Skip to main content

Interview: Spector On Cartoons, Cyberpunk And Failure

"We have to get past media envy."

In this second part of my conversation with Warren Spector, we discuss the good and bad of Disney, Spector’s new role as an Academy director, the benefits and drawbacks of growing up as a gamer, and the parallels between Hollywood in the late forties and the games industry now. Also, why indie development is the place to be.

From System Shock and Deus Ex to Mickey Mouse. There’s a tendency to picture that career trajectory as a punctured balloon, flapping and deflating as it careens around an empty room. For Spector, though, it all started with cartoons. His Master’s thesis at the University of Texas was a critical history of Warner Bros’ Cartoons and one of his first gaming projects was Toon, a tabletop RPG published by Steve Jackson games.

A great deal of his ambitions for that game – breaking fourth walls in the way that Chuck Jones did so capably and capturing the anarchy of cartoons – also apply to Epic Mickey. Spector’s fascination with cartoons is in some ways accidental, in that he was exposed to them at an early age when access to media was limited, but his continuing affection for them is genuine. He has maintained his critical eye as well, always seeking to recognise why a certain facial expression or motion conveys the traits that it does.

It could be argued that the work with Disney was a marriage of convenience – he wanted access to their characters and history, they recognised his name and ability to lead a large team – but it would be false to say that Spector took on the Mickey license without passion. The desire to make the Epic Mickey games had been there all along, particularly the second with its musical interludes, and Spector is still keen to create cartoon games and dreams of making a fully interactive musical.

During his presentation, he stated his belief that Disney was the most important cultural force of the 20th century. I’m not sure if he used the word ‘force’ actually but it fits. That ‘force’ wasn’t applied in a wholly positive manner, however. “Some people think of Disney as a huge corporate machine,” he shrugs, “and it is that. But it’s so much else as well. It’s all of the good and the bad.”

The cartoons and characters of Disney (and others) certainly seem to have been the most important influence in Spector’s life, which may seem odd to those who associate him primarily with his earlier work, taking in cyberpunk, dark fantasy and sci-fi horror. All of those influences co-exist, however, and it’s entirely possible that the earlier work would have been diminished somehow if it hadn’t been laced through with a diversity of cultural appropriation. Just because we don’t recognise the fingerprints of Tex Avery in Ultima Underworld, that’s not to say they haven’t left traces.

That’s one reason why Spector is enthused but also concerned about the reality of games being made, for the first time, by a generation that grew up playing games.

“I think there’s good and bad in that. The good is that they are people who consider games more than a way to waste time. They know what they’re capable of and don’t think they’re dangerous instruments of death-dealing education. They know that and so they come to games with a different experience of games than even I did.

"The bad side of a generation raised on games now making games is that a lot of them don’t have any experience outside games. Many of them don’t grow up reading books or know what it was like to live at a time when if there was one science fiction film in a year, it was a good year. They didn’t grow up with comic books being ridiculed. If you were a 13 year old reading comic books back when I was a kid, everybody thought you were – well, nerd doesn’t even begin to describe it. You were an object of ridicule.”

Spector gives the impression that he is exhilarated to be living in a time when former objects of ridicule can now share their visions with millions. The geeks inheriting the Earth and all that. But as we talk, he returns to his belief that our brave new world can also cause a sort of tunnel vision, or limiting of inputs.

“[Some designers] don’t come to games necessarily with an experience of life, which I had no choice but to get. And I think people can still get that if they go out and want it.

“As I said in that talk about animation, even if my teams aren’t thinking about it, when I make a cartoon game, I’m thinking about Chuck Jones and 'Duck Amuck'. As it says, let’s acknowledge that cartoons are fake and revel in that. When I think about making a musical, it’s because I grew up with ‘What’s Opera, Doc?’ and ‘My Hare Grows in Manhattan’.

