Warren Spector describes himself as one of Mickey Mouse’s biggest fans. He has a lot of company, too, and therein lies the potential for Spector’s new video game, Disney Epic Mickey. Launching today, the game is an ambitious title for the Nintendo Wii that has been almost five years in the making. The goal is to make Mickey Mouse as big a star in video games as he is in other media.
“Mickey Mouse deserves no less,” Spector said in a recent interview with VentureBeat.
The game is inspired by the early years of Mickey’s 80-year history, when he was a more mischievous character. It is set in a dark and dreary landscape called Wasteland, which holds a number of scary experiences in store for the big-eared mouse. Created by the Junction Point studio founded by Warren Spector (pictured), the game blends different genres of games: action adventure, role-playing, and platform gaming. The game is a calculated move to make an old icon more relevant in an age of edgy video games. Disney Epic Mickey is just one of a series of games that Disney has undertaken to show that it is serious about making its video game business as big as its other media businesses. In that sense, the pressure is on for Spector. The goal is to not only get kids to connect with Mickey Mouse as a character for the first time, but also to get adults to reconnect with him, by getting back to their inner child.
We recently caught up with Spector at an event at the Disney family museum in the Presidio in San Francisco.
VB: Tell us what the experience of this game is like.
WS: There’s a magic moment that happens about half an hour in the beginning. Typically right around the time people get to that point, they say, “Wait. I can erase things in the world and then bring them back?” Bing. A light bulb goes off. And for kids ages eight and up, they just play. They experiment, they try stuff, they have fun, they figure out what’s fun for them, they do more of that. The adults wonder, “What am I supposed to do? What do you want me to do? What’s right? What’s wrong?” It takes longer for the adults. The light bulb eventually goes off for the adults. At the end of the day, that light bulb has gone off for everyone we’ve tested it on. For us, the question isn’t about “why can’t a game make you cry?” (a reference to Electronic Arts original debut ad for its computer games in 1982). For us, it’s about why can’t a game appeal to everyone the way that a Pixar film or a Disney feature animated film does. So one of the important goals here is to see if we could do that. Let’s see what happens when it’s in the hands of millions of players. But our testing shows that we actually did it.
VB: So by design, people should figure the game out on their own?
WS: The game starts with our training levels. In the first room, we’re literally doing what every game does. We teach you the how to run, jump, use, talk, spend — the stuff that you do in a game. But then we had a little bit of a stiffer challenge because we had to teach players that you can remove things from the world. This is a game where players can find their own solutions to problems. Today a journalist asked me to play. I said sure let’s play through our stuff, our training modes. He did something that I had never seen anybody do. He got past an obstacle in a way that I’d never seen anybody try before, and it worked. So, even in our training levels, you can do things in a way that removes things and puts them back, which has never been done in a game before, ever.
VB: This is the fundamental game mechanic where you can create things by painting with a paint brush and then remove them using thinner?
WS: We have to teach people about that and then we have to teach them when you paint things and when you don’t. And, by the way, that choice has consequences. We’re watching you, and we know what you’re doing, and we’re going to change the experience as a result. We are not expecting players to figure it all out for themselves. The surprising thing is when they do. This journalist today did that. You have to decide how you are going to interact with the characters in this world. Are you going to help people and make friends? Or are you going to make yourself more powerful, because that’s what you think helps you defeat the villains who threaten Wasteland? It’s not like right and wrong. It’s about whether you want to be powerful enough to take on the villains or have friends around you who can help you take on the villains. Here this is a choice we set up to start showing that once you make a choice you may not able to take it back; so think. You can either get the treasure which can make you personally more powerful or you can help this animal character who will give you different rewards. It’s an either or. But someone figured out how to do both. Nobody thought it was possible. We designed it not to be possible. But our tools allowed the player to figure out what to do on their own. It’s funny because for most developers that’s a bug, and for me it’s a celebration. I’m not sure how Disney feels about it but I’m really excited.
VB: What was the consequence of doing both?
WS: There was never a consequence, so that may be the breakage. Still, I’d rather have a game where players can figure stuff out on their own. They could plan, execute and see, does it work or not and get a reward. I think that’s what games do at their best.
VB: You mentioned that Pixar style of how to try to get the content that’s appealing to everyone. The way they seem to do it a lot is through inside jokes that only adults get. Meanwhile, the kids follow the story at the surface level, even as the adults can see the inside humor or satire.
