Can an industry legend turn around the ailing fortunes of the most iconic rodent on the face of the planet? Deus Ex creator Warren Spector talks putting the 'epic' into Epic Mickey.
Disney's iconic mascot has been tarred with a heavy brush of late. While receiving critical acclaim as part of the Disney ensemble in Square-Enix's cracking Kingdom Hearts series, Mickey's solo efforts have been poorly-recieved.
Epic Mickey will be the mouse's first starring role in a videogame since the weak one-two of Magical Mirror and Disney's Hide and Sneak on Nintendo's Gamecube in 2002 and 2003. Developer Junction Point Studios and its head Warren Spector have a heavy task ahead of them.
Spector, an industry veteran of nearly three decades, needs no introduction. his resume reads like a 'Best of...' list, including credits for the likes of Wing Commander, Ultima, Thief and Deus Ex. Ahead of the game's release tomorrow, he talks making Mickey bigger than a rock star, resurrecting a character thought dead some eighty years, and the challenges ahead. Man with the interview brush: Gamereactor Denmark Editor Rasmus Lund-Hansen.
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Disney's Epic Mickey grew out of an idea that Disney proposed to you - how much of the final game is from their original pitch, and how much of it is from you and your team?
There are some "foundation" elements that came from the original pitch - they were genius and we would have been crazy not to use them. Specifically, the idea of a world for forgotten and rejected concepts and characters called Wasteland, Mickey Mouse being dragged into that world by the Blot and the reintroduction of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit... those were all in the original pitch.
The thing to remember is that there's a huge difference between an idea and the execution of that idea. The Junction Point team fleshed out all the details. Still, that starting point was huge for us and shows that Disney is full of creative people!
Epic Mickey brings Oswald back to the screen for the first time in something like 80 years. You're effectively creating a huge chunk of Disney lore with the title. As a long-time Disney fan, how does that make you feel?
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I'm not sure I can adequately describe the feeling. I really do swell with pride a bit every time the intro plays and I see Oswald appear on screen for the first time in a new Disney story since 1928. I remember when Disney first asked if I was interested in doing a Mickey Mouse game and I thought, 'well, we'll be a footnote in history at least,' and that's a huge deal for me and the team. We're all totally honored.
What were your goals when you started out with the game?
I had a variety of goals, actually. First, make Mickey Mouse as big a star in videogames as he is in every other medium he's tackled. I mean, he's been a huge movie star, a TV star, a big attraction at the Disney theme parks - but never a video game hero at that level.
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Second, reintroduce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit to the world. He was Walt Disney's first cartoon star - really big in his day but hasn't been seen in a new Disney story since 1928. He's an amazing character. It'd be nice to see him become a star again. Third, make a game that appeals to the type of broad-based audience a Pixar film or Disney animated feature appeals to. If movies can be 'entertainment for everyone', why not games? It seems like we can take our shot at appealing to kids and adults, men and women, boys and girls. I think the choice and consequence, or 'playstyle matters' approach to gameplay gives us a real shot at avoiding the 'target audience' trap.
Your previous games, whether they used sci-fi, cyberpunk, steampunk or fantasy settings, have mainly gone with a realistic stylistic approach. What has that shift been like to something like Epic Mickey? Does it make a difference?
I've loved the shift to a more iconic, less realistic style. Back in my tabletop game days, I was known as a funny guy, a cartoon guy, but I haven't had a chance to show that in the electronic game space.
Now I get to return to my roots. It's been a great change of pace - a much needed one after years of serious, realistic games! I just hope players of my earlier games see that the same gameplay ideas are evident in Disney Epic Mickey as in those earlier games.
The slogan 'Playstyle matters!' is written on the walls all over your studio. Can you elaborate on what it means? And how does that relate to Epic Mickey?
What it means is that players should get to express themselves through their play choices. If you go through a game, let's use Disney Epic Mickey as an example, and erase everything in your path, that should result in one set of responses from characters in the world, as opposed to another player who paints everything he or she sees...and players who stop to help every character in need should have a different experience than a player who says 'No time to stop and help - I have a world to save!'
The idea behind the 'playstyle matters' motto is that games aren't just about how clever and creative designers are - games are as much about how clever and creative players can be. You make the choices, we'll show you the consequences of those choices (ideally without judging you for those choices!) and at the end of the game your experience, your story, will be different from the experience of all other players. You get to tell your own version of Mickey Mouse's story of saving Wasteland and redeeming Oswald.
The paint and thinner appears to be a gaming first - letting the player remove objects from the world and then put them back. Where did this idea come from?
I've said for years that one of the big problems still facing game developers is how to begin creating worlds - truly interactive, dynamic worlds. One of the programmers at Junction Point, a fellow named Matt Baer, with whom I've been working for ten years or so, came up with the idea of expressing that idea by allowing Mickey Mouse to draw and erase. We wanted to remind Mickey Mouse that he was a cartoon character, so giving him control over the stuff he's made of - ink and paint - seemed like a natural thing to do. But if you're going to make a game of choice and consequence, you have to let players do the opposite of drawing or painting. That led (over a lot more time than it takes to tell the story here!) to the idea of erasing using paint thinner. All credit to Matt, though - he's the one who led the charge on implementing the idea and proving what a powerful idea that was.
Which part of Epic Mickey are you the most proud of or happy with?
Well, I think the team's done a terrific job capturing the essence of Mickey Mouse - the way he looks, the way he moves, everything. And I think Oswald's going to emerge from this game as a star. But I think the thing I'm most proud of is the way the game feels and plays like no other game. A lot of people will compare it to a Mario game, others to a Zelda game and, depending on how each person plays, they'll all be right. Players really have a great deal of freedom to determine what sort of experience they'll have. That's really cool to me.
How much did you rely on the Disney archive and past works in creating the Wasteland world?
We relied heavily on the archives and on old movies and cartoons - as well as some more recent ones. I really wanted as much of the game to be based on real Disney stuff as possible and the team stepped up to the challenge beautifully. I told the team early on that we were going to use everything we possibly could from Disney's past. The only things we made up are those we needed for gameplay purposes that didn't exist in the Disney universe. Everything else was Disney. I expect some players will play the 'where did that come from?' game and I hope players will be inspired to investigate Disney's history as a result of playing this game.
The intro cinematic of Disney Epic Mickey begins with a frame-by-frame recreation of the Mickey Mouse short Thru the Mirror. Are there any other homages or references like that? What is the most obscure reference in the game you can think of?
There are lots of homages like that - too many to list here. I'd just as soon leave that up in the air and let players discover historical references for themselves. The most obscure reference? Hmm. Might actually be Oswald, now that I think of it. Or maybe the gremlins.
In the past, you've worked on role playing games, flight sims, shooters, stealth games, and mixes of some of those genres of those. Now you're doing a platform game. Is there any genre you can't make a game in?
Well, let's wait and see how Junction Point does with Epic Mickey before we assume I can do platform/action-adventure/RPG hybrids! I just think it's fun to try new things and see if you can bring a new approach to established ideas and game styles. You'll tell me if there's a genre I 'can't make a game in!' I'm sure open to trying just about anything!
Do you know what's next for you and Junction Point? Have you decided what the next game you want to make is?
WS: We're trying to enjoy the upcoming release of Disney Epic Mickey and we're brainstorming a variety of ideas that could go into development some day. Stay tuned!
Disney Epic Mickey is released tomorrow on Nintendo Wii. Read our review here.