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Q&A: Warren Spector on Disney Epic Mickey

Disney Interactive Studios

American game designers don't come much more influential, respected, or renowned than Warren Spector. If you've been a PC gamer at any point over the last two decades, there's a good chance you've spent more than a few nights with his wares. Remember Wing Commander? Ultima? System Shock? Thief? Deus Ex? All his babies, to one degree or another.

And now a game about...Mickey Mouse? For Wii?

Disney handed Mr. Spector and his studio, Junction Point, the keys to its greatest icon four years ago, leading the famed designer come up with Disney Epic Mickey, one of the biggest games of the year for Nintendo's white box and among the most significant third-party releases the Wii has yet seen.

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I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with Mr. Spector when he came to Toronto in October. He and I chatted for nearly an hour while an assistant loaded up and played through various parts of the game.

It was a fascinating discussion.

He began by providing an overview of his new creation and what players can do in it before moving on to talk about emergent gaming, how working with Mickey Mouse brings his career full circle, how Pixar studio chief John Lasseter helped guide the direction of the game's story, and his obsession with getting Mickey's iconic mouse ears just right.

Perhaps you could start by telling me about the game.

Okay. Goal one for the project was to make Mickey a video game hero at the same level he's been in every other medium. He's been the most popular movie star in the world. He's obviously been a huge TV star. You go to the theme parks and he's the guy most people want to get their picture taken with.

But while he's had some success in video games he's never been a star at the level of a Mario or a Link or a Sonic or a Master Chief. I just thought that was unfair. So job one had to be to make Mickey a video game hero. The whole team rallied around that.

The game is set in a world called Wasteland, which is a home for all of Disney's forgotten and rejected characters, theme park rides...

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Are these elements based on real work that Disney discarded?

It's all based on real stuff. Almost everything in the game is based on real Disney history. I don't want people to think about the game in quite these terms, but if you want a history lesson on Disney, we've got one for you.

Before we go further, let's roll the game's intro.

[Warren's assistant, Shawn, starts the game's opening cinematic. Mickey appears, and is transported into a mirror.]

This is a frame-by-frame recreation of a 1936 cartoon called Mickey Through the Mirror. Fans will totally see that.

[The movie continues, with Mickey now in a sorcerer's workshop.]

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Anybody who's seen The Sorcerer's Apprentice will recognize this set. We've built it out as a 3-D space, which no one has ever seen before.

[Mickey begins monkeying with the sorcerer's work, a 3-D model of a fantasy world. He accidentally ruins it by creating a monster out of ink, quickly erases the monster with thinner, then escapes back through the mirror. Years go by, and we see Mickey enjoying fame and fortune. Then the ink monster returns and draws him back into the Wasteland world, where Mickey confronts the monster, a mad scientist, and a curious black rabbit.]

It's a brother story. The little rabbit you saw in there, his name is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He was Walt Disney's first cartoon star. Walt lost the rights to the character in a contract dispute in 1928. For about 18 months Oswald was one of the most popular and successful cartoon stars in the world. Walt was loving it. Then he went to the studio and said he wanted to make better cartoons and needed more money. But studio said, "No. In fact, your staff now works for us, and we own the character. Check your contract." I actually got a copy of the contract out of the archives, so I can prove this.

That's the heart of the story. Older brother Oswald hates younger brother Mickey for stealing the life that should have been his. If Walt hadn't lost the rights to Oswald, Oswald would have been the most successful cartoon character in the world instead of Mickey.

The Simpsons riffed this story, didn't it?

Did they? Really?

[Spector's assistant joins the discussion, describing how on one episode of The Simpsons-Season 7, Episode 18, "The Day the Violence Died"-it was revealed that before Itchy and Scratchy (The Simpsons' cartoon-within-a-cartoon) there was Itchy the Lucky Mouse, a character stolen from its creator in the 1920s.]

Wow. I've gotta find that episode. I didn't know that. That's awesome. I'll have to check that out.

But to finish what I was saying, there's so much in the game that's based on reality. What I said to the team was this: If there's something that exists in Disney's history that we need, we're going to use it. If there's something that's neutral that exists in Disney's history, we'll use it. The only things we'll make up are those that simply don't exist in the Disney universe.

For example, one of the concept artists came to me with a sketch of a barrel. I asked where it came from and he said he made it up. I said no, find me a Disney barrel. I want players-Disney fans-to see things and try to figure out where they came from.

[Shawn has loaded a level and is playing.]

