Spector: We're not in a Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo World Anymore

Deus Ex and Epic Mickey designer discusses changing industry landscape, ownership in the digital age, and where he may be headed next.

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For the first time in 30 years, Warren Spector is jobless. The Deus Ex and Epic Mickey creator, however, doesn't think of it that way. He instead calls himself "blissfully unemployed."

Though Spector has been out of a job since Disney closed Junction Point Studios in January, that has not kept him from making headlines in the industry.

Earlier this month, he lashed out at the new Wolfenstein game, saying the world did not need a new "generically dark, monochromatic, FPS, kill-the-Nazi-giant-robot game." He has since apologized, but continues to believe there is "too little variety" in the industry today.

Spector is also heading up a new game development program at the University of Texas at Austin and will give the keynote address at the Captivate Conference and Expo in October.

I caught up with Spector recently and discussed a number of hot-button issues like the changing industry landscape, digital ownership in the digital age, the Wii U, and where he might be headed next.

You're giving the keynote at Captivate Conference during an uncertain transition period in the industry. Some are predicting doom and gloom while others believe this will be a watershed moment for the business. Where do you stand?

Things are certainly uncertain--no denying that! But as soon as you use the word 'predicting' you're asking for trouble. I mean, once you try to predict the outcome of a chaotic situation you're either going to get lucky or look like an idiot. Count me out! I'll just say I'm personally excited by the variety of things going on in gaming. In terms of graphics, gameplay, scope, platform, business model--you name it-- gaming is open to it. Gamers are open to it. That's pretty cool, pretty exciting.

Captivate is unique in that it's bringing games, music, and film together in one place. How do you foresee media convergence affecting game experiences going forward?

I think media convergence has already affected the game experience--we just haven't talked about it enough. That's one of the reasons I’m excited about Captivate. We have all these people making cinematic games without bringing in actual filmmakers. We have all these people including cinematic soundtracks and too often not including people with experience crafting those experiences. Game artists use the same tools as animators and CGI teams in other media. Maybe most important, game teams are now as big as movie teams (with budgets to match) and I'm sure we can learn things about team management, creative leadership and crafting coherent visions from people who've honed their crafts over the last 100-plus years. We need to learn from movie and music people--and teach them a thing or two, uh, too.

With music and film and TV, the barrier for entry is low, making those industries pretty mass market. Anyone can watch a movie or listen to an album. But with games, you need to buy a console and learn how to use a controller, among other things. Do you think games can become mass market?

Games are already mass market! You're just looking at the wrong kind of game. Angry Birds is huge. Minecraft is huge. A little closer to home, Call of Duty is huge. For developers, the barriers to entry have never been lower, as evidenced by the thriving and innovative indie movement. For publishers, there have never been as many ways to reach an audience--boxed product, digital, free-to-play, subscriptions, you name it. For players, there are now dozens of ways, dozens of places to play games. As a developer, I have to say, I'm as interested in making games for the billion or so phones and tablets out there as I am in making the kinds of games on the kinds of platform I've supported before. Doesn't a billion sound mainstream? It does to me. We're not in a Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo world anymore.

"We're not in a Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo world anymore."

Can you give a little teaser about what you plan to talk about during your keynote; games--and all entertainment today--seem more multidimensional than ever before. How does a leader prepare him or herself for these challenges in the workplace?

Well, your question answers itself! I want to talk about how you prepare yourself for creative and business leadership in the chaotic world we've been talking about here. It's about setting appropriate goals and then making sure those goals are shared by your team, your funding partners, and to your audience. It's about knowing what various media can learn from one another and what we maybe shouldn't learn. I want to talk about the challenges of working with large teams and with enormous budgets (and why you might not want to do that!). I think it's important to think about how you can innovate--and games still need innovation, despite all the strides we've made--how you innovate in any project, regardless of scope, funding source or intended audience. I also want to talk about how schools can play a role in all of this. But, you know, I've probably said too much already--gotta save something for the actual talk!

What are some of the challenges industry leaders face today that they didn't 5 or 10 years ago?

