Warren Spector: "The ultraviolence has to stop"

The veteran designer talks about disturbing trends at E3, and how Epic Mickey 2 is different

Warren Spector has created many much-loved games in his long career, but Epic Mickey is one his proudest moments. Now he's working on the sequel, and he was busy at E3 showing the game to the world. GamesIndustry International caught up with him after the show to get his thoughts on E3 and the response to Epic Mickey2: The Power of 2.

Full disclosure: I've known Warren since the early 1980's, when we were both working on tabletop games. It feels odd to schedule an interview with an old friend, but then it's about the best way to get a chance to talk to him these days.

Q: I wanted to get your thoughts on E3, the Epic Mickey booth - I mean the Disney booth, it just looked like the Epic Mickey booth... The longest line I saw at the show was people waiting to get their Oswald ears.

Warren Spector: I'm not going to be able to comment much on the show because all I saw was the inside of a room, the inside of another room, and a hallway. I did catch the press conferences and when I was in the Sony booth and over by Nintendo I did get to see some of the other things going on. So I have a high-level sense of the show, but in detail I can't really give you too much.

Q: Your high-level sense, your spider-sense, that's important; it's been finely tuned over a number of years.

Warren Spector: Well, my spider-sense is sure tingling danger, danger, Peter Parker! This is the year where there were two things that stood out for me. One was: The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it. I just don't believe in the effects argument at all, but I do believe that we are fetishizing violence, and now in some cases actually combining it with an adolescent approach to sexuality. I just think it's in bad taste. Ultimately I think it will cause us trouble.

"The ultraviolence has to stop. We have to stop loving it"

Warren Spector

Q: Are you telling me you didn't like the Hitman: Absolution trailer?

Warren Spector: I left Eidos in 2004 because I looked around at E3 and saw the new Hitman game where you get to kill with a meat hook, and 25 to Life, the game about kids killing cops, and Crash & Burn the racing game where the idea is to create the fieriest, most amazing explosions, not to win the race... I looked around my own booth and realized I just had one of those 'which thing is not like the other' moments. I thought it was bad then, and now I think it's just beyond bad.

We've gone too far. The slow-motion blood spurts, the impalement by deadly assassins, the knives, shoulders, elbows to the throat. You know, Deus Ex had its moments of violence, but they were designed - whether they succeeded or not I can't say - but they were designed to make you uncomfortable, and I don't see that happening now. I think we're just appealing to an adolescent mindset and calling it mature. It's time to stop. I'm just glad I work for a company like Disney, where not only is that not something that's encouraged, you can't even do it, and I'm fine with it.

Q: You don't even think about that as something you're looking for.

Warren Spector: Absolutely not. I mean, there are spreading blood pools under innocent dogs when you kill them in Deus Ex, and I wanted you to feel disturbed if you actually pulled the trigger. It worked, or at least it worked on my wife, who still has not finished that game, by the way.

Q:When the bodies kind of fade away after the cinematic bloodspurting, it glorifies part of it and also takes away the disturbing aftermath.

Warren Spector: That's true. The second thing I noticed was that the most interesting part of the press conferences had nothing to do with games. When the games are the least interesting part, there's a problem. When did the game conference become about interfacing with Netflix? I just worry a little bit. The thing that's ironic is that I feel like we really are in a golden age, in a weird sort of way. Nobody knows what the future of games is. Nobody. At a time like that Notch can come along and do Minecraft, and Chris Hecker can finally do his incredible party spy game, and Jon Blow can do Braid, and I can do a triple-A Mickey Mouse game - anything is possible.

Is the future... indie games distributed digitally made by four guys in a garage? Is it 800 people working on a triple-A game for Disney? Is it a social game on Facebook? Is it a mobile game on iOS and Android? Nobody knows. What that means is, if you have an idea you can reach an audience with it. Pretty much all I saw at E3 was, 'Well, we're going to do what we always did, but bigger and bloodier! And we're gonna talk about Netflix!' I just don't get it.

Q:Isn't that the consequence of larger and larger budgets, and wanting to avoid risk, and let's just make the last thing that was successful only graphically more intense?

Warren Spector: That's always been true, but there was just something different about the show this year. It just made me sad. It wasn't that there was a lot of me-too product, it was that we just went too far with the hyper-real celebration of blood and sex and violence. I'd think it was just me being an old fart, except I'm reading lots of stuff online where it's not just me. Thankfully.

