On May 10, 2016, Disney made a decision that surprised a lot of game industry observers. The company formally announced that its in-house studio, Disney Interactive, was discontinuing all game development. Its Disney Infinity franchise, which generated over half a billion dollars in its debut year, was kaput. Up until the moment of the announcement, Disney had put a great deal of effort and money into promoting Infinity. Why was it now shutting down, when so many Star Wars and Marvel tie-ins loomed on the horizon? Market analysts theorized that the sales, while solid, showed signs of slowing, and Disney decided to pull the plug before the downturn happened, rather than wait for it to fully take hold.
Disney CEO Bob Iger confirmed this line of thinking on an earnings call earlier this month: “We actually made a good product. I give the developer a lot of credit for the product that they made. It was extremely well-received. But we knew going in that there would be a lot of risk with this product and the fact that we did so well initially gave us the confidence to continue with it. The truth of the matter is that the risks that we saw at the beginning when we started this caught up with us.“
This isn’t the first time that Disney has attempted a solo venture into the gaming industry. It was less than three years ago that Disney abandoned legendary game creator Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey franchise to focus its resources on Disney Infinity. Prior to Disney’s most recent announcement, I got in touch Spector to reminisce about Epic Mickey—its past, present and unlikely future.
When discussing the empire he built, Walt Disney was fond of saying that it was “all started by a mouse.” But this Disney story, strangely enough, was started by a little rabbit named Oswald.
RETURN OF THE PRODIGAL SON
Mickey Mouse is iconic. I’d bet as many people in the world can readily identify Mickey Mouse as can identify Jesus Christ (or the Playboy bunny). In most official Disney literature, and in most people’s imaginations, the story of Disney begins with “Steamboat Willie,” the synchronized sound cartoon from 1928 that made Mickey a household name. But what most people don’t know is that Mickey Mouse was not Walt Disney’s first creation to gain popularity. That title belongs to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who was Walt Disney’s first taste of success.
Walt Disney and Ub Iwerks created Oswald as the protagonist for the original Walt Disney Studio. Universal Studios contracted Disney to create a cartoon series for them, and Disney created 26 Oswald cartoons in total. They were very successful, because Oswald had an immediately identifiable personality—scrappy, mischievous, and romantic—that endeared him to the public.
But when Walt Disney tried to renegotiate his contract to make more Oswald cartoons, he was confronted with a lopsided deal, which included him taking a pay cut. And rather than working under Universal’s thumb, Disney walked, leaving his beloved Oswald behind. It was on the train back home from New York, after having lost Oswald, that Disney conceived of Mickey Mouse. Oswald continued on for a time at Universal, and starred in additional shorts without Disney’s involvement. But eventually, Oswald was shelved and forgotten by the public, while his younger, more popular little brother went on to become a pop culture icon.
“[Oswald’s] story is really what does it for me,” Spector says. “Imagine yourself in Oswald’s place. For about 18 months, Oswald was one of the most popular and successful cartoon characters in the world. And then to be lost in a contract dispute? Yes, there were Oswald cartoons done by Walter Lance afterwards, but it was never the same. There’s this ‘rejection by the father’ story with Oswald, of seeing yourself replaced by another kid. That’s such a powerful, human story. How can you not feel sorry for that kid, and how can you not want to do everything in your power to bring him back and say, ‘Your father did love you.’”
Finally, after almost a century of disconnect, Oswald was brought back to Disney, through a deal that traded ESPN sportscaster Al Michaels to NBC. The trade, struck in 2006, received praise from all corners, not least of all from Walt Disney’s daughter, Diane Disney Miller:
“When Bob [Iger] was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word,” Miller said in a press release at the time. “Having Oswald around again is going to be a lot of fun.”
At around the time this was happening, Spector was out pitching an epic fantasy game concept for his new studio, Junction Point. One of these pitch meetings was with Disney, and Spector remembers giving his presentation to a roomful of Disney executives, all tapping on their phones.
But then, Disney Interactive head Graham Hopper asked Spector is he was interested in working on any licensed games, and suggested Mickey Mouse. It took Spector all of half a second to say yes. Disney was a part of his being—formative to his creative development.
“[My love for Disney] started the day I was born,” says Spector. “My dad bought me a Pluto doll, and so I did a lot of infant cuddling. Early on, one of the first movies I remember seeing was Sleeping Beauty, and that made an indelible impression on me. The dragon gave me nightmares for years, which is a wonderful thing. Kids should be scared every once in awhile.”
