Cerebral Gamer: Money and the Mouse

Epic Mickey has the pedigree to be both a critical success and a commercial blockbuster.

By Joshua A. Johnston. Posted 09/18/2010 12:30 Comment on this     ShareThis

Cerebral Gamer

I always thought Kingdom Hearts would have been a good game for GameCube.  Although the game’s difficulty was aimed for other gamers, the game still had broad appeal among kids, thanks to a lineup of Disney favorites, including the over-marketed Disney princesses.  This would seem to have been a good fit for Nintendo’s “purple lunchbox,” which had an unshakable reputation for kids’ fare.  As it was, Kingdom Hearts was a PlayStation 2 game and sold in buckets for its trouble.

Wii owners seem no nearer to getting a Kingdom Hearts game — in fact, there are no clear signs of any console Kingdom Hearts at the moment — but Warren Spector’s Epic Mickey is sure shaping up to be a nice consolation prize.  The previews we’ve seen to date show beautiful graphics, innovative gameplay, and a depth of plotline not often seen in the Wii library.  On top of all that, the game assembles a ragtag band of second- and third-string Disney characters who now get their fifteen minutes of headliner fame.

Certainly sounds interesting enough.  As always, though, only two questions really count.  One, will it actually be good?  Two, will it sell well enough to keep occasional hardcore titles in orbit around the system?

The Mouse

Warren Spector is the hardcore gamer’s developer.  His credits include installments in the Wing Commander franchise, several rounds of Ultima, System Shock (the spiritual predecessor to BioShock) and the philosophical sci-punk masterpiece, Deus Ex. His games are no strangers to Game of the Year accolades, with reputations that endure long after their graphics engines are obsolete.  Bringing Spector on board is the gaming equivalent of hiring Steven Spielburg or Martin Scorcese to direct a film.

This in itself is a coup for Wii owners.  Wii rarely attracts triple-A third-party talent to its library, in large part because games that are epic in scope are not seen as profitable on Wii.  (I can count on one hand how many good stories have hit Nintendo’s console, and most that did sold poorly.)  Spector himself would not seem to be a fit for Wii, either, although, as we’ll shortly see, the subject matter changes the situation a bit on the profitability front.

Epic Mickey Screenshot

So what makes Spector such a big deal?  Beyond his accolades, his games contain several key elements that make them so well-received.  Most of his titles shine in both storytelling and pathos; players are not only drawn intellectually to his games’ morally complex plotlines, but also drawn to their emotions and their captivating characters.  His games are also path-breaking in their use of genre — System Shock was a tense survival horror shooter with role playing elements, while Deus Ex was an amalgam of first person shooting, stealth action, survival, and role play.

Consider what this creative genius means for Epic Mickey.  We already know that the game features branching storylines based on moral choices, endearing castoff Disney characters (plus the titular mouse), a unique IR-governed ink shooting system, plus action and role playing elements.  This is all vintage Spector, and if it comes together like most of his other titles have, it means that the game could be truly, truly awesome.

And let’s be honest… even if Epic Mickey doesn’t live up to vintage Spector standards, it will still probably be one of the better games on Wii.  The game’s premise alone is pretty compelling, and the characters are all but certain to be worth watching just for their connections to the many beloved Disney franchises.

The Money

Games that have kid appeal seem to sell well on Nintendo hardware.  There’s simply no denying that.  Mario sells in droves for a lot of reasons, but the fact that he’s a cute plumber that appeals to kids and adults alike is a major factor.  (Note that, by contrast, hardcore exemplars Link and Samus do not even come close to Mario’s sales figures.)  Mickey Mouse is one of those characters who has instant street cred with kids, and thus kids will blithely buy the game with no conception of its depth, just as kids bought into Sora and his difficult Keyblade quest years ago.

Epic Mickey Artwork

Mickey’s appeal won’t end with the kids.  The game has gotten some serious press among Wii’s hardcore minority, and you know those folks will also be lining up, especially if they have any experience with Spector’s other works.  It’s even conceivable that adults will scoop up the game for its Disney nostalgia, especially if the House that Walt Built markets the game effectively.  Disney, it should be added, is masterful at selling its movies across multiple demographics, so expecting them to do the same with this title seems like anything but a stretch.

Other Wii titles with multigenerational appeal have been sold well.  You’ve got, for example, the whole cadre of Mario titles: Super Mario Galaxy, New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Mario Kart Wii, and the larger ensemble cast of Super Smash Bros. Brawl.  You’ve got the Guitar Hero games, which have sold better on Wii than any other console.  You’ve got the LEGO games, which have also sold best on Wii.  Epic Mickey seems to fit the same gaming profile of these games and there is reason to believe that it stands to profit generously from it.  Disney, for its part, seems to agree.  In fact, the company is confident enough of the game’s prospects to offer a more expensive collector’s edition, something almost never seen in a Wii title.

Conclusions

When this game first surfaced, I admit I had plenty of reservations.  (Mostly I was just annoyed that it wasn’t a Kingdom Hearts title.)  But once it became clear that Spector was involved, and once the game’s mechanics came into focus, I quickly realized that this had the potential to be — and this is no overstatement — the definitive third party Wii title.  Moreover, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this game also ought to sell in buckets, largely because of Mickey himself, but also because it was a serious Mickey game that wasn’t even remotely a cash-in.

Epic Mickey Screenshot

The stars have rarely been aligned on Wii for a truly good third party blockbuster, much less one that doesn’t involve a guitar or minigames.  The stars are aligned here.  At the same time, I think there is also some Wii credibility at stake.  If this game fails commercially — especially if it fails in spite of critical praise — it could really drive fear into developers.

If, on the other hand, it succeeds… maybe I can hope to one day swing a Keyblade with my Wii Remote.  No, more than that… if it really succeeds, maybe I won’t even miss swinging a Keyblade with my Wii Remote.  We can certainly hope for that.

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