The Power of Two: Warren Spector Talks to Brainy Gamer's Michael Abbott
Michael Abbott has written the Brainy Gamer blog since August 2007. Recently he spoke to game designer Warren Spector about his career and Epic Mickey 2. Here’s a transcript of their conversation.
Warren Spector calls himself “the oldest guy still making games in the universe.” Over a career spanning 30+ years, with landmark titles like System Shock and Deus Ex to his credit, Spector’s love of games has never waned. Since founding Junction Point Studios in 2005, he and his team have released two Disney Epic Mickey games. The latest, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, features musical numbers and co-op play with Mickey and his long-lost brother Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
I spoke with Spector recently about his early influences, his current view of the industry, and the broad arc of his career.
Paste:When did you first realize you were more than a little interested in games?
Warren Spector:I started out playing Avalon Hill and SPI board games, but where things really took off for me was playing Dungeons and Dragons in the mid to late ‘70s. And then discovering those ziplock bag games from Metagaming. Those are really the games that put me on the road to what I’ve been doing for the last 30 years.
Paste:Growing up, you were interested in movies and wanted to be a critic or a filmmaker, right?
Spector:All my life I’ve been a cartoon freak and animation nut. I’m pretty convinced I do what I do now because I saw The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958, the first stop-action film shot in color, ed.) when I was two years old and never forgot it. Sleeping Beauty and King Kong were early experiences that showed me the power of movies and the power of fantasy, and I’ve never lost my interest in them. I thought I was going to be a filmmaker, but when I was in high school and started making movies, I realized I was surrounded by people who were more talented than me, and I thought, “Wow, if I’m not even the best filmmaker in my own high school, what chance do I have competing in Hollywood?” So I turned to thinking and writing about movies.
Paste:What did movies teach you that carried over to games?
Spector:Process. I was lucky enough to go to an all-boys prep school in upstate New York that had a film program, so we had access to 16mm Bolex cameras, Nagra sound recorders, Arriflex cameras. We even had an Oxberry animation stand! That old high school had a pretty amazing film program. A teacher there named Richard Zemeti, I don’t think he even realized it, but he changed my life.
Paste:There’s something to be said for learning to cut actual film, for understanding the physical properties of film, don’t you think?
Spector:Jerry Lewis always used to say you have to taste the emulsion. I think he hit it. Actually physically cutting film is critical.
Paste:I’m always amused when I hear people describe your work on Epic Mickey as a departure from your work on games like Deus Ex and System Shock. I remember playing TOON, back in the day, which was a cartoon role-playing game you made for Steve Jackson Games, right?
Spector:Yeah, I had done some small stuff for Steve. He hired me in 1983, and the first thing I did, I was the editor and developer on a solo adventure called Thing in the Darkness, written by Matthew Costello, who went on to make The 7th Guest and a bunch of other stuff. Steve taught me a ton. I didn’t know how to flow-chart a solo adventure. I’d never done anything like that. I thought I was hot stuff because I was creating my own game systems and worlds, but no. I was a total amateur. Steve gave me an undergraduate education in game design for sure.
Paste:You also made a game based on Rocky and Bullwinkle. I actually remember that game. I played it with my cousin. It had hand puppets, game cards, and a spinner.
Spector:Man, you do go back a ways! That was in the days before videotape. We had to go to the Museum of Broadcasting in New York to see Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons because they hadn’t even been released on VHS. So we watched hours and hours of Rocky and Bullwinkle until our eyes bled and our brains turned to mush. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but we went to a little place in New York called Pete’s Tavern, and looked at each other and said “We’re doomed. There’s no way to turn this into a game. Let’s have a gin and tonic!” So after the first gin and tonic we said “Spinners!” and after the second “Masks!” which later became hand puppets, and so on. That’s how we came up with the Rocky and Bullwinkle game.
But, you know, that was the first game I worked on that I saw with my own eyes could be enjoyed by kids and adults playing together. I remember play-testing it, and there were a bunch of us in our 30s and 40s, and we would invite 7-year-olds to play with us, and everybody had a blast. That was pretty eye-opening. I’d never worked on a game like that.
Paste:That sounds like a good segue to discussing Epic Mickey. You made a big transition when you started Junction Point Studios in 2005. By the time Epic Mickey appeared in 2010, it had been a while since you’d released a game. Did you feel the industry change during that time?
Spector:The transition from the original Xbox to the Wii wasn’t a big deal for my team. The business hadn’t changed fundamentally. I think there have been fundamental changes more recently. I mean, now I feel like things are completely different. Team sizes are either much bigger or much smaller than they were. There isn’t really room for a midsize team anymore. You’re either making a blockbuster or you’re four guys in a garage working on something really small. The middle ground is really dangerous. Distribution channels are completely different now. Platforms—I mean, you can play on a cellphone or on a 70-inch television—everything is different now.
