First part of our definitive Q&A with Warren Spector on re-inventing Mickey Mouse
There was a time – not so long ago, in fact – when Warren Spector was one of the biggest names in game design.
Although his history with Origin and subsequently Looking Glass covers some of the biggest (and most frequently referenced) games ever – Wing Commander, Ultima Underworld, System Shock – it was his work at Ion Storm, specifically Deus Ex, that he became widely known. A slightly less well-received sequel later, and Spector left Ion Storm to start out afresh, founding Junction Point Games. And then, nothing.
The occasional interview here and there revealed that he was hard at work on something; a ‘dream project’ by all accounts. Four years later, the veil has been lifted – and standing there in the middle of the stage is perhaps not the trenchcoat-draped figure we were expecting, but Mickey Mouse.
What would cause a developer of hardcore sci-fi and fantasy games to create a licensed game about, quite possibly, the most vanilla character of all time? We sat down with Spector to find out more about Epic Mickey.
First off, how did you come to team up with one of the most famous cartoon characters of all time?
It’s definitely a long strange trip, I’ll say that. I left Ion Storm and Eidos in 2004 to set up an independent development studio – I wanted to run my own show and had some very specific things I wanted to do. I wasn’t feeling like I was going to get a lot of support form publishers at that point.
I was out shopping a bunch of game proposals around with my agent, Seamus Blackley. There was an epic fantasy game I’ve wanted to do for quite a while, and I also had more stories I wanted to tell in the Deus Ex universe – and even though I didn’t own that universe any more, I figured that there was a way to spin it into a new world that was Deus Ex-like, frankly.
So I was out pitching that, and Seamus said one day that we should talk to Disney. I said ‘You know, I don’t think they are going to be interested in my epic fantasy game or my science fiction, M-rated, sunglasses-at-night, two-guns-long-trenchcoat game.’ But he said they were changing, and that they were looking for new things, and that I should try them.
So I’m stood there in a room full of Disney Interactive execs, and midway through my pitch I see they are all looking down at their BlackBerrys checking their email. I thought: ‘I was right! I am going kill Seamus’.
What was actually going on was that they were interested, but they were texting each other, asking ‘Shall we ask him if he’s interested in this Mickey game?’ It gets to the end of my pitch and they ask me how I felt about licensed games I said, ‘Actually, I am really interested in them’.
I’m surprised you said that – after all, you were shopping around original IP.
Well, I had just given the GDC design keynote about licensed games but I’d never made one; I felt weird talking about it. So I said sure, and they asked if there were any Disney properties I’d be interested in. I have been a Disney fan since way back, so I rattled off a bunch of ideas – they then said ‘How do you feel about making a Mickey Mouse game?’ And I said ‘No.’ They went ‘No?!’
The short of it is that Disney has done such a good job keeping Mickey what he is, they have lost the older audience. I don’t make games for kids. He’s a great icon, and I had my Mickey Mouse shirts as a kid – but as a character players want to be, or that movie goers watch, he just isn’t that guy anymore.
They said, ‘That’s it! We want someone to come in and bring Mickey back. Make him what he was and can be again.’ They told me to make Mickey relevant to 13 to 24-year-old boys: don’t lose the kids or the parents, but make him relevant to gamers. I said ‘That’s impossible – I’m totally in.’ How could I say no to that? So that’s where it started, back in late 2005.
They had been thinking about it for some time. Disney Interactive has a think tank where they bring in a bunch of interns and Disney employees, and they come up with cool ideas – and one of them was the genesis of this project.
So has the game been in development all this time?
Well, Disney and I have had an off again/on again romance. We haven’t been working consistently for five years on this. I got together with two long time collaborators, and the three of us spent four or five months developing the concept, finalising the design documents and all that. But by mid 2006 we couldn’t come up with the deal – so we took a year off from it and did some other stuff.
We did some concept work with Valve, and I worked with John Woo on a ninja game and movie. But in 2007 Disney Interactive came back and said ‘We’ve been looking for someone to do the game based on your concept but couldn’t find anyone right.’ It was one of the most flattering moments in my life. So we tried to figure out what the deal could be, and by E3 we had worked out the details. So June 2007 it was the real start.
How did the acquisition of Junction Point fit into that?
That was the detail that needed to be worked out! There was no way Disney was going to give away the keys to the kingdom – no way would they let the icon that is Mickey Mouse be remade for games by an external studio.
They made it clear that if I wanted to make the game – and I really wanted to make the game – it was going to be as part of Disney.
So they put a package together that was enough, because I really wanted to make the game but didn’t want to sell. I like being an independent developer, but you can always go for a second start-up – you never get a second shot at doing Mickey Mouse.