VB: Do you have that in the game?
WS: We totally do that. You haven’t seen conversations with non-player characters yet. This game is designed to give you the best of Mario-style platform experiences. It’s also designed for the best of Zelda style action adventure games and the best of role playing. You create the character that expresses who you are through your choices. So there is character interaction. There’s no branching tree here. But the conversations you take part in are based on what you have done. So, how you treat the characters determines what they say to you. They may say nothing to you if they don’t like the way you’ve been playing. And they give you all sorts of information and assistance if they like the way you’ve been playing. But there are some characters who like some things. Some characters like the opposite. It’s not right or wrong. But your question, I’ll give you one specific example. It’s a simple one. There is a pirate in love with a cow. That’s funny enough that kids laugh at it. You have to help the pirate, because he’s too shy to find out what the cow wants for a gift. She says people have tried to woo her with ice cream but she’s lactose intolerant. She’s a cow. It’s funnier when you actually see it in the game, but no kid has ever laughed at it and every adult has. We do verbal humor for adults and slapstick humor for the kids.
VB: I guess you could also vary the environment of the game to appeal to all ages. To simplify it, kids like fun and adults like scary?
WS: You kind of nailed it. Yes, I mean there is some scary stuff. One of Walt Disney’s kids was here and was looking at the game. He said, “You know, Walt loved to scare kids.” I was like, “Yes! I knew it. Fairy tales are supposed to be scary because when the scary stuff is overcome, there is this cathartic feeling. Kids, they love that. We can give it to them. There’s something in it for everyone. I talked to John Lassiter of Pixar and every movie he has ever made has had wide appeal. He said, “We don’t target audiences.” I really took that to heart because it resonated with me. That’s the way you make games for everyone. A lot of my Deus Ex games appealed to older and older audiences. Why can’t games appeal to the older folks and the young folks too?
VB: What else plays into that? You can vary the levels, like one for kids or one for adults?
WS: No. We offer you a lot ways to solve problems. It isn’t always apparent. One of the challenges of making a game about choice and consequences is that you usually give people a big hint. We encourage people to be all good or all evil. I don’t want to do any of that. Maybe it’s not as apparent as it should be. We let players decide how to interact with the world. A lot of kids just start spraying paint thinner everywhere. Adults will try to solve a problem in the most efficient way possible. Players can challenge each other, like who can get the furthest without using any paint. The game is not designed to be played in that way. I didn’t want that. I wanted players to engage different emotions. I love using paint and I hate using thinner. Every time I use thinner I feel like a moron. I feel there has to be a way around it. People have figured out clever ways to get past problems where you don’t have to use paint. Adults can have that kind of fun. Kids can have a different kind of fun.
VB: Where does the game story come from?
WS: The introduction is pretty much a recreation of the 1946 Mickey cartoon, Through the Mirror. It was very strange telling my team that, in this case, they should invent as little as possible. Don’t be creative. That’s old fashioned. I shouldn’t say it that way. But we wanted to be inspired by Disney’s stuff. So we recreated the workshop from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice of Fantasia, so Disney fans, even if they’re not gamers, can see it from a new prospective, in a new way. We have created a Wasteland, a world of forgotten and rejected characters, concepts, theme park attractions and other discards. Anything that Disney has created over the last 80 years winds up here in the Wasteland, waiting for audiences to embrace it.
We wanted to capture the heart of Mickey Mouse the character. He is smart, loyal, and friendly but also mischievous, overly enthusiastic and playing with things he doesn’t understand. … Already we had people who saw this on the Internet and they wondered where it came from. Everything here is straight off the shelves of Disney’s archives. The character Oswald appears in the game and it is the first time he has been seen in any Disney story since 1928. I just think, what does it say about video games as a medium? Disney is open to innovation and technology. They look to the future, reacquire the rights to this character, and make use of it 82 years later in a video game. They traded Al Michaels, the sportscaster with NBC, in 2006 in exchange for the rights to Oswald the rabbit. And then Oswald shows up in a video game. I think that’s powerful.
VB: Where does the game get more edgy?
