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“I hold up my own career as an example of the ability to do original work in someone else’s sandbox.” Warren Spector

If you haven’t played one of the many classics that Warren Spector’s had an active hand in developing (like Deus Ex, System Shock, Ultima Underworld or Thief), you will surely have played at least one game that borrows heavily from the many innovations to the various genres these games inspired. Yet one of the reasons why you may not know this – why you may not know Spector – is that for the past several years he’s been in self-exile, plugging away at a super-secret project deep in the heart of Texas. A project that – until very recently – he couldn’t even talk about. A project we now know as Epic Mickey.

At E3 2010, I had the opportunity to play a brief hands-on preview of Epic Mickey amidst the surreal artistry of the Disney booth, where painters were creating custom portraits of passersby and freestyle dancer/painter/performance artists were gyrating to electronic techno beats while creating improvisational masterpieces of neon and glitter-paint before a stunned crowd. Above the chaos floated the giant head of Warren Spector, projected onto a jumbo-sized screen as he extolled the virtues of his latest creation.

In the game, players take on the role of Mickey Mouse who, through his reckless curiosity, has managed to unleash a terrible evil upon the inhabitants of an alternate world where all of the forgotten and discarded characters of Walt Disney’s past have made a home for themselves. As Mickey, it will be your job to fix what you wrecked.

The game is a sprawling adventure game in the Zelda vein. You fight enemies with your twin powers of “paint” and “thinner,” solve puzzles and find hidden items to resolve quests in order to enlist the help of others and advance to your eventual end goal, which isn’t exactly clear from the demo. Along the way you will encounter various characters from the Disney archives, all presented in their original colors (including black and white), and you will occasionally delve into scenes from cartoons past, like the platforming level based on the classic Disney cartoon Steamboat Willie.

The platforming can be challenging, but it’s supposed to be, according to the designers. The idea behind Epic Mickey is that you will have at least two ways of solving every riddle, and resolving every quest. You can create solutions with paint or destroy obstacles with thinner. If you’re looking for an item, you can attempt to scale a difficult platforming section, for example, or you can finagle the item from someone else. One solution involves an investment of time, the other, perhaps of honor. Or money. Or … whatever. The point is it’s up to you – to a point.

While the length of the demo wasn’t enough to provide a clear vision of how exciting the complete adventure would be, it was enough to pique my interest and to remind me that of all the game designers to have been called “genius,” Warren Spector is the most deserving. Beyond being a triple-A title by a veteran developer for a major entertainment company, his latest game represents the realization of some of the most innovative and controversial videogame design philosophies ever espoused.

It’s at once a very safe, commercial creation – a Disney game for the Nintendo Wii – and a daring gamble. At a time when most other developers are reaching for the bigger, better faster, most realistic games that can be made, Spector and his team of wizards at Junction Point are eschewing technological evolution for technology’s sake, purposefully restricting player agency, AI innovation and graphic design, in order to create – gasp – a better game.

Here’s another shocker: Although the project was until very recently a closely-guarded secret, we should have all seen it coming. Warren Spector has, for years, been proselytizing his evolving design philosophies, writing about them, publishing manifestos and lecturing at GDC. We’ve collected many of his ground-breaking thoughts below, and later this year, gamers everywhere will get a chance to taste the fruits of his mental labors. Until then, read on for a taste of what’s in store, and why the master thinks this will be the greatest game he’s ever made.

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Here Comes Hollywood
“The biggest names in Hollywood want to get into games,” Warren Spector said in a 2005 interview with The Escapist, describing how some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry had been flying him across the country, first class, to offer him money to make their games.

“At these Hollywood meetings, the same thing has happened to me more than once, with multiple people,” he says. “I describe the game I want to do. I tell them, ‘I can deliver you a triple-A title for this cost.'” Spector names a high figure; no one has ever yet written a check that big. “They think it over. Then they say, ‘What could you do with twice as much money?'”

According to Spector, the reason Hollywood is flocking to the games industry – to him – is simple: Games are a better gamble than movies.

