Epic Mickey in a Teacup
I finished Epic Mickey last night. I didn't completely beat it, but I finally reached the (enjoyable!) ending. Today I see there were layoffs at Junction Point, so I will try to keep this clinical as possible.
Epic Mickey garnered a fairly blah rating at Metacritic. These scores are not exactly indicative of quality but can be a good indication of the game's reception and executive perception.
I know several people who bought this game. I am the only one who beat it. The rest gave up in frustration. I often get game recommendations, but not a single person has recommended Epic Mickey to me.
I love the premise of the game, I like the story, I like the art, I really enjoy the mining of classic Disney cartoons for the level designs. But it was a relief when I finished the Paint path (roughly Good/Order), and I am not going to bother playing the Thinner path (roughly Evil/Chaos), because it's just not worth it.
Most design changes are not easy, but there's one trivial change that would have made this game far better, let many more people see the worthwhile ending credits, and boosted the metascore 10-20 points.
Anatomy of a Trainwreck
First and foremost is the horrid camera. I know Warren Spector has tried to defend it, but this is a PSX era camera in a PS3 world. It doesn't even measure up to the standards of Ratchet and Clank, which is what I think of immediately when I think 'mostly okay camera that needs a little user help.' The cramped layouts do not help this.
The game actively encourages exploration for full enjoyment. There is tons of extra hidden content to be found. It even tells you so.
The game actively discourages exploration. You can wander around Tomorrowland for 30 minutes disposing of enemies, finding hidden things, climbing, exploring... and die instantly, losing the entirety of your 30 minutes.
Instadeaths are frequent even when you are not exploring, especially in the last third of the game. One ink tentacle you didn't see coming, one Splatter you couldn't track because of the camera and back to the bottom of the tower.
The Worst Possible Combination
As you might imagine, the combination of bad camera, instadeath, and lack of saved progress is a very bad one. Instadeath only works when the player can say 'Yeah, that was my fault, you got me, I'd better go back and do it right.' Most of my deaths were the game's fault, and I say that as a Super Meat Boy victim.
I got very tired of all the secrets I'd found being lost in one cheap shot, but at least that was a choice. Non-optional dungeon areas would send you back to the beginning as well.
This caused me to adopt a very timid and risk-averse play style. You could not get LESS Epic.
How This Could Have Been Fixed, Easily
I'm not going to say fixing the camera would have been easy. I think it would have been worth doing, but we know that's not trivial.
So here we go, please mail me one million dollars consulting fee, Disney Interactive: "Minimal penalty death." If Mickey dies, just restart him where he died. Or back a little bit with everything he already earned.
The game has plenty of content. It did not need to be padded. Finding the hidden treasures would have been just as fun. Victories wouldn't really be less meaningful because that implies a certain level of skill based agency that's just not present in this game.
The best part of this is that the bad camera and mediocre combat are immediately and easily forgiven. So you fell off a ledge because the edge was in shadow and the camera was pointing the wrong way? Well, Mickey screams, you feel a little silly, no harm done. Let's keep exploring!
Nor would this result in a shorter game - I contend that in practive it would result in a substantially longer game because players would not give up, would be enticed to find all secrets, and play through again on the alternate Paint/Thinner path. Everyone wins.
So How Did This Happen?
I'm sure you know that I haven't made a brilliant insight here. It was glaringly obvious to me and it probably was to you if you've played the game. Why would you not do this? That seems like the most interesting question to be raised here.
My first guess is that no one in charge has actually played a platformer since the first Kingdom Hearts. It's also a Disney themed platform game, had all the same problems, and sold a lot. So surely game design hasn't evolved in only 8 years.
My second guess is that the combat and exploration mechanics were overvalued. 'We put so much time into them that if the player dies it must be his fault.' Once you get into that mindset it's easy to see where the rest follows.
My third guess is more charitable - it's not Epic if death has minimal penalty. But again, that only works if the basic mechanics support it: otherwise they force a decidedly non-Epic experience.
Will we ever know? Did they not playtest this? Did they and then ignore it? I would be very curious.
It's also something to keep in mind when you're getting too close to your next game design.