Warren Spector Done With Triple-A, Not Done With Games

Warren Spector is a busy man. He’s directing the University of Texas at Austin’s game design academy, he’s teaching part-time, he’s traveling and giving talks – the list goes on. But while the Deus Ex and, er, Epic Mickey creator is surrounded by games and relentlessly stalked by his legacy, he’s not actually making anything right now. He didn’t exactly go out on a high note last time, either. Between the new gig(s) and enough accolades to craft cyberpunk augments and a Mickey hat made of pure gold, he could easily call it a career right now. But that, he told me on D.I.C.E.’s red carpet, simply isn’t in the cards. Go below for my brief chat with Spector and special guest star The Internet’s (and also Vlambeer’s) Rami Ismail.

RPS: You’re very occupied with teaching and giving talks and generally living a life away from game development right now. You’ve also done plenty in this industry. Despite Epic Mickey’s less-than-great reception, you could walk away from development right now as a legend. Would you, though? Or is there an aching desire in your heart of hearts and bone of bones that can only be sated by the white-knuckle thrill of game creation?

I think you’re gonna see my name on something before too long.

Spector: I’d be OK, but I can’t see it happening unless I just absolutely fall in love with the world of academia. You know, I’m a game developer. It’s what I do. It’s my identity.

I’m actually sort of struggling right now with things like, “What do I say on my passport right now? I’m a game developer, damn it.” But then it’s like, “What game are you working on?” “Welllllllll, I’m not really working on anything right now.” I think you’re gonna see my name on something before too long.

RPS: Games have changed and evolved by an incredible amount even since you released Epic Mickey 2. Crowdfunding, Early Access, virtual reality, etc, etc, etc. What are you most inspired by these days? Where do you go next?

Spector: I’m certainly inspired by a lot of indie games. That’s where most of my interest is right now. Just as a developer, if I were to make another game right now, it would not be a big triple-A console title with 800 people working on it. I hope I’m done with that. I hope I never do that again. You know, we’ll talk again in a year and see where I am, but that’s the hope.

But just the idea that you can get together with some friends, make a small game, and find an audience for it, that’s like being back where I started. Where everything is a frontier. Nobody knows what games are again. So mobile and PC, I’m there. I’m your guy.

RPS: [To Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail, who’s also on the red carpet with Spector] Must be interesting to have someone like Warren Spector following in your footsteps. But you’re really pushing that sort of development into new places, what with your frequent live-streaming of Nuclear Throne’s development. How pronounced of an effect has that actually had on the game, though?

Ismail: In terms of sales, it’s been interesting because we can see the sales building. But what has been way more interesting for us is on the Steam forums where people talk to us about the game directly. As the livestreams went on and as game development has gone on, giving people that insight into how games are made has had a really profound effect on our community.

When we started, people would just have demands. They’d say, “This game is awful! I want this and this and this. Otherwise, I’m done with it forever.” But as time went on, the tone in the forum started to shift toward people having ideas. Having suggestions. Just seeing that effect has really made it all worth it.

It’s amazing. I’m completely overwhelmed by that.

Spector: I’m not sure anyone has ever done that before. That’s kind of remarkable.

RPS: [To Spector] When you go back into making games, do you think you’ll take a more open approach to development? I mean, obviously not everyone is Rami Ismail, King Streamer Of All Creations Until The End Of Time, but would you try and get the community involved by way of, say, crowdfunding or Early Access? Or do you think your games are too story-focused and that you’d risk spoiling everything?

Spector: I’m a story guy. I’m a story game guy. I want to keep exploring that. And so right now I’m thinking a lot about how we tell a story but really empower players more than we have in the past. Every game I’ve worked on – whether anybody else sees it or not – has been a progression toward empowering players more and more and more. That’s an unsolved problem. How do we let players really be the heroes of their own story?

