Interview: Warren Spector

Warren Spector is here at E3 this week showing off his Disney Epic Mickey project for the first time, and we got to sit down with the creator of System Shock and Deus Ex to talk about his new gig with the House of Mouse.

After the jump below, Spector answers our questions about why he decided to do a Disney game in the time and place that he did, his favorite Disney properties, and how hard it is to make a platformer game. Read on for more.

The main question I had on seeing this one was: Why? First of all, why Mickey?

Why Mickey is pretty easy. I've been a Disney fan since I was born -- my dad literally bought me a Pluto plush toy the day I was born. There's a picture of me that I'm sure will be plastered all over the Internet embarrassingly, of me wearing mouse ears, sitting in my mom's lap, the happiest kid in the world when I was nine months old. When I graduated from college, I got Disney stock. My first professional game gig was I did a game called Toon, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game. I got this reputation for doing dark, edgy, hip stuff, and really what I want to do is make cartoons. So let's be clear, when Disney says hey, would you be interested in doing a Mickey Mouse game, you pretty much say yes. And then the trick is, finding out how to make a Mickey game that actually feels right, given the kind of games that I like to make and the kind of gameplay that I like to deliver to players.

That folds into the next part of it, which is: Why the Wii?

"It's a really wonderful idea that all people that enjoy playing games would appreciate."

The Wii was a very natural fit. We've been open about this -- the game started, actually, as a multiplatform game. And as I sort of conceived the idea of paint and thinner play, that drawing and erasing [he waves his hand back and forth in a painting motion) -- I'm doing it now. I started doing this. And I noticed that the entire team was doing this -- every time they talked about drawing and erasing, it was like they had a paintbrush in their hands. And we talked about that for a while and were like huh. And then you want to bring that sort of "playstyle matters" gameplay to the broadest audience possible, I don't think it's just a core gamer idea. I think it's a really wonderful idea that all people that enjoy playing games would appreciate. The Wii has the gestural control, it has the broad audience. You already have an audience that loves Mario and characters like that, so the Wii was a natural fit for that.

And then the final part of it is: Why a platformer?

It's funny -- a lot of people on my team thought for a long time that we were making a platform game too, and I was sitting back like, "Heh heh heh. I will spring this on them soon." It isn't actually a platform game. It is in fact a game designed to confound marketing people, just like Deus Ex was a game designed to confound marketing people. We won Best RPG, Best Story, Best Action, Best Stealth, Best Shooter with Deus Ex, and similarly, this game is a mashup of action/adventure, inspired by the Zelda games that I absolutely adore, platforming inspired by the Mario games that I absolutely adore, and roleplaying games like Deus Ex and other games that I've worked on. It's really a combination of all things. And to some extent, how you choose to interact with the world can determine how much of each of those games it feels like. But really, for me, it's much more of an action/adventure, and the game is really starting to feel like those classic action/adventure games that I've played and love so much.

The Wii does have a broad audience, which you said was a plus and it definitely is a plus for sales. In terms of power, though, it's obviously not quite up to par, in terms of sheer power, as the other consoles. Has that been a problem in development or have you run into any issues with that?

Every game is created within constraints. It's just a function of minimizing those constraints and making the most of whatever platform, or whatever genre you're in or whatever gamestyle you choose. And one of the goals I set for the team early on, and you guys can determine whether I succeeded at this or not, I said we're going to go to E3 someday, and there are going to be 2500 games on the floor. I want people to look at this game, and within five seconds, know that it's not some other game. We're not going to do oh, this year it's blue world, and next year it's brown world, and this year it's gray world. You're going to be able to look at this game, and know it's a Disney game, know it's a Mickey game, and know it's a Junction Point game. And, I want people looking at that and saying holy cow, I can't believe they did that on the Wii. I look at this and I think we hit that mark, and I think this game transcends the so-called limitations of the hardware. I'm pretty much in awe of what the team's been able to accomplish.

One thing that surprised me when I played was that there was no voiceover in the cutscenes. What drove that decision?

