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In this interview, Warren Spector describes how his creative mission in life -- giving players choice and consequence -- informs the development of Disney Epic Mickey, a game players didn't expect from the designer yet which encompasses what they love about his work.

Kris Graft, Contributor

July 23, 2010

19 Min Read

Warren Spector is famous for championing the cause of player choice in games -- a philosophy summed up by the phrase "Play Style Matters". This kind of play most famously rose to prominence in Spector and Ion Storm's 2000 game, Deus Ex.

With that game being hard-boiled sci-fi -- and with many gamers assuming that player choice was tied up with adult-oriented scenarios -- it was more than a little surprising to many when the designer's studio, Junction Point, was bought by Disney Interactive; more surprising yet was when the team announced its first game: Disney Epic Mickey.

However, as it turns out, Epic Mickey explores this style of play thoroughly, as Spector demonstrated on stage at Nintendo's E3 press conference last month. As Mickey Mouse, players will have the choice to create or destroy the game's world and inhabitants while on their quest.

Here, Spector talks in depth about how this kind of game design is his creative mission in life, and how he thinks it has a chance for expanding the audience for games despite its apparent complexity.

The inspiration for the paint thinner game mechanic is clear, but what made you decide to implement it?

 Warren Spector: When we tried to figure out what is kind of the heart of Mickey Mouse, there's this reasonably well-defined personality, actually -- you know, smart, resourceful, loyal to his friends, never gives up, enthusiastic to a point of getting himself in trouble sometimes, and clearly mischievous at times.

But beyond being true to that personality, I needed to find out what the core of the character was. I was talking to some other folks here at the office, and we kind of figured out that we need to remind Mickey, and remind the world, that he was a cartoon character, not a human, obviously. Not a real mouse.

And so that was the next step -- like, what does it mean to remind a cartoon character that they're a cartoon? And among other things -- you know it was a group of three of us actually -- [we] came to the conclusion that cartoon characters are made of paint, you know they squash and stretch when they move, they're not subjected to the same laws of physics that we are, and wouldn't it be cool if we gave a cartoon character control over the stuff of which he is made? And so that was Mickey -- hey, let's give him control over his paint, his own paint.

And then the next step was identifying, how do we make this game fit within my personal game design philosophy and the studio's mission -- which is about choice of consequence and play style mattering. And so we started thinking, "Well, what's the opposite of paint?" and well, you know, it's paint thinner.

When an artist draws something, they paint something, they use paint. If they paint something they don't like, they get some turpentine on a rag and they erase it. So that was kind of the yin and yang of it: give Mickey control over what he's made of, the same way that an artist or animator would take control of a character that he's creating on in the real world.

Seems that, in some ways, the game is breaking that fourth wall a little bit.

WS: Certainly, to some extent. Yeah, it's not like Chuck Jones did with Duck Amuck. Certainly, animation fans are going to see things, Disney fans are going to find things, that they understand on a somewhat different level. And part of that is a self-consciousness on the part of some of the characters, that they are creating things in an artificial world.

I haven't actually talked about that, so that's one of the foundational elements of the world; that the characters of Wasteland actually have an awareness of who and what they are, which I find really interesting, and hope to play with in the future.

From a technical standpoint, it's pretty impressive. Have you found the relatively limited processing power of the Wii a burden, or have you found it forces you to be more creative?

WS: Constraints always push you to be more creative. I mean whatever the constraints are, whether it's the constraints of a license, the constraints of a piece of hardware, I mean, no creative act is made better by being constraint free.

I remember in 1989 when I started working with Richard Garriott on Ultima VI, we were talking about all sorts of crazy things, putting spaceships in Ultima again, and all of that. And I said, "you know, John Ford is one of the great American film directors. John Ford didn't need a 747 landing in the desert to make the best films of all time, the best Western films". So you know creativity only happens when you accept constraints.

And so I took that as a challenge. I told the team very early on that at some point we're going to be at E3 and there are going to be 2,500 games on the floor, which means you're going to have about five seconds of someone running from one booth to another, five seconds to look, and get her to pay attention to your game, and I want our game to look unlike any other game.

You know, we're not going to be brown world or gray world or blue world or whatever that's hot this year, we're going to do something that clearly jumps out and says "we are a Disney game". And then, the next thing people say when they stop and stare is, "Holy cow, I can't believe they did that on the Wii. How did they do that?".

And you know, it's not for me to say whether we succeed or not, it's for you to say. I look at the game now and I am in awe of what this team pulled off, from a technical standpoint, or a graphical standpoint, and from a gameplay stand point.

You know, the graphics may be different, the hero may be different, the fiction may be different, but there's some real Deus Ex-y gameplay in this, if people will give Mickey a chance. I think we've made it work, and the Wii is a terrific piece of hardware, and Nintendo's a great company. It's been great working with them.

A couple years ago, you wrote this blog post, and you've described yourself before as a reactive game designer, in that you play a game, you get annoyed or pissed off about some aspects of it, then you go out and you make a creation that you feel that tries to remedy a problem that you identified.