Q: The size of so many screens displaying amazing violence was a bit much. Maybe that's why one of the titles that really appealed to me was Pikmin 3.

"People really seemed to enjoy the history and the attention Oswald is getting"

Warren Spector

Warren Spector: The thing I'm most looking forward to - and again, I didn't see much so it's very hard for me to say this - it's probably inappropriate for me to say it, but 'Oh my god, there's a new Paper Mario coming to the 3DS!' What could be more perfect than that? Like Disney Epic Mickey, the fact that people responded so well to the game speaks to the desire of people to feel some joy and have some fun and smile when they're playing a game instead of frowning in concentration and adrenalized intensity. It's nice!

Q:And not have to feel like they have to hide the game from someone else.

Warren Spector: Exactly. Like I said, we went a little too far. But it was really gratifying, the response to Disney Epic Mickey 2, and all hail the power of Mary Bonafede, Diseny's events person, who came up with the idea of doing those hats. Holy cow, the Oswald ear hats, that was awesome. There were people from other companies giving out their schwag to people in our line. Part of me was going, 'Hey, wait they're taking advantage of our line!' and part of me was going 'Hey, that's pretty cool, the entire business coming together to make sure people aren't bored waiting in line.'

Q: I know you got great feedback on Epic Mickey 2, but did you get any surprises from the feedback? Were there things you didn't expect?

Warren Spector: I wouldn't say I was surprised. I was really pleased to hear - not everybody, you're never going to please everybody - I was surprised at how many people told me either they loved the first game, but the camera was a problem, or they wanted to love the first game but couldn't because there were three or four things that bugged them, and almost without exception the people I talked to said 'Wow, you guys addressed all of the problems.' That was really gratifying to hear, because that's certainly one of our big goals.

I have to admit - I mean, you've done this - you never know how people are going to respond to what you're selling at E3. I was genuinely worried that the boss battle that we showed - I just wanted to unask some questions. I wanted to show a 2D platform level inspired by a real cartoon because people were asking me all the time, 'Are those coming back?' So I wanted to be able to say yes, here they are, you can play one. And the other was 'Are you going to have boss battles?' and is the whole choice and consequence thing going to happen even in the boss battles. I wanted to show that off too. But that boss battle, it comes sort of midway through the game, and it's really frenetic, and I worried that people would find it too frenetic given that they were dropping into the game for the first time, and nobody said that. Everybody really got off on it. I breathed a sigh of relief. That was really gratifying.

And the outpouring of love for Oswald, I thought that was really cool. It wasn't just the ears. What I heard is that people were really psyched to see some of the history, and see some of the stuff from the archives, and I really do have a collection of Disneyana. People really seemed to enjoy the history and the attention Oswald is getting. That was a little bit of a surprise to me, but mostly it was just gratifying.

Q: I think Epic Mickey introduced a number of characters to people who had never heard of them before, and it piqued their interest. Oswald deserves his time in the limelight.

Warren Spector: Absolutely. I want to make that little guy a star, or do whatever I can, anyway. One of the things I was most psyched about as we started to work on the second game is that Oswald never had a voice, and we got to give him his voice. A game, a video game, got to give a Disney character a voice. We worked with Disney Character Voice in the casting and direction, but Disney Epic Mickey made Frank Welker the voice of Oswald. Disney Epic Mickey gave Gus the Gremlin a voice; it's Cary Elwes from now on. Not that I expect it will ever happen, but if they ever to make a Gus the Gremlin movie, Gus the Gremlin sounds like Cary Elwes now, because of Epic Mickey.

All the characters that had never spoken before, we gave voice to and it was based on our models and our script and our character descriptions and personality profiles for those characters. I'm completely convinced that ten years ago the biggest media company on the planet would not have seen games as an appropriate or even viable venue for that, and now they do. That, more than anything else, says, we're here to stay, and we're cool.

Q: It is now the cultural medium of record. Short animated features are nowhere, and videogames are where characters and IP are being created and implanted in the brains of millions of people. The other cool thing is that of necessity you have to do a much more thorough job of fleshing out a character. In early animated features, somebody would just draw it and that was it. There was no story bible or drawing the skeletons... somebody would just do it.

