INTERVIEW: Warren Spector

Disney’s ambitious Epic Mickey video game returns with a sequel this year, and this time it’s a musical. MCV finds out more from the franchise’s creative director and development legend Warren Spector..

How did you convince Disney to do a second Epic Mickey? Or was it another suggestion from Disney?

Every person who is creative has a process that they go through. And before the first Epic Mickey I actually had a four-game storyline arc, and I had at least three games worth of the ‘game innovation’ to introduce. So the idea of two-player co-op and songs in the second game was something I knew I wanted to do before I started the first.

I’ve done this on every project, and we never really do the stories I come up with, because we can always come up with better ones once we’ve lived in a game’s world for a while. But I am pretty good at predicting the gameplay mechanics and innovations. When we were working on the first game, we’d done enough focus testing and blind testing, and we had enough pre-orders to the point we knew we were going to do a sequel before we shipped the first one. I knew what it was going to be – in essence – in 2005.

What about the role musical style sung pieces serve in Epic Mickey 2. Why is that significant?

The purpose of song in Epic Mickey 2 is twofold. The part that relates back to the game mechanics is simply that I want to see how people – and gamers specifically – respond to having songs in this way in a game. You know, Portal has a song; Conker’s Bad Fur Day has a song; the last Civilization game had a song on the closing credits. But, as far as I know, there isn’t a game that’s had characters frequently break into song to express their emotions and advance the plot. With Epic Mickey 2 I want to see how gamers respond to that, so I can add that to the stuff on song as a gameplay mechanic that’s rolling around in my head, and make it interactive. That’s an experiment I need to do.

The second thing is that the whole point of the Disney Epic Mickey series in a weird sort of way, and of the Wasteland game setting, is to honour 80 years of Disney creativity. If you don’t include songs, then you’re kind of missing the point. Every classic Disney film from Steamboat Willy has music and a specific song that plays an important part. Right up to Tangled and Enchanted and everything in between had song. Tim Rice, Alan Lincoln, Elton John, the Sherman brothers; they have all done it. Disney and song go together, so we had to do it.

But show tunes aren’t in a typical developer skill set. How did you get the songs right in the game?

We got lucky enough to find James Dooley, who did the unbelievable soundtrack for the first game. He did the music for Epic Mickey 2 as well, and his soundtrack for the first game was so much cooler and more dynamic than anyone noticed.

Jim [James] is an amazing composer, so we asked him ‘can you write songs?’, and he said ‘yes, but no one ever asks me.’ So he wrote the songs and we hired Mike Himmelstein, who’s done lyrics for Disney films and others. He wrote the lyrics and we worked with him talking though the story planks and the emotion the characters would be feeling.

We gave them not especially lyrical ‘prose versions’ of what we wanted to communicate in the songs, and there was a back and forth to get the spirit and the words right. Then we worked with Disney Character Voice to work with the actors to sing the parts and record it. It was tonnes of fun, too.

Critically, the first Epic Mickey seemed to polarise people a little. How did that make you feel?

People understood the game the way they wanted to.

Once a game is in the players’ hands it is no longer mine or the publisher’s. It is their game, so I’m not going to tell anybody they misunderstood it or that they got it wrong, because the gamer isalways right.

People got it just fine, but to be honest, nobody is going to say ‘no, I don’t want everybody to love my game’. Of course you want people to love your game, but if you can’t have that I would much rather polarise people and have people love it or hate it, than feel it was just alright.

And nobody thought Epic Mickey was just alright. I actually think that’s kind of cool because it means people were thinking about it, and it gave us lots of good data.

And here’s the part that I suspect a lot of journalists and reviewers aren’t going to like hearing, but we’ve got more fan mail about this game than probably everything that I’ve ever worked on in 29 years combined. And that fan mail is completely different from anything I’ve had before.

That’s what matters to me. I’ll take that over words and Metacritic any day. The gaming press were polarised, clearly, but the players were not. The players loved it.

Oswald’s return in Epic Mickey – plus the creation of a new Disney character [Swampy the Alligator] in iPhone hit Where’s my Water? – suggests Disney has conviction in the medium of games as a suitable chariot for new and dormant characters. Why are games suitable?

It’s simple. Disney has always been at the forefront of innovation. They brought us the first commercially viable sound film, the first full colour cartoon, the first feature-length cartoon, the first multi-plane camera used in animation, the first stereo sound in a film ever, the first theme park, the first Hollywood producer to get involved with television, and the first robotics in everyday life. The company has always been at the forefront of innovation, so for them to recognise that games are the next big thing – the medium of the 21st Century – it’s not that surprising.

And the fact is that with Epic Mickey we did pretty well for Mickey and Oswald. The company has been really supportive, and the first game brought us a lot of credibility with the company, so they were really open to us being the tip of the spear for the Oswald character.

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