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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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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
GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.bizWhen 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.

GamesIndustry.bizIsn'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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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!

GamesIndustry.bizAnd 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.'

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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
GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.'

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz There were some really sad moments.
Warren Spector

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

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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.

GamesIndustry.biz 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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Steve Peterson

Contributor/[a]list daily senior editor

Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.