Interview: Warren Spector x Disney Epic Mickey

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Last week we sat down with Warren Spector and spoke to him about his upcoming project: Disney Epic Mickey. The artwork looks amazing despite the Wii’s lackluster graphics capabilities. This is a Mickey that we’ve never seen before. It’s a radical change for Disney from what Spector told us. We also learned that Warren is a huge comic book nerd and we dig that. If Epic Mickey does well, we could see an entirely new Disney down the road. We’ve included a gallery of all available artwork and concept drawings, too.

Me: How long have you been attached to Epic Mickey? Was it something you started before or after Disney purchased Junction Point?

Warren: Well, it definitely wasn’t something that I was working on before. In fact, I was working with John Woo on a game/movie project and several other projects that were never announced. I was out pitching a variety of things including an epic fantasy game and a near future science fiction game.

My agent at CAA suggested that I go over to Disney and I didn’t think they’d be interested. I make M-rated games for adults, you know, with guys wearing sunglasses at night and trench coats. But he said that they were changing and might be interested. So I went over there and I’m in a room full of execs and everybody who runs Disney Interactive. As I’m pitching my fantasy game and my science fiction game, sure enough, everyone starts to check their Blackberrys. I thought to myself, “I’m going to kill my agent when I get out of here because I was right and he was wrong.” But it turns out that they liked what I was saying enough that they started texting each other at the table about whether or not they should talk to me about this Mickey project. And they did.

Basically, the project got started in 2004 in the Disney Interactive think tank run by a couple of creative guys at DI who worked with a bunch of interns from the USC film program and Carnegie Mellon’s game developer program and elsewhere. Among the many concepts that they came up with was this idea of reintroducing Mickey as a character that mainstream, normal people would be interested in being for some number of hours of their loves instead of just some icon on a watch or t-shirt. Honestly, they just got kind of lucky, I mean, I’m a Disney freak and have been since I was a kid. And they happened to hit the one game developer who was going to say, “Yeah! I get to mess with one of the most recognizable icons on Earth? Of course I’m interested.” So that was kind of how it got started and that was in September 2005. I did about four or five months of concept development in 2006 and then parted ways for about a year or so. Nobody worked on the project and I guess they tried to find people to execute on the design that I had come up with. But in 2007 they came back and said that they really wanted me to do this game. So the summer of 2007 was when we seriously started working on it with 10 or 12 people.

But the real starting point of the project for my money was January 2008, which is when we made the commitment to be a Wii exclusive title. Which was a huge decision that I really respect Disney for making.

How much say did you have in making it a Wii exclusive?

I had a fair amount of say actually. I was out at Disney and we were talking about where the project was and were looking at a multiplatform release across the 360 and PS3 that we would do internally. And then people started talking about a Wii port to ship simultaneously. We’ll just find some developer to do it. But then I said that it has to be its own game. The Wii is a different platform and it requires a different approach and a different design philosophy. So Graham Hopper who runs Disney Interactive pulled me into his office and said, “What is it going to take to guarantee that we achieve our goals, which are game of the year quality and a 90 plus Metacritic score?” And I told him that we need enough time and enough money to compete, you know, to give ourselves a chance. It would be nice to focus on one platform and not worry about everything else. He looks at me and this is burned in my brain, he said, “What do you think about a Wii exclusive?” After I got my jaw off the ground, I told him that would be fantastic. I mean, it was so the right call with this property because it brings Mickey to a whole new audience of gamers and non-gamers. It made sense with the Wii. So went back into the other room with the rest of the exec team and pointed at everybody and asked, “Wii exclusive? Yes or no?” And everybody said, ‘yeah.’ A one-platform strategy is pretty risky and the sales guys are bound to say, ‘you’re walking away from sales,’ but he didn’t care. Quality was what mattered. I was apart of a one-on-one discussion that lead to that decision.

How do you translate something as epic as what you’re doing with Mickey on the Wii, which we all know has subpar graphics capabilities compared to other platforms?

Well, there are certainly things that you can’t do on the Wii that the other platforms do. There’s no point in denying that, but I’d like our screenshots to speak for themselves. What we’ve released so far are screenshots from one of the worlds you’ll be exploring. I think they look swell. I don’t care about not being able to do flashy shader stuff or normal mapping. I mean, whatever. At some level, games need to be about game play and about fun and the player experience. On that level, not having to worry about the high-end graphics and the flash and sizzle and being forced to focus on the game play has been both an interesting challenge and a nice trip down memory lane for me. This is like game development was a couple years ago when there was more emphasis on game play than fancy graphics.