“When I think about making a game like Martian Dreams, I immediately think back to things like Time and Again by Jack Finney. Everything that you do in your life should inform your work and if your life is, “I sit around and play Call of Duty or WOW twenty hours a day”, you’re not having any life experience that is going to make your games unique and interesting.”

A bowl filled with WOW turns into a WOW pie. A bowl filled with Chuck Jones, Jack Finney, Ray Harryhausen and Bladerunner turns into a Deus Ex cake? It needs the right chef as well but the observation is convincing. Not only is there a tendency to recreate rather than to create, there’s also the danger of ready-made genre pigeonholes. Ultima Underworld wasn’t a licensed intepretation of an existing idea, it was something new. Indeed, as Spector acknowledged in conversation, Underworld is the immediate precursor of System Shock. The process of cannibalisation began early and locally, and it can lead to great things, as can spending time involved in the creative process, even at the (apparent) periphery.

“Now, guys like Harvey Smith make rich games like Dishonored because they bring the great life experience they have to the work. That’s why he fit in so well at Ion Storm. I first met Harvey when we were working together on System Shock – I was the producer and he was a tester. He was a QA guy! But at 2 in the morning when I was going down to talk to the QA guys, he was the one I ended up speaking to.

“You could tell he was going to make games and you could tell he was going to make a certain kind of game. He brings that love of that kind of game – Underworld, System Shock - and his life experiences, to his work. It makes it deeper and richer, and special in a way that a game made just to pay the rent isn’t.”

The questions of allusions and influence are complex, but Spector is clear about one thing. Drawing inspiration from other media is healthy but attempting to ape them is not.

“I think some of the tools of criticism make you think of specific games differently. So [my background as a film student] does inform my work but in terms of cinematic technique, I’ve always tried to downplay that. I call it media envy. We have to get past that.”

I ask if there’s a direct analogy to be drawn between where the games industry is now and the evolution of the film industry. As soon as I’ve spoken, I feel like it’s a stupid question to ask and in some ways it is, asking for clumsy and reductive comparisons. Spector leaps on it though and in a way that I hadn’t anticipated.

“In terms of industry, we’re probably in the fifties, when the studio system broke up. There was a big court case in the late forties, United States v. Paramount. That was when the studios were broken up and the vertical integration of all the studios in Hollywood was destroyed and that opened up the opportunity for independent development of movies, where the creative people owned the properties, drove the creative and movie theatres became, functionally, just distributors.

“I think there’s a really interesting parallel between that period in film history and where we are right now in games. If you’re a publisher and you’re not worried about your future, you’re not thinking hard enough because there are only so many Call of Duties that are going to come out in a given year, and Tomb Raiders. There are only so many franchise tentpole sort of hits that can come out. The interesting things that are happening in games right now are in the indie space and that’s the coolest thing in the world.”

Many of these thoughts and observations lead to one place – Spector believes great things are happening, driven by a new generation of creative thinkers, but guidance is needed. With his experience and a new role as director at Austin's Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, Spector wants to pass on the lessons of decades of learning and success. Oh, and failure.

“You learn from failure. You don’t learn much from success.”

He recognises that he doesn’t need to teach people how to make games, at least not the nuts and bolts. That’s not his role and there are more well-trained programmers in the world than ever before.

“I think there are plenty of institutions that are teaching how to make a game, the functional skills that are needed. That’s not my interest. My interest is more in preparing people for leadership positions. That doesn’t mean producer or director or creative director, or lead this or that. Leadership can and should happen at every level of a team, and we’re going to be training the creative and business leaders of tomorrow.”

He pauses, laughs, perhaps realising that the last phrase sounds rehearsed, unlike anything else he’s said today. “That’s the closest I’ll come to a sales pitch today. But leadership skills are important whether you’re in a team of four or a team of four hundred.

“I’ve worked of games that were just me and a keyboard, and games that had over eight hundred people on them, and I’ve run my own studios, so I think I’ve got a pretty good perspective on what I’m about to say. The skills required to run your own studio, on any scale, and the skills required to complete a game development project, overlap by about 70%.

