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Disney branch buys Salt Lake game developer

Deseret Morning News graphic

A Salt Lake video game development company is joining up with the "Mouse House."

Buena Vista Games Inc., the interactive entertainment arm of The Walt Disney Co., said Tuesday that it will purchase Salt Lake-based Avalanche Software LC and open a separate development studio in Vancouver, Canada, as it aims to become a top-tier game publisher.

Financial details of the transaction were not released, but John Blackburn, president of privately held Avalanche, said Disney told The Wall Street Journal that the price was less than $50 million. Blackburn confirmed that the deal was all cash.

Bountiful native Blackburn helped found Avalanche in 1995. The company has grown to the point that it now has about 115 employees, all in its Salt Lake offices. Its game titles include "Mortal Kombat," "Tak and the Power of Juju," "Dragonball Z Sagas: Evolution" and the upcoming "25 to Life."

Avalanche also is developing "Disney's Chicken Little" video games, based on Walt Disney Pictures' animated feature film scheduled for release in November.

"We kind of grew up a little bit from the time we started the company until now," Blackburn said Tuesday. "We all grew up and had kids and started making games for our kids that they could play. We've been doing a lot more family content lately."

And that fits in perfectly with Disney, which Blackburn described as "the greatest entertainment company of our time."

"The plan is that not only is everybody going to stay, but we've got some growth plans for the future," Blackburn said. "Right now we've got 3 1/2 game teams. We will fill that out to a fourth team, so about 150 people (total) . . . over the next two years. . . .

"Part of the contract is that we get to keep it here. One of the reasons for that is, strategically, there's a bunch of different cities that are video game development hubs, and Salt Lake City is one of those, so Disney wants a presence here."

And Avalanche is excited to have a presence in Disney, he said. "Creatively, it's kind of cool, because now we get to see up the skirt of Disney a little bit," Blackburn said. "It's allowing us a longer time frame to work on the games, and because we're a part of Disney, there will be a higher level of trust, . . . so they can show us things and we can start on games earlier."

Buena Vista, based in Burbank, Calif., said the new Vancouver studio will be run by former Electronic Arts developers that created the "NBA Street" and "Def Jam" franchises. The studio has more than 20 game developers.

The two deals reflect a change in strategy for Disney, Disney games spokeswoman Angela Emery said in an interview. The company previously relied solely on licensing its movies and characters to companies such as THQ Inc., the maker of "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo" games.

"All the media companies want to get into the category because they own and control the content," Minneapolis-based Piper Jaffray & Co. video-game analyst Anthony Gikas said in an interview. "It's brands that sell video games."

Disney will continue to license some of its brands to other publishers after the $50 million spent on Avalanche and the new studio, Disney's Emery said.

Contributing: Kevin Orland and Alex Armitage of Bloomberg News