Mickey put back to work for a new generation

Veteran game developer Warren Spector compares it to making a film with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It’s a head start most movie-makers would kill for.

TORONTO — Veteran game developer Warren Spector compares it to making a film with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It’s a head start most movie-makers would kill for.

So when Disney offered him the chance to have Mickey Mouse star in a video game, Spector couldn’t resist.

The result, Disney Epic Mickey is due out Nov. 30 for the Nintendo Wii.

For Spector, a former film historian and self-proclaimed “cartoon freak,” it was a rare chance to showcase Mickey in a video game. While the character has appeared in secondary gaming roles in the past, Disney opted to sit him out from starring roles until now.

It was also an opportunity to work with a rich character that touches young and old.

“He’s smart, he’s funny, he’s loyal, he never gives up,” said the 55-year-old Spector. “Which are all positive attributes that I hope players feel as they play him. But also he’s overly enthusiastic and just doesn’t always think before he leaps, so he gets himself in trouble. And that seems like a great starting point for a video game.

“That, I think, is what has made him so appealing. He’s just this embodiment of sort of childish exuberance, I guess, that even adults can relate to.”

Spector, whose Junction Point game studio is based in Austin, Texas, first went to Disney to pitch one of his own projects. In turn, they offered him Mickey.

When the two finally agreed on the project, Disney brought Junction Point into the fold, buying the studio.

Disney had a basic idea for the game, allowing Spector and his team licence to run with it. It also opened its vast library of characters to him.

One of the characters that plays a major role in the game is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, created by Walt Disney in 1927. Oswald starred in more than two dozen silent cartoons in the ’20s but Disney lost the rights to him after his request for more money to cover production costs was turned down.

Most of Disney’s staff left as a result. Among those who stayed was animator and friend Ub Iwerks, and together they created Mickey Mouse.

In Disney Epic Mickey, a sorcerer creates a beautiful world where Disney’s forgotten and retired creations thrive. Oswald becomes its first inhabitant after Mickey is created.

As years go by, Oswald grows resentful of Mickey’s popularity. And Mickey, when he stumbles upon news of the world, inadvertently makes a mistake that has devastating repercussions.

Eventually Mickey is drawn into the cartoon wasteland to see firsthand what he has done.

In the game, he is given the chance to rebuild or further reduce his environment by use of paint and thinner, thus drawing the Wii remote into play.

Each action has consequences, although developers say it is not as simple as good versus evil.

“When you watch kids play, they just pick up on it, they just start playing, experimenting, having fun,” said Spector. “And adults start out sitting there, (saying) ’Hmm what’s the right thing to do, I don’t want to make mistake. What does the designer want me to do.’

“It takes adults a lot longer to get into that child-like state when they’re just having fun. But once they do, it’s kind of magic. I think that’s what Mickey allows us to do.”

The choice to go with one console was Disney’s, said Spector.

Late in 2007, Disney executive Graham Hopper called him into his office.

“This conversation is burned in my brain, I’m not kidding, it’s amazing, I can’t imagine another publisher doing this,” said Spector.

“He said ’What does it take to ensure game of the year quality?’ And I said ’Well you can’t ensure game of the year quality, right, but to have a chance at it you need enough time and enough money to be competitive.’

Spector, who used to teach animation history at the University of Texas and wrote his master’s thesis on cartoons, thought it was a perfect match.

“Disney just walked away from all those platforms and sadly all those other gamers. But at the end of the day that is how you go after game of the year quality,” he said.