Thank Kingdom Hearts For Epic Mickey

No, the head of Disney's gaming division wasn't taking the bait and announcing Kingdom Hearts 3 here at the annual DICE convention near Las Vegas. But he did tell Kotaku that franchise paved the way for another big Disney game.

"It forced us to challenge assumptions," Disney's game studio chief Graham Hopper said of the blockbuster series that mashes up Disney and Final Fantasy characters. Hopper recalled that, years ago and before he was working at the company, there were people at Disney who had said the game "was an abomination." But fans loved it, not minding its mixing of worlds and instead cheering it to great success.

Hopper pointed to the current sales success in Japan of the latest Kingdom Hearts, the PSP's Birth By Sleep. "That franchise is alive and its doing very well," he said.

And its influence on Disney's growing game-making ambition?

"If you look at nothing else, you can look at Disney Epic Mickey taking the characters and showing them in a surprising way," Hopper said. Epic Mickey, the forthcoming Wii Mickey Mouse game from renowned game designer Warren Spector and his Junction Point Studios, puts Disney's lead mascot in a darker steampunk-influenced world, facing off with forgotten character's of Disney's earliest cartoons. (See Kotaku's extensive Epic Mickey chat with Spector)

Both Epic Mickey and Kingdom Hearts take creative risks with Disney characters that just wouldn't have flown years ago. Kingdom Hearts was the breakthrough.

Hopper added that the success of Square-Enix designer Tetsuya Nomura, who has creatively led the Kingdom Hearts franchise, helped prepare Disney for granting Spector his own creative influence on the Epic Mickey project.

In both cases, the games take Disney outside its comfort zone of what to do with its characters, and while Kingdom Hearts may have been considered an abomination in some corners of Disney before it was out, the tune has changed and the company is open to just that kind of unconventional design.

As for a Kingdom Hearts 3? Hopper had "nothing to say on it," declining to address whether the project is underway.

Hopper was talking alongside his boss, Disney interactive media group president Steve Wadsworth, who had just delivered the keynote address at DICE. Wadsworth had outlined what he described as Disney's consumer-first strategy of listening to its young customers, incorporating their ideas and striving to meet the demands of a generation that always had the Internet and wants their entertainment experiences connected across platforms. Wadsworth's talk highlighted successes such as Disney's Club Penguin — the executive said that even the DS spin-off has sold 1.5 million copies, with a billion Club Penguin coins uploaded from the game to the home web platform and announced that a DS sequel will be officially announced tomorrow. He showed trailer peeks at Split Second, Epic Mickey, the forthcoming Tron Evolution game, which he said would bridge the original movie with the new one, and the action role-playing game Pirates of the Caribbean Armada of the Damned.

Afterward, talking with Kotaku and other reporters, Wadsworth praised Kingdom Hearts as an example of showing how Disney's franchises, even those thought to be targeted at kids, could appeal to a core gaming market.

Both Disney men name-checked Marvel, which Disney recently acquired, but they said the transaction was too recent for any new gaming plans related to the characters to be fully formulated. In other words, your Kotaku reporter asked if they'd do a Kingdom Hearts-style mash-up game with Marvel and Disney characters — or, more seriously, if Disney hoped to eventually make Marvel games in-house — but they wouldn't say.

Hopper and Wadsworth were bullish on upcoming Disney racing game Split/Second. And Epic Mickey, obviously they're into it. Thanks, in no small part, it seems, to Kingdom Hearts.