Okay, what you're seeing here is our training level. All games have a training level where you learn to run and jump, but we had to teach players some new things. One of the core tenets of this game is that play style matters. What you do makes a difference. What you do is up to you. You can decide whether to take missions or not, whether to defeat every enemy you encounter or turn them into friends. Even the boss battles can be solved by defeating the boss or fulfilling their need and redeeming them.

Now, the key thing that we do that no game has ever done before is that we can use the power of paint and paint thinner to draw and erase things in the game. What you're seeing right now is how we train in this.

[Shawn is painting in gaps in a dilapidated castle stairwell. Sometimes he simply jumps over gaps to conserve his paint.]

And the game is secretly tracking everything you're doing. And the experience is going to change based on when and how you choose to use paint and thinner. Paint creates and heals things, thinner erases things and makes them go away. It's not good and evil. Mickey is always going to be a hero. He's going to save the world and redeem his older brother. It's just a question of how the does it. Every player changes their experience through the use of these tools and how they interact with the world.

So if you decide to defeat an enemy rather than redeem it, how does that change the way things play out in the future?

It changes things locally. If you make friends of your enemies they can help you. They'll actually help you right there on the spot. If you erase them then they're gone. You've removed them in the easiest and most straightforward way.

You can see it here. These are minions of the Phantom Blot. Shawn will deal with them.

[Shawn demonstrates how a player can heal an enemy with paint and make him become an ally that will attack other enemies for you, or simply erase them from the game.]

He could have ignored them, or befriended them and let them help him in other ways. In fact, there are uses for these minions that I don't even want to tell you about, that nobody on the team even realized. The joy of gaming is that players get to choose and create their own experiences. And we also have to teach players that choices come with consequences.

So, here's one of the silliest choices you can have [gestures at an incarcerated character on screen.]Do you want a treasure, something that will make you more powerful and richer, or do you want to help a trapped gremlin, who is one of the forgotten characters in the world? Which would you like to do?

I'm the kind of guy who plays games to be a hero. Let's save him.

Okay.

[Shawn frees the gremlin.]

Now, if you hadn't freed him he'd have been placed on a catapult and flung away. And the game knows that. But you saved him and he gave you one of our collectible pins.

The magic of this kind of game, which has choice and consequence, is that someone figured out how to both get the treasure and save the gremlin. That's not supposed to be able to happen. But the game is just sophisticated enough to allow a player to formulate a plan that the designer of this map did not think was possible. That's when games get really interesting to me.

It didn't break anything in the game?

No. It's funny you should say that, because for most games that's a bug. But when I hear that I think: Feature! It is absolutely a feature.

This is my 20th game, and every one of them has been about trying to create situations where gameplay emerges. The concept of emergence is really hot in scientific circles and in software circles. And the concept of emergent gameplay is really exciting. That's when players are really crafting their own experience. So if you're clever and creative you can do things that even developers of the game didn't know were possible.

So you can tune the game to play how you want it to play. You can make it play like a Mario game or a Zelda game or a Deus Ex game, but at the end of the day it's really just a Mickey game, which is so cool. It's unlike anything else out there.

It looks like it might be a little darker than what we're used to seeing in a Mickey Mouse game. Did you struggle to keep it an E-rated title?

Not really. The reality is that Mickey is Mickey. He's a video game Mickey, but when you start out with a character like Mickey you have a moral obligation to find the heart of the character. What is it that makes the Mickey of the movies and the Mickey of the theme parks and the Mickey of the clubhouse one character? What's made him the same Mickey for the last 80 years?

Our Mickey is smart, loyal, friendly, and mischievous. He's overly enthusiastic and gets himself in trouble, then has to get himself out of trouble. I think that makes for a great video game character. But he needs something heroic to do. He's going to bring light to the world. But in order for there to be light there also has to be darkness. He'll bring joy to these characters, but for there to be joy there also has to be sorrow.

So there are some really sad moments that tug at your heartstrings, and that's because we need Mickey to be a hero.

[He looks at the screen. Shawn is now playing a level that looks like an old Mickey Mouse cartoon.]

Now this is an interesting thing, too. You sometimes go into these 2-D, side-scrolling platform adventures. They're partially to pay tribute to the Nintendo-style platforming that we all love. But I also thought it would be fun to recreate a cartoon. So this is Mickey and the Beanstalk. And anyone who has seen the cartoon will recognize it. They'll recognize the beanstalk, the clouds, everything. And there are dozens of these in the game.

[He sits back, smiling, clearly enjoying what he's watching.]

People who associate you with a game like Deus Ex might find it surprising that you're working with Mickey.

