Warren Spector, a game designer known for the dystopian game series Deus Ex, is an unlikely candidate to oversee a game featuring one of the most recognizable animated characters of all time. Yet Spector is the man that Walt Disney Co. has charged with making Mickey Mouse into a game star.
Disney Epic Mickey, a game for the Nintendo Wii console coming out for the holidays, is Spector’s attempt to bring some pizazz to a Mickey after a mixed record in the category over the years. “I just think the guy hasn’t had the success in videogames that he has in every other medium,” Spector, 54 years old, said in an interview Thursday in Seattle before the start of the PAX videogame convention here. “I just want to get him to the top of the videogames heap.”
Spector said he plans to do that, in part, by tweaking Mickey’s personality to make him more mischievous, a quality he possessed in some of Disney’s earliest animated films but later lost. Spector is cagey about how the game will do that exactly, but even the logo for the game hints that this isn’t the same old Mickey. It features Mickey’s iconic pair of mouse ears, slightly deformed and dripping with ink that looks almost like rivulets of black blood.
Ink plays an important visual role in the game. In visual teasers for the game, Mickey drips with the stuff, a reminder that he was a hand-drawn character for most of his film career – a foreign concept for kids who have grown up with the computer-generated characters like Lightning McQueen, Woody and other icons from Disney’s Pixar films. Throughout the game, Mickey wields a magical paint brush (controlled by players with the Wiimote) to create bridges for the character to cross over, dispatch villains and remove obstacles like walls.
“We came to the idea of, Let’s give him control over the stuff he’s made of, give him control of paint, give players a taste of the creative process,” said Spector.
Spector said Disney Epic Mickey draws on a variety of game genres, including “platformers” like Nintendo’s Mario in which characters must hop from level-to-level and over obstacles and fantasy games like Nintendo’s Zelda series. The game is set in a place called Wasteland, a place for forgotten cartoon characters. One of those will be Oswald, a rabbit that was one of Disney’s earliest cartoon characters from the 1920s (rights to Oswald were actually held by NBC Universal until a few years ago, when Disney regained them). The visual style of the game pays homage to many Disney films, including the black-and-white “Steamboat Willie” (1928) and “Plutopia” (1951), says Spector, who says he’s a lifelong animation buff.
Spector joined Disney three years ago after the company acquired his Austin, Tex., game development group Junction Point, where Spector is creative director. Disney Epic Mickey is one of a number of initiatives by the entertainment company to play a bigger role in the games industry, a business long dominated by more focused game publishing companies like Electronic Arts and Activision Blizzard. This year, Disney has cut deals to acquire Tapulous, a developer of iPhone games, and Playdom, a maker of social games on Facebook and other social networking sites. Spector says about 280 people have been working on Disney Epic Mickey around the world.
Spector said it’s possible some Disney purists will be put off by the liberties he has taken with Mickey Mouse, including his new inky image. Early in the planning for the game, he said he held discussions with Disney executives to learn how far he could push the boundaries of the Mickey character. There was one line he says he didn’t even try to cross.
“You can’t give Mickey a gun,” he said.
Here for your enjoyment is the full, nearly 7-minute long opening cinematic sequence for upcoming Wii game, Disney Epic Mickey.