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Putting the 'Epic' in Epic Mickey

July 23, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

Warren Spector is famous for championing the cause of player choice in games -- a philosophy summed up by the phrase "Play Style Matters". This kind of play most famously rose to prominence in Spector and Ion Storm's 2000 game, Deus Ex.

With that game being hard-boiled sci-fi -- and with many gamers assuming that player choice was tied up with adult-oriented scenarios -- it was more than a little surprising to many when the designer's studio, Junction Point, was bought by Disney Interactive; more surprising yet was when the team announced its first game: Disney Epic Mickey.

However, as it turns out, Epic Mickey explores this style of play thoroughly, as Spector demonstrated on stage at Nintendo's E3 press conference last month. As Mickey Mouse, players will have the choice to create or destroy the game's world and inhabitants while on their quest.

Here, Spector talks in depth about how this kind of game design is his creative mission in life, and how he thinks it has a chance for expanding the audience for games despite its apparent complexity.

The inspiration for the paint thinner game mechanic is clear, but what made you decide to implement it?

 Warren Spector: When we tried to figure out what is kind of the heart of Mickey Mouse, there's this reasonably well-defined personality, actually -- you know, smart, resourceful, loyal to his friends, never gives up, enthusiastic to a point of getting himself in trouble sometimes, and clearly mischievous at times.

But beyond being true to that personality, I needed to find out what the core of the character was. I was talking to some other folks here at the office, and we kind of figured out that we need to remind Mickey, and remind the world, that he was a cartoon character, not a human, obviously. Not a real mouse.

And so that was the next step -- like, what does it mean to remind a cartoon character that they're a cartoon? And among other things -- you know it was a group of three of us actually -- [we] came to the conclusion that cartoon characters are made of paint, you know they squash and stretch when they move, they're not subjected to the same laws of physics that we are, and wouldn't it be cool if we gave a cartoon character control over the stuff of which he is made? And so that was Mickey -- hey, let's give him control over his paint, his own paint.

And then the next step was identifying, how do we make this game fit within my personal game design philosophy and the studio's mission -- which is about choice of consequence and play style mattering. And so we started thinking, "Well, what's the opposite of paint?" and well, you know, it's paint thinner.

When an artist draws something, they paint something, they use paint. If they paint something they don't like, they get some turpentine on a rag and they erase it. So that was kind of the yin and yang of it: give Mickey control over what he's made of, the same way that an artist or animator would take control of a character that he's creating on in the real world.

Seems that, in some ways, the game is breaking that fourth wall a little bit.

WS: Certainly, to some extent. Yeah, it's not like Chuck Jones did with Duck Amuck. Certainly, animation fans are going to see things, Disney fans are going to find things, that they understand on a somewhat different level. And part of that is a self-consciousness on the part of some of the characters, that they are creating things in an artificial world.

I haven't actually talked about that, so that's one of the foundational elements of the world; that the characters of Wasteland actually have an awareness of who and what they are, which I find really interesting, and hope to play with in the future.

From a technical standpoint, it's pretty impressive. Have you found the relatively limited processing power of the Wii a burden, or have you found it forces you to be more creative?

WS: Constraints always push you to be more creative. I mean whatever the constraints are, whether it's the constraints of a license, the constraints of a piece of hardware, I mean, no creative act is made better by being constraint free.

I remember in 1989 when I started working with Richard Garriott on Ultima VI, we were talking about all sorts of crazy things, putting spaceships in Ultima again, and all of that. And I said, "you know, John Ford is one of the great American film directors. John Ford didn't need a 747 landing in the desert to make the best films of all time, the best Western films". So you know creativity only happens when you accept constraints.

And so I took that as a challenge. I told the team very early on that at some point we're going to be at E3 and there are going to be 2,500 games on the floor, which means you're going to have about five seconds of someone running from one booth to another, five seconds to look, and get her to pay attention to your game, and I want our game to look unlike any other game.

You know, we're not going to be brown world or gray world or blue world or whatever that's hot this year, we're going to do something that clearly jumps out and says "we are a Disney game". And then, the next thing people say when they stop and stare is, "Holy cow, I can't believe they did that on the Wii. How did they do that?".

And you know, it's not for me to say whether we succeed or not, it's for you to say. I look at the game now and I am in awe of what this team pulled off, from a technical standpoint, or a graphical standpoint, and from a gameplay stand point.