Movies aren’t showing double-digit annual growth any more, the way the game industry does. People in Hollywood say, ‘Okay, four out of five games lose money, just like movies – but if I get a hit like Halo or Grand Theft Auto I can make, what, a hundred million, 200 million? And making a game costs way less than making a movie? Wow!’ So I’ve been meeting with lots of people – they’re flying me around first class – it’s just nuts. …

In 2005, this was so much hyperbole. Who would believe that Spector, a veteran of the infamously bombastic Ion Storm – whose biggest hit was the overly-complex and deeply flawed Deus Ex – was telling the truth; that Hollywood studios were actually lining up at his door to shower him with cash? Who would believe that Hollywood was turning sour on the silver screen? Or that Spector, one of the most mild-mannered developers you’ll ever meet, would be the future of gaming? No one, really, and that’s the point.

The Most Powerful Heart
Three years after telling The Escapist about his adventures in Hollywood, word started leaking out that Spector’s new studio, Junction Point, was working on a game for the Walt Disney Company, starring Disney’s greatest (and most lucrative) creation, Mickey Mouse. Even then, with the evidence before us, it was hard to believe. Spector, in a characteristically polite, yet terse communiqué, refused to entertain my speculation on-record, replying only that he’d put in a good word for me to the PR handlers at Disney. (Disney never called.)

Epic Mickey was officially announced in October of last year. It was at once a triumphant and dizzying announcement. Spector’s talk of hundred-million dollar budgets and Hollywood plane rides was all true and then some. Spector’s new dance partner was none other than the biggest of the big, creators of the happiest place on earth ™, and this year, at Disney’s ridiculously artistic E3 booth, Warren Spector’s gigantic floating head explained the thinking behind Epic Mickey:

“One of my goals with [Epic Mickey] is to confront Mickey with the kinds of challenges worthy of a hero,” Spector says. “The power of Walt Disney’s imagination brought into being this alternate world called ‘Wasteland, where all of Walt Disney’s forgotten and rejected characters … end up.”

Mickey’s fiddles with “The Creator’s” tools and inadvertently creates a monster which sparks a violent war with the hero of Wasteland, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, one of Disney’s very first forgotten characters. This war ravages Wasteland and opens the door for Oswald’s enemies to pluck Mickey out of his world, trapping him in Wasteland in an attempt to steal from him the one thing Wasteland lacks: a heart.

“Mickey has the most powerful heart,” says Spector, “and the villains of the piece are going to use his heart so they can get out.”

Mickey escapes, but when he discovers he’s responsible for destroying Wasteland, he vows to stick around and make things right.

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“The state of the world, of the main character and of the characters the hero meets along the way must change as a result of the hero’s actions,” wrote Warren Spector in his epic treatise for The Escapist on “Next Generation Storytelling,” published in 2007 (in four parts.) “Your story should be about something – and not just the surface level series of events that make up the plot. You need a subtext. What your story’s really about, regardless of what the box blurb says it’s about.”

Using this logic, Epic Mickey, then, is about the redemption of a man/mouse who tinkered with things he didn’t understand and destroyed something beautiful in the process. As game premises go, it’s dark, but beautiful. One wonders from what tortured part of Spector’s soul – and two decade-long game development career – it originally sprang.

Too Much Choice is a Scary Thing
Playing Epic Mickey reveals a number of paradoxes. The world and characters are based on the settings and characters created by Disney. They are therefore colorful, fanciful and light. And yet, this is Wasteland, a world that has been tortured by decades of war. It is equal parts cheerful and devastated. It is both the happiest and the most miserable place on earth.

The manner in which Mickey interacts with this world presents perhaps the most compelling dichotomy. In order to accomplish the tasks that he is given, Mickey will use either the power of paint or the power of thinner. One creates, the other destroys, yet both are treated as equally effective and acceptable ways of solving problems. The idea is that the game will not judge you for the course of action you choose, but your ability to interact with the world and the people within it will be altered. You can play the game however you like, but there will be consequences either way.

Spector discusses the thinking that led to this design decision in Part One of “Next Generation Storytelling“:

We decided to ditch the idea of calling out specific player choices and redirecting the game as a result of whether you killed someone or snuck past them, or which choice you made from a menu of conversation options, or which of three doors you chose to use to leave a particular room.

