As often as not Warren Spector's bio starts with game designer extroadinaire, but you see, that doesn't begin to tell you who he is.
To know Warren you should have been with him and me the night we watched the fireworks together bursting over the Magic Kingdom in Florida. I should say we watched the first five minutes of the fireworks together, because shortly thereafter a hurricane season downpour sent us all running for cover. All but Warren. He stood their like Mickey in the middle of the Sorcerer's Apprentice scene from Fantasia, the storm howling around him, buckets of water falling on him from above. Smiling, laughing, he stayed out in the pouring rain until the last fireworks explosion of the night.
That's how Warren Spector came into a press dinner celebrating the latest in his Epic Disney franchise: soaking wet, drenched to the bone, and laughing like a six year old who just got sprinkled with fairy dust while stomping through puddles pretending he was fighting Captain Hook.
This is when I understood that Warren's commitment to Disney is about more than a game; it is a passion.
It goes beyond his magical collection of arcane Disney memorabilia. He is the real deal, a true believer. This is a man who goes up to a fellow who has been leading tours for VIPs around Disney World for over a decade and gives him trivia about the differences between the Paris, Tokyo, and Florida versions of the Haunted House ride.
As guru of Disney's premier gaming franchise, Epic Mickey, he is living a dream. He has been given the keys to the kingdom. Warren insists that every piece of the games, every object, every brick, every stool, is cross referenced to a specific asset in the Disney vaults. It's not enough that something look Disney, it has to be Disney, be drawn from art pulled from the vaults.
So Disney Epic Mickey, the series, is more than a game, more than an homage. It is the continuation of a legacy by an artist who is also a historian, a fan, and a man who paints with the joy, mythology and imagination of all things Disney.
This year Disney will release Warren's sequel, Epic Disney 2: The Power of Two and also a separate game for the Nintendo 3DS, Epic Mickey Power of Illusion.
Both games use a similar conceit: You alter the world by using paint or thinner, putting the gamer in the position of real-time animator. On this wet September night, and earlier in the day, Warren introduced us to the latest developments in the 3DS game.
* * *
You've read about the kids that found the Golden Ticket, the NFL quarterback that was going to Disneyland, but did you ever hear about the guy who was invited to explore DisneyWorld with one of the true legends of of video gaming? No? Read on!
I received my version of the Golden Ticket last month: an invitation to fly and stay at Disney's expense, at Disney World to learn about the new 3DS Epic Mickey Power of Illusion.
Our day started with a behind the scenes look at Epcot that few who don't work at the park have ever seen. Our bus trip took us literally behind all the buildings and rides. We could see hundreds of parked food carts that probably won't be needed until school lets out next. We saw a cast member in full costume struggling to get what must have been a hundred huge helium balloons through a portal from backstage to the part of the park frequented by guests, and succeed without popping a single one. Like a Hollywood set, even though you know it is nothing but painted flats on the other side, it is still a bit odd to see Disney from reverse. I guess that is why they were so strict about no photography; they don't want to be the one to let it slip that Santa doesn't exist. Still, I do wish I could have shown you, the brave or cynical among you, how incredible it is "backstage". If anything it made me appreciate the power of imagination and illusion that is achieved in the parks, and yes, in the best software titles, too.
We were whisked through a cleverly disguised door from the hidden parking lot into Epcot and from there into a secret door at the base of the giant golf-ball like structure that is the centerpiece of the park: the Spaceship Earth. Only this time, we weren't going to take a ride. Instead, as images of Men In Black raced in my imagination, we were taken up a staircase into the futuristic (and quite off limits to civilians) facilities of Siemens. This place looked like the secret base you always knew had to exist! Interactive displays changed the lighting with touch-free interactive panels. Then, through the lobby into a large room with a panoramic window looking out onto the park. It was here that we were introduced to the designers.
Warren spoke first about how the game came to be. (You can see a complete video of the presentation here. He was taken with the 3DS and its ability to do 3D without glasses, calling it a game changer. But, he was pretty busy with the sequel to Epic Mickey getting it ready for just about every platform except the 3DS, and neither he nor his team had a lot of expertise on the new mobile platform.
Fortuitously, Warren recognized that Peter Ong of DreamRift, had the technology to translate the Epic Mickey experience to the unique 3D, two screen experience of the 3DS. The basic idea of Epic Mickey would migrate platforms; paint and thinner would still change the world, but the new game would be different. This would be a new kind of platformer. The action would happen on the top screen, but the way you 'paint' on the bottom screen with the stylus affects your ability on the top. Also, continuing the self-conscious, self-referential ideas of Epic Mickey, the 3DS game would feature forgotten and rejected bits and pieces of video game history.
Finally, Warren shared that he always wanted to do a fortress building game, and had incorporated the concept into many, only to have it usually be the first thing cut. This time, in Epic Mickey for the 3DS, customized fortresses would be front and center.
This game would find its inspiration in an early Disney video game, the Castle of Illusion. Mickey's back, so too is Oswald, Jiminy Cricket and Minnie. The witch from the original game is at work here too, now with the power to take on the form of multiple villains from Disney classic movies. Settings within the castle will also metamorphize into movie settings as diverse as Alice's Wonderland to Captain Hook's pirate ship, and the bazaar from Aladdin.
The better you do on your quests, the more rewards you get to customize your fortress area. As you meet and rescue Disney characters in the game they will help you decorate rooms in the castle, resembling their iconic environments in the movies: Goofy's house, Peter Pan's hideout, Simba's Pride Rock, and Scrooge McDuck's office, for example. The art department gave the designers original working files from the movies to translate into the game.
We were given hands on time with the game. The first thing that struck me was how good the 3D looked, truly enhancing the art work by popping out the action from the backgrounds. Although a platformer, it looked much more polished than we've come to expect from the genre, particularly on a portable system. It really rivaled the graphics you'd see in a full console game.
The action combines the mechanics of a traditional platformer with the twist that now you also have to 'draw'. Actually, at least in the areas I got to play, it is less like drawing and more like filling in the outlines. Still, this gives new life and depth to the standard repertoire of platform tricks, the jump, double-jump, and twirl.
Later, as we went on the rides at DisneyWorld with Warren and Peter, they pointed out elements from the park that were incorporated into the games, particularly in the Aladdin and Peter Pan rides. Over and over they pointed to the way details in the parks and movies had been incorporated into the series.
I left impressed. The game looks well on the way to completion, the result of a vision that elevates the Disney brand for the next generation of gamers. Warren Spector's commitment to the idea of Disney clearly goes beyond any particular game. He is interested in continuing the Disney tradition into this new and developing medium. He is truly an Imagineer for the digital age.