An Interview with Warren Spector - Article

By Sam Rowett, December 16, 2013
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If you’ve been anywhere near a PC in the last twenty years, chances are you’ll know of Warren Spector: the creative mind behind the legendary Deus Ex.

But it’s not just Ion Storm’s epic that Spector is known for. With a career that includes working with Origin, Looking Glass and Disney, few people can be said to have had the impact on gaming that he has.

In this interview, I got the chance to speak with him about his time in the industry, where he thinks its future lies and his hopes of one day designing a musical game.

Your time in the industry started with games journalism. How did that come about for you?

I've been a film buff since I was a kid. I never outgrew cartoons and live-action films: I just love movies.

I know everybody watches movies and TV but I became a serious student of film when I was about fifteen and started making my own movies, which no one will ever see because they were horrible. I was not a filmmaker – but I knew I wanted to write. I never particularly wanted to direct: I wanted to be a screenwriter and to be a film critic… but I knew I needed to hone my writing skills, so I was a Journalism major in college for the first two years I was there and shifted majors when I was a junior to radio, TV and film because I felt like I had learned what I had wanted to learn out of journalism.

So, anyway, years go by and I got into gaming. I started in tabletop gaming as an assistant editor at Steve Jackson Games where, among other things, I was the editor of Space Gamer and Fantasy Gamer Magazine – but I'd been writing film reviews for newspapers constantly and more serious critical pieces that I'd present at conferences and stuff since I was eighteen.

How did you make the jump from just writing about games to making them come about for you?

At Steve Jackson Games, the magazines were a small part of the business. The company published real games. We did Ogre and a game called GEV, we did Illuminati, we did a game called Gurps. My job was as a game developer and designer. And I went right from there to TSR, where I worked on the second edition ADnD set and a game called Top Secret and the Rocky and Bullwinkle game.

I was a full-time student and critic from the time I was 17 until the time I was about 28. I got into making games when I was 28 and writing about them at the same time.

You worked with Origin studios for a time, whose Ultima series really tried to push the idea that games could be used to tell great stories. Was that where your love of games as an art form sprung from?

Well, the love came earlier. I was a pretty nerdy gamer from the start. I got my first Atari 2600 and played Adventure, I got an Atari 400 - which I hot-rodded; I messed with that and modified it within an inch of its life - and played Star Raiders, which changed my world.

I was an electronic gamer even when I was working in tabletop games. But the big moment for me was Ultima IV. When I was at TSR I had to test DnD games for work and I was playing Ultima IV for fun at the same time and it was like, “Wait. This Ultima game is cooler than these DnD games… Richard’s doing something really interesting.” And I’d known Rich for several years because he did licensed versions of Steve Jackson Games titles. Ultima IV just blew my mind.

And then Richard and I happened to be on a panel together when he was working on Ultima V and I was working on DnD, a Buck Rogers board game, and some other stuff, and I remember thinking as we were on this panel, as Richard was taking, "Holy cow – this guy is really sharp and really cool and I would love to work with him some day" and what I found out later was that he was thinking the same thing about me. So, about a year later, I got a job at Origin working with Richard as he was working on Ultima VI. The rest, as they say, is history.

Shortly after that you founded Ion Storm Austin. How did that come about in terms of emerging from Origin?

Origin was acquired by Electronic Arts and they… the way I like to think of it is that EA gave Origin enough rope to hang itself and we did a very good job of that. We spent a lot of money and grew way too fast and tried to do too much. The pressures of working were just immense.

It was almost like there was a class system at Origin at that time; there was Richard Garriot and Chris Roberts, Andy Hollis… there were a couple of us but Richard, Chris and Andy were the ones who were making the big Triple-A, big-budget games and I was the "B-movie guy." I loved it, don't make any mistake – I was making these sort of low-budget, “Make money all the time, you gotta make money” titles. It was awesome but I really thought the games I was making were as good as, or better than, the ones those other guys were making and I wasn't getting a lot of attention.

So, I was contacted by the guys at Looking Glass, who I'd been in contact with for years, and they said, “Start an Austin studio for us.” And so I said, “Sure.” And for a year that’s what I did: I started a Looking Glass office and then, to make a long story short, Looking Glass ran out of money and I just went to them and said, "Look you don't have the money for an Austin office… just shut us down, I’ll find another deal, don't worry about it, we'll stay friends, I still love you guys." And that's what happened: they shut down the Looking Glass Austin office and I went looking for another deal.

And, I swear on a stack of Bibles, this is a true story, I was going to do a start-up and I got a deal with Westwood (which was part of Electronic Arts, ironically). Basically, EA was about to sign me to do the Command and Conquer role-playing games. The contract was on my desk, the pen was in my hand and my phone rang and it was John Romero saying, "I want you to join Ion Storm" and I said, "John it's too late. I’ve got a contract, I'm doing a start-up, I'm about to sign" and he said, “Give me one day and I'll change your mind." And he drove down the next day in his hummer, his enormous Humvee, and said, "Make the game of your dreams, no creative constraints, the biggest budget you've ever had, guarantee you the biggest marketing budget you'll ever get (at the time obviously)." And… he convinced me.

And that game was Deus Ex?

