Interview: Spector On Fears, Legacies and Returning To PC

By Adam Smith on November 18th, 2013 at 7:00 pm.

There are a lot of words being written about the new consoles this week but when I spoke to Warren Spector a few days ago, he was clear about where his future lies: “I think all the interesting stuff is happening on PC now… Assuming I make more games, which I intend to do, PC and Mac are going to be my targets.”

It’s good to hear. We spoke at the Bradford Animation Festival and covered a wide range of topics, from his theories of design and pioneering role in PC gaming to thoughts on the current state of the industry. In this first part of our conversation, there’s insight into how Spector see his own legacy and the work of his former colleagues, and how frustrations with Thief’s difficulty inspired the player empowerment of Deus Ex.

Spector’s presentation included a trailer put together for the non-existent Epic Mickey movie. It’s a lovely piece of work, with an animation style that captures the Disney characters but paints their edges with a sharpness at odds with the dreamlike backgrounds. The style of the storytelling, conveyed by the animation and the dialogue, isn’t gritty or edgy – it’s a dark take on Disney, sure, but the mood is melancholy. Epic Mickey is, after all, a story about forgotten things.

Of all the things that he has helped to create, Spector seems most proud of something not entirely his own: he is uncharacteristically lost for words when he describes the amazement he feels in seeing Oswald the Lucky Rabbit resurrected.

“If you go to a Disney park or merchandise store and see Oswald there, that’s because of a game.”

That part is characteristic. In the time that I spoke to Spector, he did express pride in his work but reserved the majority of the credit for his colleagues. There’s more to the Oswald statement though – he’s not pleased that his game resurrected Oswald, he’s pleased that any game can have that influence on a forgotten Disney character who is more than eighty years old.

As a lover and student of both cartoons and film, Spector recognises that what people dismiss as silly and inconsequential can have a profound influence, just as the Disney and Harryhausen films that helped to shape him did.

“I discovered movies when I was about two but I became a serious student of film when I was fifteen. I think that informs everything that I do but I don’t think it’s so much that cinematic technique informs my work, it’s that I saw first-hand how a medium could be judged just as entertainment, or as a waste of time, but clearly be an art-form, and so I saw the potential in videogames from the start to be more than a way for kids or adults to waste time, but to be something more. I think that came from my background as a film critic.

“A lot of people keep saying ‘where is our Citizen Kane, where is it?’ A lot of people think Bioshock Infinite is it, some people say Deus Ex is it. People look for the moment that we became an artform. I think we became an artform with Pong. Maybe even Spacewar for crying out loud.

“My first actual conscious memory is my dad taking me to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. There’s a dragon and a Cyclops. That movie gave me nightmares. Ray Harryhausen is one of my heroes and I got to meet him – he was everything you’d want a hero to be, and that was awesome. Sinbad changed my life. And then when I was three I saw King Kong. It gave me nightmares for years. I was about two or three when I saw Sleeping Beauty for the first time, and Maleficent turns into a dragon and the forest that the hero has to carve his way through. You think about Alice in Wonderland, you think about Snow White, when the trees turn into alligators. All these scary scary moments that turn you into a fantasist.”

There’s a biographical similarity here. We may be from different times and different places, but when I tell Spector that I was always drawn to films with moments of darkness, he nods in agreement.

For me, it isn’t Sinbad and Sleeping Beauty – it’s Star Wars and Indiana Jones. Films that exist in worlds of adventure, where heroes are invincible and threats are often more slapstick than sinister. It’s the moments when something horrible tears through into the carefree, a reminder that terrible consequences are possible, that left pleasant little scars on my psyche. It’s often the villains who suffer, for meddling where they shouldn’t, and the fact that my younger self was rooting to see them defeated made their fate even more troubling. I’d willed their faces to melt.

We talk briefly about these kinds of stories and I ask Spector if he has any thoughts as to why he was drawn to the dark side. “We’d need years of therapy to answer that”, he laughs. “I think the contrast is important, as you say. I showed a vertical slice of an early Epic Mickey build in my talk and it was dark and gray. And I said to the art team, we need more contrast. We want a game that’s dark, but we need the light, we need the contrast. I think you just hit on that – the scary moments work in those classic Disney films, and even in Jason and the Argonauts or Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or a Hitchcock film, because they show a happy world and snatch it away from you.”