The answer to that question depends on what part of the industry you’re talking about. I guess we all share the problem of not enough time and money. That's pretty universal. But beyond that, if you're talking about a big console title, the biggest new challenges are budgets and team size. Look, Deus Ex cost something like $5 million on one platform back in 2000. We worked for about three years. With a team that was about 35 people. Nowadays, teams can be 150, 200, 300 people or more. And budgets are through the roof. We've all heard about $70 million games… $100 million games. Dealing with teams that big and that many dollars is something new, and people who've come up through the ranks may not be the best people to manage that sort of thing. But if you're talking about a smaller mobile project or a digitally distributed PC title, for example, the problem is how the heck do you position yourself to make money? And how do you set your unknown game apart from the hundreds of thousands of other titles out there on virtual shelves? Honestly, I sometimes think the game business I’m in now is a new business entirely from the one I grew up in.

Your game program at the University of Texas will be different in that it will focus on leadership and management of creative teams. Do you think the industry is lacking in this department today?

I do, well, sort of. I think we have some remarkable leaders in games today. There are some powerful, powerful producers and game directors out there. The problem is that there aren't enough of them to keep up with the growth of the business. And all of those powerful producers and creative types got their training on the job, over the course of many projects and many years. We don't have the time for the next generation of leaders to learn what some of us did. We need them sooner rather than later.

How do you think the industry stands to benefit from better educated leaders?

I wouldn't necessarily say 'better educated.' Certainly differently educated. As I said, the industry has systems… no, that's too strong a word. Within the industry, certain people with a certain kind of personality can, if they're lucky enough to find themselves in the right place on the right project, led by the right people, become project leaders themselves. After five to ten years. The role of universities--or, at least, the [University of Texas] program--is to bring some pedagogic rigor to the problem. I don't believe any program can offer a kind of endrun around the dues-paying process. What I hope is that we can give people some skills that will shorten the dues-paying period for people who aspire to leadership positions. Success should depend less on luck than it has for decades and still does today.

The program's aim, as I understand it, is to teach and focus on what other courses are leaving out. Why do you think courses at different schools have skipped over these?

First, let me be clear that there are some incredibly good game development programs, and art and animation programs, even some places that are beginning to teach design pretty effectively. There are places that focus on games as art and the creation of small-team projects of that sort. You'll never hear from me that other schools aren't doing a great job. What the Denius-Sams Game Design Academy brings to the table is kind of the next step after students (or industry professionals) learn the lessons those other schools teach.

Microsoft has said it believes next-gen console sales will rise thanks to the devices shifting from games-only to entertainment devices. What do you make of the Xbox One?

"I think next gen consoles as entertainment devices rather than game machines is a perilous idea."

I honestly haven’t been paying much attention--I'm on vacation! But responding to the specifics of your question, I think next gen consoles as entertainment devices rather than game machines is a perilous idea. I mean, I already have more ways than I can deal with to access the programming I want and the Internet and all its pleasures. And if I want to multitask while watching television, I already have to decide which of my devices to do it on. I kind of get a next-gen game machine, but competing for the home entertainment business? We'll see how that goes.

Do you think Nintendo can turn it around with the Wii U?

I hope so. I've been pretty up front about my enthusiasm for Nintendo. I think we need a company that's dedicated to games. Every time I visit Nintendo, I’m relieved to have spent time in a place where you can just feel how much everyone loves games. And, really, how many times have people written Nintendo off? I think you underestimate them at your peril.

What are some industry trends that excite you and what are some that scare you?

I'm encouraged by a sentiment, expressed by more and more developers, that we need to broaden the range of acceptable game content. That's long overdue. I'm psyched at the creativity of indie gamers who aren't just making games as portfolio pieces for big developers and publishers. I'm hugely encouraged by the broad acceptance of games by millions of people who don’t self-define as gamers-- at this point it isn't hyperbole to say that nearly everyone is a gamer. If we see that as somehow bad… if we don’t take advantage of that… if we remain mired exclusively in the world of teenage male power fantasies--we're nuts. What am I scared of? Well, it's hard not to be concerned that most of us have no idea what platform we’ll be developing on next… that we have no idea how to monetize (man I hate that word…) our games… that the impact of big data and metrics might continue to overrun and override creativity. We're definitely in a best of times/worst of times moment.

Microsoft and Sony have not come out with clear statements yet regarding used games for their next-gen platforms, but clearly gamers have lots to say on the topic. In this digital age, do you think we really own what we buy any more?

Funny, I was just talking about this with a friend. I'm a huge fan of e-books, but the more I buy and download, the more I worry that someone could just take them all away from me. I worry a lot about not owning things I've paid for. I suppose if the cost came down--way down!--I might worry about it less. But it's a huge concern. Having said that, I think that boat has sailed. We live in a world of virtual goods where none of us own the 0s and 1s. What are you going to do?