Did you play a game that pissed you off before coming up with the design of Epic Mickey? Is there something you're trying to fix here?

WS: Yes and no. Clearly the game has been pretty up front about the fact that this game is -- my goal anyway -- is that it be a combination of the best of platform games, the best of action-adventure games, and the best of Deus Ex-style role playing.

And so at the deepest level I think all I wanted to do was honor these games that I absolutely love, and I've been really up front about my love for Zelda, that's for sure.

So from that perspective, it's really more about taking things that don't belong together -- you know, peanut butter and chocolate, right? Or a DJ in a club taking two tunes that don't belong together and mashing 'em up -- and see what we come up with that's new and fresh and original.

In terms of frustration, it wasn't any one game that frustrated me; it was kind of a general sense that in the platform space and the action-adventure space in particular, the design side hasn't changed all that much in the last 10 or 20 years. And so I thought there was room to innovate on the design side in those categories.

And so it all sort of added up. It wasn't like I played a specific game and said, "Oh my God, I can't believe these guys are doing this!" (laughs) A general sense of categories that could use a little goose, you know. And specifically platforming and action-adventure, I think we need some new design ideas, and so I thought I could provide them, while I mashed everything up.

You have repeatedly mentioned the mission of Play Style Matters, and the way it adds to the game. You use the paint and you use the thinner; you can change the world, you can change the way the characters react to you. It sounds to me very Deus Ex-y. What cues have you taken from the design of your previous games?

WS: Well, if you go look at the first two blog posts I did years ago, it's the long version of the studio mission, which is my personal mission, really, in life. I just don't intend to ever to make a game that isn't about player choice and consequence. I mean, I just don't have any interest.

Whenever I talk to a publisher, Disney included, I always say I don't do budgets, I don't do schedules, I make the games I make, go look at the last 19 games I've done, if that's not what you want, let's not do business together. Let's remain friends.

And I tell the team that all the time: if you don't buy the studio mission, if you don't buy my personal mission, don't work here! I don't care how talented you are, you need to feel like you're on the same mission I am.

I'm not saying you even have to see this -- it's almost like I don't care if people see it, but every single game I've worked on since Ultima VI, which is where I kind of hit on this idea. I noticed the power -- saw the power -- of players actually expressing themselves through play. Ultima VI was the first time I saw that.

It was an accident, in Ultima VI, when I saw it happen, but ever since I've been making games where I try to do that better and better, or aligning myself with developers who are trying to do that better and better, or supporting other designers who are making games that do that better and better. So every game I've done has been what I see as an evolutionary step along the same path, and this is just the next step in the path.

This is a very broad question, but how do you, as a designer, define consequence?

WS: I don't have a straight answer for you about the definition of consequence, but what I do make a point of with the team here, or teams I've worked with, is that it can't just be a fictional thing. If all you're doing is changing fiction -- and by the way, we're doing fictional stuff, we're showing fictional consequences in Disney Epic Mickey -- but if that's all you're doing, you're missing the point.

Because at some level, games are about doing, they're about verbs, right? They're not about watching and interpreting, they're about doing.

And so the only consequences that really matter, when you say "real choices" and "real consequences" -- which everybody says now -- the only definition of "real", which is the important word, is something that effects the player's ability to do something in the game.

So, for example, in our game, if you play a particularly mischievous, erasing sort of style, don't-help-everybody-you-see, if you say "I have to save this world, I need to do that as efficiently as possible, I have to get where I'm going and I'm really sorry I don't have time to help you, Henrietta Cow", then there has to be consequences.

It's not enough for Henrietta to say, "Oh Mickey! I wish he would help me!" because that is not a real consequence to the player.

But in the game, what has to happen is you have to start seeing things like your paint supply becomes smaller, or a character won't talk to you, so you don't learn about a secret entrance to a map, or you don't learn about a quest. There has to be a real tangible consequence for the player in the game, not just the fiction. So that's kind of the consequence that I think is important.

But the power of choice and consequence, or Play Style Matters -- of that idea -- is kind of twofold. One is, when we're at our best, I think giving players that kind of power, as they play, means that their play experience can tell them as much about themselves as it does about the character of the story they're a part of. That's really huge. When you can learn something about yourself it's like, "Hey, it's really hard for me to go through this game erasing a lot of stuff -- it doesn't feel right," that says something about the player and I find that really, really exciting.

And at the end of the game, you describe a situation that no other player's ever seen, or that other players don't see. You craft your own story, that minute-to-minute experience that you describe to your friends. If they can say, "wow, I've never even saw that place" or "holy cow, I did that a completely different way" And we're seeing all of that happen in Disney Epic Mickey as we watch people play.

As far as choices go in games, in real life, every choice I make isn't going to be a moral dilemma. But it seems in video games that's what they are: choice means, "are you going to be good or you going to be bad?" Do you think that choice in games is too focused squarely on that moral aspect, on what's right and wrong? And in Epic Mickey, do you plan on just having regular choices?

