The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

[28 September 2010]

By Arun Subramanian

For as much of a media powerhouse as Disney is, they haven’t really had a ton of success with video games.  That might be due to the increasing distance in age between the average gamer and the target demographic for the typical Disney property.   Perusing the studio’s catalog, there are certainly glimpses of an effort to become a successful game producer with titles like Pure and Split/Second.  Disney also clearly had some arrangement with Q! Entertainment, as Lumines II, Every Extend Extra, and some other titles are listed as published by Disney Interactive.

But these games, while enjoyable and potentially profitable to Disney, don’t really fit the Disney brand.  Indeed, while Disney has been responsible for a glut of releases mining its core assets, the titles bearing Disney characters seem largely to be nothing more than an effort to wrap a mediocre game in a recognizable Disney package.  The obvious exceptions, those titles that have been developed both using Disney’s chief assets and clearly developed with the seasoned gamer in mind, are the Kingdom Hearts titles, and the forthcoming, Warren Spector helmed Epic Mickey.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was originally an 18th Century German poem.  Though for most of us, our first exposure to the story was through the animated Disney film, Fantasia.  The image of Mickey with his red cloak and sorcerer’s hat being overwhelmed by an army of sentient brooms is an iconic one.  For some reason, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was reincarnated this past summer as a Jerry Bruckheimer film starring Nicholas Cage, loosely related to the short that we’re all familiar with, and predictably we now have a game tie-in for the Nintendo DS.  As with many movie tie-ins, there’s a lot of room for improvement.  It’s a passable, though repetitive, action title.  It makes decent use of the DS touchscreen, and some of its visual elements are appealing.  Younger gamers who are fans of the film (clearly the target demographic) might be entertained by it.  But it’s also completely forgettable, and seems to be of limited appeal to anyone else.

It seems bizarre to me that the game was only chosen for release on the Nintendo DS.  It seems as though if Disney had any faith in the title’s quality or appeal, they would have developed meatier versions for home consoles.  It actually seems like a title that might have approached the different motion controls of the PS3, 360, and Wii in quite unique ways.  However, the decision to go the DS-only route may well have been a conscious one, given that in this day and age $29.99 is a reasonable price for a DS game while still being in the impulse buy range, particularly on the way home from the movie theater.

So what could Disney have done to give this game broader appeal?  Well, they might have started by making a title related to the classic animated short from Fantasia instead of trying to necessarily have the game be so closely tied to the modern film.  I understand the concept of movie tie-in games from a financial standpoint.  However, since the art style in the game doesn’t really attempt to emulate the movie too closely anyway, why not scrap it altogether and use an animated approach that evokes the classic Disney style?  Certainly, if people were interested in the brand of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice because of the film, they’d be willing to try a Sorcerer’s Apprentice game with a classical presentation.  Further, an action title or platformer starring apprentice Mickey might have attracted gamers that never had any intention of seeing the movie to begin with.

Edward Jay Epstein’s fantastic The Big Picture: Money and Power in Hollywood and The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies explore the convoluted way in which movie studios actually make money in this day and age.  We’re in an era where the vast majority of movie-related profit comes from licensing the rights to film properties.  The films themselves, when it comes to what most of us think of as contributors to net profit (box office receipts, for example), generally lose money.  But because of license rights, merchandising makes the studios money, the quality of either the original property or the licensed merchandise notwithstanding.  In the context of this information, it’s difficult not to view the overall lackluster quality of movie tie-in games even more cynically.  With a few notable exceptions, these games are poorly developed, forgettable, or both.  It’s as though the developers are trying to package the assets of a film into a game with some knowledge of the fundamentals of game design, while relying on the source material alone to set the title apart from the pack.

The reality is that while there’s nothing particularly awful about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, there’s nothing fantastic about it either.  It’s a title with limited appeal that looks and controls well enough.  Financially, it very well may serve the purpose for which it was created.  But as a game, it’s simply nothing special.

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