A former colleague of mine once wrote an opinion piece asking why anyone would ever want to be a game developer. Hours are long, turnover is high, pay is average by an entertainment industry perspective, there are no unions. Why enter the gaming field?

"We live in a world of virtual goods where none of us own the 0s and 1s. What are you going to do?"

Damn fine question! I know very few people who get into games to make a buck. For most of us, it isn't just a job--it’s a thing you have to do. Frankly, about half of my interview process is me trying to talk the interviewee out of coming to work at my studio. I run through all the terrible aspects of game development you mention. Some folks just walk out, eyes wide and head shaking. A bunch of 'em stick around (obviously) and I tell them, good, if I could talk you out of making games you wouldn't survive anyway. Making games is grindingly hard, but when you see people playing your game, hear people talking about your game, read about how your game affected players emotionally… That makes up for a lot, believe me. If you love games and get the opportunity to make them, you do it. End of story. (Of course, when I stop to think that I've been doing this for 30 years, I’m kind of blown away I've lasted this long!)

You have a background in writing and many of the games you've made in the past have been story and character driven so I'm curious to know how you perceive the current state of narrative in games?

In some ways I'm encouraged. Used to be I would literally be told, 'You're not allowed to say the word 'story' again.' That doesn't happen anymore. I'm psyched that games like Heavy Rain and The Walking Dead are telling stories as compelling as a lot of novels and movies. And half the faves about Bioshock Infinite seem to revolve around its story. That's all terrific and proves, I think, that gamers want and will support games that feature strong stories. On the flip side, if you look at how those games, and others, tell their stories, it's pretty state-of-the-art circa 1990. That's a little concerning. There's a place for games like that, telling stories in Choose Your Own Adventure style or segregating gameplay and story cinematics--I love those games. But I do think we need to stretch a bit, creatively. We need to find new ways of telling genuinely interactive stories. We need to empower players far more than we have to date. Or maybe we just need to pay more attention to some indie games and borrow what's appropriate. There’s some cool, innovative stuff happening storywise in games if you look for it. It's just not happening as much as I’d like in the triple-A space.

What do you think about what Quantic Dream is doing with Beyond: Two Souls; bringing in actors like Willem Dafoe and Ellen Page and doing full-body and voice motion capture?

I think it'll look great and the acting'll be better than in most games. Beyond that, I don't know much. I just hope players can drive the story instead of just following along, which doesn't have much to do with actors or motion capture.

You have spoken out before about games that don't challenge players to think. But sometimes, I just want to play a game for the "fun" element of it; I don't want to be challenged. I just want to play. Can games do both?

I think games can do both. When we were working on Deus Ex, I used to say you could play it as a straight shooter, if you wanted, but thinking about things would pay off. In other words, you could think but you didn't have to. More to the point though, I don't think every game needs to challenge players to think. I just think more of them should do that. (And by the way, I’m not talking about thinking about how to solve a puzzle or do a math problem--I'm talking about thinking about what’s right and wrong… about how to solve a specific problem… about how to deal with the consequences of your choices.) Please don't paint a portrait of me as the guy who thinks all games should do or be anything.

The games you've made in the past have not stuck to one genre or another; are you focusing on anything specifically for your next body of work?

If by 'genre' you mean content of a particular sort--fantasy, SF, flight sim, etc.--you're right, I've flitted from one genre to another, sometimes even combining them in ways that cause me, the team, marketing people and reviewers nightmares. (I like causing nightmares!) But thought about differently, every game I've worked on has been about one thing, regardless of its content. Good, bad or mediocre, every game has been about empowering players to tell their own stories. That’s the thing games do that no other medium can do. It’s the thing we need to work on and improve on. It's what gets me excited enough about a game concept to spend three years of my life living with it.

You've also worked with some very big teams; 100s and more in number. On projects like these, you have numerous stakeholders and are in charge of peoples' lives in a way. Would you return to this scale of development or does something smaller pique your interest?

Never say never--especially when you’re out of work (or, as I like to put it, 'blissfully unemployed')--but I hope whatever comes next is either completely different or, at least, much smaller. There are two things that I'm most psyched about right now--one is finding ways to take player-driven stories to a whole new place and the other is working with smaller teams on tablet/mobile games. Smaller would be great. And making a 'real' game that has the potential to reach a billion people? Who says no to that?

