Warren Spector on the balancing act of revitalising and preserving the Mickey Mouse legacy
Warren Spector is utterly mad about Disney in ways that must frighten and inspire his team at Junction Point Studios.
“I get to bring Oswald back?”
Spector’s referring to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, an oft-forgotten cartoon character that hit fame just before America’s Great Depression.
After a row with IP owners in 1928, some animator named Walt Disney decided he would no longer work on comics featuring Oswald. Instead, he and his team would create a similar kind of character; a mouse called Mickey.
“I get to bring Oswald back in a Disney story for the first time since 1928,” Spector says again, still in disbelief with the prospect of – quite literally – playing with history in the upcoming Wii title Epic Mickey.
Spector’s passion for Mickey Mouse borders on unsettling fanaticism. “I have 33 Mickey shirts,” he says with a proud smile, before a Disney spokesperson steps in to add: “we don’t dress him”.
His career in game design spans nearly thirty years. The industry veteran may never replace Deus Ex as his magnum opus in the eyes of his followers. But it has ben six years since his last game hit the market, and Spector’s burning desire to make another big impact is palpable.
But not just on the game industry this time. Spector wants to make an impact on the Disney corporation itself and, just maybe, even Mickey’s own legacy. Perhaps, even with Spector’s famous talents, a spot of fanaticism is necessary to accomplish such lofty ambitions.
Disney isn’t just asking you to make a game from one of its franchises. This is Disney’s icon. Was the company cautious with your ideas? Was anything off-limits?
Actually there was one thing, but only one thing; Mickey can’t have teeth. But Disney really weren’t sensitive, I mean, they came to me with the idea; “hey, how about a world of old rejected Disney stuff?”
Where do you draw the line between changing Mickey and vandalising him?
I don’t draw the line, actually. I don’t design games with a list of what’s needed and execute against that. I’m more of a sculptor – that sounds so pretentious I’m sorry – but I have this mass and as the project goes on I look to cut away at the things that don’t work or just don’t feel right.
It’s an organic process, really, and so defining what’s too much is just part of the process. But I still ask my teams to always – always – go that extra twenty per cent further when they think they’ve finished a design or mechanic and so on. It’s better to at least have that in there to consider than not have anything at all.
So with Epic Mickey, we have thousands of Mickey concepts, and I’m not joking – thousands – and we ended up designing what I would say is the best Mickey there has ever been.
I’m not speaking for the Disney Corporation in saying that. In fact I wish they made our Mickey the official one of the Disney Corporation, because I think this is the best Mickey ever in the history of human kind.
He’s appealing, he’s cute, he’s energetic and mischievous. He’s got a classic look but he feels kind of new and different. I love him. I love the way he moves, I love him in 3D. My team is the best.
When we did the announcement of the game in October, I was still changing the way he looks, and at one point I thought, you know what – this is wrong. This is wrong. I shouldn’t do this. And I felt so stupid because we already published screenshots, and I made the very tough call of… oh my god, it was crazy – I said we’re not doing this. We’re changing it.
The evolution of the game was easier to notice because of the leaked images.
In game design, the kind of creative play that goes into getting an end result should never be seen in public.
Those images that were leaked; they were all part of this iterative process, but what if one of our crazier Mickey concepts leaked? What if one of the thousand images that got leaked was of a Mickey that we’d never use? You should have seen the one of the classy Mickey in the white suit!
There was also a rumour going round that we changed the art of the game because of fan outrage. That’s completely untrue by the way – completely.
The look of any game ultimately has to be designed within the limits of the hardware it’s released on. With the kind of inventive approach you’ve taken with Epic Mickey, how has the Wii serviced your ambitions?
When you start any project you have to know what you want to achieve. I remember when we started this project I told the team that some day we’ll be at E3, and there are going to be 2,500 games on display, and 1,800 are going to be brown.
‘Welcome to brown world!’ And the others are going to be [mock enthusiasm] hyper-real! Everything looks real now!
I told the team we’re going to have five seconds – five seconds for people walking past our exhibitor booth to know that Epic Mickey doesn’t look like any other game.
This is a Disney game. It’s going to have the lush, beautiful bright colours of a Disney feature film on the Wii. And I want players and I want our competition to think ‘holy cow I didn’t know you could do that on a Wii’.
For my money, Epic Mickey may be the best looking Wii game ever. The critical thing is I believe we’ve captured the spirit of the character, and the essence of Disney. That’s what we needed to do.
You don’t have a history of heading up game projects that aim to appeal to the whole family. How have you adjusted?
One of the things I’ve wanted to do for a long time is reach out to a younger audience. I know the demographics to my previous games – Deus Ex, Thief, System Shock etcetera – were much older.
So I have made games that thirty-year-olds have been playing, but I have no idea how to reach out to kids. Disney, I think, is the other way around, so I get to learn from them and they get to learn from me.
A lot of designers are into how clever they’re being when they think, ‘oh look at this cool puzzle I created it’s going to be really hard for players to figure it out’. It’s just not the right approach.
I’ve said for decades; the playstyle-matters approach to game design is the most mainstream one there is. If there is only one solution to a task, and you can’t do it, the only option left is to stop playing the game.
With my games it’s always been about offering different choices to reach a solution, allowing the player to continue, and that seems like a far more mainstream-appealing idea.
So I’ve always thought the idea worked for the mainstream, but I never had made games to a broad and younger audience until Disney came along.
I’m not saying that making a game for teenage boys is wrong and making one for kids is right, but for me personally, I’ve done so many games where the hero resembles the mighty Thor, and I’ve done enough games where guys where trench-suits and glasses at night, that I really just wanted to try something different. I needed to recharge my creative batteries.
Maybe it’s a permanent change, maybe I’m just dipping into something new. For me right now, it’s important that I make games that appeal to the family. Disney is all about appealing to families.