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Putting The ‘Epic’ Back Into Epic Mickey – Conversations with Warren Spector, Marv Wolfman and Peter Ong
Post by Jickle @ 12:03pm 16/11/12 | Comments
James "Jickle" O'Connor spoke with the legendary Warren Spector, Marv Wolfman and Peter Ong about their renewed approach to Epic Mickey...

For many players, the Wii-exclusive Disney Epic Mickey was an interesting disappointment. Although the guiding hand of hugely respected producer Warren Spector was evident, the game isn’t often brought up in the same sentences as Deus Ex or Thief, nor was it able to meet the lofty expectations many of us were imbued with after hearing of its interesting premise. The sequel, out next week, aims to push a bit further than what the first game achieved, hopefully making it feel a bit more like a proper Warren Spector adventure.

Some of the changes are obvious: the first game’s awful camera has been tweaked, co-op has been added, and the game is now available upon multiple platforms. But when we think Warren Spector, we think choice and consequence, and Spector knew that this is what we’d want to hear about.

“You know, I’ve made 22 games now, and they’ve all been about this idea that play style matters,” Spector explains. “Players always get to make choices, and we show them the consequences, and they get to make more choices. And the choices you made in the first game were kind of dialled down, because we knew that we were going to be reaching an audience that was much broader than the audience that was only familiar with that kind of gameplay. So this time the choices you make really do have consequences, they really do matter, at as deep a level as they do in a Deus Ex, or a System Shock, or an Ultima game.”

These choices and consequences operate on three different planes: local consequences, which affect the level you’re playing, global consequences, which affect the endgame, and mid-level consequences, which weren’t really a part of the first game.

“In Disney Epic Mickey, we did local and global consequence, because those are easy for players to understand,” says Spector. “But that midlevel, where what you do is permanent – so when you return to a map, things are still how you left them – that, we didn’t do in the first game, and that’s where we’ve really ramped it up in the second.”

It also means that your actions will often directly affect what happens in the levels that follow – in one sequence I played at a demo event, the second level would allow Mickey and Oswald to pursue different paths if they had been particularly meticulous with the area they were exploring beforehand.

For lead writer Marv Wolfman – perhaps best known for creating comic vampire hunter Blade, but who also has a fairly extensive history with Disney during the late 80s and 90s – this means that the game needs to be meticulously scripted.

“As a writer, all that stuff is written on Excel sheets as opposed to script,” Wolfman reveals. “So you’re writing all the dialogue knowing what the changes are, but you don’t have to worry about writing how every little change is going to happen. You write all the contingencies, you’re writing multiple versions of lines depending on which way a character will go and what will happen. It’s a lot of work, and yes, there’s a lot more dialog involved when you have to work with changes and choices that can’t be altered.”

The 3DS game, Epic Mickey: Power of Illusion, also changes substantially based on the choices made by players. According to lead designer Peter Ong, the game features twenty different endings, depending on how you’ve played it.

“The ‘Fortress’ mode and character rescuing systems involve many optional choices for the player which ultimately will change the ending state of the game,” Ong explains. “The rescuing system also rewards players for how much they explore the optional areas within a level, and even for returning to replay previously completed levels at the right time. All of these elements combine so that each time the game is played-through, the end result can vary.”

In my brief time with the game, there seemed to be definite merit to these claims – it was clear that several of the characters we rescued along the way weren’t necessary to progress, and those we did find offered up additional content after the level was complete.

These choices and changes are going to be supported by the sounds of things, by stronger characterisation and writing. Spector has expressed regret in the past that he didn’t have the characters speak in the first game, so now The Power of Two is fully voiced.

“It’s completely different,” says Wolfman. “The dialog in the first game was very exposition driven. Characters would just tell you what you needed to do. Now there’s a sense of conversation. You write character dialog in a personal sense, so that dialog comes out of a person’s way of feeling something, liking something, disliking something… whereas just expositional dialog is just informative.”

It’s a musical too, although I was a little sad to discover that this won’t actually feed into the gameplay at all, despite Spector having ideas around how music could be used.

“I have ideas for how to integrate songs in ways that don’t just involve beat matching or performance in the ways you think of when you think of music games, but… baby steps,” he explains thoughtfully. “You gotta take baby steps. There are concerns that pushing gamers too far would hurt the game, so step one, with Disney Epic Mickey 2, let’s see how people feel about having songs in games. Step two, let’s take it a step further and do some interaction in the musical sequences (in the next game).”

Both The Power of Two and Power of Illusion are meant to evoke a sense of the past, whether that’s coming from the Mickey memorabilia and references scattered all over the place, or from the gameplay itself. While Power of Illusion is a direct follow up from Castle of Illusion, a game that Ong “still regards as one of the best examples of what makes a great videogame today”, The Power of Two reminds us more of the games we used to enjoy on the Nintendo 64 (Banjo-Kazooie comes to mind in particular, although the progression model is actually quite different). Spector was pleased when I told him this, but his intentions go beyond simply replicating specific game experiences.

“What if you let players decide whether the game plays like a Mario or a Zelda game, depending on how they play?” Spector asks rhetorically. “That was the gameplay question I wanted to ask. And the way we were going to let players decide how the game should feel was by dynamically changing the terrain, by painting in gaps between platforms, or by leaving those gaps and preserving those resources, so you can use paint and thinner to draw in or erase different things. We introduced that idea in the first one, but we’re going much further with it in the second. If you felt like it played like a Mario game, and not like a Zelda game, that’s a result of how you played it.”

Whether or not Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two is an improvement on the first, or whether the 3DS game will hold up against its predecessor, remains to be seen (our review copies should be arriving any day now). A few notes from our conversations are slightly concerning – while Spector and Wolfman both noted that the end game changes a lot depending on how you play, there’s only one ending cinematic by the sounds of things. According to Spector, although the lead-up will be completely different, “every player is going to save the world, there’s no fail scenario, there’s no better success or less success”. Furthermore, and the reluctance to push musical gameplay reminds me of the reticence that was evident in the first game. But these games seem more directed than the first Disney Epic Mickey was, and perhaps more importantly, seem to share more in common with the Warren Spector classics that we know and love.

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