How does that compare to System Shock or Thief, games which contrasted their darkness against more darkness? Before moving on to discuss System Shock, Spector interrupts himself with a brilliantly unexpected two sentence anecdote.

“Here’s a fun fact – my first D&D dungeon master was Bruce Sterling, the father of cyberpunk fiction. The best dungeon master on the planet too, by the way.”

not a picture of Bruce Sterling

I’m sorely tempted to ask Warren if he’ll come and be my dungeon master for a while but it seems wildly inappropriate in many ways.

“System Shock came out of that cyberpunk tradition. Those games are very oppressive but I think in a game and in certain genres there are somewhat different expectations. In Blade Runner they didn’t have to show a bright, happy world. Certainly when you’re doing something like an Ultima game or a Mickey Mouse world, you’re obliged to show the bright happy world. Like Alice in Wonderland too, that starts in a nice English garden and then descends into madness.

“I have to be very careful about Thief because I get a lot of credit for that game but in fact I worked on it for the middle year of a three year cycle. That started out as Doug Church’s concept and he was the one that drove it in a particular direction.”

Since learning about Thief’s earlier incarnation as Dark Camelot, I’ve wondered how late in development the setting changed, so I asked Spector what the title was when he joined the project in its second year. That’s when I found out that Ken Levine, ever the pioneer, wanted to make a zombie game.

“It was still Dark Camelot. Ken Levine actually wanted to do Better Red Than Undead, a zombie game, which was way ahead of its time!”

That would have changed the entire history of gaming. As it happens, history nearly did change and if Spector had been more pushy or the team had been less sure of themselves, it might have done.

“I had arguments with the team about Thief quite a lot in the year I worked on it. I wanted more contrast and there were parts of the prototype that I just wasn’t good enough to sneak past so I kept on saying, let me fight my way through. They never backed down and it was the right call. I’m so glad they didn’t give in to my requests! A lot of Deus Ex came out of my frustration with Thief, which is a game that I love, but I wanted to make something a little different and Deus Ex was the result of that.”

also not a picture of Bruce Sterling

During our all-too-brief meeting, Spector is never as animated as when he’s talking about the people he’s worked with. I ask if he thinks about his legacy, aware that it’s a slightly preposterous question to ask somebody who has been so careful to avoid taking too much personal credit for its work.

He sighs, smiling. “Oh God. Yeah, I do, I do. It’s a little embarrassing to admit though. I think a lot about the word ‘legacy’. I think it’s a function, at heart, of being the oldest guy in game development. (laughs) It’s funny because I used to always be the youngest guy in every circle I was part of and now I’m always the oldest.

“When you start getting older you stop caring about a lot of the things that you cared about when you were a kid, and you start thinking about leaving something behind. I don’t have kids, so I’m not leaving my DNA behind, but I hope the DNA of the games I’ve worked on lives on. When I see things like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I realise I was part of a team that created something that’s bigger than us and that’s really cool.

“The fact that our kinds of games are making a resurgence is great. They never went away completely but there was a period where it was the hot thing and then it kind of cooled off. There was a period where it was just me, and maybe Bethesda and Peter Molyneux a little bit, and then it kind of died off. And then out of the blue, it’s back – I think you’d have to look to Bioware picking up on these things with KOTR and Mass Effect, and I think Skyrim taught people some stuff.

“And then there’s the GTA guys. Rockstar just kept going and going with open world games. That all made a difference. The biggest change – and I don’t know why this happened – but people are interested in story again. I came from a tradition of storytelling but I’ll never forget – and this is a quote by the way – I was at a product meeting at Eidos and I was told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ ever again.

