Game Masters: Warren Spector

We asked the famed designer his thoughts on the current state of the gaming industry.

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This interview is part of GameSpot's Game Masters: Behind the Talent feature, which explores some of the biggest names in game development. The feature coincides with a new exhibition celebrating video game culture taking place at the Australian Centre for Moving Image (ACMI) in Melbourne, Victoria.

The exhibition showcases the work of celebrated game designers from Australia and overseas through a combination of concept art, interviews, and more than 125 playable games from the arcade era through to new releases.

"A person who doesn't play games is outside the cultural mainstream."--Warren Spector.

Presently the founder of Austin, Texas-based Junction Point Studios, Warren Spector has been in the game business for 30 years. Arguably his most famous work was 2000's original Deus Ex, which he served as producer on at Ion Studios.

Spector left Ion Studios in 2004 and formed Junction Point Studios. Disney Interactive Studios acquired the company in 2007, and the shop put out Epic Mickey in 2010 to mixed reviews. In March this year, Spector unveiled a sequel, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii with co-op, full voice acting, and a focus on music.

Spector received a lifetime achievement award at this year's Game Developers Choice Awards.

Check out our interview with Warren Spector after a few words from the man himself:

You made some comments recently about the games industry fetishizing violence, particularly in relation to the content shown at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Can you tell us exactly what you meant when you said that violence in games will end up causing trouble?

I have to be clear: I have no problem with violent games. I don’t want to get tarred with that brush. I don't think violent games cause anything more than violent books or films, etc. It's entertainment. I've made plenty of games where you could swing a big sword, or fire a big gun.

But two things felt different to me this time [at E3 2012]: one, our graphics are now so good that it's not iconic anymore. When anything is iconic, you can take a step back and not feel it in your gut. When something looks real it becomes something different. So that bothered me. Two, the violence felt fetishistic. It didn't feel like things were in the service of the story, or that this was a natural outcome of this activity. In Deus Ex, for example, you could kill dogs. Now, I love dogs, so I made that moment as horrific as I could. I wanted you to feel it. In the real world, if you picked up a gun and shot it, it would be one of the few moments in your life that mattered. Something like that should be the experience in a game too.

My wife actually accidentally shot a dog in Deus Ex, and she was so horrified she never finished the game. I consider that a personal triumph: we made an act that in most games is rewarded as powerful as it could be in the real world.

Once you start talking about slow motion, and bullet time, and classical music being played, and 20-something game journalists screaming at the top of their lungs [when violence is shown in games at a place like E3]…it's bad taste. My medium has descended into bad taste, and that bothers me.

But it's not like all games are like this…

No, it's not like that's the totality of video games or anything. It's just that E3 is our biggest forum and the predominant message to the world from our biggest forum didn't reflect the variety and beauty of what we can do.

We crossed a line this year, and maybe that will change things. It's inappropriate for anybody to say other people should do or not do something; I don't want to do that. I've spent the last 30 years making games, and I ask myself: why isn't everybody making games like me? But it's not like I expect them to.

I wish there was more focus on other kinds of things [in the industry]. Look at Nintendo: their lineup is all very different from that. Nice pockets of different things here and there. We need to not present to the mainstream normal people that this is what we are. It's only a part of what we are.

Is it important that games strive for, and achieve, mainstream recognition?

It's not that it's important. It's cool that it's already happened. I long ago stopped being embarrassed to say that what I do is art. I know a lot of writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers…I know that the process they all go through is in essence exactly the same process that we as game developers go through. The end product may be different, but the goals and the process is the same. It's nice to be recognised as a medium of lasting value that can enrich people's lives and can have an impact on culture. We clearly have that now.

When I started, we were all just teenage boy Dungeons & Dragons players, you know? That's what it was. But that's not true anymore. Find someone who doesn't play games in the 21st century. A person who doesn't play games is outside the cultural mainstream now.

