‘Console Games Were Not The Future’: Disney After Epic Mickey

‘Console Games Were Not The Future’: Disney After Epic Mickey
Illustration: Getty ( Franck Fife/Staff) / Grand Central Publishing / Kotaku

The following is excerpted from Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry, a new book from Blood, Sweat, and Pixels author and former Kotaku press sneak fuck Jason Schreier about studio shutdowns and what happens next.

On the morning of July 13, 2007, Disney executive Graham Hopper and legendary designer Warren Spector stood together at a loading dock behind the Fairmont Hotel in Santa Monica, California. Hopper held the acquisition contract, waiting for Spector to sign it. In front of the hotel, journalists were already filing in for a Disney news briefing. “They’re letting the press into the room where the announcement is going to be made, while I’m outside with Graham and a contract I had not yet signed,” Spector said. “I had one phone with my lawyer on one ear, and Seamus on another phone on my other ear.” Minutes before the deal was set to be announced, Spector still wasn’t sure if he was ready to give up his independence. Was this really a good idea?

Blackley told Spector that there was only one real question he needed to answer: Did he like these guys? Did he want to work with them? In other words, did he trust Hopper and the rest of Disney Interactive Studios to help him try to make a great game? If the answer was yes, Blackley said, the rest would work itself out. Spector thought about it, then decided, once again, to jump off the cliff. “And so I signed the contract,” said Spector, “walked into the room, and got introduced.”

The journalists in attendance, who had no idea how close to the wire the deal had come, were impressed by Disney’s moxie, although they thought it was a strange fit. They asked many of the same questions that Spector had asked two years earlier. Why would the director of the violent, gritty Deus Ex work for a company best known for cartoons and kids’ games? He’d later tell the press that he’d always loved cartoons — that he’d written his master’s thesis on them — and that this was a dream opportunity for him. Hopper didn’t tell the world what Spector was actually working on, just that he was making a game for Disney, leaving pundits to wonder and speculate. “Then I got to go back to the office that was working on an epic fantasy role-playing game,” said Spector, “and say, ‘Guys, we’re making a Mickey Mouse game.’”

Not everyone back at Spector’s Austin-based game studio, Junction Point, was elated about being purchased by Disney, and a few of the original developers quit, telling Spector they didn’t want to work on a cartoon game. For everyone else, however, this meant stability. They no longer had to go out and pitch new projects to publishers and investors — they could just make a video game. Warren Spector no longer had to be a salesman; he could be a director. “We were thrilled,” said his wife, Caroline Spector. “It was a very big deal. It meant Junction Point could continue. They could stop worrying about money.”

As the studio expanded, from a dozen people to multiple dozens and eventually to over one hundred, the game titled Epic Mickey began to take shape. It would be a Wii exclusive, designed for the wand-like Wiimote and its waggling motion controls. It’d be a platforming game, like Super Mario Bros., and you’d have to leap across precarious cliffs and ledges as you explored the villain Oswald’s malformed catalogue of Disney history. Mickey’s main tool was a magical paintbrush that could be used either to paint or to thin out large swaths of the world, giving players the choice of how to deal with obstacles and enemies — you could help bring them back to life with paint or obliterate them with your thinner. Your choices would have consequences that resonated throughout the game, influencing the story and dialogue. Epic Mickey wouldn’t give you quite as many options as Spector’s previous immersive sims had, but it was still driven by his philosophy to create games in which the player’s choices actually made a difference.

For the next three years, Spector led development on Epic Mickey, expanding his team and battling with Disney executives over time and resources. Spector had never worked well with financial constraints — this was the man who, by his own admission, had never been on time or on budget in his life — and for a tightly wound company like Disney, that could lead to a lot of tension. “There were times when executives would call me into the office and try to say, ‘This is the way you should make this game,’” said Spector, “and I would just say, ‘No.’” They fought over scaling back the budget, tightening the schedule, and even over the way Mickey should look and move. After all, Mickey was the crown jewel — the most important character in Disney’s vault. “I don’t know why I wasn’t fired six times at Disney, but I wasn’t,” said Spector. “And they let me make the game I wanted to make.”