I think what I can do is I can prepare people who already know how to make games. They’re coming to the Academy knowing how to make games but I think I can help them to take the next step in their careers, whether that takes them to an Activision, an EA or an Ubisoft, or whether they decide to start thatgamecompany or some other startup.

“They need to know how to create a stable business and not just a game, and that’s something that hasn’t been taught very well.”

Thinking the conversation is turning toward financial matters, I mention that I’d like to see indie developers and ‘smaller’ cogs in big machines properly rewarded for their work. I worry about the devaluation of games, as a product, and the bloated size of budgets and teams.

“It’s not just about money. That’s obviously important but it’s about building a positive studio culture. Issues of culture are downplayed so much. I’ve fallen prey to it myself. When you’re under the gun and you’ve gotta make a game, and you stop hiring for culture fit, you stop thinking about culture altogether. You’ve just got to get things done. I think we can help people with building a positive, successful team culture.

“We can help with money issues as well, how to make a deal that doesn’t end up screwing you to the wall. We can do all sorts of things that aren’t being taught now. If you’re in a game development programme today, in all likelihood you’re dealing with being broken into teams of four and making a game for the next month. We’re going to give people a year and everybody will make a large scale game together, and they’ll deal with all the stress and failure cases of big team development. It’ll be twenty people, which is all we’re letting into the programme. That’s a good sized team, that’s about the core team from Deus Ex, and you can have a lot of dysfunction and a lot of failure cases with that many people over that time.”

There’s little difference in Spector’s tone whether he’s talking about film history, the Austin Academy, Epic Mickey or the days of Ion Storm, Origin and Looking Glass. He’s excitable and, as he says himself, has “a tendency to overstate to make a point”. He says that being nearly 60 years old (he’s “a proud 58”) “freaks him out” but there’s still something of the student about him.

He generously assumes I have the same ability to recall information as he does when we briefly talk about a shared love of the 1933 King Kong movie. I mention the production shots of the mechanical arm clutching Fay Wray, how games and CGI sequences in films can’t make those physical imprints on the world.

“You probably know this” - I don’t - “but the freaky thing about that life-sized Kong hand is that they couldn’t get it to grip tightly, so Fay Ray was in the hand and it would start to loosen up. So she was twenty feet above the ground in a giant hand that was about to drop her. So a lot of that screaming was real. She was absolutely terrified that Kong would drop her. And she would have been pretty dramatically hurt.”

The image makes me laugh, which seems like an unkind thing to do all things considered.

“Well, history tells us that she survived so it’s OK to laugh.”

At this point, we’re being told to wrap up. Time is short. The next interview has been booked. Spector seems happy to talk all day, to anybody who is interested or interesting. As I’m standing, gathering my belongings, I ask if he’ll develop for the PC again.

“I shouldn’t say this, but for the flight over, I nearly bought a PC game mag for the first time in years. I think all the interesting stuff is happening on PC now. It’s not happening on console anymore. Maybe that’ll change with the new generation but honestly, I don’t think so. Assuming I make more games, which I intend to do, PC, Mac and tablets are going to be my targets.”

Quite what kind of game he’d make, it’s hard to say. I don’t think the PC represents ‘the good old days’ for Spector, I think it represents ‘now’ and ‘tomorrow’. If he does start development on a new title, it’s as likely to be a cartoon musical as a spiritual successor to anything he worked on in the nineties.

He admires a wide range of games, mentioning that Thomas Was Alone has “more personality than anything that tries to be photorealistic”, and that Bethesda and Bioware make “my kind of games”. At one point, almost lost in a discussion of Thief’s history, he expresses one opinion with a slight edge to his voice.

“Any time you tell the player how to play, you’ve lost me.”

He might be overstating again but that one line contains some of the thinking that led from Thief to Deus Ex, and it’s a line he's drawn to in conversation, again and again. Perhaps he'll return to it in his work as well.

Read this next