I was amazed at how the life of a freelancer differed from running a remote studio for another company. I thought I knew what I was doing in 2004 when I left Eidos because I had run Ion Storm Austin, which was my own independent studio. I had run a business unit inside Origin, but being part of a startup is crazy. You go from “Let’s change the world!” to “How do I pay the rent next month?” The fact that it took six years to get a game done was crazy. I never wanted to be one of those guys who takes that long to get a game out.
Paste:Did the size of your team change from Epic Mickey to Epic Mickey 2?
Spector:Drastically. I think the total number for the first game, including localization and support staff from Disney, was 250-300 people. On Mickey 2, since we’re on every platform, we topped 800 people.
Paste:With the diversification of the platform space, especially the rise of mobile devices, how do you choose which to systems to target?
Spector:There are so many conflicting data sets. For me, it comes down to what I want to do, what do I think will be fun? I’m too old to do stuff only to make a buck, and I don’t want to work on anything that doesn’t interest me personally. Right now, I’m fascinated by multi-screen and tablet gaming. The Wii U is currently the proprietary system for that, but there are all sorts of amazing multiple screen tablet things you can do that we’ve barely scratched the surface of. That’s at the top of my “I’m going to get somebody to let me do this” list. Then there’s the strategic direction of the company you work for, and Disney is very much social and mobile driven, so it looks pretty good for synergy between what I find interesting and what the company wants to do.
Paste:I’m interested in your decision to add co-op play to Epic Mickey 2, and how you tried to strike a balance between the two players of potentially different skill levels.
Spector: When you’re making a game that isn’t just about jump, jump, jump, and doing the exact same thing the other player does, you have to decide who gets to make the call. When you can solve a problem in a bunch of different ways, at the end of the day one player needs to be in control. And for us, that had to be Mickey. So Mickey has to do a little bit more thinking, and he has to have a more robust ability set. I find the negotiating between players fascinating when one plays as Mickey and the other as Oswald. We discovered that you actually can’t have both players equally strong in that discussion. That conversation needed to get ended somehow, so Mickey gets one more vote than Oswald.
Paste:Having played Epic Mickey 2 both solo and with my daughter, it seems to me the game is in its element as a co-op experience. I realize you made it for solo play too, but it seems to really come alive in co-op. Do you agree?
Spector:That’s an insight I haven’t heard. Leaving aside the things we wanted to do better with the second game, the only two things we tried to do were 1) Let’s try some songs in the game, and 2) Let’s do co-op. I’ve never worked on co-op before, except for the Game Of The Year edition of Deus Ex, which was mostly a throw-away. But this time we wanted to make a true co-op game. It was designed to be a 2-player game. Those were the only things we added.
Paste:What did you learn from the first game that you wanted to improve in the second?
Spector:There were a few things in particular that were pretty obvious. We knew we could do better with the camera. Giving characters voices was also critical. In the outpouring of fan mail we got, it was dramatic. Everybody told us they wanted to hear the characters talk, so we had to address that. And we had some player direction issues we needed to work on, and I think we’ve done a very good job with that, especially on the Wii U. We tried to be better about making sure players knew what they had to do, where to go, etc. And we tried to push the issue of player choices and consequences much further in the sequel. When you make choices in the new game, they really are forever.
Paste:The Epic Mickey games rely on familiar art and characters from Disney, but you and your team apply an art style that takes the Disney universe in a different, darker direction. How did you find your way to the art style that characterizes Epic Mickey?
Spector:How we did that was grindingly hard work over several years. I don’t mean to be glib about it, but that really is what it took. We went through so many visual styles. To be blunt about it, we went through art directors like they were going out of style. So many people tried to find the look of the world that I had in my head. Trying to realize that world was insanely hard. We went through thousands and thousands of pieces of concept art. From Zombie Donald with a nail through his head, to cyberpunk realism, to total, total fidelity to Disney’s source material. Where we wound up was a world of contrasts. We wanted people to feel like they had been to these worlds before, but that those worlds had somehow lost something. We wanted them to feel a sense of loss and melancholy so they would want to save it. I think my design team nailed it.
Paste:And there’s so much to see. The grainy textured cut-scenes depart from the style you’re describing and present yet another take on the world. Then there are the side-scrolling projector sequences that hearken back to early Disney animation, and they look like nothing else in the game. It’s a remarkable collage of visual styles.
Spector:This was by far the most talented art team I’ve ever worked with, and they thought I was crazy when I said I wanted this game to have five different art styles. But this was hugely important to me. The cinematic sequences had to call to mind the concept art and storyboard art that never gets shown. It seemed like we had an opportunity to foreground that style and let people see what it’s like to make a movie. It’s a very Disney, very painterly style, and I think it serves the game beautifully.