“It blew my mind. Now, nobody’s saying that. Everyone wants narrative games and it’s a question of asking how we tell interactive stories. And we have the gamut now, everything from Telltale with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, and Beyond and Heavy Rain from David Cage at one extreme of storytelling, and somewhere in the middle Bioshock Infinite and the stuff that Valve does, and then at the other end the kind of games that Bethesda’s making and that I like to make. It’s the other extreme in terms of player empowerment. We have every extreme of narrative experience out there, which is great for gamers.”

that's not Bruce Sterling either. That's Harvey Smith. On the left. Maybe Bruce Sterling on the right? Dunno.

Amidst the games, there’s a personal element to Spector’s legacy as well and when he talks about that, he seems at his most contented.

“When I see Harvey Smith or Randy Smith, or Jordan Thomas who worked on the Bioshock follow-up games – when I see those guys going off and doing their thing, that fills me with pride. That’s what Looking Glass and Origin, and whatever role I played in those studios, left behind. That’s our legacy.”

Part two will follow shortly, with conversation about King Kong’s scary mechanical arm, growing up in a world without games and the current state of the industry, and how to improve it.

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65 Comments »

  1. SominiTheCommenter says:

    http://www.rockpapershotgun.com/images/13/nov/harryhausen.jpg
    Is this a picture of Bruce Sterling?

  2. Ultra Superior says:

    Don’t let Disney smother your inner Denton, Warren.

  3. Ultra Superior says:

    “I don’t have kids, so I’m not leaving my DNA behind, but I hope the DNA of the games I’ve worked on lives on.”

    – Barren Spector

    EDIT: I am so sorry! I love you mr. Spector.

  4. Viscera says:

    There are several veterans who lost their shit and can’t really make games anymore, like Peter Molyneux or Richard Garriot (latest victim seems to be Ken Levine). As the Epic Mickey games show (although it began with Invisible War), Warren Spector is one of them.

    I’m wary of listening to fallen game designers. I respect their achievements, but their time is over.

    • Ultra Superior says:

      That’s cold. But I have to disagree with you, the fact that these people are under immense corporate pressure doesn’t mean it’s over for them. Warren Spector knows damn well what is the right way to make games, unfortunately he can’t realize that vision under Disney umbrella. No one could – think Bobby Kotick style management augmented (!).

      So far he just preaches the gospel of great games, but he needs to sever the chains of Disney slavery, break free from those small-minded corporates and do something with creative freedom. Or go work for Bethesda. Too bad his projects are too big to be kickstarted.

      • Philomelle says:

        Actually, he needs to do something much more simple. All he needs to do is to put 100-200 bucks on his bank account, load up Steam or go to the local gaming store, buy 10-20 games and play them.

        The crucial issue with Spector’s games is that he hasn’t actually been gaming for a good decade now. He even admits in his interviews that he enjoys making games and studying the design process, but doesn’t enjoy playing them. All his recent games are pure theory of what good design is, but they come from the mind of someone who hasn’t touched a video game in many years, who doesn’t know how it feels to play one and how the act of pressing buttons translates into emotional context. He knows what it’s like to be an outside observer of a game, but he forgot what it’s like to be an active participant.

        Epic Mickey shows it very well. It’s a delightful game in theory (the story, gameplay components and visual design are all there), but it feels bad to actually play. The controls are wobbly and insecure, while design components are glued together rather than forged into a single thing.

        Spector has a strong idea of where game design and he’s clearly enthusiastic about it. But he’s a shit game developer because asking someone who doesn’t like playing games to make one is the same as hiring a cook who hates tasting things. He needs to pull himself together and realize that he needs more practical experience with what he wants to create.

        Until then, saying he cannot really make games anymore is very accurate.

        • Ultra Superior says:

          The notion of game designer who doesn’t play games for decade or who doesn’t play his/her own games is naive.

          Maybe he plays a lot less games than you do, however that does not at all translate into how a game is playable, he doesn’t MAKE these games alone for JC’s sake.

          • Philomelle says:

            It’s not naive when the developer actually said he doesn’t play games anymore because he enjoys making them but doesn’t like playing them. Just look up his interviews from the last two years.

            He may not make games alone, but he’s still the director. Epic Mickey’s condition points to him being a shoddy one who doesn’t know how to guide his team so the various design components are glued into a compelling whole. End of story.