“Who doesn’t want to work with the most recognizable icon on planet Earth?” Spector recalls. “It was really funny, because [the Disney executives] said, ‘Well, we have an idea. Do you mind if we pitch it to you?’ It’s like they were embarrassed by it.”
They presented a PowerPoint deck to Spector, of ideas that had been developed by a handful of summer interns. All of the basic essentials for what would eventually become Epic Mickey were there: the revitalization of Mickey Mouse as a video game star. The reintroduction of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The lost kingdom of forgotten Disney things. Spector was completely game.
“In Mickey and the Beanstalk, Mickey’s a hero,” Spector says. “In the early Iwerks cartoons, he’s the crazy mischievous imp. And so I wanted to bring that back.”
The only catch, however, was that if Spector wanted to make the game, Disney wanted to acquire Junction Point. Spector originally balked, and he remembers how shocked one Disney executive was.
“No? We’re Disney!” Spector recalls the executive saying. “No one says no to Disney!”
“Well, I just said no,” Spector replied.
So Disney went elsewhere, but they couldn’t find any replacement to meet their standard of quality. So, approximately a year later, they went back to Spector with a better offer, and a Disney executive flew to Spector to do the deal in person. And this time, Spector signed. Junction Point was now a Disney acquisition, and Spector was a “Cast Member.”
All the pieces were in place for Mickey’s revival and Oswald’s homecoming. All the cartoon brothers needed was a game to do them justice.
IMAGINEERING A CLASSIC GAME
As a company, Disney adopts a “Blue Sky” mentality when approaching a new project. What do they want to create, practicality or financial feasibility be damned? Eventually, of course, constraints come into play, but Disney believes that acknowledging them up front will stifle creative thinking. Spector shares that philosophy.
“I think of myself as a kitchen sink designer,” Spector says. “I throw out everything that I can think of. And the reason for that is I think of game development the way I think of sculpting: it is a subtractive process, not an additive process. You don’t constrain your exploration when you’re in concept phase.”
During the game’s production, several concept drawings leaked to the press, and they stoked people’s impression of what Epic Mickey would be. There was a zombie robot Goofy. There was a Country Bear with a scorpion body. Spector says that these drawings were part of the larger creative process, and were never meant to be representative of the final product.
“I said, ‘We need to find where the limits are,’” Spector recalls. “We need to find out what they’re gonna say ‘no’ to. And the way to find out where a line is, is to cross it decisively, and then start pulling back.”
And what if Disney, by some miracle, were to approve grotesque concepts such as these?
“To be honest, I wouldn’t have done it anyway,” Spector admits. “That would have been disrespectful to the characters.”
Spector remembers the guard rail he was given: “As long as Mickey starts as Mickey and ends as Mickey, you can do what you want in the middle.” Disney didn’t want Spector to show Mickey with teeth—a directive that still puzzles Spector today. But other than those requests, Disney was hands-off, occasionally making suggestions, but rarely making demands. Creatively, Spector was able to make the game he wanted with very little compromise.
Some suggestions, however, took root. Originally, well into production of the game, Spector envisioned Oswald as the villain of the game, who would eventually be redeemed by Mickey. But a fortuitous conversation with Pixar and Disney Animation Studios head John Lasseter changed that. According to Spector, Lasseter reacted negatively to the idea; after all of the effort that Disney had gone through to get Oswald, and all the complex history of losing him in the first place, the first time that fans were going to see him again was as a villain? Spector went back and changed the characterization; Oswald was envious and resentful of Mickey’s success, but he was no longer the principal antagonist.
But most limits were imposed not by the Disney brass, but by Disney fans. Early on, Spector played around with changing Mickey’s proportions and look; one early idea was that if Mickey used the “bad” paint thinner as a weapon more than the “good” paint, his outward appearance would change to match that. But in focus testing, the fans’ response to altering Mickey’s appearance was universal across all demographics.
“‘Don’t mess with my Mickey. Don’t mess with my childhood,’” Spector recalls the fans saying. “We had to respect that. We couldn’t change him too much.”
AN ‘EPIC’ RECEPTION?
In the greatest of Disney traditions, Epic Mickey was intended to be accessible and enjoyable for everyone—fun for the whole family, as it were. And according to Spector, the game was successful in creating that wide appeal, with the exception of one demographic: teenaged and young adult males.