It was an early, early decision -- there were two things. I love Mickey Mouse, [goes into high-pitched Mickey voice] but there's something about that voice, you know? It's hard to accept that as a really big hero. And so I decided that -- everybody can do a bad Mickey...

That was a pretty good one, actually.

Yeah, I've been doing it since I was a kid. I'm not allowed to do my Goofy voice, though. I was told that flat out. But no, I wanted people to accept this guy as a hero, and so I kind of made an early decision that we wouldn't have speech in the game. Also, Oswald [the Lucky Rabbit, another major game character] was a silent film character. If you haven't seen the Oswald pictures, you need to see the Oswald cartoons. Disney re-released the thirteen that still survived a couple of years ago, and they're spectacular, but they're silent films. And so in a world where Oswald is the ruler, it seemed appropriate that people don't talk. So they communicate -- they communicate in subtitles, and they [make grunting and hooting noises]. That's a time-tested tradition in platforming games anyway, and console games in general.

I know you have environments in the game that you haven't shown yet, so I won't ask you what other environments are in the game.

Good, because I won't answer!

But I wanted to ask you: what's your favorite Disney movie?

My favorite Disney movie? Wow, that's a tough question. I used to teach film history classes, and I taught an animation history class in the University of Texas, so I'm a cartoon expert. In terms of Mickey cartoons, certainly, Clock Cleaners is way up there. The Band Concert. I love the Mad Doctor, and the Mad Doctor does appear in the game, partly because I just love the guy, he's so sinister. Sleeping Beauty was very important to me when I was a kid, so I certainly have to put that up there. The first Disney film I ever saw was The Shaggy Dog -- I know that's not one of the greats, but boy it sure made an impression on me. I wanted an English sheepdog for years after I saw that. Which, when you grow up in an apartment in New York, is not a good idea. So yeah, I'd have to say those are all good.

You're going deep into the catalog there, that's impressive. The other question was: what is your favorite Disney game?

Well, the Ducktales game that Capcom did a while back was pretty good. Castle of Illusion was pretty good, too. But really, I want to go way beyond. This is about making a great Mickey game.

Was there anything in all of the catalog where Disney said no, that's too far? Or anything where they had to go back and find something you wanted to include?

You know, in any creative endeavor, especially when I'm involved, I have a way of working where you define the creative box within which something lives. When I work on original stuff, I define the box. When I'm working with Mickey, I don't get to define that box completely. So I had to find out where the edges of it were. And so there were plenty of things that went a little too far, by design. I tried to push it as far as I could. I tell my team this all the time -- anytime you think you've gone far enough, go 20% further on anything. And I'll pull you back if you've gone too far, I'll let you know.

Can you give an example of that?

We did 1500 different designs for Mickey. Some of them were pretty out there, some of them were pretty traditional. And where we ended up, I think, is honestly, I think this is the best Mickey ever. The fact that we've done this in 3D, and the animation feels to me like Mickey. It looks like, to me, the perfect combination of old school traditional Mickey, and a modern interpretation. I absolutely adore this little guy now.

It's interesting that you said you wanted to "try platforming" -- what have you learned from making a platforming game?

"If you ever think about making a platform game where the player gets to decide where the platforms go, just say no."

It's a lot harder than it looks. That's for sure. And by the way, if you ever think about making a platform game where the player gets to decide where the platforms go, just say no. Okay? Just say no, don't go there. Yeah, it's been pretty interesting. There are a lot of things that translate from one game style to another, but there's a lot more stuff that -- well, that's a much deeper conversation.

Do you have a lot more respect for Cloud Mario?

I never lacked respect for those games, but I didn't have an appreciation, perhaps, for what went into developing them.

What did you think of the Human Revolution trailer?

I'm just so thrilled that I was part of the creation of something that has a life beyond me. You have no idea how that is. It's almost cooler than making a new game myself. It's got a life that has nothing to do with me. Wow.

Whenever we look at Wii games, we talk about the waggle factor, and now with Kinect, people are mentioning the flail factor. Did that come up during development? You said that people are already making that motion without the controllers, but did you have to tune that at all?

