampy, the first Disney character ever to launch on a mobile device, has redefined how the company sees the mobile sector. How ironic, then, that he wasn’t even the starting point for the creators of Where’s My Water?.
Decrem joined Disney Mobile in 2010 after the company acquired his startup Tapulous, creator of the hit iOS music game Tap Tap Revenge. Back then, the mobile sector was just beginning to explode. “When I came to Disney, the mandate was really to articulate a vision and strategy for Disney to be relevant on iPhones and then tablets as they came out,” he explains. “When I joined, there were maybe 200 million of these devices out there. Now, three years later, we’re at 1.5 billion.”
With new leadership in place, Disney Mobile turned its attention from setting up licensing deals with external developers to in-house development. Among the talent headhunted from other parts of the Mouse House was FitzRandolph, who was working as a designer on console titles like Toy Story 3 at Disney’s Avalanche Software in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In his spare time, FitzRandolph had made Jelly Car, a cute and wobbly physics driving game for iOS and Xbox 360 (Disney later picked up the series). Increasingly more interested in playing and building mobile titles than console ones, he jumped at the chance to join a new Disney Mobile dev team – named Creature Feep – in sunny Glendale, California.
Creature Feep’s first game was Jelly Car 3, a sequel that allowed the team get to know each other before tackling a new IP. Aware that their expertise lay in casual physics games, the group started brainstorming their first original game once JC3 had shipped.
“Where’s My Water? started out as just ‘Water’,” remembers FitzRandolph of those early spitballing sessions. “We thought fluid simulation could be cool, and it was underrepresented in the App Store and in gaming generally at the time. At first we thought the fluid itself could maybe be a character you were guiding around, but then we had a session where we drew a side view of an ant farm-style cutaway, and we thought about touching the screen to cut the dirt [in order to make the water flow].”
Uncertain whether it was worth spending the time coding a complex fluid physics simulation, the team put together a prototype in Unity. “We put in a bunch of spheres with no friction on them to simulate how water would bounce and flow around. Then we quickly made a thing where you could cut away dirt with your finger.” Immediately the team came up with over a dozen puzzle ideas, and realised they had a potential game.
While working on an engine in C++ and OpenGL, with a custom-built fluid simulation, the group also started thinking hard about the design of the game itself. “We asked the Disney question,” Decrem says, “and the Disney question is: ‘Why are you cutting through soil? What’s going on down there?’”
Early iterations focused on cute little seedlings, buried under the ground, that needed water; a great visual clue for letting players instantly understand the purpose of moving the water, but not very rich in terms of character. When the idea of an alligator living in the sewers – a riff on the old New York City urban legend about a pet gator flushed down the toilet – was pitched, everyone dismissed it as too outlandish.
The alternatives they came up with proved even weirder, though. “We had one idea for an alien world,” FitzRandolph remembers. “There were these aliens who slept underground and their alarm clock was broken, so you had to splash them with water. We would get into this loop where we tried to explain some aspect that justified the game and, in explaining it, created a thousand more questions.” Returning to the alligator in the sewers, the team started mocking up pictures – and finally realised that they’d hit on something special.
“The Swampy thing was unexpected,” Decrem remembers. “I remember my boss calling me, just a few weeks before the game launched, from Animal Kingdom at Disney World Florida. He said: ‘Hey, I’m looking at an alligator and he looks like he wants to eat me. Are you sure you can build an alligator that’s cuddly and fun and friendly?’” Reversing expectations was the secret behind Swampy’s success. Living underground, desperate for water to trickle through the pipes so he can have a shower, he isn’t the grubby, scary gator of legend, but an adorable dude with a rubber duck who just wants to get clean. Take one look at Swampy, waiting expectantly under the showerhead, and you can immediately guess what the game is asking you to do. Unlike traditional movie-licensed games – which start with a character and then retrofit gameplay around them – Where’s My Water? made a virtue of finding the right character for its gameplay.
It helped that the game was so intuitive – something that grew out of the physics-based mechanics. “Making a game with physics at its core is a shortcut to making a really accessible game,” says FitzRandolph, “because it kind of behaves how you expect. That means it can be inherently accessible to a super-wide audience – not worrying about culture, about age, about background. If you’ve seen water flow growing up, you’re pretty much prepped to play the game.”
