Epic Mickey was supposed to be one of the games that pumped new life into the Wii.
The 2010 creation carried big expectations with it, namely that the Wii exclusive would be the third-party creation that showed how outside parties could make games as compelling as releases from Nintendo's internal studios.
Things didn't work out that way, of course. As the Wii rides off into the sunset, third-party publishers and their marquee titles have largely abandoned the console. "We'll probably be the last significant Wii title, certainly the last significant third-party Wii title," says game design icon Warren Spector about Epic Mickey: The Power of Two. "And a whole new generation of consoles is about to come out. We're hitting just at the beginning of that wave. It's a very different world. What are we [as a medium] going to be doing in two years?"
Transition does indeed loom, both for Nintendo and the s his latest game featuring Disney's iconic mascot prepares to come out, I asked Spector to look back at Epic Mickey's debut on the Wii. "I thought then and I think now that it was the perfect platform for that game at that time. We wanted to get Mickey to gaming for everyone. That's what Disney does; they make entertainment for everyone," he explained. "And so, at that time, in 2010, if you were looking for kids and adults, boys and girls, men and women, the only place to go was the Wii."
If you're not doing things that are meaningful to you, all you're doing is making a living. I have no interest in that.
"It's not like Microsoft and Sony had much penetration beyond core gamers at that point because of their price points, and because of the kinds of games that the traditional game publishers were coming out. So I thought it was perfect then. And it did its job. We know pretty clearly from all of the fan mail we've been getting and from the research that Disney's done, that we really did move the needle on Mickey."
Spector says that people think about Mickey Mouse differently now than they did before the game came out. "And people know about Oswald now," he continues. "There's an openness to, ‘Hey, you know maybe this Disney stuff is OK for adults?' Like it always has been in other media. We'll find out if that audience is still there waiting for another interesting big high-profile [Epic Mickey Wii] title or not. If they are, we win. If they're not, well, we win because we're on the other platforms too."
Yet, the business of making video games at Disney has shifted around Spector. The mega-conglomerate has shuttered almost every division that was making console games and has chosen to focus its internal development on the mobile/casual space. When I asked Spector what he felt about these developments, he answered frankly. "Well it's as stressful as the game business has always been," he began. "The thing that you have to remember... I've heard this kind of thing for years. When we started up Junction Point, we started out like two of us, and then there were six of us, and then there were 11 of us."
I thought then and I think now that it was the perfect platform for that game at that time. We wanted to get Mickey to gaming for everyone.
"And you try to build a studio from nothing and I would sit across the table from someone and I'd be interviewing them, and they'd say, ‘You know, this all sounds really good, but I need more stability.' And then I would say, 'Then get out of the game business.' Because this is not a business that has never been anything but chaos. And it's just a different kind of chaos now."
"If you're making the kind of games we're making at Junction Point," Spector said, "in your entire career you are going to make a certain number of games. They all have a chance of being great. Your life is going to be defined by X number of things. It's not like you're working on an assembly line and you're going to make 50,000 car doors.
My dad was a dentist. He filled 20 teeth a day. His life was defined by different things. If you're a novelist, or a filmmaker, or a game developer now, your life is going to be defined by a very small number of things. And if you're not doing things that are meaningful to you, all you're doing is making a living. I have no interest in that."
What he is interested in doing is thinking about the future. "Tablet gaming is the most interesting thing to me right now," he divulges. "And multiples of those talking to each other and talking to consoles and talking to phones and stuff, there's some really interesting things we can do. That's kind of the direction Disney wants to go in anyway, which is kind of cool. I was reading this morning, there's 70 million PS3s in the world. There are 100 million Wiis, I guess. And there are what? A billion iPhone/smartphone devices or something like that? That just spells opportunity for the rest of us. If we have the will, and we have the courage, and we don't say, ‘Oh, no, it doesn't have sticks and buttons.'"
Tablets and the allure of the touchscreen clearly have influenced Nintendo's design of the Wii U and that makes the new console particularly intriguing for Spector. "You immediately start thinking about all the new kinds of games we could make that we couldn't make before. I mean, any kind of double-blind game—where one person is supposed to have information that other can't see—you can now do that far more readily than before."
"There are a lot of people who are going to take the easy way out and they're going to move their UI down to the second screen, which I think is a complete mistake," Spector offers. "‘Let's unclutter the big screen.' [sarcastically] You actually need that information on the screen, because it's where the action is happening. But, at some point people are going to start figuring out that you can actually do completely different kinds of things. Nintendo is doing it in a very proprietary way and the way that Nintendo always does. But they're first with a new idea, again, as always."