That was the granular approach we took to player choice in the first Deus Ex games. Instead, we started working on the idea of tracking the general trend implied by countless small player choices.

In Epic Mickey, this manifests in how you choose to use Mickey’s thinner or paint, as well as in the simple mechanics and choices you must make through the course of the game. In a mission I was able to play at E3, Mickey is given the task to find a certain number of masks for a character, Tiki Sam, who collects them. Mickey can choose to collect all of the masks and return them to Sam, or he can collect one, give it to Sam, then use his thinner to thin out the rear wall of Sam’s hut, steal the mask back and continue to re-sell the same mask to Sam until Sam believes that he has collected every mask. One course of action has consequences, in that you will spend more time collecting masks. The other also has consequences in that Sam may eventually discover your trickery and punish you for it.

This may seem simplistic at first, this good or evil, paint or thinner approach, but the decision to limit the player’s agency, or choice, to two basic options is at the heart of Spector’s theory of game design, which assumes that the player just wants to have a good experience, regardless how complex, and that the more complex the experience can be, the more complex the player will expect it to be:

“Once we can create beautiful, photorealistic spaces, players will expect us to do so, and then we’ll have to teach our NPCs how to navigate through and interact with ever-more complex worlds appropriately,” writes Spector, in “Next Generation Storytelling for issue 94 of The Escapist:

A story is constructed of sentences, strung together in a coherent, dramatically significant order. Game “sentences” are the actions available to and selected by a player. The more sentences we allow players to construct (in other words, the deeper the pool of options we offer), the cooler and more numerous the story possibilities will be. To that extent, a robust world and character simulation – both made possible by next-gen hardware – will allow us to tell a better story. But there’s a hitch: audiences will come to expect a certain level of believability in the worlds they explore. They will expect the world to look and behave the way the real world does. (“It looks real; it’ll act real.”)

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What Spector is saying is that the more real your game world looks, the more realistically players will expect it to behave. Put in a realistic building with a realistic door and player will expect that door to open, whether or not you’ve written what goes inside the building. To create a true “open world” then, you’ll have to make every door open to a realistic interior – and make every object interactive.

To paraphrase the analogy Spector used in his presentation on this topic at GDC 2007, imagine if you want to give the player the ability to start a fight in a bar, and you want for every item in that bar to be interactive. You’ve now created a scenario in which you not only have to write code for every person with whom its possible for the player’s character to interact, but for every person that person could bump into as they get punched and fall down, every chair that every person may be sitting in, every table at which they may be sitting, every glass on every table and every drop of water in those glasses. That’s not to mention every shard of glass each glass could shatter into, every bottle on every shelf, every bullet in every gun and every key on every piano. The list is almost infinite.

“We may … have missed our opportunity to play with story-friendly AI and procedural story generation,” writes Spector. “That moment may have come and gone back in the day of lower-fidelity world sims. Now that we’re in a world of high-fidelity worlds, all of our energy is likely to be sucked up just maintaining the levels of AI we already have! The cause of non-navigational/non-combat AI will take a backseat again.”

Attempting to create a world in which the player could potentially solve every problem in as many ways as he can possibly imagine creates similar problems. Additionally, it could lead to an experience that’s not actually any fun – a game that no one will want to play.

Writes Spector:

Too much choice is a scary thing, capable of paralyzing people. (As I learned to my chagrin on Deus Ex!) Story can help push players toward choices that are well-supported by our game systems and away from choices we don’t support. Story can help identify strategies that are likely to succeed.

Since we don’t simulate all possibilities in even the most open-ended game, and since you don’t interact with our game-worlds the way you do with the real world, we’re constantly struggling with issues of player training and player direction.

The Importance of “No”
One of the quest challenges that I faced in my brief preview demo of Epic Mickey was to retrieve a certain item from a member of a pirate crew. He offered to give it to Mickey, but only if Mickey would help him with his problem, naturally. His problem: He needed to impress a girl.

