One Name, Two Games: Virtual Magic Kingdom

| 21 Oct 2021

The Unraveling

Concurrent to the production of Virtual Magic Kingdom for a short time was a tie-in to the mature action film The Rock, starring Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage, and Ed Harris. Not much was made public about the game, and it was cancelled behind closed doors.

We talked budgets in our first interview session. In total, The Rock cost an estimated $3 million. Ultimately, Virtual Magic Kingdom would reach as far as $8 million.

In the grand scope of Disney’s operations, $8 million was a small fraction of an animated film’s budget – barely one-tenth the budget of Hercules. However, both Disney Interactive and Feature Animation were experiencing rapid budget inflation, and the sales of games reportedly remained stagnant.

Not only that, but the company was in the midst of one of the biggest spending sprees it had seen up to that point. With the construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the launch of Disney Cruise Line, and the $19 billion merger-of-equals with Capital Cities/ABC at the top of that list, it’s hard to believe that the smaller divisions were either cash-strapped or blowing their budgets.

The way it was explained, much of VMK‘s budget went to up-front equipment costs, followed by payroll for the sheer number of people involved.

Michael Cukar
Michael Cukar 2D Art Director, Disney Interactive
I mean, just our setup alone, we had six SGI operators. And at the time, the one system – with the SGI machine and the program – was $300,000 for one station. Each artist had two.

So they had a ton of money invested in the machines to crank this game out.

After The Rock was cancelled, VMK was left as the largest project in the division by far. It was reported that around one-third of the entire Disney Interactive staff was assigned to VMK.

Thom Schillinger
Thom Schillinger 3D Art Director, Disney Interactive
We had nine producers. It reminds me of Office Space, as – you do something wrong, you got nine people yelling at ya.

Two of them were seasoned, and seven were right out of college. So they had no idea what they were in store for. And you know, it was tough.

So we had to do a lot of reeling in, and we had to figure out how they would talk to the artists, and the artists would freak out. And so we developed all these ways to basically protect our artists from nine different producers, coming to them on a daily basis asking them for art.

The senior producers like Roger really facilitated training them. And now, I don’t know how many of them stayed in entertainment.

By this point, Terry Dobson had already switched back to Imagineering full-time. He was assigned to the next phase of Innoventions to be launched in October 1997. Despite not being actively involved anymore with his pitched idea, he had few regrets.

Terry Dobson
Terry Dobson Art Director, Walt Disney Imagineering
At that point, the gameplay was figured out. All of the artwork was figured out. And so it kind of went into the pipeline.

I remember what it sort of felt like. I’m putting this now into the machine pipeline of packaging consumer products to go to market, and so it felt a little bit like they’re done with me, right?

And then, things began to change with one high-level meeting, centered around work that they had already largely completed.

West of the Alamo

Pecos Bill was a character first published in 1917 by Tex O’Reilly, an ex-mercenary who was known to embellish his own tour of duty. Bill’s best-known portrayal by far was in the Disney anthology film Melody Time, where the outlandish tales of his life are played as sincerely in song as with any Disney comic relief character.

In fact, a case can be made that Pecos Bill was to post-war Disney what “Chuck Norris facts” would be to mid-2000s internet culture.

However, the Pecos Bill segment in Melody Time eventually caused trouble for a new generation of Disney home video censors, as he’d roll his own cigarettes and point his gun at the viewer. And as it turned out, trying to do something similar for Virtual Magic Kingdom would cause an existential problem that would cascade.

There was apparently a struggle to choose anyone other than Pecos Bill to be involved in Frontierland, but eventually the land was supplemented mostly with characters original to VMK. Bill even got a talking female pistol as a companion, which Holzberg cautiously described in the interview as “his jilted girlfriend of a six-gun”.

The cutscene on the hotseat involved an enemy bandit sternly taunting the player, pointing his gun with intent to fire, before being sucked up from behind by a twister.

Michael Cukar
Michael Cukar 2D Art Director, Disney Interactive
We had Frontierland completely rendered. It was done, top to bottom. And we had other lands, but that was probably one of the first things that we showed. I think we had a presentation with Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz at the corporate office. And they were sitting on either side of the monitor as we were showing this.

That was like, “You can’t point a gun at a kid’s face.” But it was an amazing cinematic bit.
Chip Beaman
Chip Beaman Associate Producer, Disney Interactive
It was immediate. I didn’t go to that pitch, but when [they] came back, I remember it was within a week, it was like, “We can’t have the gun. We can’t do this. We can’t do that.” It was a massive shift in the thinking. I remember that vividly.