I imagine there was some reticence because you’ve said that you didn’t want to be tied in to a publisher.
Exactly. The irony of this is not lost on me! It was strange; the acquisition of a studio that hasn’t shipped a game is a little odd in itself. And like I say I really didn’t want to sell, but I have been a Disney fan for my entire life.
I have a little checklist with tickboxes of things to do before I shuffle off this mortal coil, and working for Disney was one of those unticked boxes. So taking the opportunity was absolutely the right thing to do.
You’ve mentioned to us previously that you quite wanted to be an Imagineer [the division of Disney that designs rides for its theme parks].
I started out doing table top games doing Steve Jackson games in 1983, and in 1987 I went to TSR working on Dungeons and Dragons. There was a moment in 1988 when I was sat at my desk in TSR and we were starting to think about the next game system and the rules we were going to build, and I realised I had to do something else.
I knew it was going to be one of two things: either electronic games or an Imagineer. I talked to folks at Imagineering, I made it through two rounds of phone interviews, but Orgin made me an offer before the Imagineering guys could decide if they wanted me. Luckily Origin was a place where we created worlds, so it was almost like Imagineering in
As someone who has always had an interest in Disney and its characters and history, this must be perfect for you to be able to access ‘the vaults’.
I am the proverbial kid in a candy shop! Just getting to hang out in the Disney archive is crazy, and I’ve sent guys out to do research that you wouldn’t believe. We have thousands of images of characters, model sheets, background paintings, and sketches for characters that never made it to the screen, blueprints of theme park attractions, memos from Walt to his employees… the stuff Disney has is overwhelming. And I was a film history guy – I was teaching film history and criticism for years and thought that was going to be my life before I got into games. For me, this game brings everything I love together in one place. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. It’s outrageous.
One of the things that is public about Epic Mickey is that it is on the Wii. What’s the idea behind that?
We spent a lot of time in the early phases of the second round of the project, in 2007, doing a lot of pre-production and prototyping for a lot of platforms – at that point it wasn’t clear what the dominant platforms would be, and we did a lot of work on other platforms in addition to the Wii. One day I was talking to [DIS boss] Graham Hopper, and he asked me what it would take to ensure the level of quality we are shooting for. My answer was that it takes enough time, enough money, and that it’s nice when you can focus on a single platform.
I’m cutting out some details, but he said: ‘What do you think about a Wii exclusive?’
My jaw hit the ground, but it made a lot of sense. Imagine trying to convince the people who want to be Master Chief, or a thug in a crime game, or a super villain – imagine asking them to be Mickey Mouse. But then think about the great characters on Nintendo platforms – Mario, Link, even Sonic now – it feels right from that perspective.
There’s a weird freedom that comes with not having to worry about trying to do in real-time what Pixar does pre-rendered. Instead of worrying about glitz on Wii you think about gameplay. How cool is that?
Also, a lot of the mechanics of the game rely on drawing in the game – using paint and paint thinner to make things go away – so it’s natural to see gestural controls with the Wii remote work well. The audience is receptive and already exists, it matches our core mechanics, and the opportunity to focus on gameplay – why wouldn’t we do that?
But to play devil’s advocate, you said the plan is to bring Mickey Mouse to a contemporary audience, not just children but adults too – wouldn’t it be easier to target them on a platform that has a slightly older demographic?
Well, I don’t know anybody that doesn’t have a Wii. One of the things that surprised me about Disney is that you think they make entertainment for children. But in discussions with people at Pixar or Disney feature animation I learned that, yeah, there are times when Disney has been really good at targeting specific demographics, but the real goal of the company has been to create entertainment for families. It’s entertainment for everybody.
So if you’re going to go after everybody, the Wii is a pretty good place to do that. The 360 probably has more of the hardcore gamers, and the PS3 is certainly coming along now – more thanks to the price drop than anything else, I think – but the Wii really is sort of the ‘entertainment for everybody’ platform, and so it fits the company’s goals really well.
It also fits where I am in my life. I don’t really want to make entertainment for teenagers anymore. The games that I have worked on have always appealed to an older audience – the average player of the Deus Ex series was around 30, which was kinda crazy – but it’s nice to create something that appeals to as many people as possible. It’s an interesting challenge, and I hope the whole idea of games that are about player choice and consequence can reach all those audiences. Kids might play the game and be as destructive or actiony as they can, or players that are older might take a slower pace to take more interesting solutions to problems. So, platform, game, me personally – it all just works , it feels right and makes sense to me.
Click here for part two of Develop's Warren Spector interview.