    • SominiTheCommenter says:

      I think that’s too bad to be true. Molyneux maybe, now Spector? I agree with Ultra Superior

    • TheDR says:

      I think the problem is game development has changed. Back when Molyneux, Garriot ect made amazing games the teams were small, now you need bigger teams at a higher expense for less product. Things have changed and they presumably stick to their old development methods (perhaps for the fear that it was what made them ‘good’).

      I think calling them fallen is a bit harsh, it’s more than likely they just need a better team surrounding them and less yes men telling them every idea they have is gold. They are clearly competent people who have a respectable body of work. For example if someone just updated Molyneux on game development times or they had a larger team/more money to accomplish the lofty goals of the Fable series, I’m sure it would of been the ground breaking experience he had in his mind. Yes you can blame him, say that it was his fault, but if he was surrounded by people who felt like they couldn’t question anything he was doing because of his experience, it’s hard to put the blame on anyone.

      Respect is a double edge sword because it brings with it a certain expectation that no one can live up to.

      • Mokinokaro says:

        From what I’ve read this contributes heavily to Bioware’s woes. The company grew incredibly fast under EA and the managers still try to run things the way they did with the small teams of the past.

        It’s also something I worry Chris Roberts might fall into, but Origin Systems was a pretty big company back in the Wing Commander days so he might have better luck.

        But the days of a major game being a single person’s vision are long gone (outside of outlier indies like Minecraft.) You have to bring so many people into your project now that they are going to also be affecting it creatively for better or worse.

    • Jason Moyer says:

      The Epic Mickey games are great, and I think spending your career making Deus Ex over and over would be far worse than branching out into other things that interest you more. That’s basically the curse of working in creative media though; consumers want you to make that thing they like over and over, and an artist wants to keep doing things that are new and exciting to them.

      • Ultra Superior says:

        Are they great, though. I don’t think so.

        It’s not about doing DX over again, but applying his “philosophy of simulated worlds and player driven narrative” on other genres and worlds.

        • Jason Moyer says:

          What didn’t you like about them, besides having Mickey (who otherwise hadn’t been used for anything since 1940 besides advertisement) on the box?

          Maybe the guy was bored of making immersive sims. Personally, I wish he’d do more games shining a spotlight on the history of animation since we live in an era where people think Family Guy is good.

          • Ultra Superior says:

            I’m positive he was not BORED of immersive sim. More likely, he didnt have the money. They (junction point studios) pitched their game to publishers who ran off scared, so he ended up at disney doing lovely mickey stuff.
            … their more mature themed ideas looked infinitely more appealing.

          • Philomelle says:

            I actually really love Mickey Mouse as a character (I know I’m a super-rare case of someone who prefers him in the Disney trinity) and I found Epic Mickey games to be massive disappointments. The controls really killed the game and the hyper-limited voice acting buried it further. Sad thing is, I’d love a 3D platformer focused on Mickey. Epic just wasn’t what I wanted by any stretch of imagination.

            It honestly is only great if you never played another 3D action/adventure game recently. Try Okami and the first two Sly Cooper games, then come back and tell me how Epic Mickey compares.

      • bigjig says:

        Play Okami then come back and say that Epic Mickey is great.

        • Fenix says:

          “Play Okami.”

          Probably the best suggestion you’ll hear for a week.

          • Mokinokaro says:

            Unfortunately Okami is only available on dirty console boxes

            (it’s so damn worth owning one for though. Okami HD, The Last of Us and Journey almost make buying a PS3 worthwhile on their own.)

    • Jimbo says:

      You’re saying he’s become a Mickey Mouse developer?

  5. ZIGS says:

    If Warren went to kickstarter asking money to fund a spiritual sequel to System Shock/Deus Ex, how much money do you think he’d get?

    • Ultra Superior says:

      All of mine, that’s for sure.

      (But I am not convinced you can produce DX grade game just from the KS money. He could however use the KS campaign to gauge the public interest and use it as a leverage to get a good deal with a solid distributor. But that’s a gamble. )

    • db1331 says:

      He’d have a chance to pass up whatever Tim Schafer got.