Spector has heard it all before. The majority of criticisms towards Epic Mickey revolved around ‘camera issues’—what a player could see at any given time during gameplay. It’s one of the hardest things for a game developer to program; a camera that is “smart” and dynamic enough to navigate a three-dimensional space. This problem was made even more complicated by Epic Mickey’s main game mechanic: the use of paint and paint thinner to manipulate the environment and create holes and passageways. In our conversation, Spector notes, with some degree of frustration, that many games—most games—suffer from camera issues.
“I will defend our camera team to our last breath,” he says. “I think we took more grief than we deserved…if you want to be Master Chief, you probably don’t want to be Mickey Mouse. [Hard]core gamers didn’t even give us a chance.”
Still, the point was taken. When they were developing Epic Mickey 2, Spector and his team took specific care to address the perspective issues of the original game.
“When people tell you something with that level of clarity, you’d be kind of foolish not to pay attention,” Spector says. “We worked hard to make it better. I’ll leave it to others to determine if we did or not.”
Rather than measuring his success by the reaction of the gaming press, which was positive to mixed, Spector prefers to measure his success by the numerous, heartfelt letters that he has received. He tells me three stories; one of them is about a young boy who was recovering from multiple surgeries, and used Epic Mickey as a component of his physical therapy. There was another fan who created custom plush toys of the characters and sent them to Spector. But Spector starts crying when he tells me about a letter he received from a mother. In the envelope was a colored pencil drawing of Mickey and Oswald, arms around each other, looking up at a starry sky. It was drawn by a 15-year-old autistic girl, who connected to Epic Mickey even though she could not connect to the world. She had asked the mother to send her drawing to Spector.
“Screw Call of Duty players,” Spector says in a halting voice. That’s magical. That makes everything you do as a video game developer worthwhile.”
“Games can be about more than just killing stuff,” Spector says. “It can be more than just a way to pass the time.”
BEYOND THE HOUSE OF MOUSE
Spector points out that Epic Mickey was the most commercially successful single-platform game (it was exclusive to Nintendo’s Wii) that Disney has ever made. He followed that with Epic Mickey 2 in 2012, and Spector even had preliminary plans for a third Epic Mickey. This time, the forgotten Disney characters would leave the Wasteland and interact with the “real world,” a la Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But this never came to pass.
In 2013 Disney shut down Junction Point Studios. It was a decision that many observers attributed to sales of Epic Mickey 2 versus Epic Mickey. Granted, moving over half a million units in the US for its first two months is nothing to sneeze at. But perhaps, when dealing with a machine as massive as Disney, it wasn’t enough to justify keeping the studio’s doors open. Spector, however, disagrees with this line of reasoning; he thinks that the final decision to shut down Junction Point was bigger than that. To Spector, it amounted to Disney wanting to move in a different direction, toward social media and mobile games.
“I could kind of see the writing on the wall, and sure enough, that strategic change happened, and we no longer fit their plans, I guess,” Spector says. “All I can say is that there were angry conversations. I did a lot of venting.”
“I don’t agree with the strategic direction,” Spector says. “My belief is that with Disney’s properties and war chest and the quality of people there, we should have owned video games. I think we could have, and I’m not sure that Disney ever will. And that upsets me.”
In the end, Spector walked away with positive, but bittersweet feelings about his experience with Disney.
“I regret that Junction Point was shut down,” Spector says. “I feel like we did right by Disney. We did right by the characters. We created something really special. So it was devastating when the studio shut down, I won’t lie about that. On some level, I may never get over it. But there isn’t a part of me that regrets being a part of Disney, although I’m sad about the way that it ended.”
Spector is currently with OtherSide Entertainment, and he’s working to build a development team in Austin, Texas. Their first project will be System Shock 3, a successor to the classic System Shock games of the ‘90s. Spector is back with people he’s familiar with. The founder of OtherSide, Paul Neurath, previously worked with Spector on System Shock and Ultima Underworld; the Underworld franchise is also developing a successor, called Underworld Ascendant. This current creative pursuit—of taking something old, breathing life into it, and making it new—seems like an ideal fit for someone like Spector. Still, his first and most important childhood influences will always follow him.
“I loved playing with the Disney characters,” Spector says. “I still want to work on a theme park attraction someday, and there’s this movie idea I’d love to see make it to the big screen. Disney was the perfect place to do all of those things. Plus, I just loved being a part of the company and took real pride in telling people where I worked.”
“I’d go back to Disney in a heartbeat if they asked me to.”
Wing-Man Wong has written about video games and popular culture since 2013, and has been published in multiple online and print publications. Follow him on Twitter to learn more.