Warren Spector is one of a select group of game designers - Will Wright, Peter Molyneux, Hideo Kojima, John Carmack, and Shigeru Miyamoto being others - who have reached the status of household name in the gaming community, and are associated with a signature design style. Spector's latest project, Epic Mickey, combines his signature emphasis on player choice with his love for all things Disney.
Gaming Union recently sat down with Warren Spector to blow the lid off Epic Mickey. He shares what it's like to work with Disney and how the project came about, sets the record straight on a few internet rumors, and discloses how player choice is implemented in Epic Mickey.
Working With Disney: The Great Balancing Act
After working on milestone games such as Deus Ex and System Shock, a Mickey Mouse game for Disney seemed like a strange choice to many observers. For Spector, the idea was too good to pass up. "Nobody has ever offered to let me work with the most recognizable icon on the planet," he explained. "I used to teach cartoon history at the University of Texas, I wrote my masters thesis on cartoons, I'm a cartoon history junky. So, I know the history of Disney really, really well." Spector was also intrigued by the prospect of bringing Oswald the Rabbit to life, calling it an opportunity he "could not walk away from."
"The whole premise of the game is forgotten, rejected, and/or retired [Disney characters]. I really wanted to steer clear of recent material. The wasteland is a place where all of Disney's rejected creative efforts go," Spector said. Epic Mickey is about the classic characters from Disney's storied past that nobody knows about today.
One reason for this was to avoid clashing with characters and ideas people come into contact with a lot and have strong opinions about. "I've gotten to know some of the guys at Disney, and I didn't want to be the guy to say, 'Wow. Your work five years ago sucked' because I don't believe it. Secondly, a lot of the younger people on my team love the recent things that I look at and think, 'That's okay, but I don't know how much lasting value it's going to have.'" In Spector's mind, using recent creations could run the risk of "stepping on someone's childhood" or "offending the amazingly creative people Disney has working for them."
Another thing Spector had to take into consideration while developing Epic Mickey was the amount of creative liberty he would take with Mickey - setting certain constraints, or in his words, using "a creative box." Spector described the difficult position of "dealing with a characters that billions of people know and love, dealing with stuff that you didn't create, where any statement could effect [Disney's] stock price." "I really felt a strong obligation to ensure Disney was aware of what I was doing, and was part of the process," he concluded.
Internet Speculation: Setting The Record Straight
On that note, Spector realized during the early stages of development that altering Mickey's appearance - in the form of the glorious "Hero Mickey", or the mischievous "Scrapper Mickey" originally preposed to represent the player's choices - was "crossing the line." Instead, one of the designers at Junction Point came up with the idea of "Guardians" - little beings that would accompany Mickey and change based on the player's decisions throughout the game.
The change from altering Mickey's appearance to using the Guardians to convey choice was undertaken by Junction Point independently, something Spector was keen to point out. He had this to say:
"Recently, there's been a bunch of guys online saying that we changed the graphics based on fan response after screenshots were released and that 'Mickey was a mean mouse and now he's not'. That's not true. I wanted to communicate clearly that your choices in the game change things, I needed a reflection of the power of the choices your making, so I tried changing the way Mickey looked. We had a moment where that was made public, I kind of wish we hadn't done it, but I personally, individually decided 'Wow. I just don't like [changing Mickey's appearance]."
Player Choice: The Consequence System
The concept of player choice in games has always been near and dear to Spector's heart. This idea is woven into the fabric of Epic Mickey in a big way. For example, the game allows players to decide whether to turn enemies into friends, or to leave them as foes - the choices players make are being constantly tracked, which in turn impacts the game's direction. "[The other characters] remember, they know, we're tracking all these stuff behind the scenes," he said.
Spector has high hopes and ambitions for the "consequence system" in Epic Mickey, describing his long term goal of "bringing player choice to a wider audience," as opposed to solely the experienced gamers who enjoyed his past work. He believes that the concept has the ability to teach people things about themselves and the world around them - specifically children. "Kids can see the consequences of choices they make, and maybe that even translates into their behavior in the real world, 'Hey, if I don't help people, maybe I'll get something for it, but maybe there's a cost to that.'"
That being said, Spector was clear Epic Mickey is by no means a game about the "right" course of action. "I absolutely do not believe in telling players what's right and wrong, good and bad. I don't believe in that stuff in my real life, I just don't do that. A lot of people have asked about the game's morality system, there is no morality system," he added, "It's a consequence system... it's not binary."
"I've done 19 games that are all on this same evolutionary path, so I know pretty well that about 70% of players are going to pick a middle path, leaving about 30% of players on the extremes. As a developer, you want to push players towards those extremes, you want to encourage players to specialize a little bit, but that's a much bigger talk."
In terms of the endgame, Spector was intentionally vague, saying "it will be different for every player," and that "one ending isn't better than another, they're just different choices."
Many thanks to Mr. Warren Spector for taking the time to sit down with us, but wait, there's more to come. The discussion continued on to include more about Epic Mickey's story, choosing the Wii, blurring genres, the future of 3D gaming, motion controls, and everything in between. Stay tuned.