In order to help this pirate, Mickey had to find out what the girl, a black-and-white cow, wanted most and then find that thing – whatever it was – and give it to the pirate so that the pirate could give it to the girl. In RPG game terms, it’s a fetch quest, but with a twist. In talking to the girl, Mickey discovers she’s both lactose intolerant and likes flowers. Of the few things Mickey can acquire at this point in time, one of them is a flower, the other an ice cream cone.

Mickey can give either the flower or the ice cream to the pirate and the pirate will then offer that object to the girl, fulfilling Mickey’s obligation, but one, obviously, will not be a suitable gift. The flower is harder to come by, taking more time and resources to fetch. The ice cream can be purchased from a merchant a few steps away. If you give the pirate the flower, he will win the girl’s heart and the storyline form that point forward will reflect this. If you give the pirate the ice cream cone, he will discover to his chagrin the cow’s peculiar intolerance. He will not get the girl, and as a consequence will not grant Mickey access to a special item hidden in a chest and the story will be similarly impacted.

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This kind of choice isn’t unique to Epic Mickey, of course, but it is enlightening to see the thinking behind limiting agency to a few (or even two) simple choices. According to Spector, reducing a player’s options isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

“Real, total freedom isn’t the goal – should never be the goal,” writes Spector. “The Holodeck is a hollow promise and not something we should aspire to. Constraining players – saying, ‘No’ in as unobtrusive a manner as possible – is one of the most important things we do as designers. And story is the most natural, least obtrusive player constraint tools we have. How could we not use it?”

The Power of the Mouse
Perhaps the most startling and evocative design philosophy espoused by Spector in his 2007 treatise has to do with nothing so lofty as player agency, AI programming or open-world, problem-solving character design, but instead with character design itself.

Epic Mickey features the most recognizable trademark in the world, belonging to one of the worlds’ most successful media companies, and in order to tell this character’s epic story, Junction Point Studios was given access to Disney’s entire catalog of characters, spanning 90 years of animation history – something no other company has ever been granted. This may have something to do with Spector’s particular genius at talking to Hollywood executives, or perhaps his University of Texas master’s thesis on cartoons, or it must just be serendipity. Whatever the reasons, this investment is fortuitous for a developer who, in 2003 earned jeers from his fellow game developers for suggesting licensed properties would be the future of game design and who has long espoused derailing the train pulling the industry toward photo-realistic graphics.

“At Junction Points Studios we’re thinking that a move to more iconic, not more realistic, characters might be the way to go,” wrote Spector in 2007. “As Scott McCloud says in is wonderful book, Understanding Comics, it’s easier to identify with an icon than a photo-real character, easier for a developer to put, and a player to read, emotion into a simple rendering of an iconic face than into a stiff, wooden simulacrum of a man or woman. And a character that doesn’t look “realistic” can’t be held to the same standards of realism and believability in movement or even behavior as one that mimics a human being (or tries to).”

Spector is referring to the Uncanny Valley effect, in which attempts to create realistic representations of people backfire, causing those who view the simulacrum to recoil in horror at the lifelessness of a seemingly life-like being. With an iconic character (or a familiar cartoon character, Like Mickey Mouse), there’s no danger of falling into the uncanny valley, rather, audiences are likely to more readily identify with the character due to its familiarity.

Spector expressed concern in 2007 that an iconic approach might not work for every game and that some publishers (not Disney) may not want to invest in a game that didn’t feature a photorealistic badass in shades of brown. But, he expressed hope that the approach showed a lot of promise. One need only look as far as the flood of successful Mario games for proof of this premise, and one assumes Mickey may be the next iconic character to prove a blockbuster videogame success. One thing is for sure: Disney is betting on the fact Warren Spector can make it happen.

The question remains then: Has he? It’s too early yet to tell. With the gigantic install base of the Wii and the brand power of the Mouse, the odds are definitely in favor of Epic Mickey making a splash when it releases this September, but so far it’s too early to tell if the game will be worth the investment of time, money and brainpower and if it will be – most important of all – any fun. Disney’s betting it will and Warren Spector’s gambling his career on it. If you’re looking to bet on a winner, you could do far worse than these two.

Russ Pitts is the Editor-in-Chief of The Escapist.

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