Warren Spector: They do it differently from shot to shot. We figured that out on the first game. Traditional animators get to cheat all over the place. It's amazing, because they know where the camera is, and the camera's constantly moving, they can change the way they draw the character based on where the camera is, and we can't do that, darn it. We're an incredibly literal medium. I started thinking about that several years ago. We require precision, perfection, and consistency in a way that other media don't. It's one of the things that makes this so damn hard.

"Everyone asks me, 'when are you going to make another mature game like Deus Ex?' And I say, 'I never stopped.'"

Warren Spector

Q: You can still be creative, but you can't take shortcuts.

Warren Spector: The rig for our Mickey model on the first game, the first pass of that was done by a guy who had worked with Weta on the rig for Gollum. He said our rig was way more complicated than anything he's ever worked on in any film. In a film, you have a different rig based on the needs of an individual shot. We have to use one rig for the entire game to do everything that character is ever gonna do. That was a blowaway for me.

Q: It's exciting to see Epic Mickey hitting a new level, going to other platforms. I think you've made those characters matter to a whole new generation.

Warren Spector: One of our goals for the first game was to make a game for everyone, in the same way that a Pixar film or a classic Disney feature is family entertainment, entertainment for everyone. If you look at who bought the first game, it was over 50 percent over the age of 18. We have adults playing a Mickey Mouse game. That's pretty cool.

Q: Perhaps because people in that age group are more familiar with the classic Disney characters.

Warren Spector: Partly, I'm sure. But I think it's also the audience for games in general growing and broadening. I don't make games for kids; that hasn't changed, ever. Everyone asks me, 'when are you going to make another mature game like Deus Ex?' And I say, 'I never stopped.'

Q: As you said, it's like a Pixar movie, they're not kid's movies.

Warren Spector: No one thinks of them that way. I don't know why people immediately assume if you're making a cartoonish game it's gotta be for kids. No one makes that assumption about Mario. Adults play Mario games, adults play Zelda all the time, adults play Ratchet and Clank. There's something about the Disney characters that people have an idea in their heads, and we certainly wanted to break that mold and get people to rethink that assumption. I think the statistics bear out that we did that.

Q: I think it's because there's depth and there's pathos and all sorts of emotions going on.

Warren Spector: You know the first game, I asked the team... asked may not be the right word. I pushed the team very hard to make sure it was a game of contrasts, where there was really, really dark stuff so there could be really light stuff, and really sad stuff so there could be really happy stuff. They responded well to that.

Q: There were some really sad moments.

Warren Spector: I tear up playing it even now. That's going to happen again.

Q: Those are the kind of moments you strive to create.

Warren Spector: Absolutely. There was a moment in the first game, when we got a version of the end-game cinematic, and we got the audio dropped in for the first time. I was watching it with Paul Weaver, my studio director, and we just looked at each other and at the same time said 'We just did Disney.' Throughout the process I'd been saying, 'Make it Disneyish, we need to make it more Disneyish.' I can't even tell you how moving it is - there's such a big spoiler I don't want to say any more - that's the moment where I knew we had done it. From that moment on, even now if I watch the end game, I'm crying the whole time. It's partly because of the story in the game, and partly because of how gruelingly hard making games is, and what we all came through, and partly because of what we accomplished. I'm so proud of what we accomplished.

Q: I think that's part of why people are looking forward to Epic Mickey 2.

Warren Spector: We're deep in alpha now, which means we're doing daily bug triage, and tuning the gameplay. There was one day when for some reason we had a big spike in the bug count, and everyone was really glum. I said, 'Don't worry about it, everything's going to be fine,' but they were glum. So I said, 'Look at the game we just reviewed today. It doesn't sound like any other game, it doesn't look like any other game, it doesn't feel like any other game.' People can say they don't like it, but you can't say we did something that just went along with the crowd. For me, that's huge. At E3, you've got 15 seconds to stop somebody who's running from one meeting to another and get them to notice what you're doing. You've got to do something that stands out. If people don't like it, they don't like it, I don't control that. But we do control doing something unique, and we've done that, and I'll take that to the bank.

Q: I hope you do take that to the bank, while driving a big truck.

Warren Spector: (laughs) That would be good, wouldn't it?