So I’d like to play around with that. A lot more procedural stuff, a lot more simulation. I’d still be pursuing that, just on a different scale. Maybe not crazy 3D amazing over-the-top graphics. There’s a lot of opportunity to do cool stuff without having to pay the price for graphics and sound and everything else in the triple-A space.

[Red carpet robocops emerge from nigh-invisible slits in the wall, prod everyone onward]

RPS: Thank you for your time.


  1. karthink says:

    Ya know, if Spector was to make that one-city-block game he’s been thinking about for decades now, it would be great. It’s prime indie material: it can get away with looking like spy party, it just has to be reactive enough.

    • Turkey says:

      A serious version of Day of the Tentacle would be a pretty good premise for a reactive, but confined space game. You have this small area that you can visit in 3 different time periods and the things you do in the past have repercussions in the future.

      I should probably copyright that idea.

    • Cooper says:

      I can see Spector doing something similar (in approach, not style) to what Consortium does for his ‘one block’ idea and producing something pretty fucking amazing that rewards many, many replays.

    • ResonanceCascade says:

      Spector would have no problem raising a few million on Kickstarter for something like that, if he wanted to. Sounds like he’s more interested in procedural design at this point though, which is kind of the exact opposite of one city block. The idea of the city block (as I understand it) is that it’s a relatively small, very detailed and deliberately designed space, but features as much freedom as possible within those confines.

      • MichaelPalin says:

        Would that be something like Gone Home? Obviously with the dynamism and I guess character interaction that Gone Home does not feature, but that game has an insane amount of detail and interactivity.

        • ResonanceCascade says:

          Yeah, the level of detail of Gone Home, but with the level of environmental interactivity of, say, System Shock 1.

      • Frank says:

        So like The Last Express, but more expensive, as I see was brought up last time: link to rockpapershotgun.com

  2. TheIronSky says:

    Someone had actually asked Spector the other night at one of his presentations if he thought he might be turning towards more indie development (citing the recent rise in ex-AAA developers turning to kickstarter for funding) and the answer he gave was fairly similar, although it seemed more that he was still on the fence about it.

    And then I nervously whimpered that I would love to see that city-block RPG get made. I felt as starstruck as Sally Simpson.

    • Turkey says:

      He’s waited a little too long to jump on board the kickstarter train, if he’s going to, I think. We’re way more aware of the limitations of working with a crowd funded budget now than we were 2 years ago.

      • Grygus says:

        Yeah but assuming the pitch is competent, his name would still bring in a lot of money just in case.

  3. GamesInquirer says:

    I respect his legacy so I hope this isn’t just sour grapes like Epic Mickey (after having given similar speeches of how it was a choice and dream to make that kind of Disney game instead of another Deus Ex type game, both turned out extremely mediocre). Has he done AAA games? The original Deus Ex is probably the closest he got but as ambitious as it was I doubt it had anywhere near the highest budget of its era compared to mainstream games. Not that I care, give me good games, regardless of budget.

    • Grygus says:

      I might be misunderstanding you, but virtually his entire career has been in AAA development. Warren Spector was involved in the Wing Commander, Ultima, and Thief games before Deus Ex. Invisible War and Epic Mickey were big-budget games, too.

      • GamesInquirer says:

        Were those really described as AAA? I’d think that term came up once development started costing 20-50-100 million dollars or more on the upper end. If Epic Mickey really cost anything like that then it was money spent badly.

        • LionsPhil says:

          It’s kind of moot if the term existed when the intent is “he’s always been at the big-budget end of games, whatever ‘big’ was for the time”.

        • JanusForbeare says:

          What Phil said. The dude did some heavy lifting on the glorious and hallowed Ultima 7, he’s basically untouchable as far as I’m concerned.

        • GamesInquirer says:

          That’s not how it works, he had neither the budgets nor the term so he didn’t do AAA, he did some of the higher budget games of bygone eras that had absolutely nothing to do with what later became commonly described as AAA, from design philosophy to the amount of people they try to attract to make up for it all. Being higher budget than others in their era doesn’t change that. And yes, of course he’s worked on amazing classics, I said nothing of their quality. Hell, they were that good partially because they had absolutely nothing to do with what later became known as AAA.

