In a Nintendo press bus, with Donkey Kong’s and Mario’s faces painted on the sides, Warren Spector waits patiently. You may have had him as a professor for a radio-television-film class, and if you were on campus in the 1980s, you may have read his articles in The Daily Texan. But now, he designs video games.
His childlike exuberance and signature sweater vest are unmistakable, but now he sits a long way from the dungeons of “Ultima Underworld” and the futuristic cityscapes of “Deus Ex,” the 2000 release that Gamasutra.com recently labeled as the second best game of the decade. Now, Spector’s new studio, Junction Point, isn’t only driving Austin game development forward but also the future of Disney’s most iconic character, Mickey Mouse.
With “Epic Mickey’s” Wii-exclusive Nov. 30 release date drawing near, The Daily Texan talked with Spector about Disney’s unexpected proposal, what all his games have in common and why his latest won’t disappoint fans of Mickey Mouse or “Deus Ex.”
The Daily Texan: Was it ever a struggle to pitch your creative vision to Disney?
Warren Spector: The reality is Disney came to me. I didn’t go to them and say, “Give me Mickey Mouse!” They asked me if I wanted to do a Mickey Mouse game. They actually had a core concept that they pitched to me. It was so funny. They asked if it would be okay if we pitch you our ideas of what a Mickey game might be. Are you kidding me?
The idea of Wastleand, a world full of forgotten, rejected concepts — that came from Disney. Bring back Oswald the Rabbit, Disney’s first cartoon star — that came from Disney. Even the Phantom Blot kidnapping Mickey and dragging him into this world, which is how our game starts — that came from Disney. I thought they were genius.
DT: Will the greater world of Disney make an appearance in the game?
WS: The game is set in a world called Wasteland, which is a place where 80 years of Disney creative efforts, rejected and discarded Disney stuff, goes. So, of course you’ll see a lot of stuff from Disney’s history. A lot of stuff you may recognize but a little bit different. A lot of stuff you may never [have] heard of but you’ll learn about [while] playing the game.
It was kind of weird. It was the first time I went to a team and said, “Don’t make stuff up.”
DT: You’re known for making deep, challenging games. What’s the difficulty level going to be like in “Epic Mickey?”
WS: If you want a challenging platformer experience, you can have that. If you are a less skilled, platformer player, like me, you can just paint a path. If you do that, the game will feel a bit more like a “Zelda” game or an action-adventure.
The difficulty of the game and how the game actually feels is largely in your hands. Thanks to the power of paint and thinner you can really decide how crazy the platforming challenges are. You can decide whether you are going to defeat enemies in combat, make them your friends or avoid them entirely.
DT: In “Epic Mickey,” you have these Steamboat Willy levels where the game becomes a 2-D platformer. When did the idea for those come about?
WS: The idea of using 2-D platforming sections came pretty early, actually. There were two reasons. One was, purely selfish. I always wanted to do a platform game and no one was crazy enough to let me do it. I figured I could sneak it in this way — I probably shouldn’t have said that out loud, should I? The other reason was that I wanted to give players the opportunity to jump into films, to really feel they are in a cartoon. In those sections, we turned off the player’s paint and thinner abilities, so that we could make the game look exactly like those cartoons.
Were there any ideas you had from before you got the Mickey license that worked themselves into the game?
A lot of games, they talk about interactivity, but really it’s like you are on a movie set. If you look behind the flats, you’ll see there is nothing but dry wood and masking tape. We wanted to try to make a game that had a more dynamic world and that idea certainly carried over.
DT: What will there be to please fans of your past games?
WS: I’ve been on a personal mission since I go into the electronic games business in 1989. Every game I’ve worked on — and this will be my 20th — has been about player expression. About you getting to decide how to solve problems and you showing how clever and creative you are, as opposed to me and my designers. I think “Deus Ex” and “Ultima” fans will find plenty to like here.
Mickey Mouse is such an internationally recognized character at this point.
DT: Do you have any doubts about how the game will be received in Europe and Asia?
WS: Not “doubts.” That’s not the right word. You always have this excitement. “Oh, how are people going to enjoy it? Are they going to get it? Are they going to like what we did? Are they going to compare us to Mario which is this dedicated platformer game or Zelda, a dedicated puzzle and exploration game, or are they going to get that we let you decide what to do?” If they get that, we win.
DT: How has the Wii as a platform influenced the game’s design?
WS: The Wii as a platform pretty much determined everything. When we made the decision we were going to be a Wii exclusive in Jan. 2008, Disney gave us a gift. They basically allowed us to start from scratch. The beauty of working on a single platform is that you can design for that platform without compromise. What we were able to do was to look at the Wii, look at what it offered us, look at what it allowed us to do that no other platform would allow us to do and then take that and turn it up to 11.
DT: How long has Junction Point been a studio?
WS: I left Ion Storm in spring 2004; I had a noncompete. We incorporated in early 2005. I left Ion Storm because I wanted to do digitally distributed episodic content. I got crushed. That’s the bottom-line. I needed a lot of money and everyone said, “Oh, this is a great idea. We love this, but you are five years too early.” But, I’m thrilled to be where I am.
It seems you hired a lot of your Ion Storm team back. Why was this important?
Well, there are people I’ve been working with a very long time. We work together because we like each other, I guess, and we share a design sensibility and we share some goals. There are a lot of people now making games — I call them “games of choice and consequence” — but the way I [and the people around me] like to do them is a little different. I try to steer clear of good/evil, right/wrong judgments and just let people play. People who get that, that we are not judging, they are pretty rare. So, I’ve been lucky.
DT: This is your first third-person perspective game. What problems did that bring up?
WS: It’s funny. I have to wonder how the heck did Disney think I was the right guy to do this — other than being the biggest Disney geek on the planet. I never did a third person game, never did a game that had platforming elements of any kind, never done an action-adventure game. The average player of my games topped 30 about 10 years ago, so I make games for older guys and, I mean, largely guys. And, all of a sudden, I’m making a game about Mickey Mouse. It’s crazy. But that’s part of why I wanted to do it. I’m not sure why they let me do it.
I tell you, I have a lot more respect guys who do platformer games and third person, action-adventure games. The camera, oh my god! The camera is just insane. I do first person games so I never had to deal with that. I now think that third person camera is the hardest problem in game development.
DT: One of my favorite things about the UT Video Game Archive is the giant tome that is the design book for “Deus Ex” that you donated — what was the preproduction process like for “Epic Mickey”?
WS: Pretty incredible, actually. We went through several phases. We wrote up about 300 pages of design documentation. Then when we actually got around to working on the game, we made the decision to be a Wii exclusive, so a lot of that stuff went away and we had to start over from scratch.
The most fun and exciting part was actually collaborating with folks at Disney, getting into the archives, talking to people in feature animation at Pixar, consumer products people and anyone else we could talk to. It was pretty remarkable.
DT: Why Pixar?
WS: When you are talking about a Disney game, I think you have to start with quality animation so talking to people from feature animation is important.
You had a master class on game design at UT in 2006. Any hope you’ll do something like that again?
I’d love to do another master class or just teach classes in general. I was working on my Ph.D. at UT, in fact, when I left to start making games. I was teaching RTF314. One day I got a call from the chairman of the radio-television-film department saying, “Spector, we have to take your class away. You are only allowed nine semesters of support as a doctorial candidate and you have 13.” I love teaching. It’s just a question of much time it takes. I’m a game development guy now. If I ever get the time, you bet I’m teaching and I hope it’s at UT.