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Afterwords: Disney Epic Mickey

by Matt Miller on Feb 17, 2011 at 09:30 AM

Disney’s Epic Mickey released on November 25 to mixed reviews. Some critics praised the rich Disney world and choice-driven gameplay, while others called out problems with the camera and mission structure. We spoke with Junction Point studio head Warren Spector for his take on the company’s first Wii release.

What aspect of Epic Mickey turned out just the way you had hoped or better than you hoped? Are there elements of the game you wish you could have made more changes to?
Well, clearly the music turned out better than I imagined it would. I’m really happy about that. The story has the kind of emotional resonance I always hoped it would, and the game really doesn’t feel – to me, at least – like any other game. Its tone and pacing and its feel isn’t like other games. That’s one of the reasons the direct comparisons with Mario Galaxy are so hard for me to hear. We weren’t trying to make a Mario game, a Zelda game, or a Deus Ex – we were trying to make a game that borrowed some elements of all of them to achieve something new and I think we did that. Are there elements I wish we could have worked on more? Sure. I’ve never worked on a game I was completely satisfied with and hope I never do. I guess top of the list would be our use of the paint and thinner mechanic. We did some interesting stuff with it but it was the first time we, or anyone, had ever tried anything like that and I know we can do more in the future.

What prompted the decision to not include spoken voice for most of the characters in the game?
I thought it would be best to borrow an approach Walt used in the earliest Mickey cartoons where he didn’t use actual words, but communicated mostly by making noises. I also had it in my head that Oswald, as a silent cartoon character, couldn’t talk and as ruler of Wasteland laid down the law – “If I can’t speak, no one will.” Then there were some localization and disk space issues. Put ‘em all together and sticking with the Japanese RPG and console standard of “bark plus text” just made sense.

The camera system became a problem for some players. Are there changes that could have been made to make the camera more cooperative?
I suppose so, but to be honest there was only one thing we might have done that we didn’t and looking back on it, I wish we had done. There were situations in the game where we took control of the camera, which was necessary, but we decided not to let players override our decision. In other words, there are times when the manual camera controls simply don’t work. Now, I think that may not have been our best decision. But other than that, people have to understand that all the games we’re being compared to – and it’s pretty amazing company – are “pure,” single-focus games, with Mario being the prime example. The fact is, a pure platform game has very different requirements than an action/adventure game, and we were trying to merge elements of both. That meant our camera had to be the best blend we could come up with of platform and action/adventure camera techniques. I still think we did well – given the challenge we faced in combining these two genres into one game and given that we threw in the ability to erase walls and floors and ceilings and parts of them...I mean, we really did take a very hard problem and make it much, much harder. Oh, and one more thing – we’ve been knocked by some folks for not including a lock-on camera mode, which would have made combat easier. Those folks are right – which is why we did include a lock-on camera mode. Try it, you might like it, folks!

The paint and thinner mechanic seems like it must have made level design pretty challenging, since you can’t ever count on a player having all the parts of the level visible or accessible. Was the paint and thinner concept more trouble than it was worth, or did it pay off in the end?
I’d never say it was more trouble than it was worth – no! I’ll go to my grave believing you have to try something you’ve never done, something no one’s ever done, in every game you work on. Even in this first iteration you can see the potential of it. There’s something really special, magical even, about being able to remove and restore things in a game world. You never get anything exactly right the first time, and as I said earlier, there’s no question we can make better use of this idea. I absolutely love the paint and thinner mechanic.

Epic Mickey includes more choice-driven gameplay than most character-driven action/platformers. Why?
I don’t really have a good answer for that other than that I have negative interest in working on any game that doesn’t offer players choices with consequences. If it ever comes to pass that I can’t make games like that – no one will fund them, players vote with their dollars and tell me they don’t want games like that, whatever – I’ll stop making games. End of story. Games can do only two things that I can think of that no other medium can do; one is offer real-time, dynamic puzzles and the other is offer players the opportunity to tell their own story, or at least tell a story in collaboration with others. I think it’s ridiculous not to take advantage of the things your medium does that others can’t do. But, at the end of the day, it’s just a personal thing – a personal conviction, no more, no less.
Epic Mickey returns players to the same locations several times for different missions. Is there more backtracking than there should have been, or are these familiar locations a part of how you wanted the game to be experienced?
I wouldn’t say there’s more backtracking than there should have been, but there are a couple of things I’d do differently if I had it to do over again. First, I’d offer more variety in the 2D sections than we did. I thought 40-ish 2D maps would be enough, but I’d like more. Second, I’d have made the hubs persistent – if they preserved the state you left them in, I think returning to them, being able to make different choices about how to interact with the hubs each time, might have made for a richer experience.

The game includes the return of several Disney characters that are virtually unknown to many in the modern gaming audience. Which characters were you most excited to reintroduce? Which one of these revived characters turned out the best? 
Without question I was thrilled that we got to reintroduce Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. And the Gremlins – those are some terrific characters. I’d love to see Disney go back to the storyboards we saw in the Archives and actually make the movie Walt Disney and Roald Dahl never got to make – how cool would that be? Heck, I’ve always wanted to produce a movie – maybe Disney will let me make it!
Given the new motion control devices from Microsoft and Sony, is there any chance we’ll see Epic Mickey on any other platforms?
Man, I get asked this a lot and I always have to give the same answer. There’s no reason why we couldn’t put Disney Epic Mickey on other platforms. However, we’re not working on it at this time.

Would Junction Point like to do more with classic Disney characters? What new ideas might you be interested in exploring in a second Epic Mickey game?
I’ve actually always envisioned Junction Point – well, once we became a part of Disney – as the studio that draws inspiration from the Archives. I’ve been pretty up front about my love of the Ducks. I’d love to do a Duck Tales game, and a Gremlins game would be amazing. Oswald would make a great leading As far as a second Epic Mickey game goes, there’s no shortage of interesting challenges to tackle. I have some ideas about music gameplay that could be fun and there’s a world of stuff we can do with paint and thinner that we couldn’t even have thought of the first time around. Or we could do some stuff completely different and not do any of the stuff I’ve mentioned here. Who knows? There’s no shortage of ideas!

This article was originally published in Game Informer magazine issue #214