    • Turkey says:

      Not enough to make a spiritual successor to System Shock/Deus Ex.

      • LionsPhil says:

        Yeah, doesn’t seem likely. DX was a huge, huge game in almost every dimension it could be.

        • Turkey says:

          Yeah, Deus Ex was the result of the almost unlimited resources and time thanks to John Romero’s special deal with Eidos back in the late 90s.

          I could see Warren pitching a Gone Home-ish type experiment on kickstarter, though. A Small area with tons of interactivity.

          • Runs With Foxes says:

            The Deus Ex team wasn’t massive though. They only had about 3 programmers on that game. Romero’s backing might have meant more time and less publisher oversight perhaps. (But even then, Ion Storm had to lobby Eidos really hard to get an extra six months to wrap up the game, so it’s not like they had complete freedom.)

          • keithzg says:

            Whaaaaat? Anyone who’s dug through the SDK (god, I miss level editors and SDKs–I’m really sad that, as far as I can tell, Bethesda isn’t allowing Arkane to release mod tools for Dishonored) can tell you that there’s assets in there referencing levels that were cut because they were forced to publish the game before they were done. The whole intended Washington level(s) are entirely missing from the game.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      $7-8 million, perhaps more if he followed the Star Citizen model.

    • Jimbo says:

      Not nearly enough.

    • karthink says:

      It would depend on what he’s pitching. I would keep my wallet shut if he expects to make a game with the scope or scale of Deus Ex on Kickstarter money.

      I’d be interested if it was something relatively small and experimental.

    • keithzg says:

      I’d throw money at anything he put up on Kickstarter, not even with any necessary hope of return on investment. I just feel like he deserves my money—I’m still, to this day, awaiting a game that’s a proper successor to Deus Ex.

  6. Meusli says:

    “The fact that our kinds of games are making a resurgence is great. They never went away completely but there was a period where it was the hot thing and then it kind of cooled off. There was a period where it was just me, and maybe Bethesda and Peter Molyneux a little bit, and then it kind of died off.”

    Erm no.

    I remember the time quite well and it happened nothing like that at all. We were told that no one games on PCs any more, it was a dieing platform and big complicated games were also out in favour of opening it up to more people so the market could grow. The levels for Deus Ex and the Thief were shrunk so they would fit onto the consoles memory even though there was a BIG out cry for them not to do this. We were also told that our way of gaming was no longer relevant because we needed more people to play games and they were all to hard for casuals to enjoy. No need to revise history when we all remember how it was.

    • Ultra Superior says:

      Amen.

      Though he’s right as well, bethesda always carried the torch with flickering flame of TES/Fallout games.

      I remember one of the major distributor gurus saying about oblivion that it was the “last sprawling RPG ever made”. Still can’t believe how the massive success of Skyrim came as a suprise to many Zynga-Activision-type corporates.

    • Urthman says:

      To be fair, he’s not claiming that gamers abandoned the kinds of games he used to make. He’s saying that the people who gave him capital funding to make games stopped funding those kinds of games (because they were chasing the growing console market).

      • Meusli says:

        I disagree with that. They changed the games to suit the consoles and to chase more money that they thought was out there. When the games they made failed it was because they spurned their roots and failed to attract this massive casual crowd that was going to grow the market. They then claimed it was because the genre was dead, nope, they made a product that nobody really wanted. That has been proven time and time again on Kickstarter’s massive success stories and games like Deus Ex Human Rev being really popular.

        • Mokinokaro says:

          Invisible War’s biggest mistake was coming out a console generation too early. The concept could’ve been made into a pretty decent game with the 360/PS3.

          Thief Deadly Shadows could’ve been similar but at least even that game gave us the highly memorable Shalebridge Cradle whereas I can’t think of a high point of IW at all.

  7. bigjig says:

    “Everyone wants narrative games and it’s a question of asking how we tell interactive stories.”

    I don’t…

    • SillyWizard says:

      Seriously. If I wanted a narrative game I’d read a book.

      Now stuff like Dwarf Fortress and CK2 where a new “narrative” is generated every play-through — assuming the player cares enough to flavor game-events in his imagination — yes. More of that.

