Disney Illusion Island interview: “a game made from a place of love”

by on August 14, 2023

It can’t be too often that you get to work on a property like Disney Illusion Island. But that’s exactly what Dlala Studios, having previously worked on another incredibly well known franchise, Battletoads, just got to do. With the game barely in the rear view mirror, we sat down with CEO and Founder of Dlala Studios, AJ Grand-Scrutton, to talk about inspirations, working with Disney, future plans, and that dreaded term, “Metroidvania”.

Adam: How does it feel to be working on an officially licensed game from Disney, with the voices and characters that people know and have loved for so many years?

AJ: I’m not going to lie, it feels absolutely incredible. When you speak about people knowing and loving these characters for all these years I, and a big chunk of the team, are very much part of that group. I’ve got Mickey Mouse memorabilia all over my office, and a good portion of it was before I was making this game. The fact we got to tell a brand new Mickey & Friends story and work with the incredible voice actors, it’s all “pinch me” style moments that just don’t end.

Disney Illusion Island review

Adam: Your previous game, Battletoads, was also a game from a beloved franchise. How has it come about you keep making such high pressure titles?

AJ: It’s actually really funny to me that this is where we ended up. When Craig (Thomas, co-founder, Dlala Studios) and I started Dlala we had this goal of just creating new IP. We were really inspired by the IP from our childhoods, like Earthworm Jim, and it just happened that during the course of pitching new IP, we had an opportunity come up that meant instead of creating new IP we got to help bring those iconic franchises back for a new audience. I always say that I’m the “weird” Creative Director because I’m the only one I know that doesn’t have this dream game in their head they want to make. My creative itch gets completely scratched, and then some, by the amazing titles we get to work on. I loved making Battletoads (2020), getting to do a sequel to one of my favourite childhood franchises was amazing and then for us to get the opportunity to make a genuine Mickey & Friends adventure, I mean what do you say? I got to make a brand-new Mickey world, with a whole host of new Disney characters, these are once in a lifetime things!

How early in the development process did you decided that Disney Illusion Island would have no combat, and be based entirely around platforming and puzzle solving? Did it feel like a risk?

If you asked Grant (Allen, Lead Designer, Dlala Studios) and I when we both knew, but didn’t vocalise, that we didn’t want combat it’s a lot earlier than the actual decision to drop combat. The foundations of Disney Illusion Island were laid out in my office on post-it notes by the two of us, and as the game started to take shape in our heads, and on paper, we would pull post-its down and bin them. We let that combat post-it note stay up way too long, in fact we let it stay up so long that we even prototyped the classic “jump on the head” style of combat. But it became clear to us very quickly we were forcing this because other MetroidVanias do it. The only time it felt like a risk was the five hours in-between Grant and I making the decision and talking to our producer, Kelsey (Wong, Producer, Disney Games) at Disney Games. However, like everything else they got us to talk through the journey and they completely backed us.

Disney Illusion Island review

Was the idea that it would always be offline only, for multiplayer, and is online something we might see in the future?

Aha I’m actually surprised this question hasn’t come up before now! I felt like I spent a lot of my Battletoads campaign discussing this one. We always knew that it would be offline only, the main reason was that we felt it was the perfect ‘family’ game to get people back on the couch and playing together. Online, which we’ve done previously, comes with its own set of headaches and timelines, but most importantly there are certain design aspects you have to be conscious of. We liked the fact that there are some little ‘annoying’ things you can do to each other in the game, like getting rid of the rope when someone is climbing up it, that are funny when you’re next to the person and you can be like ‘hey!’, but are less funny when the person online is doing it just to wind you up. There’s no plans for online multiplayer on the title.

It feels like a very newcomer friendly game, were there any ideas you considered implementing, but held back to retain that accessibility?

You know what, the honest answer is no. Although I should caveat we are relying on my famously poor memory for the answer to this. I don’t believe at any point we had an idea that we didn’t move forward with, but we did have this concept of being “welcoming” in mind with our decisions from the start. Rather than leaving things out, we pushed things in certain directions. A good example is the map and quest system, we went a little more granular with the level of guidance contained within quests, and in turn the map, in order to make the experience more welcoming.


It’s perhaps obvious why Mickey and Minnie were part of the cast, but did anyone else come close to ousting Donald and Goofy?

I have to be careful here or my “Where’s Daisy?” team are going to come for me… It was always the Fab Four from day one.

