Part two of our definitive Q&A with Warren Spector on re-inventing Mickey Mouse
Following on from the opening part of our interview with famed developer Warren Spector, here we concluded our discussion with the man taking Mickey Mouse's reins and leading the iconic rodent into a new era...
Given your history of the titles you have worked on, is it safe to assume that Epic Mickey is not ‘just another’ character action platformer? Is this an evolution of the things you have worked on before?
Yeah. The first time I met with Disney I said: ‘I don’t do budgets, I don’t do schedules and I don’t make games for kids. I make games that are about choice and player consequences. If you don’t like that we’ll part ways, stay friends, and I wish you the best of luck.’
I’ve worked on 19 games in various capacities, and for me I don’t care how the rest of the world sees them. They are all a progression in a very specific direction – they are all about empowering players to be creative, to solve problems the way they want, be who they want to be and have the game respond to who they are and how they are behaving.
That is very much the heart of the Mickey game as well – when you try to take a character that has so much appeal to so many people for so many different reasons, it would be the height of arrogance for me to say ‘This is what makes Mickey cool, take it or leave it’. So the heart of the game is about every player telling me what they think is cool about Mickey.
If you like Mickey the way he his today, you can be the helpful, playful, wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly guy – and your character will look and feel like the modern Mickey people know and love. If you are inspired by the early very badly behaved Mickey of the ‘20s and ‘30s, then you can behave that way – selfish, straightforward, destructive and mischievous. If that’s what people think is cool they can behave that way – and their Mickey will look different, have different abilities and characters in the world will react differently. So it’s definitely a progression in this theme that has been 19 games in the making so far.
So it’s fair to say that theme permeates through everything that Junction Point does?
I have always been a guy that believes studios and teams need a mission. The first two entries I wrote on my blog is the long version of the studio’s mission statement – I put it on my blog because nobody on my team would let me put it on our website, because it’s so long no one would read it. Over the years I have whittled it down – I’ve got a four-page version, a one-page version and a single paragraph. A couple of months ago I finally came up with the two word version of Junction Point’s mission – and so I’m trying to get it out there everywhere I go, and it’s this: ‘Playstyle matters’. If you’ve ever been to our offices they are written as 12-inch high letters on the wall in our office.
On Epic Mickey specifically I want people coming in asking ‘Am I making Mickey cooler today?’ If the answer is no I need them to find something else to do. It’s not about how clever the designer is, it’s about how clever the players are; it’s not about the story I am telling players, it’s the story I am telling with players. Every player needs to have a unique experience – that is our goal here.
I was so happy that I’d managed to come up with something so concise, because I am such a wordy bastard – that’s what they call me here at the studio. When everybody thinks about Junction Point they need to think that it’s the place where ‘playstyle matters’. Whether it is a cartoon game, aliens invading the earth game, or a Tetris clone, our versions of all of those will be about playstyle mattering.
How comfortable have Disney been with you taking Mickey into a different direction, against his sterile image?
Remember that we are dealing with the character who is on everybody’s pay cheque – there are lines you just don’t cross, and there are things that even I don’t want to do with Mickey. I’ve been pleased and surprised of how people at Disney understand how people both love Mickey and, yes, acknowledge that he has become a little sterile.
There are a lot of things going on at Disney that will surprise the industry over the coming years, but at the same time they look after their properties. I’ve tried to cross some lines and, y’know, they’ve urged me not to cross them. But they are more open than you might expect – they haven’t flat out said ‘no’ to a lot of stuff that I have wanted to do.
One of the biggest things has been getting people to understand why Mickey changes the way he looks and what that means. I’ve insisted it won’t confuse anybody – it’s just the character that you create. It’s not like Mickey is going to be shooting guns or smoking cigarettes any time soon. Who is going to want to do that anyway?
It seems odd that you almost became an Imagineer working on linear theme rides, but instead you became not just a game designer, but the game designer famous for making sure players have choices in their games.
It is funny, but over the years Disney has realised what everyone else has realised – that interactive entertainment is ‘the next big thing’. We are the future, and everybody realises that. We’re not some niche medium that is going to go away – the days when people thought that is long gone. Look what goes on in theme parks now – Toy Story Mania and the Indiana Jones ride have some flexibility. The idea is that everything needs to have interactivity.
Here’s the big secret, and I hope everyone at Disney reads this: I have that list of things before they die, and one of them is still to make a theme park ride. And I’m a lot closer to that now than I was as an independent. There is a lot more we can do on the interactive side at the parks, if they are interested and they want to talk.
You mentioned some projects earlier that you were shopping around. Do you see the Disney family as a place where those projects can grow?
Absolutely. My sense is that Disney Interactive sees itself as a place where new properties can be created that can then be brought into other parts of the organisation. Just speaking personally, it would be very sad if the video games side of the company didn’t generate characters, stories and settings that were compelling enough that the larger organisation didn’t want to turn into movies, DVDs, comic books and cartoons.
So it’s something I am hugely interested in – and Disney does now own that near-future sci-fi game I was talking about and the epic fantasy I mentioned. So who knows – I certainly have ideas of how they would work in a Disney context.
We definitely want to be creating new things for the Disney business and offering them up to see how we can attract more people into the medium.