Has it happened? Yes! Look at all these game exhibitions. This ACMI exhibition, the Smithsonian museum in Washington, which also has an exhibition on games…I mean, are you kidding? My work in the Smithsonian? That's nuts. That didn't happen 20 years ago. We're there; we've made it.

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I've been asking everyone this question so far and have received some very interesting answers. What things have become easier, and what things have become harder, for you as a game developer in the last 20 or so years?

Nothing has become easier. Not one blessed thing. I've made some bad films, I've had novels published, I'm in a band, I've made some cartoons…and this is STILL the hardest I can imagine doing. Everything is so much easier than making games. But I keep doing it.

Why?

Because we're the first medium in the history of humankind that can do what we do. How often do you get to create a new medium of expression? It's new to this planet. We're the first medium that can turn audiences into storytellers. It's the first medium that doesn't answer questions: it asks them. Why would anybody ever want to do anything else [except create games]?

So why are things so hard then?

When I started, the first projects I worked on I did so with teams of 10 people. That was a big team. When you have 10 people working together, you can be democratic and collaborative and communication is easy. You're all there: one big hive mind.

There are almost 800 people working on Disney Epic Mickey 2. They're spread around the world in nine different locations. My job is to get all these people pulling in the same direction. It's a lot of hard work.

Are there moments when you wish you could just go back to a team of 10?

Of course! I absolutely love making games, but as a creative process my job is really to herd people and make sure everyone is going in the same direction. I also have to make sure I have a creative outlet too. I can't be the same guy on the game I used to be…although, I guess I could go off and make indie games, and maybe I will do that at some point in my life. That would be kind of interesting.

But I do other creative things: I write comic books, I have to make music, and other side projects. I try to scratch that itch by having side projects that are mine.

What about the AAA space? How has that evolved?

I've always lived in the AAA space, and one thing I've noticed is how the budgets are enormous now. Where does all this money go? I spend more in a day than I spent on my first game. It's crazy. Of course, the stakes are so much higher, and that increases the pressure.

When I started making games, we were all enthusiasts, we were all gamers…we did it because we just had to. Creatively, I mean. We didn't have a choice. We were working seven days a week until three in the morning because it was us on the screen there.

Now, it's not like that anymore. The first game developers conference I went to there were 285 people. Now there are 15,000. So what you're getting now is people who do it not because they're burning to do it, but because it's a great career and it's fun and they love games. They're doing it because it's their job, and they get paid…and that's different. It makes it harder. Not everybody has the same single-mindedness of purpose they used to have.

Until four or five years ago, the only way to get a game made was to get a publisher to give you a lot of money. That was hard. Now when you're asking for one hundred times more money, it's harder to get someone to back in what you want to do. When I first started, if your game went gold it means you could buy a Ferrari. That was selling 100,000 units. Now, games take 3 to 4 million units just to break even.

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But there has to be something that's good about the current landscape, right?

As hard as it is to make games and as much as I miss those days, there are so many more ways to reach an audience now. If you have an idea, you can now make a game. If you make a game, you can now reach an audience. It doesn't matter that it's only 10 or one hundred people. Digital distribution and Steam and Origin, and PSN and XBLA and e-Shop…there are so many ways to get your work out there.

Let's go back to that idea of you leaving the AAA space and going back to a team of 10 people to make smaller, independent games. Like what Peter Molyneux did, for example.

It's interesting that a guy in the AAA space could make that choice. I work for Disney, a big media company that tends to do things in a very big way. But even there, I can see that there is opportunity to do different things if, say, I suddenly decide that doing another two- to three-year project with that many people will send me crazy.

But if I left Disney, if I were to do that, I might do something small. I might do what Peter [Molyneux] is doing. There's a strong appeal to go back to those underworld days where there were literally nine of us in a draughty old basement.

How romantic.

It is romantic! At the time it was pure hell, but looking back, it is romantic: the romance of being in a garage making art. That's what it was. And it certainly has an appeal.

To find out more about GameSpot's Game Masters feature, visit the home page.

Read our first Game Masters interview with Tim Schafer.

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