What was the idea behind designing completely different animations and items for each of the character’s abilities, despite retaining the same actual outcome. This must have been so much work!

It was an incredible amount of work from our incredible animation team. Grant’s team did exploration early into unique abilities and character balancing and it always had a negative impact. Unique abilities meant that we either needed a tonne of side content that wasn’t important, or we were going to have to force the player to switch characters, and the problem with that is people feel very strongly about their favourite out of the Fab Four. When we looked at different balancing, we had the issue that even the slightest difference in speed or jump meant that players got left behind in multiplayer. This meant we took a very different approach; we had an analogy that each of the characters was a toy. Goofy a slinky, Minnie Mouse is a paper airplane, Donald Duck is a slingshot and Mickey is a bouncing ball. Eric (Ciccone, Animation Director, Dlala Studios) then used these for giving his team direction to keep in mind when animating these characters. That’s how you get the magic that is Goofy feeling slower, heavier and more floppy, but actually he’s moving the exact speed as Donald, who is quick and snappy (in more ways than one!).

Podcast 528: Pikmin 4, Disney Illusion Island, EA Sports FC 24

What are your inspirations for the game, overall?

We had a whole bunch of inspirations and research points. For me personally I think the main influences I had were World of Illusion, Ori (both of them), Rayman Legends, and Mickey’s entire near 100-year legacy. We wanted this to feel like a big open-world multiplayer platformer and that meant that we spent a lot of time playing our favourite platformers.

How do you feel about the genre classification “MetroidVania”? Do you think Disney Illusion Island is part of that, or something different?

We definitely have a MetroidVania structure, or as we say internally ‘MickeyVania’. I think game classification is really hard, and I don’t envy people with your jobs who have to try to provide that clarity. Structurally through and through we have the traditional MetroidVania approach of hitting an ability gate and needing the ability, but I think where our line gets blurred is the fact that we don’t have combat which is such a staple of the genre. I definitely love hearing people saying that it feels like a great gateway into that genre though, because if we can onboard people, of any age and ability, into a new exciting genre for them to discover then that is amazing.

Disney Illusion Island review

The art for Disney Illusion Island is stunning. How much wiggle room do you have creatively, working with such a huge brand? Are there any specifics that the characters must (or must not) do in the game?

Monoth is so beautiful, and I can say that because I can’t even draw a stickman! We got to do our own reimagining’s of four of the most famous characters ever. Including tweaking their proportions, changing their outfits and giving them a new feel. How many people get to say they redesigned Mickey Mouse! We were very lucky that Disney was really onboard with everything that we were doing and that we had such a lovely relationship where we were sharing art every week, just to show it off really. I think it helped that everyone on our team at Dlala Studios is a fan of the Mickey & Friends franchise.

How much fun did you have with the voice actors? Was it tempting to get a billion takes of “Gorsch!!”?

I mean how else can I open my reply to this except “OH BOY!”. It. Was. Amazing. We still weren’t fully travelling at the time, so I got to remote into the sessions and to say it was on another line is an understatement. These actors are those characters. They completely embody them, the actors themselves are just amazing and lovely. Getting to work with my childhood Goofy and Donald was mind blowing for me, and every line from all four of them was a master class. There were these subtle moments where we were recording Goofy and Bill (Farmer) would naturally swap two words round in a sentence and I sat there mouth open like “he literally made that ten times more Goofy without even trying”. We got to work with the incredible director Renée Johnson, who is one of the most awesome people I’ve ever worked with. Just seeing how Renée and the actors interacted not just with each other but with the script itself. I genuinely mean it when I say I would have paid for that experience.

Disney Illusion Island review

Any future plans for Disney Illusion Island? DLC, or other platforms? Other characters, perhaps?

I’ve said a few times that the hardest thing about making this project has been the giving it up. Right now, we have an amazing team headed up by my co-founder Craig who is doing some quality-of-life tweaks for us to get out, and we’ve had a couple of great suggestions from players that we’re looking into as well.

What do you hope people take away from Disney Illusion Island after playing it?

I hope they get memories like I have from playing the Mickey games when I was a kid. This was truly a game made from a place of love and it’s all about the joy of movement. So, if nothing else I hope people get some of those little moments of joy themselves.

Thanks to Disney for organising the interview, and to AJ for taking the time to answer our questions. Disney Illusion Island is out now, exclusively for Nintendo Switch.