Epic Mickey came out for the Wii on November 30, 2010. It had some issues — notably, the jerky camera movements, which made it tough to see what was going on — but it was a charming adventure that players seemed to enjoy. The game sold well, moving 1.3 million copies in its first month, and by Graham Hopper’s recollection it came very close to breaking even. This was a success for a game that launched on just one console, and with the fundamentals and technology they’d developed already, Spector’s team was in a good position to make a sequel.

Yet, at the same time, there were radical shifts happening in Disney’s video game division. Everyone was still feeling the fallout from the 2008 US recession, and video games were exploding on phones and Facebook, with analysts prognosticating that the traditional video game console would soon be dead. In the summer of 2010, Disney had put together a $US763 ($987) million deal for Playdom, a company that made social games, and as part of a restructuring that fall, Playdom boss John Pleasants was installed above Graham Hopper in Disney’s video game division. “I think there were people in the corporate group at Disney who had come to the conclusion that it was really important for Disney not to be left behind by, shall we say, the online revolution,” said Hopper. “And console games were a dying industry. That’s a conclusion they reached by themselves, and it’s not one I supported or agreed with.”

By the fall of 2010, even as Junction Point’s developers crunched long hours to finish Epic Mickey, Disney’s executives were putting out signals that they no longer cared about console video games. Disney Interactive Studios had been losing a great deal of money, and the company wanted to take a different approach to game development. “After that Playdom acquisition was done, it was very clear that the interest in console games was not there anymore,” said Hopper. “I even heard words said like, ‘It’s dead.’ That was not something I could agree with and stay.”

A few weeks before the release of Epic Mickey, Hopper — who had shepherded Disney Interactive Studios and been a champion for video games at the company — resigned. Hopper was the one who had brought Spector and Junction Point to Disney. And Hopper was the one who had pushed for Disney to make games on consoles like the Wii, games like Epic Mickey that would appeal to both hard-core and casual video game fans. Now he was gone.

Spector and Hopper had plenty of disagreements, but it was clear that Hopper loved and cared deeply about video games, which Spector always respected. Pleasants, on the other hand, was a business guy, with a background running numbers and branding at companies like Pepsi and Ticketmaster. He looked at the spreadsheets for Disney Interactive Studios and saw a company bleeding many millions of dollars in an industry that appeared to be moving toward mobile games, social games, and live services — games that could be updated and monetized for months and months after release rather than generating revenue only when they launched.

From Pleasants’s perspective, making huge investments in console games didn’t make much sense. Even if Epic Mickey was a big success, Junction Point would have to spend the next three years working on something new, burning cash until the sequel came out. Why not invest in games that could make money every year?

Pleasants was blunt when he first met Spector, telling the Epic Mickey director that Disney’s strategy was changing. “He came right out and told me he didn’t think people who were making console games were going to have jobs much longer,” Spector said. “Not that he was going to fire us, but console games and PC games were not the future. He told me that the day I met him.”

It raised an obvious but troubling question. If Junction Point made console games, but console games weren’t the future, then what did that mean for Junction Point?


Excerpted from the book Press Reset: Ruin and Recovery in the Video Game Industry by Jason Schreier. Copyright © 2021 by Jason Schreier. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.

Comments

  • “Pixels author and former Kotaku press sneak fuck Jason Schreier about studio shutdowns and what happens next.”

    What does this mean?

    • After doing some googling around because I was also confused, I think it’s because Jason Schreier refers to himself as a “Press Sneak Fuck”. It seems to be a reference to the time a lead at Arkane privately referred to journalists by that term.

        • I was honestly wondering if he’d been accused of sexual assault, because that sentence is unwieldy to say the least. Did take some rereads.

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