From a graphical standpoint, I charged the team with a couple of things. I want anybody that goes to E3, for example, where thousands of games are being displayed to know within five seconds of looking at monitor that that’s our game. And not the normal mapped grey world that every game looks like this year. Or the normal mapped blue world or the normal mapped brown world, which is the way most people are using those next gen graphics. I just don’t think the hyper reality look works. We opted to go for a more iconic and stylized look, which is entirely appropriate to the platform and delivers on our first goal. The second thing I wanted the team to deliver on was getting our competitors, other developers and gamers to look at this game and wonder how we did that on the Wii. So far, I think we’re delivering, but you decide.

Is Epic Mickey a platformer?

Yes it is, but it’s more than that. I’ve got a PowerPoint deck that I use for internal presentations and there’s a slide on it that asks, ‘what percentage of your game is combat versus exploration versus puzzle solving versus platforming,’ and I refuse to answer that question. I hate that. The driving force behind everything I do is a two-word motto, which is “playstyle matters.” And what that means is, how much platforming there is in a game is up to you. How much fighting there is in a game is up to you. How you play the game determines the experience you have, which I think is the real promise of games. It’s not about pretty explosions that kills a lot of stuff or puzzle elements that are now shinier. It’s about players expressing themselves as they play and making choices that have real consequences. So, yes, there is plenty platforming in the game, but how much platforming is up to the player. And how hard it is is up to the player. I could go on for about three days on that. So, yes, it is a platformer, but it’s also an action adventure game and exploration game. We’ve taken the best of the Mario games, the best of the Zelda games and the best of the RPGs like Deus Ex and some other games I’ve worked on and mashing them together like DJs. Taking things that don’t belong together and mashing them up to come up with something new and unique and beautiful.

Will Epic Mickey utilize motion control?

The core of the game is drawing and erasing. Using paint and thinner to dynamically modify your world and deal with challenges. So once you say that, you’ve got this painting mechanic so the Wii’s motion control makes sense. There is some gestural control, but there’s a secondary system that we haven’t talked about much that’s going to be even more gestural.

It’s about finding the right tool for the right job and the right way to use that tool. We’re not bending over backwards to come up with gestural controls because we’re on the Wii, but it does, in fact, fit in with what we’re doing. There will be times in the game and ways of using our core abilities throughout the game that will have you moving as if you were manipulating a brush.

What can you tell us about the storyline?

There’s a desire to let it out a little bit at a time, but I want to remind everyone that Mickey was, at one point, a hero. He was modeled after Douglas Fairbanks, the ultimate heroic adventurer, and Charlie Chaplin, the thoughtful comic figure. That was what he was born of and I think both of those, frankly, have been lost over the years.

I was actually thinking about the last time that Mickey has had an epic duel with an archenemy because he’s basically just romping around Disney World and not doing much else.

You actually have to go to the comic books. I’m actually a comic freak. Noel Van Horn is doing some amazing Mickey stuff right now. I don’t know if you’re a comic geek.

I am, but, apparently, I haven’t been paying enough attention to Mickey.

The Disney comics are outrageously good. Just to go off topic for a second. I’ve been talking to this really cool big name comic guy and I’ve found that they’re all closet Disney freaks like me. So I’m lobbying really hard to get this world and this game and these characters brought over to that other world because I really love comics. I love comics. So, anyway, in the comics he’s still a bit of an adventurer and I want to bring some of that back.

The first thing I wanted to do was to put Mickey in a world where he’s out of place, where he’s uncomfortable and has real problems. We’ve taken him to a strange place where it’s a world of forgotten and rejected Disney creativity. There’s 80 years of Disney creativity that exists in the archives and we’ve taken all the stuff that people have forgotten about, like the Mad Doctor from an early cartoon. Or these retired theme park rides and concept sketches of characters that never were. Then there are the characters from movies that never got made and we’ve thrown them into this world of forgotten creativity and rejected stuff. Ruling over this world is Disney’s first cartoon star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. That’s an amazing story. Do you know about Oswald?

Yeah, I read a little bit about Oswald the other day. Disney reacquired the rights a few years ago, right?

Yeah. For this game, actually, it was crazy. The CEO of the company trades Al Michaels, a human sportscaster, to NBC Universal for the rights to Oswald the cartoon rabbit. Oswald is Mickey’s half-brother and he’s spent 80 years in this world of rejected Disney creativity resenting his younger brother. That’s the heart of our story. So, we’ve put Mickey in this world where he doesn’t belong. There’s a villain and there’s a secret about this villain that I don’t want to reveal yet, but Mickey realizes that he’s sort of responsible for this place being in the sorry state that it’s in. So he has to get his resentful half-brother to reengage with him and together go and solve the problems of this world.