Paste:Disney has changed a lot recently. I used to be very cynical about the company, but as the parent of a young daughter, I’m impressed with their programming these days, especially as it relates to empowering girls and dispelling myths of femininity that they’ve historically been responsible for reinforcing.
Spector:I love Disney. I’ve always loved Disney from when I was a kid. But as an adult creator of video games, I came into my relationship with Disney with a lot of the same concerns and fears. It’s going to be the company that says no, you can’t do that with these characters, no, no, no. But I’ve gotta tell you, when you’re dealing with the creative people at Disney, it’s everything you’d want it to be. There is a reverence and respect for the work that took me by surprise, even as a fan. People who enjoy animated shows like Family Guy or The Simpsons, they look at a show like Phineas and Ferb, and they don’t watch it because it’s Disney, and that’s crazy. It’s a fantastic show. Look, Disney let us do what we did. They let us build this dark, melancholy, dangerous world of forgotten and rejected stuff. That says bundles.
Paste:Epic Mickey 2 strikes me as a first draft of how to incorporate musical theatre elements into a game. I’m imagining the ways you might build on this if you had another shot at it. Did you see it as a first swing at a musical?
Spector:(Laughs) You bet! I have all sorts of crazy ideas, and I have people on my team with even crazier ideas. There are certainly a lot of “music games” out there, but they’re all about performance or beat-matching. The songs are not integrated into the storytelling or game mechanics like shooting, talking, and other aspects we typically see in games. There are lots of things worth exploring, but you’ve got to take baby steps. I’m not going to go out there and tell people Epic Mickey 2 is the be-all end-all musical comedy. That would be silly. We just barely scratched the surface. When we told Disney we wanted to make a musical, they didn’t blink. Disney just gets that. But when we said ‘interactive musical,’ they said, “Ok, hold on, let’s take this one step at a time and see if gamers will actually buy a musical game.” So, yeah, we’re just getting started. If it isn’t the beginning of bigger things, I will personally be disappointed, but we’ll see.
Paste:I hope you’ll keep (composer) Jim Dooley at your side.
Spector:Jim is a certified genius. He created the sound of Wasteland and Epic Mickey. All I said was give me “It’s a Small World” inside-out, and he just did magic. Jim’s not going anywhere if I have anything to say about it.
Paste:Have you played Dishonored?
A Not yet, but I will definitely play it over the holiday.
Paste:I wonder what it’s like for you playing a stealth game, or a dystopian intrigue game clearly influenced by games like Deus Ex and System Shock. Do you ever play such games and notice your own tracks in the sand, as it were?
Spector:Yeah, and that’s why I don’t play as many games as I used to, and it’s why I warn everybody who wants to be a game developer to be sure they really want to do that because you can’t play other people’s games without breaking them down and, in a way, not having fun. There are games I play that, as a player I think are fun, but as a developer make me want to scream and think I would never make a game like this. I played Deus Ex: Human Revolution. The first thing I felt was pride. Same thing with Dishonored. Harvey Smith getting to spread his wings and fly and make games better than we ever made together. How do you not be proud about that?
But you inevitably find yourself saying “Why in the world did they do that?” and other times you think “Why didn’t I think of that?” That’s what drives you to do better. Most of the games I’ve made were created out of frustration with other people’s games. I don’t think I’ve done much of anything in my life other than relentlessly promote and advocate and evangelize for a particular kind of game. When I started, it was me and the guys at Looking Glass—I mean me and Doug Church, and Paul Neurath, and maybe Richard Garriott, and that was it. We all thought, “Why isn’t everybody doing this?”
Now I look around and I see KOTOR, Mass Effect, Fable, Bioshock, Dishonored, Grand Theft Auto, and everything that Bethesda’s doing these days. It’s all the kind of stuff I hoped we would be making when I started doing this. I’m filled with pride in having played a small role in that, and I hope my role isn’t quite done yet. I’m still frustrated, so there’s more games to make.
Paste:So you’re hopeful about the future of narrative games?
Spector:Absolutely hopeful. There are more people trying different things. There are so many ways to reach an audience now. I think we’re seeing an amazing explosion of creativity right now that I find really heartening. I also find it kind of scary. As the oldest guy still making games in the universe, which I think I might be, it’s a little scary. But all that means is there’s some punk out there who’s gonna destroy me or try to do better than I’ve ever done, which is the way I came in. When I was in my 20s, all I wanted to do was show those guys what interactivity was all about and just destroy them. As long as there are people thinking that way, I think the future will be just fine.
Michael Abbott writes and hosts the Brainy Gamer blog and podcast. He chairs the Theater department at Wabash College where he teaches drama and film studies, as well as courses devoted to the art and history of electronic games.