It's funny. People seem to think this is a strange fit, but I've been a Disney fan literally since the day I was born, when my dad bought me a plush Pluto toy. There's also a picture of me sitting in my mom's lap when I was nine months old and I was wearing mouse ears. I've never looked happier.

I've been a Disney fan all my life. Some people outgrow their love of cartoons, I never did. I used to teach animation history classes at the University of Texas, and I wrote my Masters thesis on cartoons. I just love cartoons.

This game is your career coming full-circle, then.

Absolutely. I've actually said those very words. I feel like this is a return to my roots from a content standpoint. From a gameplay standpoint I've said for years that hero, fiction, and tone have nothing to do with the idea that choices have consequences. And that's really what I'm interested in. I care about you showing how clever and creative you are. What does that have to do with whether you're taking on the role of Mickey Mouse or [ Deus Ex's] JC Denton?

Gameplay-wise, this is right in my wheelhouse. And content-wise, it's just such a wonderful change of pace. It's not deadly serious. It's not about an adrenaline rush. I want somebody to smile for a change while playing. I want them to have the joy of recognition.

[Glances at the screen and sees Mickey running around what looks to be an old theme park.]

I mean, what you're seeing right now, the Tea Cup ride at Disney World, we've all ridden that. But it's a little different. The whole game is like that; familiar but strange.

I'm watching this and thinking my five-year-old daughter-who has seen dozens of Disney movies-will love watching me play. But will she be able to play herself? What age range are you targeting?

I've done a pretty good job of hitting 18-34-year-old males, and not such a good job of reaching kids. Disney has done a great job of reaching kids, but maybe not the 18-34-year-olds. I figure I can learn a lot from Disney, and maybe, I don't know, they can learn a lot from me.

I've had a couple of meetings with Pixar's John Lasseter and lots of meetings with other animators at Disney and what they all say is that they are all about entertainment for everyone. That's a great goal. I don't see any reason why video games can't accomplish that, too.

We have watched eight- and nine-year-old girls play this, and 16-year-old boys, and 50-year-old men, and 30-year-old women, and they all find their own fun in it. There are story elements and gags in it that adults get and kids don't. And kids go and spray paint and thinner around. I watched a nine-year-old boy just sit there and puddle a character with thinner and bring him back with paint, and do it again and again. He did it for an hour.

So there's fun for everyone. But even more than that [taking out his phone] I'm going to find a specific picture for you that lets me know all is right with the world.

[He shows me a picture of a young boy entranced by what he sees on a screen in front of him.]

This is at Penny Arcade Expo. It's a five-year-old boy playing with his dad. If I hear stories like this, my work here is done. My work on Earth is done. That's Disney right there.

I've read that Pixar played a role in the game's development. How were they involved?

Well, people were making assumptions. On previous games I've been able to create what I call the creative box. This is what the game is about. And anything that doesn't fit in this box we wouldn't use. So, you wouldn't put a 747 in a western game. I usually do that alone, but when you're working with Mickey Mouse, the most recognizable icon on Earth and the symbol of Disney as a company, I knew I couldn't just create that box myself. I asked to speak with people in all different parts of the company to help define where the box's lines were. What can't I do with Mickey Mouse?

So I had a couple of meetings with John Lasseter, and several of my animators and programmers and producers have gone out to Pixar to meet with them and learn about their methods. But it was more about helping us to figure out how we're going to reach families, how to make a game for everyone the way they make movies for everyone. It wasn't about what players can do in, say, mission three, it was about defining the lines you can and can't cross, and how they do they create the magic that makes their movies appeal to everyone.

And there were some critical things that came out of those meetings. One major story element I changed as a result of conversations with John was that I had Oswald being a villain and Mickey redeeming him from villainy. John said, "Noooo, don't make Oswald a villain." And we talked for a while and came up with the idea of Oswald being a resentful older brother instead. That was a critical story development moment. There's a world of difference between resentment and villainy. We've got moments of real humour and emotion because of this shift. I learned something there.

Was the game your idea, or did Disney come to you?

Disney came to me. It was one of the most flattering moments of my career.

I was out pitching a fantasy role-playing game, and one of the publishers I pitched was Disney. I knew they wouldn't be interested in the kinds of things that I'd been doing in video games. Sure enough, I'm sitting around a table like this one, filled with senior vice presidents, and midway through my pitch they start looking at their Blackberries and typing. It turned out they were texting each other, asking whether they should talk to me about the Mickey game.

So they pitched me on the idea. I was trying to be cool, but I mean come on. I was in once they said Mickey. And once they said Oswald, well, that was it.