You know, gestural control is a new thing. It was new to me, it was new to everybody on my team, and we'll be tuning that until the day we ship. It was definitely interesting and different. It was a great change of pace from a design standpoint, it was a ton of fun dealing with a whole new set of challenges. [Makes traditional controller motions] This is a pretty well understood problem, waggling your thumbs on a controller. But yeah, it was a challenge. And it was great fun.

Anything specific in the design?

Yeah, there were a couple of things. There was a part of me that wanted players to be able to write their names in walls, and that's just too much. It's not fun, it's kind of pain in the neck.


It is, it is. But maybe in some other game and some other time I'll be able to figure out how to make that fun gameplay, and not frustrating in the game. But that one didn't work out, that didn't make it in the game. There were others.

Did you feel pressured because you're on this platform to do that type of thing?

I wouldn't say I felt pressured to do it, but I felt encouraged to do it, and I felt like players are going to expect it, so we should try to accommodate it. But if it hadn't been appropriate for the game, we wouldn't have done it. That's the critical thing. There are a lot of people looking at gestural control as the future of games, and I think what we need to do is say, is gestural control appropriate for this game or not. If you're playing tennis, good lord, if you don't use it, if you don't do this, you're crazy. But there are plenty of other games where it's just better to [press buttons]. And we have to be brave as developers and publishers and retailers to just accept that some games are just going to be better like this. We've got twenty years of experience doing this, and gamers have twenty years of mastering it. Most kids today have thumbs that are more dexterous than -- than me, that's for sure. So why should we throw that away?

Disney Interactive has said in the past that they're really interested in taking chances with their franchises in making these games. Were you surprised that they came to you for something like this?

I was stunned. I'm still stunned. I'm telling you, I'm the luckiest guy in the world, I pinch myself every morning. I get to do this? Are you kidding me? How many people in the world get to work with an actor who is the most recognizable thing in the world. I was watching some documentary about poverty in Africa, and there was a kid right on screen in Africa wearing a Mickey t-shirt. This is universal. I could go out there -- well, actually here, I probably couldn't. But I could go out there on the street in front of the Staples Center and yell, "I created JC Denton!" and no one would know or care. But I say I'm making Mickey Mouse, and everyone will know and care. Everybody's going to know and care. Holy cow. The expectations for this are high. I think we're meeting them. And stepping up to that kind of challenge -- fail gloriously, right? That's my motto.

Talking about the two characters, though -- what's changed about you in terms of the games that you want to make? Did you want to make this game back when you were making Deus Ex?

I've been pitching cartoon games since 1989. I'll even tell you -- it was called Death and Destruction: The Mad Scientist Simulator. And it was a cartoon game. Somehow, I just got this reputation for doing guys in trenchcoats, sunglasses at night, two guns kind of game. But I wrote my master's thesis on cartoons, I wrote Toon: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, I wrote the Bullwinkle and Rocky roleplaying game, I came into this business wanting to do funny stuff, and I just haven't had the chance. Disney's the first company just crazy enough to let me do this.

So you're saying this is the real Warren Spector game?

I'm saying that the real Warren Spector game is defined by that two word motto: Playstyle matters. Choices and consequences. And what I tell my teams all the time, and what I tell journalists all the time is that allowing players to make choices and see the consequences of their choices has nothing to do with fiction, nothing to do with who your avatar is, nothing to do with context. It has everything to do with play. I can do that in the context of a Mickey game just as well, though perhaps with different choices and different consequences, as I can in any other.

And the last thing, and this I think is a result of that I've been doing this for 27 years now, and I've made a lot of serious games, and I watch people playing games now, and they play like this, they furrow their brows and they're sweating and they're all adrenalized. I just want to make a game that makes people smile when they play it for a change. Maybe I'll go back and do something more adrenalized later, but just let me do a game of choice and consequence where people smile when they play, and Disney is the perfect place to do that.

We'll let you do it, too. Thanks very much.

Thank you!

This article was originally published on Joystiq.