27th Sep 2010 | 19:00
Junction Point's Warren Spector is kind of a big deal. From working on PC big-hitters Deus Ex and System Shock (among many others) to dealing with Disney's most high-profile star on Wii, he's a game design guru.
NGamer caught up with him at August's GamesCom event in Germany to probe his innermost Nintendo thoughts and find out what it's like to work with a star the size of Mickey Mouse...
You seem very cheerful today, Warren. Is Epic Mickey something of a dream project for you?
Are you kidding? It's the most flattering thing that's ever happened to me! How many times in your life is a company like Disney going to hand you the keys to the car and say 'here, he's the symbol of this company and all that it stands for creatively - have fun!'.
So how much freedom do you have to monkey around with the mouse?
More than I expected. I guess I was smart enough to realise early on that this is not a project where I get to do whatever I want. It's a project where 140,000 Disney employees all care about the outcome, and everyone you'll ever meet is going to have an opinion on the character you're working on.
We've ended up in a place where I look at our Mickey and I love this Mickey. He's my Mickey, he's Junction Point's Mickey, and Disney loves this Mickey, as far as I can tell.
When you were rooting through Disney's archives did you look up stuff just for fun?
Oh, constantly! I live for film history; I love digging though archives. I actually worked at a film archive for several months. The real surprising thing I found is just how many versions of Tinkerbell the Peter Pan animators
did. I found that really inspirational because
the whole concept of the game is about rejected and forgotten concepts for characters, rides that were never built, that sort of thing.
I guess I assumed that you do two or three concepts and Walt says 'yeah!'. But man, there's some punk Tinkerbells and lots and lots of Tinkerbells that never made it to the screen.
You've had the run of the archives but Epic Mickey seems to draw mostly from Mickey's classic cartoons. Are you not a fan of his recent incarnations?
I don't think he has many heroic, adventurous incarnations these days. He's incredibly popular as an icon on a shirt, as a character in theme parks and on television in Mickey's Clubhouse, but name the last time you saw Mickey in a story.
I probably shouldn't say, really... but it's almost like the company decided to rest the character for a while. There isn't a lot of 'Mickey in a story' to draw from, so I'm blessed to be the one to put him in a story again and make him a hero.
You were the first westerner to be interviewed by Nintendo boss Satoru Iwata for Iwata Asks. Was that a privilege?
Honoured barely begins to describe it. It's been a dream of mine to make a Nintendo game for a while... and to sit down with Mr Iwata, who was a developer himself! I mean, the man understands game development better than I do.
He is such a developer and I think that explains a lot about Nintendo and Nintendo's games.
We saw you playing the new Zelda here earlier...
Yes, for the first time. The thing I love about it is that it feels just like Zelda. The gestural stuff adds to the experience in a small and significant way, but never gets in the way. If you want to know what Epic Mickey was inspired by, as much as I love Zelda and Mario games I just felt like, other than the graphics, there haven't been enough design
advances in platforming and action-adventure
to make me happy.
I wanted to introduce some new kinds of gameplay into those classic genres, but I made a conscious decision not to play the old Mickey games because I didn't want to be prejudiced by what they had done.
If Nintendo handed you the keys to Zelda, where would you take it?
Wow! Well, they probably wouldn't, let's start with that! But every game I've done I see it very much as a progression on a specific path. Every game I've made, I've tried to find a different way or a better way for players to power their own experiences. I want players telling their story, not listening to mine.
I would have to find some way to allow Link to be Link and have his personality but also allow the player to express himself, and if I couldn't do that then I couldn't do the project. We'd be sitting here talking about the ways in which choice and consequence play out within a Zelda game and how play style matters in a Zelda game.
And actually, as I'm sitting here talking about it I'm starting to get some ideas about how to do it, but we should probably talk about Mickey!
So what has the mouse taught you about this path that you're on?
I've learned how hard it is to make a platform game, for starters. To some extent this is almost Zelda with a jump button. In a first-person game you can fudge a lot of stuff - and most of my games have been first-person - but when you're doing a game about running and jumping the challenges of camera and control take on a whole new level of difficulty.
You're also developing in the shadow of Mario 64. Was that game just too good?
Oh God no - it was phenomenal; it wasn't too good. There's always room to grow any genre so long as you have someone creative with lots of ideas. It's not about doing better but about always doing something different and challenging yourself to do things you don't quite understand.
There are plenty of people who execute well-understood ideas at a higher level of quality than me and I just don't understand why they would do that. This is a young industry and the whole point is to always be trying something new.
It's not that I don't think I should build on my past experiences; it's that I understand how to do this thing over here... now, what don't I understand how to do?
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