And think about what this says about video games in our culture. Mickey hasn't appeared in a story in about 15 years. And now he makes his return in a video game? And Oswald hasn't appeared in a new Disney story since 1928. Disney only reacquired the rights in 2006. And where do they reintroduce him to the world? In a video game. I don't think that would have happened ten years ago. It would have been a movie or theme parks. It just says so much about video games. And about Disney, and how they embrace the challenge of new technology.

I'm just honoured they chose me. And once they brought up Oswald I told them there was no one who was going to make this game but me.

[He looks at the screen and sees that Shawn is playing another black-and-white side-scrolling level.]

This is interesting. You travel from land to land by jumping through screens. This is based on a 1928 Oswald cartoon. We let Mickey test himself against challenges Oswald faced. This is from Oh, What a Night, which is a fairly late Oswald cartoon. It's been getting great response from people. They love that old-school platforming vibe.

The music is fantastic.

God, I'm glad you said that. When you think about video game music, what do you think about? You think about hard heavy metal or techno music. I sit watching movies with my wife-and Pixar movies in particular, with their Randy Newman songs-and they tug at your heartstrings. And I tell her that some day I want to do a game that's worthy of a score like that. And this is it.

The guy doing the music is Jim Dooley-I love giving him props. Did you ever watch the show Pushing Daisies? He won an Emmy Award for best original score for that. If you had told me three years ago that I'd be working with an Emmy Award-winning composer on a video game score I'd have said you were nuts. The guy is incredible.

I mentioned earlier that this game is all about the idea of things being familiar but strange. I want you to feel like you've been someplace, but then to realize no, it's different. I told Jim to take the "It's a Small World" theme, which we all know, and turn it inside out. And then create a theme for Mickey and make it Disney-ish. I mean, you can take a theme from any Mickey cartoon over the decades and they all sound like Disney. I'm not enough of a musician to know what that means, but I know it's true.

And Jim just nailed it. He's really killing my reputation for being a hypercritical guy, because he's just doing a great job. It's absolutely the best score for any game I've ever worked on. I personally believe that it is the best score that anyone has ever had in a video game.

It sounds like the music has been tailored specifically for each level I've seen.

You're right. There's a pirate level, and its music is going to recall Peter Pan in places and Pirates of the Caribbean in places.

But it's not only that. It will also evoke your playing style. Whether you're the guy who uses thinner to solve all your problems or the guy who tries to help everyone he runs across, that play-style choice is going to affect the music you hear. You'll hear the same themes, but the instruments, and how many layers you hear, and how dark or colourful the music is changes based on your playing style.

That's actually a scoop. I haven't told anybody about that. I'm going to have to start talking to people about that.

Out of curiosity, how did you deal with the fact that Mickey's ears are always facing the camera regardless of how he turns?

Oh, wow. That's a great question. Well, early on I said as far as we know we're going to create the third 3-D Mickey in history. There was Mickey's Twice Upon a Christmas, and Mickey's Clubhouse, and I don't think anyone's gotten the ears right.

Rule number one for Mickey is that his ears always face forward, no matter what his head is doing. I said we're going to get that right.

One of my principal programmers looked at me and said, "Oh, no. We can't do it." I looked back at him and said, "We've been working together a long time. I know you can do it." And sure enough, he did it.

It's a programmatic solution. It's not an art or animation problem. That's code driving those ears. It's not perfect. But it's by far the best. If you really work at it you can break it and get the ears to a point where they look a little strange. But I've never seen a normal human do it; I've only seen a tester do it. I couldn't be happier about the ears.

Honestly, I couldn't be happier about our Mickey. Our Mickey is classic. A lot of people ask us "Why did you go with the Steamboat Willy Mickey?" But we didn't. Our Mickey is unique. He's just perfect. He's got elements of old-school Mickey, and some elements of more recent Mickeys, and some that are completely original. I've just completely fallen in love with him. And with Oswald.

Do you think Disney will do anything else with Oswald now that he's been brought back?

Oh, I hope so. Trust me, I'm lobbying. And the more guys like you who write about how cool it would be if Oswald had his own game the easier it gets for me.

He's a great character. You interact with him throughout the game. At first you're chasing him as though he's the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland. Then you finally catch up with him and the two brothers meet, and both Mickey and the player come to understand who Oswald really is, and why he's resentful.

As I was watching Oswald in the opening cinematic it didn't feel like he wasn't angry or hateful, but rather that he was jinxed, and maybe even a little timid.

That's it. You nailed it. And Mickey caused that. That's why this is the story of Mickey's redemption.

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