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Latest comments (16)

Bruce Everiss Marketing Consultant 10 years ago
There are far better ways of engendering human emotion than violence.
But violence is simple an easy to do, so the stunted creative capabilities of some studios churn out violence instead of doing the more difficult, but ultimately more rewarding things.
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Peter Dwyer Games Designer/Developer 10 years ago
I have to agree with this sentiment. I saw the demo for "The last of us" and (call me a prude) was appalled. It was just too graphic and too cold. The so called hero seemed to be a cold blooded killer. I know the world has gone to pot due to a virus and all but, the demo seemed to imply that all humanity had gone with it.

A game that WILL get into the hands of under aged children and is effectively teaching them that the hero can be a cold blooded murderer. It's not even a clip you can take out of context. He simply wades in, hears voices and thinks kill first ask questions later.
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Harel Jann Graphic & Sound Designer, Co-Founder, Virtual Mirror Game Studios10 years ago
IMHO The problem isn't the violence.
It's the lack of everything else.

For instance "Fullmetal Alchemist" a well known anime/manga (IMO is fantastic) is pretty darn crazy and violent. sometime much more violent than western media can be.
But also it's very very funny, the story line is deep and unique, amazingly developed character.. etc.
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Show all comments (16)
Brian Smith Artist 10 years ago
Good article. Nice to hear an industry veteran being real about what happens next. Nobody knows. I don't mind hearing opinions of what industry leaders think will happen but I've had it up to here with those who feel what they think is fact. This is a fast moving industry and he's right... nobody knows for sure where it's all going.

Looking forward to playing Mickey 2, looks great.
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Colin McBride Studying MA in 3D Design for Virtual Worlds, Glasgow Caledonian University10 years ago

I agree completely. Violence the way it is portrayed at the moment is just the easy option. Not that there isn't a place for violence in gaming -- there's let's face it a really big place for it -- it's just that it has to be addressed and explored properly.

(Maybe a way to do this might be to have a 'grief level' for a game character with skill levels, reaction times etc being hampered the more often you put companions in a situation where they get killed.)

Violence -- and sex for that matter -- is fine but let's be thoughtful with it -- you can cite Peckinpah as an example of a film director who never shied away from portraying serious violence but I don't think you could say that it was ever throwaway or exploitational. The implications were usually fully explored. Gaming needs to learn to do that these days, I think.
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And yet Zombies still make multiple returns, and enjoy a healthy swathe of Sales. I guess gratuitous violence against ex humanity is a agreeable compromise? or are we naturally prejudiced against undead zombies?
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Gareth Donaghey Customer Support Agent, Blizzard Entertainment10 years ago
When you made your name on ultra-violent game back in the day like Crusader: No Remorse, System Shock, and Deus Ex, its a bit strange saying there's too much of it these days. You young un's today with your cordless phones and your bipping and a bopping...

And as for Deus Ex being 'uncomfortable', where exactly? Played all three games, and the only mildly uncomfortable bit is the starving kid asking for food at the start of the second area in DE1. As for the dogs, if you didn't kill or tranq them they killed you. So real moral judgement there.
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Benjamin Crause Supervisor Central Support, Nintendo of Europe10 years ago
I can only agree with him: Ultra-violence is only good for a shocker moment, to cause a disgusted reaction or to get media attention.
To give you an example: God of War presentation at E3. Typical gameplay, good combat, diverse enemies. But the kicker was the final when the elephant like boss was knocked down and his skull cracked open to reveal the brain.
Seriously, was this necessary by any means? How does this make it a better game? How does this increase the experience for the player?
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 10 years ago
I agree with him on many things. im looking foward to epic Mickey 2. I also enjoy games like Rayman Origins. I liked Mirrors edge because it discouraged you from shooting and confronting people. I had to use my head more and a gratifying feeling was felt when I overcame a hurdle or difficult task. I thought it was cool you can play metal gears solid without killing anyone and you were rewarded by doing so.

I just think Violent games are an attempt at making game sales and less effort on coming up with creative solutions to make a game. Im not saying violent games are bad or I dont like them. But looking at this E3... its a little too much.

But im waiting for games like Ni No Kuni, just as much as Im waiting for Tomb Raider or farcry 3.

And violence is only good as a shocker moment thing, but wears off after you have expirienced it, were good gameplay lasts a long time. Like if the game is fun to play... violent or not you still want to play it.
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Art C. Jones Writer / Blogger 10 years ago
The camera issues are fixed, but not entirely. I became quite ill in playing Epic Mickey 2 in the 15 minutes I played. I *really* want to play this game b/c I couldn't play the first due to it inducing nausea (notably I haven't had the same issue with any game since then - and I do play a good bit!)