For the team, the technical challenge centred on the fluid simulation itself and the need to create an environment that the player could cut into dynamically. Onscreen, it seems deceptively simple. Under the hood, however, the model is more complex than it looks to the casual observer. The water is comprised of tiny particles governed by certain parameters like viscosity and pressure. Each particle attracts or repels other particles, depending on the distance between them, to create a realistic model of how water works.
Accessibility was also a key consideration when it came to designing the game’s puzzles, which feature everything from tainted water to fast-growing algae and switches. “We decided you should be able to describe each puzzle in a sentence,” says the designer.
“The key was that you have a relatively small number of elements that make up all the possibilities in the game. You only have a few fluids types, a few kinds of materials. We tried to keep the number of gimmicks like switches and moving objects to a small number. So, in theory, all the pieces that make up the puzzles the players can keep in their brain at one time. It’s not too much, not overwhelming. But if you draw lines between all the things that interact with each other you get a really complex, messy graph.”
Aiming to make players feel smart for solving puzzles – and encouraging them to succeed – the team worked hard to hit a sweet spot that would appeal to a variety of players, regardless of whether they were six or 60. As Decrem puts it: “A great Disney movie, like John Lasseter [director of Toy Story and Cars, and now chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios] says, makes the world a little brighter. [For us], a great puzzle develops your brain, gives you a sense of accomplishment. You feel like you’re learning and growing in a way that’s really fun and rich. To me, that part of it is very Disney. You come out and it feels like the world is a little better, you’re a little better and you think a little bigger.”
Disney is used to spending hundreds of millions of dollars launching new IP and new characters. Each new movie or TV show is a huge financial gamble for the company. Where’s My Water? cost a fraction of that, yet it succeeded in launching a character who is now recognisable around the world.
For Decrem, what’s significant about the mobile sector is that it lets Disney be experimental. “Creating new IP and new characters and worlds really is the lifeblood of The Walt Disney Company,” he says. “One of the things that’s interesting is that on the App Store, on these new platforms, you can have a small group of people create what is essentially an experimental title and see how it does. If it resonates, you can put the whole company behind it.”
When Where’s My Water? was released in September 2011, the game was only available on iPhone, and it didn’t even feature in-app commerce elements. “There was not a lot of support from the company when it launched,” Decrem explains. “But when people started playing it and it became successful, then the video group came to us and there was an opportunity with YouTube. Out of that came a video series, with more than 50 million views of the Swampy shorts on Disney.com and YouTube. A whole line of merchandise [was launched] when Disney consumer products got excited. The company basically put itself behind it.”
This ‘bottom up’ approach enabled Disney to build a new brand in the mobile sector that could then expand to other areas of the company. “The MVP [Minimal Viable Product] approach is all the rage in Silicon Valley,” Decrem says. “What it says is, ‘try to build the smallest, simplest version of your product that delivers the essential thing and nothing else’. The advantages of that are focus and speed and cost. In the case of Where’s My Water?, that meant building just the iPhone game. Don’t have any in-app commerce, barely any Facebook integration, don’t worry about making a theme show or merchandise – just nail the core gameplay. By not worrying about a franchise plan and all of that stuff, but instead focusing on really nailing the game, you can go and build on success when you have a hit.”
With the boom of the mobile sector, particularly abroad in non-western countries, Where’s My Water? is emblematic of how Disney is reaching out to a new kind of consumer. “What we have, for the first time in history, is essentially a network that reaches more than a billion people where we can talk to who we call ‘guests’ directly, without an intermediary to really speak of,” Decrem explains. “Essentially a whole generation of kids in the western market – and adults in, for example, India or China – are being introduced to Disney characters and worlds through this medium.”
Where’s My Water? may be a casual game, but for Disney it’s part of a very serious growth strategy into new worldwide markets and mediums. With the Where’s My…? series already expanding beyond Swampy to embrace Disney’s biggest icon Mickey Mouse, what does the future hold? Decrem has an ambitious vision: “We are somewhere around over 200 million downloads [with Where’s My Water?]. The goal is to reach a billion people. We’re not there yet.”