      • Opiniomania says:

        I think that’s because of the precarious balance between gameplay and narrative. More so because game narrative is way too frequently understood as a series of cutscenes interrupting the gameplay.

      • mickygor says:

        So you do want narrative games.

      • McCool says:

        Those are narrative games. You are thinking of “story games”. Nobody wants those anymore.

    • DanMan says:

      I do. Point disproved.

      Argumentation.

  8. donweel says:

    None of the Sinbad movies ever gave me nightmares. The original “Outer Limits” show was a different story, that one gave me nightmares like crazy.

  9. rockman29 says:

    Why must the first line of the article imply that everything is PC versus consoles?

    It makes me very sad. I understand the context, but it still makes me sad to see it repeated over and over.

    I say this as an avid gamer on PC and consoles :(

    • DestructibleEnvironments says:

      It’s weird that RPS is all about females being equal/respected and voicing their opinions on such a delicate matter, but then go all childish with this console vs. PC thing. It’s stupid. Don’t encourage stupid. And stop saying console toys. FUCK.

  10. BooleanBob says:

    W… what is going on with Mickey’s ears in that picture? Can he arrange them into a mohawk? Are Disney really so invested in the “three circles” that they’ll horrifically mutilate the poor chap’s head to preserve Icon Integrity? I’m scared and confused.

    • Axess Denyd says:

      He’s always been drawn so that his ears are always to the sides like they’re mounted on gimbals or something. It just isn’t as freakish-looking in the hand-drawn cartoon as the 3D render is. Maybe because of shadows?

      Here’s one of my favorites from my childhood. Compare and enjoy.

    • Groove says:

      Now that you mention it, that is Liefeld levels of messed up. The top one is fine, but the bottome one is sprouting out of his neck!

    • Premium User Badge Adam Smith says:

      They always face the camera – Warren actually showed some early footage from the game in which they’d made a full 3d model, ears and all, and watching it, you realise that you’ve never seen the inside of Mickey’s ears before. It makes him seem much more mousey and much less Mickey.

      There are a couple of old cartoons that animate him that way and they look wrong, changes the character massively. So in the game, they had the animators ‘solve’ the problem by (and I may get this wrong) essentially painting them on the head and allowing them to adjust themselves along its curvature in order to ‘look at’ the camera.

      This has some info – http://multiplayerblog.mtv.com/2010/09/17/epic-mickey-ears/

  11. starclaws says:

    He shouldn’t get too lost in the story. There has to be balance in order to run a great open world multiple choice style game. And then a limitation on repetition for the open worlds. Story’s are for books, movies, etc. Games are for playing. Sure they can have story but its for entertainment and such in the end. The first games and classics never had much story. Save a princess. Defeat the evil power.

    There are games that do well to build from a story, however, such as Mass Effects, Walking Dead, Bioshocks, etc. But it is hard to have a full on open world when you want the character to progress in the story plot. They may feel open world but it is just a giant lull in the progression of story to allow for side quest/mission/exploration. Even Bethesda fell victim to that partially in Skyrim. There was a limited amount of things to do really and the repetition of some dungeons and missions became annoying. You can see how the games from Morrowind to Oblivion to Skyrim progressed from Open World free choice style playing as the main focus into a more story centralized with open world not as the main part of the game. It ruined Skyrim a bit for me. Though I still look forward to playing it again because it is still stronger than many other games linear story telling, 0 options, and follow points a to z.

    • physicalist says:

      Open world is just a time sink. I hope this fad goes away quickly.

    • Blhurr says:

      “The first games and classics never had much story.” King’s Quest, The Black Cauldron, A Bard’s Tale, Pool of Radiance =(

  12. Lambchops says:

    So many staring eyes . . . so little tag.

  13. Ninja Dodo says:

    On the subject of Spector, legacy and teaching, this may be relevant: http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLC4AF467F9391D767 (those UT lectures from a while back)

  14. boats says:

    Guy is the biggest sellout ever and somehow people still respect him.

  15. Neurotic says:

    When did we start bashing Spector and Ellis and so on? I must have missed the memo.

  16. nicolejscott says:

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