  4. Viscera says:

    These are all pretty words, but I have yet to see a reason to believe that he hasn’t gone the way of Richard Garriot and Peter Molyneux.

    Some say that Epic Mickey was awful because it’s a Disney game and that Disney forced Spector to withhold his greatness and that he is completely innocent. I call bullshit on that.

    • Turkey says:

      Yeah, he said in all the interviews that he had complete freedom with the Epic Mickey games. So the result is pretty much just him and his team.

      • Jalan says:

        The biggest sign something was off was when complaints about the camera in the first game came in and were addressed when the sequel was planned along the lines of “it will be reworked” and how it’d be better/etc. but by the time the sequel was released it was as if they’d forgotten what they were supposed to fix and just slapped a new coat of paint on the old irritated canvas.

  5. Person of Interest says:

    For anyone interested in Warren Spector’s educational lectures, you can view all 13 sessions of his 2007 Master Class lectures & interviews on this Youtube playlist: link to youtube.com The lectures are 2-3 hours long and the two I’ve watched so far were interesting, although some of it already seems a bit dated. He interviews some big-name developers too. If you want a non-streaming version of the videos, you can find a torrent at gameupdates.org.

    I’d like to see more long-form Spector videos like these, if he’s made some more recently.

    • Emeraude says:

      Ooooooohhhh Shiny !

      Thanks a lot for that.

    • Hypnotron says:

      Most of these so called experts are wrong. Everyone is trying to teach talent and right now the world is awash with crappy products made by hacks who think they know something.

      • ResonanceCascade says:

        What the world is really awash in is non-contributing, non-creating internet “critics” who think making bitter, hyperbolic blanket dismissals of game developers in every comments section from here to youtube is a worthwhile pastime.

        • Hypnotron says:

          how ironic.

          Now maybe you’ve worked in this industry too, but I’ve seen first hand how so many folks don’t really know what they’re doing. They’re not experts by any stretch. With regards to Mr Spector specifically, if you compare his talks over the years, you hear badly regurgitated ideas of the day that were expressed better by others. There’s nothing wrong with learning from others and changing your views accordingly, but this doesn’t change the fact that he’s been wrong about so much and has been flying by the seat of his pants all along .

          The people who impress me are the people who haven’t had the luxury of working with other people’s money as they take “risks” in game design.

          • ResonanceCascade says:

            What better credential is there than having helped produced great games? I’d love to see a list of what you’ve worked on that had more of a positive impact on game design than any one of Spector’s guest speakers (including Seamus Blackley).

            And before someone grossly misinterprests me, I’m not saying that these people are infallible or immune to criticism at all. I’m saying if you are going to elevate yourself above them (as you have done), rather than just provide critique, you’d damn well better be able to back yourself up.

          • Frank says:

            Wait, what? Flying by the seat of your pants and taking risks is a bad idea?

            Forgive me if I don’t want to see the riskless game design of D&D and Madden repeated from now to eternity. Bring on risk-takers and pantseat-flyers. I don’t know if Spector is a risk-taker, but that’s one heck of a poor way of dismissing him.

            Also, feel free to educate us on the one true way of game design. What does it even mean to be “wrong” about game design?

  6. PopeRatzo says:

    Great. Now we start a list of who won’t be making games.

    Just wake me when the new Saints Row game comes out.

  7. Frank says:

    Only reacting to the headline: about time! Hoping that doesn’t mean pulling a “Brian Reynolds”.

  8. HisDivineOrder says:

    He just needs to chill-lax. Take a break. Don’t Molyneux us or we’ll get really annoyed. Also, I wish every developer would realize that they start on PC and wind up on PC again later, so why not just skip the whole console nonsense altogether in the middle?