From now until the start of the new year we're going to be republishing some of what we feel are our best features of 2015. Hopefully this will offer the chance for newer readers to catch up on content they might have missed and allow long-time fans to reacquaint themselves with features they enjoyed the first time around. This time, we've got an interview with Warren Spector which originally appeared on the site in June, just after E3.
At this year's E3 event we had the opportunity to sit down with Warren Spector, one of the most respected names in game development. Be sure to check out the first part of this interview in which we discussed game choices, development leadership and Shigeru Miyamoto. In this second part, we tackle recent history and the current status of Nintendo in the industry.
In 2010, Warren Spector and Junction Point Studios released Disney Epic Mickey, a game which to this day still receives both critical acclaim and fiery dissension. As both Epic Mickey and its sequel remain a topic of interest among game fans, we asked Spector to look back on this era of his career, share his thoughts on Nintendo, as well as to look ahead towards what's next in his plans.
Let's talk about Epic Mickey. It's been a couple of years since Epic Mickey 2. How do you feel now that the franchise is behind you? Has it settled in with you? Do you have any opinions now that you didn't have previously when it ended?
(sigh) I wish it was still ongoing. I kind of know what I wanted to do in the third game.
I'm immensely proud of what we did. We had a lot of goals for those games. One was to bring back Mickey Mouse as the heroic figure he was earlier in his career, and that he still is in comic books around the world. I just wanted people to see that Mickey could be more than just a corporate mascot. I think we did a pretty good job of that.
The honor of bringing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back to Disney…that was amazing. I think we did a really good job of that. I mean, he's at the theme parks now.
I've actually seen the Oswald ears at Disneyland.
There you go. We brought him back, and I was really proud of that. We wanted to bring the idea of choice and consequence gameplay to a larger audience. I call it "choice and consequence light" in the Epic Mickey games. But it was definitely there. There were so many ways to play through those games. But there were lots of ways to solve every problem in those games. I think we did a pretty good job of that.
Mostly I look back on it with pride. We wanted to honor Disney's history, and I think we did that.
The game, was definitely…people were of different opinions of it, more so than most games I can remember in recent history.
You know, I've got a motto. It's better to fail gloriously than to succeed in mediocrity. If you're not polarizing people you're not trying hard enough. And I think…we kind of annoyed some core gamers, let's just be clear about that.
But you know what? I got more heartfelt fan mail on the Epic Mickey games than for anything else I've ever worked on. I can show you mail from people saying, "This game changed my life", "This game reminded me why I love Disney.", "I use this game as part of my cerebral palsy physical therapy", "I have cancer, and this game helped me get through a trying part of my life." Disney fans loved those games, and that was a win for me.
Was it always a platformer going in the conceptual stages?
You never thought of any other genre?
I'm kind of a genre mash-up guy. There's a lot of people in this business that are blank slate designers. I'm not. So I start the conception process in a variety of ways, but one of them is: "What if I took game X with game Y and mashed them together. What would happen?" In Epic Mickey, I wanted to take some elements of platform games, and some elements of Zelda-style action adventure, and even some very simple Deus Ex-y kind of stuff and mash them together to see what would happen.
Were you wary that you'd have to cater to a younger demographic and therefore the game couldn't get any more complex?
Just the opposite! Twelve year olds just got it. The adults were the ones who had trouble with it.
...I think from a creative standpoint, from a design standpoint, from an IP standpoint, from a graphics standpoint, I think Nintendo rocks.
When you start working for Disney, one of the first things you learn, sort of by osmosis, is they don't make games for kids. They don't make movies for kids. They make entertainment for families. And when you talk to the folks at Pixar, they always talk about, "We make entertainment for everyone." And so I said, "We may fail, but let's give it a shot! Let's try and make a game for everyone, that kids and adults can play alone – let's try that, what the heck." And I think we did a pretty good job of that too.
Speaking of games for everyone, Nintendo comes to mind as a company that doesn't make games for kids necessarily, but for everyone. What do you think about Nintendo today, in 2015?
I'm kind of a Nintendo geek. I don't want to get myself in trouble….you know, I'm looking around the show floor here. And let's say there are 2500 games being shown. 2400 of them all look exactly alike. You can't even tell which one you're looking at, you know? And it drives me crazy.