You know, the graphics may be different, the hero may be different, the fiction may be different, but there's some real Deus Ex-y gameplay in this, if people will give Mickey a chance. I think we've made it work, and the Wii is a terrific piece of hardware, and Nintendo's a great company. It's been great working with them.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Bart Stewart
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In an alternate universe in which I didn't have some preexisting responsibilities, I absolutely would have been in Austin years ago, hammering on Ion Storm's or Junction Point's door to ask for a chance to contribute to a Warren Spector game. This player-centered design philosophy is exactly what motivates me, too -- how does it make any sense to design a game without taking into account how different kinds of people might want to enjoy it?

I wish Epic Mickey weren't exclusive to the Wii, but I hope it's a huge hit -- not just to reward Junction Point and Disney, but to encourage other game developers and publishers to better appreciate the point that playstyle *does* matter, and to start making more games that embody this concept.

Ian Uniacke
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@Bart: Although I assume your emphasis was on "exclusive" I'm really glad it's coming to the wii.

This game has the potential more than any other game before to bring what we as "gamers" love about gaming to a mass market audience. I hope that lots of people who would never play deus ex might think "mickey mouse, that's kind of like Mario I'll give that a go" but then as they play they can appreciate some of the deeper gameplay that Warren is trying to put into this game.

Also I think it has the potential to turn out to be a landmark game, in terms of being an artistic game.

Best of luck to everyone on this project. :)

Tejas Oza
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Ever since I played Deus Ex I've loved the concept of consequence in terms broader than simply good vs evil, light side vs dark side. The fact that you're bringing it to Epic Mickey is well, epic. And I agree with Mr. Uniacke that this will give the mainstream a chance to see what it is exactly that more hardcore gamers like. Its not just about button mashing and memorizing build orders but also about good, nay great gameplay.

DanielThomas MacInnes
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@Stone: Have you always felt that way about the Disney video games in the past? Before passing judgment, I suggest firing up your emulators and playing Ducktales on NES, and Castle of Illusion on Genesis. Give those games an honest try and see if that changes your mind.

I'm hoping that Epic Mickey will be a great game, and an inventive one. I'd like to see these game play ideas fleshed out and surprise us. Disney games really haven't been good since the 16-bit era, and that's very unfortunate. As always, content, creativity, improvisation are all key.

I'm also hoping that Epic Mickey will succeed at retail, but the Nintendo Wii has such a strong lineup in the 2010 holiday season. Donkey Kong Country, Wii Party, Just Dance 2 - those are my picks for the biggest hits, while NBA Jam and GoldenEye could tap into a very devoted fan base. And let's not forget that Super Mario Bros 5, Mario Kart Wii, and Wii Fit will continue to be major sellers. The field is very, very crowded with excellent games. I hope Mickey can fight his way in there somehow.

RazorBlade 79
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I've been a huge fan of Mr Spector since '93. If videogames were a religion, he'd get my vote for pope.

Hopefully the game will be shown at GamesCom, can't wait to get my hands on it.

Colm McAndrews
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The C&C system for this game doesn't entirely convince me.

At some point there must be a challenge, it can be either in the choices or in the consequences, because if all i have to do(to choose) is do or not do an OBVIOUS action(paint or thinner), or say or not say a perfectly visible dialogue line('kill this man!' or 'don't kill this man!'), there's no challenge in the choosing itself, and naturally if there's also no real consequence, a consequence that ythe player WILL be sad for, then what was the point of choosing? A player chooses because he's afraid of what's gonna happen, so he has to ponder what he's seen so far to try to predict what's about to happen.

Alfe Clemencio
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I wondering if there would be different final bosses or end game scenarios.

Russell Carroll
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@ Alfe: That's my wonder as well. If you replay the game, can you feel like you got a 'different' game, or is it more limited to things like text and side quests? The later seems more likely to me, b/c creating a game that really let you go a lot of directions, would be one incredibly massive game.

I'm very excited for the game, and glad to see something different coming out among the yearly "Game of the Year" FPS updates. I wish the best for the game and its creator, and even more so for the philosophy behind it.

I do think the game will have a hard time standing out when being released in the same year as SMG2, that game put on a platforming clinic.

Sarah Thomson
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Great read. I do wish though this was coming out for PS3 too...

Eric Kwan
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Kudos to Mr. Specter for his iconoclasm (okay, I really just wanted to write "iconoclasm"). Like Sarah Thomson, though, I too wish this game were on PS3 (perhaps with PS Move support?). I do own a Wii, but I'm kind of a graphics whore and enjoy superior visuals.

Dan Felder
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I want this on an iPad.

Corey Sharpe
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Fantastic article. I remember watching the E3 coverage of Epic Mickey thinking, "I don't know. It just looks like another platformer to me." But after reading what Warren Specter had to say, I'm sold. I'll make sure to pre-order this title.