The issue seems to be that a sort of fish-eye lens has been applied to the camera (at least on Wii, I didn't notice the same thing on the X360 version next too me, but I was too sick to check it out afterwards). Buildings and objects seem to stretch and contort at the edges of the screen (the person I was playing it with asked about it but the QA person from Junction Point didn't seem to know how t respond).

Please! Warren, take another look at what is being done with the camera in this game! I really want to play this game, but after playing it on the E3 floor I determined I am physically unable to do so :(.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Art C. Jones on 14th June 2012 5:00pm

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Kevin Patterson musician 10 years ago
I'm a big fan of Warren's games, I look forward to playing Epic Mikey 2 as I didnt have a Wii to play the first title.

I have no problem with violent games usually, but admittedly the last of us gameplay at Sony's E3 made me cringe a bit, mainly as I couldn't understand the context. It made the player out to be the violent aggressor rather than the defender. I remember manhunt, I thought was over the top back then..

What I don't understand is how we think ultra violence is acceptable yet sex/romance in gaming is still so taboo. I'm taking about a PG-13 to NC-17 rated mature love scenes, not a drastic over the top sex scene either. We feel like we have to protect the kids (who just might happen to play the game even though their parents should be doing their jobs) from nudity and sex, yet its perfectly fine to have in a game a scene where the main character clothelines a Nun, or suffocates an enemy using a plastic bag. We can have game violence that equates to a Saw movie, but cannot have a romantic scene that equates to anything that has a hint of nudity.
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Completely agree. Seems to be related to "chasing the hardcore" (which even Ninty is doing now).

How many non-violent games (and non fitness/singing games) did Sony & MS show collectively? At least Beyond didn't have huge pools of blood (plenty of guns & implied violence though).

The game that has MOST disturbed me recently - Sony's PSV Soul Sacrifice. I found the videos I saw to be completely offensive and disturbing - it completely crossed the line for me. I was shocked to read that Sony wanted *that* game to effectively define the PSV, and have the highest system selling ratio. Urrgh. IF it was up to be, it would be banned.
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Jourdan Cameron Senior Gaming Editor, Blackman'N Robin10 years ago
Mr. Everiss, you hit the nail right on the head. As I say, violence is cheap.
I hope Mr. Spector keeps making games!
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Rick Cody PBnGames-Board Member 10 years ago
From an broadening demographic standpoint, I've talked to people whom have said they don't play games because they're so violent they'd make people go mad. And that was back 7 or 8 years ago, when shooting games started gain market dominance. Now, it's disgusting. I genuinely don't want to work for almost any AAA studio because I have no desire to work on ultra violent games.
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Jed Ashforth Senior Game Designer, Immersive Technology Group, Sony Computer Entertainment Europe10 years ago
Good for you. We can't change who buys the games, but we can certainly change who we work for. Don't avoid AAA just for this though - it's unfair to tar all those devs with the same brush.

I know colleagues who've worked on some tacky stuff because their company takes on the project and they've gotta pay the rent; it's a tough situation, a real moral / ethical quandry. Personally I couldn't, because I wouldn't want to look back at the end of my life and know I'd made any contribution to something I disagreed with. If you're not part of the solution, and all that.

What's great though is that more and more developers are starting to voice their resistance to this stuff, and that really makes me think things might actually start to change at the source, especially as these products become more and more obviously reliant on shock & gore. Innovation currently happens in these games because talented devs are working on them, but if the talent starts to leave they'll start to look more obviously tired, exploitative and desperate.

I never would have thought this accelerating cycle of out-grossing-out what's gone before would go this far, and I'm sure we're not at the bottom yet, but I get the feeling that an increasing number of key players are starting to disengage and swim back to the surface. Warren has been a strong voice for this movement.
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Hugo Dubs Interactive Designer 10 years ago
In the end, the game market is customer driven... You buy the games, so you decide.
If you wanna buy Epic mickey, and that thousands of people do the same, so there will be more epic mikey games, and more follower to join the genre. Actually, talking about ultra violence, and controversial trailers as it is for Hitman is not relevant at all. There are a lot of game that are not violent. Sports games, racing games, mickey games, music games, etc...
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