And then you go to IndieCade, and you go to Nintendo, and all of a sudden it's like, "Oooh, games can be different. Cool!" So I think from a creative standpoint, from a design standpoint, from an IP standpoint, from a graphics standpoint, I think Nintendo rocks.
The thing is, I mean, from a hardware standpoint it's hard to say what Nintendo's future looks like, let's be honest about that. But the fact that they're finally gonna put their IP on mobile…they're fine. There are a billion smartphones on the planet. They're gonna do just fine when Mario hits that.
Yeah, can we talk a little bit about what it was like publishing through Nintendo? Because previously you didn't have too much connection with your work to Nintendo, and I feel like that changed a lot with Epic Mickey through the Wii.
I loved working with them…working with Nintendo is great. I got to spend time with Iwata-san, which was awesome. The guy who runs Nintendo! I was sitting there talking to him, thinking "This guy knows more about games than I do!" (laughter) You don't find that in a lot of game company CEO's, it just doesn't happen.
I got to meet Mr. Miyamoto twice. One time he put his hand on my shoulder and I instantly became a better designer – I heard the Zelda theme go off. (laughter)
They were way easier to work with than most publishers and even studios I've dealt with.
That's interesting. I feel like a man between Disney and Nintendo would be in a really rough, narrow path.
No, I mean, Nintendo was really open. And you know, it's funny…a lot of people assume Disney is this monstrous, monolithic…you know…they were great. I think my team and I proved that we respected the properties so much and we knew the history so well…we very quickly I think proved that we were going to be respectful of their properties – Mickey, Oswald, and all of their history. And that won us a lot of friends. We made great friends at the Disney Archives, at part of the company called "Corporate Brand Management", which is all about protecting the IP and making sure they're not being misused. They were great.
I am getting to the point where I'm missing making something.
I've said this before, I'll say it again. We were told "no" one time in the entire process. Disney said, "You can't show Mickey's teeth." I have no idea why, he shows his teeth all the time. Including on Disney's website! But, what the hell? "Oh no, I can't show Mickey's teeth, I'm going on strike! This game is over!"
So two more questions…Warren Spector, an academic now. Going back to game design in the near future?
It doesn't have to be in stone…
I find teaching satisfying, and after 31 years of making games I was looking for different challenges, and I've certainly been confronted with different challenges.
I am getting to the point where I'm missing making something.
You can say I'm making students…I don't know what the future holds.
Not even a slight clue?
You know, I'm always working on game concepts. I desperately want to write some more comic books. I got to write DuckTales comics a couple years ago, and I loved doing that. There are things I want to do that result in a concrete end product. So, it wouldn't surprise me if I ended up making games again before too long. We'll see.
Do you have an answer for your favorite decision in a video game?
You know…I can't honestly say! Okay…so it's a little self-serving, and I may come up with a different answer tonight as I'm going to sleep or something, but I actually love the endings, plural, of the original Deus Ex. Like I said, they were not about killing a boss monster. It was: Is the human race better off in a dark age, but with complete freedom? Freedom, but technologically backwards…is that the best future for the world? Or is the best future for the world an AI that is plugged into all of us, so there's perfect knowledge, but there's no free will? Or, is the best state for the future of mankind, leaving things pretty much the way they are, controlled by the Illuminati in the background, but things are pretty okay now…and those three endings got people arguing.
Go to the forums back then and look at what people were saying. It wasn't, how did you kill that monster, it was, "How could you think the world would be better off that way?!"
[As a follow up to this question, Warren Spector then sent us the following addition by email]
Also, if you want to add an answer to the unanswerable question about my favorite choice & consequence moment, it's the final choice in DX.
Based on everything you've learned from NPCs and situations in the game you get to decide how the world should end up. Not the PC - you.
It wasn't about saving a princess or beating a bad guy, it was about the fate of the world based on your feelings about right & wrong.
That's a pretty powerful moment & even though it doesn't have in-game consequences, it might have consequences for players outside the game.
So there you go. My answer to the unanswerable question.
We'd like to thank Warren Spector for his time.