It was Deus Ex. I had actually come up with the core idea in 1995. I did a proposal for a game called Troubleshooter, which was the genesis of what ultimately became a very different game - but the heart of Troubleshooter is beating inside Deus Ex. And John was true to his word. That is the one time in my life, in my career, that I got no creative input, no one ever said "You gotta ship by this date”, it was just me and my team making the game we wanted to make.

Immodestly, I don't know why other publishers don't look at that and say, "Maybe we should trust this guy" and, more broadly, "Maybe we should trust our creatives." Because the “received wisdom” of the game business is that 80% of games lose money. I do not know if that is true but it feels true and, if I had an 80% failure rate, I should be fired.

We focus-test games within an inch of their lives. We have publishers, producers, butting in all the time. We have 100 marketing people telling you, "Make that pixel blue not green - it'll sell better" and, despite all of that publisher input, 80% failure rate. Maybe we should just try trusting creative people because we couldn't do any worse. And the proof I have of that – it's a very small sample I admit – was the one time I was left alone. My team got to make Deus Ex. Not that it’s a perfect game but it’s a game that, 13 years later, we're still talking about it. It’s still relevant. I’m inordinately proud of that game and of that team and John gave me the chance to do that. So, all the craziness of Ion Storm? That wasn't just legend: it was fact.

Speaking of games being relevant, I’ve heard some people say that, despite those titles that linger in the memory, games are “transient”. Do you think there’s any truth to that? And, if so, how can games stay relevant?

There is a level at which games are transient. it's a good word to describe it.

Going back to film for a second, the position of the sprocket holes on a piece of film didn't hang for 103 years. The way sound is recorded didn't change for 80 years. The way films were edited was unchanged from the birth of film until the digital age. Looking at games, by contrast, you see the technology changing completely every 3-5 years.

I remember I wanted to play System Shock because I hadn't played it in a long time and I wanted to play it as a fan not just as someone who worked on it – and I couldn't get it to run. So, I talked to the lead programmer and he said, “It's just more trouble than it’s worth to get it running.” So, I couldn't play a game that I had helped make. And there's that level of transience. I think that's why it’s so important that we have game preservation at the top of our list of things to think about. And I've coerced the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History to start a videogame archive, where we're trying to preserve games and the documentation and the process behind games.

But there's another level to which games are transient - which is more dangerous, to be frank - and that is that a lot of people are making games whose only experience of life is a world in which they've played games all the time. There’s a whole generation of developers - and I see them all the time when they apply for jobs in the studio - who don't read, and they won't go and see a movie that's not in colour for crying out loud. They go from high school into a four year-game development program in college into a professional life as a game developer. They don't have life experience to draw on so they're making things that don't have any depth or richness, and that worries me a lot.

I want people to apply who know how a medieval castle works, or an understanding of behavioural psychology or economics who can express themselves in writing and in speech. I want Liberal Arts Majors who happen to the best the programmers in the world or the best artists in the world, because they will make a different kind of game to someone who's only experience of life is game playing. So, I think there's that level of transience - we're making things that just aren't worth preserving a lot of the time.

And the indie guys are completely changing things. If there’s anything happening that’s interesting in the world of games right now, it’s basically not happening in the world of Triple-A games. They’re [Indies] making games about things again - on the PC, for crying out loud. I gave up on the PC and now? It’s back. It’s wonderful.

About the indie scene, I’ve seen people like Tim Schafer and Sir Charles Cecil working on Kickstarter projects. Do you think, when you return to games, you would go down that sort of route? 

Would I go down the indie route? Absolutely. When I get back to making games, I’d want a smaller, more intimate team where I know everybody’s name and can get closer to the metal. If you hear that I’ve gone to work for a big publisher, or studio, working on a Triple-A game, just be happy for me because it means that somebody paid me way more than I’m worth.

I’m not sure about doing Kickstarter. I have mixed feelings about Kickstarter. It’s tough enough making a game when you have 1 funding partner. Having to please 10,000 people or 1,000 people sounds almost hellish to me. Think of how many people you could let down if they’re the ones funding your project. I would rather let down a major publisher, one intelligent investor, to whom you can say, “Look, you may lose every penny you’re investing here. If you’re still willing to take that chance great. If you’re not, let’s walk away from the table here and stay friends.” I’d rather do that than go out and have to feed the beast. I mean, having to go online and do an update every week… that distracts from making the game. And I would want someone to, say, give me half a million dollars and just let me go, you know? 

You gave a talk at the Bradford Animation Festival where you expressed an interest in making a “musical game”. Does that mean that's what you’ll be doing next? And how would it work? 

That’s an interesting question…

Let me be clear: I’m not going to tell you what, but the next game I do will probably focus more on procedural narrative than on music, because that’s an easier target at the scale I want to work on. But, at some point, I hope I get the opportunity to make a musical game.

I think, right now, there are games that have dynamic scores – every game I’ve worked on since 1996 has had a dynamic musical score – none more so than Disney (nobody noticed by the way). But there’s that at one end - dynamic scores - and then on the other there’s performance games where you’re beat matching… but I think there’s another way. Not the middle of that continuum but off that continuum entirely that I would like to explore.

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