WS: The word “edgy” is not a word I particularly apply with this. A lot of people have and that’s fine with me. But what I wanted was to put Mickey Mouse in a world where he doesn’t belong. If we’re going to make him a hero, if he’s going to bring the light, then there has to be darkness. If he’s going to be a hero, he has to be up against villains who are really, really villains, not fake villains. So he’s got that big problem. The world he finds himself in is dark. This isn’t just about a game creating an adrenalin rush. To me, that is boring. Games do that really well. I wanted people to feel a range of emotions. There are moments that are really sad. In order for there to be joy, there has to be sadness. We’ll see if we succeeded.
VB: So for some of those parts, did you always have some sounding board at Disney for whether you were going too far scaring kids?
WS: Yes. I mean when you’re working with Mickey Mouse, you know he’s the most recognized icon in the world. It’s not like I created him and can do whatever I want. There are 140,000 people who work for Disney and they all have a stake in this guy, and an affection for this guy. Bob Iger, the CEO of the company, has been a constant presence on this project and has taken a personal interest in it. I knew I had to get everybody on the same page. The way I describe it: I don’t write code, I don’t draw. What I do is I create the box. I establish the parameters where we will work. If the team moves outside of that box, I put them back in the box. I tell them to go as far as they can and then lose 20 percent because I pulled them back. I’d rather do that than not push far enough. I had to get everybody I could at Disney to sign up for what we were doing. We created the Mickey concept. We had people from animation there. We had some people from consumer products there and from Pixar. We negotiated. I did for them what I asked my team to do for me. I did some stuff I knew or suspected was too far. But the only way to find the line is to cross it. Some would say that Mickey wouldn’t do that. At the end of the day, I think we’re all happy.
VB: So you push farther than you think you can get and then are happy with what you get. Now they know that they should always push you back?
WS: I should never have said that. But we got to a point where everybody was happy.
VB: How did you feel about making an exclusive for the Wii?
WS: We started working on this game in 2006. It was just three of us. We submitted it and took a break for a year. We had other stuff to work on, and then Disney came back and said OK. We spent six months or so working on multiple platforms including the PC, the Wii, the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. In 2007, Graham Hopper, (who recently resigned as the head of Disney’s game division) came to me and asked what I’ve never heard from any other publisher. He asked what would it take to make this the “game of the year” in terms of quality. I told him it was enough time and money. And I said it would be awfully nice to focus on just one platform. He thought about it for a week and said OK. We wanted to do paint and thinner as our core mechanic. That suggested motion control, where you could use the controller as a brush. And we wanted a broad audience, where you could find grandparents playing with grandchildren. I’m a Nintendo freak too. I believe the Legend of Zelda: Link to the Past is the best game ever made. I always wanted to do a Nintendo game. So Disney walked away from the other platforms. They encouraged us to start over in the beginning of 2008. We designed to the hardware.
VB: It’s interesting timing. The Wii has weakened from its heyday. It is also in need of something to give it a shot in the arm. It looks like you have the biggest game coming.
WS: Thank you for saying that. I am proud of the team. But I think Nintendo is going to have a great Christmas. It has Kirby’s Epic Yarn, Donkey Kong Country Returns, and Golden Eye 007 with multiplayer. Who else has a line-up like that? I don’t own Nintendo stock. But I think they look pretty strong. These are games for gamers, with real game play.
VB: So how do you feel now that you’re finished as far as meeting the original intentions?
WS: The goal for the project was make Mickey a hero again. He hasn’t been in a story of any kind recently. He hasn’t been on the Wii. I want to make him a video game hero on the same level as Mario or Link. I think we have a shot at that. The second goal was to return Oswald to the world and make him a star. I feel such a sense of obligation to that little character and I am so in love with him as a character. We have tested it with everyone from 8-year-old girls to 50-year-old girls.
VB: So you feel like you’re also just getting started with Mickey?
WS: Well, there are certainly plenty of other stories to tell. What comes next, we’ll just have to wait and see. But there’s no shortage of ideas and, honestly, the whole idea of Wasteland, eighty years of Disney history, we barely scratched the surface. You know the first time we went into the archives, they apologized to us that they had only scanned 90,000 images so far. Alright, come on there are assets for days, ideas for years. Ideas are the easy part.
VB: Are we suppose to think about T.S. Eliot when you say The Wasteland?
WS: You’re welcome to do that. There are a lot of references that might surprise people. You’re the first person who has mentioned it. You’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg. My first play-through was twenty-six hours and you know that’s because I’m an adult and it’s difficult for me. I think for most players it will probably be about fifteen to twenty when they try.