WS: Yeah, that's a great question, actually, and if you want to talk about something that frustrates me in games, it's exactly the fact that most games that offer choice really do turn into a good/evil morality choice, and I hate that.

If you go back and look at Deus Ex, in particular -- which is actually the best expression of what I'm about to say -- anybody who can say there's a good way to solve problems and a bad way to solve problems was not paying attention as they play. There are just different choices and different consequences.

Okay, we've got to get back to Disney Epic Mickey at some point here. But if right in the beginning of the game, if you go and kill every terrorist in the Statue of Liberty, you've saved the day, you succeed and some people think you're a hero and other people think "you shouldn't have done that".

And there are different rewards, and different costs for doing that, and for killing no one, okay? It's not that it's good or evil, it's that there is a price to pay for being a warmonger, and there's a price to pay for being a pacifist. That is true in the real world, and it's true in the game. But there's a benefit to each one of those as well. There are different costs and different benefits.

I hate telling players what good and evil is, and I hate telling players what's right and wrong. What I want to do is throw situations out there, and let them explore for themselves, and come to their own conclusions about that.

And in Disney Epic Mickey, there is absolutely no good Mickey and bad Mickey, there is no evil Mickey and righteous Mickey; there is no morality system. There is "what kind of hero am I?", "who do I want to be?", "who should Mickey be?" That's all there is. If anybody sees a judgment in this game, it is an absolute failure on my part, and I don't think they'll find it.

The way that you pitched this game at E3 seems somewhat core-centric. You've got this deep, changing story that uses this cool new mechanic, and it also has a potential to be a bit dark. So it's got Mickey in it, yeah, he's a cartoon, he's cute, but do you think that this could end up actually being a tougher sell to a younger crowd?

WS: I don't think so. I think kids like being mischievous as much as adults do; maybe more. And again, remember, there's a lot of opportunity to make this the experience you want it to be. I expect that kids who pick this up will, they'll go around erasing a bunch of stuff and making a bunch of stuff and having a good ol' time spraying paint thinner around and beating up on some enemies and friending some other enemies, and just having a good ol' time.

You can go through this game just sort of playing, or if you want to explore some of the depth, you can look around and say "Hey, I really do want to make the lot of all of these people better."

So in the same way that the old Mickey cartoons were designed for all ages -- people of all ages saw those in the theaters in the '30s and '40s, in the same way that Warner Brothers cartoons appeal at different levels and different age groups, there's stuff here for everybody. And I guess that's my goal.

Yeah, I'm not saying we're succeeding; you've got to tell me that. But certainly our goal is, if you want to play a sort of a cheerful, thoughtful sort of game, you can do that.

If you get the adult gags -- I think we have a lactose intolerant cow in the game. A kid's not gonna get that gag, which is funnier in the game than me just telling you. You know a kid's not going to get that, but there's going to be plenty of slapstick for the kids, too.

You said something really interesting a minute ago, which is that this idea of play style mattering is pretty well understood by core gamers. And I've always believed from the day I started really thinking about this consciously -- this game design idea, not this game.

I've always believed that the really hardcore thing is the game where there's only one way to solve a problem and if you're not smart enough to figure it out, you stop playing. Or the shooter where if you're not skilled enough to survive for more than five minutes with a group of 13 year olds with guns and headsets, your only option is to stop playing.

And I've always thought that the idea of, "Hey, if one way to solve this problem is too tough for you, try another", I always thought that was a mainstream idea. And I love having Mickey as the hero of the story of this game, because I think he's great way to get [across] this idea that "Hey, games are about interactivity, they're about you" -- they're not about me, as the designer, they're about you being creative. If I can get that idea out to a larger audience, that I think is borderline important, not just something cool to do.

Have kids actually played the game yet?

WS: Yeah, we've had some kids play it, they kind of go through it spraying paint thinner around, and laugh when things go away, and find it amusing when you puddle a character and then restore him, because it's a cartoon, and everything can be undone. The spanners, one of our little minions of the Phantom Blot, they find those really amusing.

There's a level at which I think some people at E3 may have sort of misinterpreted things a little bit. But there's a level at which the game can be enjoyed -- cue the air quotes -- as just a "platformer", and you can get through the game running, jumping, spinning, double jumping, all that stuff.

I wanted it to be really accessible, and so the level of depth is kind of up to you, as a player. And so kids are really digging it so far; it's not like we've played with 10,000 of them or millions of them, which is where we're heading. But so far, so good.

You blogged that the 3DS changed your life. Can you tell me a bit about that?

WS: Boy, 3D is here to stay; it is not a fad, and speed the day that we get big screen TVs, and theaters with glasses free 3D like that. Nintendo got everything right on that little device. And they deserve to sell a gazillion of them. I want the first one off the line. And boy I hope I get a chance to develop for it someday.

I mean literately, I came away from that feeling like I had just experienced some Disney magic. And I've been telling everybody who'll listen it's like the coolest thing ever, it's unbelievable. I absolutely fell in love with the thing.

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About the Author(s)

Kris Graft


Kris Graft is publisher at Game Developer.

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