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INTERVIEW: Warren Spector

Ben Parfitt
INTERVIEW: Warren Spector

How did you approach making a game like Epic Mickey when Disney’s spectrum of work courts the attention of such a diverse range of consumers?

In the past I’ve been pretty successful reaching 18-to-24-year-olds, and I’d never even tried to reach kids. When I looked at Disney from the outside I saw an organisation that really knew how to attract that audience, and I realised I could learn something from them about that. That’s how I came in to this. I wanted to reach that younger audience without losing the older players who have been with me since the start.

Then when I got inside Disney – I’ll be honest – I was surprised. Everybody there talks about making entertainment for families. The first time I met with John Lasseter at Pixar, the first thing he talked about with me was making entertainment for everyone, which really got me thinking about why games don’t do that. Adults and kids love Toy Story, Ratatouille and Up. That’s something games rarely manage: that appeal to both adults and children simultaneously.

So I took it on as a challenge to make a game that didn’t have ‘an audience’, which means a game that appeals to everyone. To do that we’ve created a game that the player chooses how to tackle. They can approach Epic Mickey like a platform game, or a puzzle game, or the kind of game they want. If a game can do that, it can appeal to everybody.

And with Mickey as the star, we also had a pretty good shot at getting that game style in front of a much larger audience.

Mickey has never been a typical game character before, though.

We’re offering Mickey as a video game hero, which is a role that will be new and surprising to people. Having Mickey as your star just gives you a leg up. There are all sorts of elements of this game where play style matters, like choice and consequence, optional content, deciding what makes a hero.

With Mickey, we can get game ideas into people’s hands that we otherwise wouldn’t. There’s all sorts of stuff that’s familiar to core gamers, but it’s entirely new to Disney fans who will look at this game when they would never even think about Deus Ex.
 
Are you pleased with the result?

I’m really proud of the team because they embraced the challenge of backing away from their own creativity, and have embraced that of both Disney and the player. This does not play or feel like any other game, but the gamer can make it feel like a Mario game, or a Zelda game. They determine the pace of play.

I also think this is the best-looking Wii game ever. I think graphically it hits a bar that the best Disney stuff has to hit. I think that will appeal to people.

At the end of the day, Disney fans and non-Disney fans alike will come away with a greater appreciation of Disney’s creative heritage.

That heritage is key to the game’s content and appeal – Mickey faces off against forgotten characters. How did you find the creative process?

It was incredible. There’s so much Disney material, and the game is in many ways a reflection of the company’s history. We just put in a fraction of the stuff we could have. Making a game is as much about what you don’t do as it is about what you do do.

I’m a kitchen sink designer. I start out by throwing everything in, and then refine it. 400 hours of gameplay is too much, right? You keep what fits and what is critical, and eventually you end up with – knock on wood – just the right amount of just the right stuff.

It’s the result of 20 years of pain, but we’ve got it right I think.

How do you approach the creative responsibility when handling material as adored as this?

I’m glad you put it that way. When you are dealing with an icon like Mickey, who is really an actor of such statue – I know that it sounds so weird to talk about him like that but he has been around for 82 years – ‘creative responsibility’ is exactly what I felt.

There are something like 140,000 Disney employees who see him on their paycheque and countless people across the world who know about him and have an opinion about him. So you don’t want to be the guy who blew it.

It took a lot of research, and a lot of talking to people at Disney to determine what was appropriate and what wasn’t. We had to understand not only the creative restraints, but also the heart of this character.

There seems to be an incredible fit between source IP and gameplay mechanics. Would you agree?

It’s almost like the guys who created things like the cartoon we have based Epic Mickey on, The Mad Doctor, were creating games and didn’t even know it. Trolley Trouble, which is a very early Disney work, has a sector that plays out just like an FPS. Disney really was an innovator. He was a game designer without even knowing it. There was all kinds of inspiration we could draw directly from the cartoons.

You’ve talked a lot about player choice in Epic Mickey. How did you balance that as a gameplay experience for Wii owners?

Now we’re back to those years of pain again. It’s what every game I’ve done has been about. I know people are finding it a little weird that I’m making this Mickey game, but from a gameplay perspective, while the choices are different and the consequences are different from in, say, Ultima or Deus Ex, the idea of choice and consequence is something my teams have been playing with for 20-odd years now. It’s accumulated wisdom.

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