A shooting gallery in Frontierland was also a casualty, being changed to a water balloon throwing game.

Roger Holzberg
Roger Holzberg Creative Director, Disney Interactive
That meeting with Eisner and Ovitz didn’t kill the game. It redesigned the tone of the gameplay. And it stayed very playable and very fun. With the younger demographic that would have bought into that game, I’m not convinced that they were wrong in making the call they made.

However, the content change did open up some questions about scope. Since changing any gameplay and cinematics beyond that would be another block of expense, the feasibility of designing and building four unique virtual lands became vulnerable to second-guessing.

Tim Decker
Tim Decker Animation Director, Disney Interactive
You know, I think what it was is…

After the meeting with Michael [Eisner]… Michael had meetings with other people. Our heads of state, if you would.

I mean, he liked it. He just wasn’t sure about the gun. That was a big thing, he wasn’t sure about that. I don’t think he… his instincts were like, “Hold on, we gotta rethink this thing.” And I think they already poured a lot of money into it, and he was like, “Well, we did a lot, but do we see a lot?” You know what I mean? And at the time, Disney Interactive was really kind of hemorrhaging too.

Drastic Contraction

Then, on April 17, 1997, a bombshell came down. Rumors had been circulating about a layoff at Disney Interactive, after a shift of upper-company management led to new budget rules being implemented across the company. But that day, the news was official.

Thom Schillinger
Thom Schillinger 3D Art Director, Disney Interactive
At one point, we had 20+ 3D artists, and then we had the big layoff, and they dropped us down to three. And we went from 1600 people to 450 in an afternoon.
I got out of my car, and 9 News was right in my face. And they knew my name, they knew my position. They were like, “Thom Schillinger, art director. Did you know this was coming?”
And [I’m] like, “Whoa! No comment.”

The actual number of staff at Disney Interactive at that point is disputed – our interviewees counted a lot more than the reported figures of 90 laid off among 425 – the discrepancy is likely discounting contractors and outsourced talent on the many game teams.

Also given as an official reason was that the studio wanted to pivot game production fully back to third-party development. The grand experiment to incubate new in-house Hollywood game studios – for the most part – was over.

Michael Cukar
Michael Cukar 2D Art Director, Disney Interactive
That was some messy stuff, right? It took them, like, several months for them to get to that final layoff. There was a push and pull on it. “It’s happening, it’s not happening.” It was pretty rough.
Thom Schillinger
Thom Schillinger 3D Art Director, Disney Interactive
And they dropped it on us, and we didn’t know it was coming. And then all of a sudden, we were down – 75 percent of Disney Interactive was gone in a day. Yeah. That was a sad day, ‘cause we knew that our project was changing.

First question they asked us the next day was, “Can you make the deadline?” I’m like, “We lost, like, 30+ artists on our team. There’s no way.”

I left and got out of my contract at that time, just because they wanted to have us do 60-80 hour work weeks, and do crunch time for the whole project, ‘cause at that point, they were still wanting to do VMK. And I was like, “That’s just not gonna work. I’m not gonna work that much for, you know, 80 hours for 40 hours of pay.” And then they ended up killing it anyway.

That August, new management slid into Disney Interactive, chiefly Jan Smith from Disney Publishing and Steve Finney from Walt Disney Records. Most of our interviewees did not want to revisit the ensuing drama with explicit name-dropping, but what happened next is vital to the story.

Specifically, the new management had to see what they were getting themselves into.

Roger Holzberg
Roger Holzberg Creative Director, Disney Interactive
They demanded to see a demo of everything that was in process.

And I remember going in to the person that we were all now reporting up to, with a copy of Frontierland, which was very playable at that point. I began the demo with the opening cinematic and selected Frontierland from Disneyland’s hub.

Boy, am I reticent to say this. But I remember doing that demo, and I remember… a new executive saying, “Um, that circle with the cross in it.”
And I said, “The crosshairs?”
“Right, that crosshairs thing. How– What is that, and how are you moving it around on the computer screen?”

And I said, “Oh well, um, that’s actually a cursor. Like, normally, when you’re doing normal programs, it would be an arrow. But you know, we’ve redesigned the cursor so it’s a circle with a cross in it. Because, you know, it’s kinda like a sight for a gun.” I didn’t wanna say that, but I had to say it.

And they went, “Oh, okay I understand. So that’s really just like a different graphic of the arrow.”
“And how are you making that gun thing shoot those balls at the ghosts?”

And I’m not kidding you, I bit my tongue so hard that I tasted blood.

“Um, I’m pushing the button on top of the mouse.”