This is a story about the importance of family and friends. We’re asking, “how important are family and friends to you, player?” How you choose to interact with family and friends as well as how you play the game will impact how your family and friends feel about you and what your abilities are and how you look. In addition, this is a story about redemption. You have to redeem this world and restore it to what it was. You have to redeem your brother and by doing all of that you’re redeeming yourself.

Without getting into details, it’s a story about redemption and family. Instead of telling the story to players we’re asking them how they feel about this and letting them tell us by their playing choices.

Was there anything that Disney wouldn’t let you do with certain characters?

I’ve been surprised at how much freedom they’ve given me, but there are a couple things. Clearly with Mickey Mouse, I mean, the guy is on everyone’s paycheck so there are lines you just don’t cross. I’m a big believer in pushing things too far and forcing people to pull you back. I put together a folder of Mickey smoking and drinking and abusing farm animals and, you know, shooting em and skewering em. Mickey did a lot of bad stuff back in the day but it doesn’t matter that he used to do it. It doesn’t matter that he used to do that because I don’t even want to do that with Mickey, but I just wanted test where the line was. You’d be surprised at how far they’ve let me go.

The biggest challenge has been giving players the choice of deciding what kind of hero Mickey will be and that’s been the toughest thing for Disney to swallow. It’s the same argument I’ve had with every game publisher. The whole idea of choice and consequence and player’s deciding how to interact with the game is where I get killed every time. The idea that Mickey can look different based on how you behave. The fact that Mickey’s abilities change based on how you behave. The way characters respond to you and the way the world changes based on your actions has been an interesting challenge for everyone at Disney. They’ve had a hard time wrapping their minds around that idea. Honestly, I don’t care because I’m not interested in doing anything else. That’s what I do and it’s going to be in this game. They’re letting me do it.

Can you fill me in on what’s going on with Oswald? Has he been in the comics?

Oswald is an interesting character. Disney lost the rights to him in 1928 to Universal who was distributing the cartoons and basically handed him over to Walter Lantz. He’s best known for doing Woody Woodpecker. I actually like some of the Walter Lantz cartoons, but he didn’t justice to the character. Oswald was a great character in the early cartoons that Disney did. He was a better character than Mickey. There I said it. He spent 50 years under Walter Lantz not being very interesting. By the early 60s he was basically gone. Since Disney got him back in 2006, they’ve rereleased 13 of the 26 existing cartoons. They’ve released some t-shirts, posters and collectable pins, but we’re introducing Oswald to the world in a narrative context.

Is this a jump-off or reimagining for characters that people might not be familiar with? Will this lead to other things beyond the game, whether it’s a sequel, or anything else within Disney?

Well, I certainly have hopes, but a lot of it depends on the reception of the game. I’ve put together a plan of what comes next that stretches out many, many years into the future. There are high hopes for Oswald. I suspect you’ll be seeing a lot of these characters in a variety of media, but it all depends on the success of the game and my success at evangelizing. I’m just beginning to get a little traction in the comic book space. I really love our story and I love the way we’re treating a lot of our characters. As much as I love video games and interactive stories there’s stuff that can be done differently and better in comic books. Or in more linear media like television and movies, so I really hope a lot of this moves into other media. I really want that.

So you really want a comic book based on the game then?

I want to do that, but I also want to do a movie. That would be rocking.

Is this a dark story?

Well, Disney has a history of humorous henchmen, funny sidekicks and beautiful epic stories with moments of sheer terror. That’s what I want in this game. There are designed moments when a particular character comes on screen and people will get scared. It’s going to be a world of contrast. And the screenshots we’ve released have come from the lighter parts of the game, so it will get darker than what people have seen. I’m not making a game for kids. I’m making a game for everybody.

How many folks are working on this project?

I have about 70 people internally on the project and about four or five outside developers all around the world with folks in Austin, Salt Lake City, Shanghai and some in Bulgaria. At our peak we have 120 to 150 people working on the project.

Have you seen the Alice in Wonderland game? Do you have any input on that?

I haven’t but it’s interesting that you ask because I had an Alice inspired map in this game that Disney Interactive asked that I not do. Because there is Tim Burton’s Alice…I don’t know if we’ve actually talked about any Alice games, so I’ll keep my mouth shut.

PR chimes in to tell Warren that they’ve already announced it.

Oh, then I have seen some of it but I haven’t had any input on it other than to tell the guys that it looks cool. They have an interesting core mechanic that I think people will enjoy.

One of the things about the Mickey game from a visual standpoint is that I want people to say that it’s a marriage of Walt Disney and Tim Burton. That was very much an inspiration for me. The combination of those two elements is critical to our overall visual style.

One last question: aside from the Disney comics, what else are you reading?

I just finished reading Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. I was blown away. Holy cow. I just started reading Audrey Niffenegger’s new book and Game Feel by designer Steve Swink. My Kindle is chock full.

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