MAN BEHIND THE MOUSE: AN INTERVIEW WITH WARREN SPECTOR

Let’s get the banal question out of the way. Who are you, and tell us about the game?

I’m Warren Spector, the creative director at Junction Point which is part of Disney Interactive Studios. The game is Disney Epic Mickey, goal one is to make Mickey as big of a star in video games as he has been in every other medium. I don’t know why he hasn’t achieved the same level of success in video games and I want to see if I can fix that, I want him to be a big star.

 

So, what is it about Mickey that makes you want to transcend that cartoon to video game boundary?

I guess it’s because like everyone else on the planet, I grew up with him. Everyone you’ve ever met, everyone I’ve ever met, and everyone we’ll ever meet has an opinion about him, but it’s been a long time since he’s been presented as a hero.

He used to be something really special to people of all ages, and recently for whatever reason he hasn’t actually appeared as the hero of a story for a while. He also hasn’t been a hero in a video game for a long time, probably around 15 years. So I thought the time was right to take a character that I grew up with, that I love and make him a hero again.

Let’s talk about your history with Disney. I want to know where you come from in this. What was your first Disney experience?

Well, my dad bought me a Pluto plush toy the day I was born and I still have it. I could show you a picture of it right now, it’s on my phone. Then there’s a picture of me at 9 months old, sitting on my mother’s lap looking happier than a kid should be allowed to look, wearing mouse ears. I got Disney stock when I graduated from college and I saw both The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor when they came out.

I’m like the oldest guy still making video games by the way, but I’ve never lost my love of cartoons in general actually. I wrote my master’s thesis on cartoons, I taught animation history classes, so I loved the opportunity to dive in to the Disney archives.

They just opened up the archives and said “anything is fair game, go!” and as an old animation buff, nothing could be better.

Looking through that archive, what sort of things intrigued you the most?

There were a few things actually. During World War II, Walt worked with Roald Dahl who was the children’s author who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They worked together on a movie about gremlins and the movie was never made. So, The Wasteland (the world in which the game is set) is a world of forgotten and rejected Disney creative efforts and all of a sudden I had Roald Dahl and Walt Disney with this gremlin movie never made. I thought great, I’ve now got this whole cast of characters for this game. That was pretty exciting finding that, I got to hold storyboards from that film in my hands.

And this was actually pretty cool, it didn’t make it in the game but I found a bunch of early concepts for Tinkerbell. They did a bunch of different versions of Tinkerbell before they settled on the one that appeared in Peter Pan. I decided not to do anything with that because I didn’t want to confuse people – Disney has all these fairy things that 5 year old girls are in to now – so I didn’t include that in the game, but it was cool seeing all the iterations that the Disney artists went through before they settled on the Tinkerbell we know.

That’s totally reflected in the way we make games now too. We’d reject 1000’s of images of Mickey and it was cool to seeing that they go through the same process as we do when we make a game.

Taking something like The Gremlins, which is Walt’s unreleased work, what sort of responsibility do you feel to the past?

You know, with stuff that’s been forgotten like that all I really had to do was say to the team “let’s be as true as we can.” So when you look at the source material and compare it to Gus the Gremlin in our game, he is absolutely as close as we can get to Walt and Roald Dahl’s vision of what that character should be.

Where things got really interesting was with Mickey because we were trying to create a video game Mickey. We didn’t want to take the Mickey from the theme parks or the Mickey from Mickey’s Clubhouse or the Mickey on my watch; we wanted a video game Mickey.

But at the same time I still felt an incredible responsibility. Even people who say they don’t like Mickey or they’ve outgrown Mickey still have this relationship with him and it’s like, don’t mess with my childhood. So I felt a real sense of responsibility, I don’t want to be the guy who screws up Mickey Mouse. So it was just a question of making sure we talked to everyone at Disney we could, and to make sure we were doing things the company could say they were proud to have as part of Disney history.

Speaking about the history, the game goes through a bunch of Mickey’s past. How do you balance showing people what they remember and creating a new story that’s all your own?

Honestly, I didn’t worry about that too much. This is an entirely new story set in an entirely new world with characters that because they’ve been forgotten or rejected, though we wanted to be faithful to their roots, we really could use them however we wanted. So everything here is new and different.

There are a couple places, like the 2D platforming sections that let you travel between the world of Wasteland where you jump in to a movie screen and are transported in to a cartoon. I told the team to make them look as much like the real cartoons as you can possibly make them look.

There it was about recreating what people already know, but overall the story is entirely ours and I hope people see it as a story worthy of Disney or Pixar right up there in the tradition of Snow White or Beauty and the Beast or Toy Story or The Incredibles.

Now, this game is very different from your previous work. As a creator how does this compare to projects you’ve worked on in the past?

You know, obviously in terms of the fiction it’s very different and in terms of the tone it’s different and the graphics are different. I’ve done so many games about guys who wear fur bikinis and carry big swords, or guys who wear trench coats and sunglasses at night that I really just want to do something different. I hope fans will just let me have my change of pace.

But, in terms of gameplay that’s where things get interesting. Every game I’ve done and every game I will ever do is about choice and consequence, you deciding how to interact with the game world, how you’re going to solve problems and telling your own story in the process. That’s as true of Disney Epic Mickey as it was for Deus Ex or the Ultima games or any of the games people usually associate with me or my teams.

The gameplay mission hasn’t changed, hasn’t been compromised in any way. The choices you’re making are different; the consequences you face are different. I really wanted to take elements of platforming, adventure and role-playing and mashing them up to see what we get rather than taking my usual stealth/role-playing/shooter combo but the mission hasn’t changed and Deus Ex fans will find plenty to love.

When they’re done the game, what do you want players to remember most from the Epic Mickey experience?

I hope they come away with a new appreciation of Mickey as a heroic figure because he has been that. He’s been an adventurer at various points in his life and his career. I hope they come away with a real love of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit because we got to introduce a character to the world that nobody’s seen in a Disney story since 1928 in a video game – just think about what that says about video games and how Disney feels about them – so that’s really special.

Mostly though, I hope they’re not just told what a hero is, I hope they got to decide for themselves what it meant to be a hero. I hope they weren’t told how important family and friends are; I hope they got to decide for themselves. If that happens and they get to come away with a unique experience they created for themselves I’m a happy game developer.