I knew we were in deep s*** at that point.

Sure enough, those questions of scope became more and more central to the conversation. The process efficiency was put into question.

Tim Decker
Tim Decker Animation Director, Disney Interactive
I would say VMK was the most professional team there, in regards to planning and trying to get things done and making it look right. And I do think, for what we made, it was beautiful. And for the time, it was amazing.

But you know, that took a lot of time, a lot of render time. I mean, guys would have stuff, and they’d say, “Well, what’d you do today?”
“Well I was rendering, you know. Rendered for two more days,” or something.

You know it’s like, “Jesus, man, come on.” And that just ate up time and money.

The render and animation pipelines theoretically could have been excused, since it was effectively the same as waiting on render time for CAPS or Renderman for one of the films. But much more detrimental was the sheer lack of existing characters to work with.

Terry Dobson
Terry Dobson Art Director, Disney Imagineering
The hard land that we never figured out – and that’s why it was always last – was Tomorrowland. And it’s because the characters and stories are still changing. Now, it’s more Star Wars Land. That wasn’t even an option back then. So at the best, it was kind of like, Zurg from [Toy Story]. But even that was early, because it hadn’t arrived at Disneyland at that point. Buzz Lightyear hadn’t even been installed there yet. That was the problem with Tomorrowland, we couldn’t figure out who those characters were.

We imagined that Walt Disney designed the parks to fit in these nice, like, easy, comparable kind of lands. But it wasn’t, it was more organic. It evolved over time. There’s new lands that are kind of being, you know, added on all over.

But at that point, it was, “How do we divide this up evenly? How do we make it, you know, commensurate between Fantasyland, which is so rich and everyone knows those stories, and then you’ve got Adventureland, and people love the Jungle Cruise and Pirates, right?

But then we go even further down to Frontierland, and we’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s Pecos Bill.” Like Pecos Bill, nobody’s even heard of him, right? So we have this whole narrative that’s built on a character. So we’re really dying, really kind of hoping the studios or Pixar or somebody was gonna come out with a new narrative that we could base a cowboy character on, and same for Tomorrowland.

By putting all those resources into one large, standalone game meant to encapsulate the spirit of the Disney theme parks, the team inadvertently ran up against the one guiding principle that kept the parks and Imagineers alive – they “will never be completed”. VMK was, by nature, going to be simply a snapshot of the Disney ecosystem, but the sheer size and release schedule was getting too hard to justify.

In just a two-year span, the pre-rendered FMV style of storytelling was superceded by real-time 3D and the Internet. For as much work that had been put into making Virtual Magic Kingdom, management was fully ready to cut their losses and move on.

Within a year, another meeting set down the final edict. Virtual Magic Kingdom, as they knew it, was over.

Michael Cukar
Michael Cukar 2D Art Director, Disney Interactive
That was tough for a lot of people to see it change that drastically. Just an emotional shift with so many people on the team, when that became the reality.

They gave people that chance to, “You guys can go over to Imagineering”, and some people took options, but it was tough. A lot of people had spent so much of their life and time and effort into this game. To see it end so abruptly was really hard. A lot of people left, just ‘cause emotionally, they were done.

In the initial layoff, many of DI’s artists were cut loose and had to find other positions elsewhere. Cukar’s counterpart in the console games, John Fiorito, found a new home for many of his coworkers at Insomniac Games, headquarted in nearby Universal City.

Others took the offers to move to other positions within Disney. Imagineering took on a large pool of creative talent to work on millennium events for the parks, including Holzberg. Schillinger also joined Imagineering and stayed within the company until 2000, but he couldn’t fully get out of Interactive.

Thom Schillinger
Thom Schillinger 3D Designer, Walt Disney Imagineering
So what was really funny is there was a moment – and Mike [was] still working at Disney Interactive at the time, and I was in the next building over, right next door, working during the day for Imagineering, and I would just walk back over to my old job, and I’d come in, and I’d sketch there. I remember waving at [him] going in one building, and I’d walk in next door.

I was working on some Winnie the Pooh stuff and some other things, and so even after I left, I was still a freelance asset for the guys.

However, that edict wasn’t a total shutdown. It was a pivot.

Tim Decker
Tim Decker Animation Director, Disney Interactive
I remember talking to people in the meeting saying, “Look, we’ve got something here. Let’s not just throw it all away. There’s some beautiful stuff here that we can make into a game. It may not be the elaborate, beautiful, amazing, historical game that we were making, but it’s still going to be an exciting game to play, and a fun game for kids to play.”

And when it comes down to it, when you’re at Disney, it’s about the kids.