Warren Spector's lessons learned from Epic Mickey

"The emotional level [from Epic Mickey fans] was so much greater than Deus Ex or System Shock," says industry icon Warren Spector, who plans to inject more of his signature design style into Epic Mickey 2.
Warren Spector has never been afraid to polarize gamers. He is, in many ways, the epitome of the "go big or go home" style of game making – and he'll be the first to tell you that he'd rather fail in spectacular fashion than do something that bores him. But there has never been a split like Epic Mickey. It was a game that was beloved by some and ripped to shreds by others. It was the best selling single-platform game in Disney's history -- but critics thumped Disney for leaving money on the table, citing the game's decision to release exclusively on the Nintendo Wii and its post-Thanksgiving release date. Now Spector and his team at Disney-owned Junction point are hoping to silence those critics with Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. The new features, by now, are fairly well known: Co-op play with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and Mickey; the decision to go multiplatform; a pre-Black Friday release date. (And, while it hasn't been announced, Disney sources hint a Wii U version of the game is likely.) The in-game camera, which was the biggest source of criticism, is being fixed, says Spector. And, rather than all characters being mute, Disney has enlisted all of its character voice actors to participate in this project, and hired renowned voice actor Frank Welker to give Oswald a voice for the first time. Perhaps most critically, some of Spector's signature design styles, which made him one of the game industry's most respected developers, are finally finding their way into the game. Key among those is the ability to solve puzzles in more than one way. Spector is a champion of letting the player decide how to progress through the game. Games like Deus Ex and System Shock gave players the opportunity to be a gun-blazing action star or a more stealthy protagonist. The original Epic Mickey really didn't offer that. "Once you're through with the intro level, you can get through the entire game without using paint or thinner," says Spector of the game's central game mechanic, which has players painting to create, or using paint thinner to destroy. Spector acknowledges the original game wasn't perfect, but says he's actually quite proud of the final product, which incorporated long-forgotten Disney characters and sketches. And while core gamers might prefer his work on edgier fare, he says the response to the first title far surpassed anything he has previously done. "I got more emails saying 'your game changed my life' than anything I've ever worked on," he says. "The emotional level was so much greater than Deus Ex or System Shock. I'm so proud that we touched people the way Disney touched me years ago. I know that 30 years from now, people will look back and say 'That's what inspired me' or 'That's when I became a Disney fan.'" The original Epic Mickey split critics, with some lauding praise on it, while others panned it harshly. Those diametrically-opposed views gave the game a fairly low Metacritic score of 73 -- the lowest Spector has ever received. "The reality is I've made a lot of games," he says. "And if you pay attention to Metacritic, the 'worst' game I ever worked on was 82 -- and that, I thought, was low. [Epic Mickey] was in the 70s and that got to me. ... I learned to take reviews and ratings with a little more of a grain of salt," he says. "I'm a little proud of making a game that polarized people." While he's not making any apologies for the original game, Spector does acknowledge things could have been done better. He attributes that to the learning curve that comes with starting a new franchise -- and says those hurdles are behind him and the teams working on the game. "With the first game, we built a team, a studio, a world, a code base, created characters and figured out how to work with Disney," he says. "If we can do it wrong, we did that. The fact that we made a game that touched people that way, with all of those obstacles is amazing to me. ... Now, we know who Mickey is. We know who Oswald is. We knew we wanted to do co-op multiplayer. And I know what the next [game] is -- if we get to do it."

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