Games are still relatively young; dating back about 30 years. Compared to film, games are still infants. How do you see games evolving as times goes on?

Man, I don't know… I don’t think games are going away. And I no longer think we'll end up marginalized, appealing to a small audience of hardcore fans. I do see a future where games are everywhere--on your TV, on your computer, on consoles, on tablets, and on phones. It seems inevitable that those devices will become more and more powerful. I just hope we use all that power for something other than prettier pictures. We've barely scratched the surface of what games can do. As the future unfolds, we have to dig deep and not be satisfied with what we can do now. My guess is there are some young whippersnappers out there working on something that's going to change the world--something I can't even imagine. I sure hope so.

I'm guessing job offers have been presented to you in the months following Junction Point's closure. Did you seriously consider any of them?

I was exhausted and pretty burned out when JPS closed. You try working 30 years without a vacation! I kind of got it in my head that I’d stay home until I got bored, whenever that might be. (Not bored yet!) I didn't want to go out and look for anything, but I spread the word that I'd talk to anybody who wanted to talk to me--from startup to multinational corporation. I'd listen and if the perfect thing showed up, I'd do it. Honestly, I was kind of hoping nothing that good would show up! Lots of people wanted to talk--very flattering!--and, damn it, there were a handful I couldn't just reject out of hand. So I'm talking to some people and seeing how perfect the opportunities are. You may see me coming back soon. Or you may not. I’m playing it by ear.

If you were to retire tomorrow, would you be creatively satisfied with your accomplishments?

What is this thing you call 'satisfied?' I don't know the meaning of the word. I'm proud of what the teams I've worked with have accomplished. I'm proud of having had the opportunity to contribute in some way to the advancement of a few careers. I'm proud that several developers have told me how games I've worked on have changed the way they think about what they do. And I've had a ton of fun speaking at conferences and universities around the world. But 'satisfied?' I think retirement follows satisfaction, not the other way around. As long as you have games you want to make or goals you want to achieve, retirement isn't an option and satisfied is just a word I can’t really apply to myself.

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Discussion

66 comments
hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

He created Deus Ex you know, you shouldnt throw him off for the sole reason that he made Epic Mickey, as a much of a failure it was, and continue to shove Nintendo skeptism like you guys usually do.

hippiesanta
hippiesanta

spector .... playing games in android and pc iz  old

mutley89
mutley89

To be fair Epic Mickey is garbage so I'll ignore everything Warren says.

KleenexK
KleenexK

We're in a PC free to play games world now.

angry_cowtipper
angry_cowtipper

Isn't this guy coming from a shuttered studio and more than two failed games, which are quite non-"teenage male power fantasy"? Why does what he has to say matter at this point in history?

Gamernametaken
Gamernametaken

hahaha this game is a joke with a capital J seriously grandpa wake up and welcome to the age of Playstation  nintendo is done... only place i play nintendo games now is on an emulator. 

Kashmiro
Kashmiro

We don't live in a Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo world anymore? That's why he only releases games on Nintendo now?

hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

"And, really, how many times have people written Nintendo off? I think you underestimate them at your peril."

Truer words havent been spoken

CyrusDrake20
CyrusDrake20

I had respect for Spector before he ever released Epic Mickey. Then I met and talked with him at an Austin convention. He doesn't have much respect for people, which made me lose respect for him. The guy has got an ego, that's for sure. The success of Deus Ex made his head the size of Jupiter. Given his complete lack of respect for others, I bid him good luck achieving anything on a similar scale as Deus Ex. I'm betting it won't happen though.

hardeddie
hardeddie

The first non copy paste job by Eddie? Well done enjoyed reading it.

Gwoolhurme
Gwoolhurme

I'm honestly shocked at how many negative comments there are. After reading the article, what he had to say was interesting. I am not a fan of Epic Mickey, but I respect someone who has worked so long in this industry.

nocoolnamejim
nocoolnamejim moderator

Why does Gamespot care so much about what this man has to say? What is this, the seventh article about his viewpoints in the last week or so?

Downloadpilot
Downloadpilot

I definitely like Warren's attitude, and his perspective is spot-on. Innovation, technical advancement, and new developers are never bad things. And while I've never played ANY of his games (simply cause I didn't follow his work before Epic Mickey 1), I can always appreciate a diverse body of work. We need more guys who don't just play it safe and experiment with any genre they're in like Mr. Spector here -- in my opinion.


Grenadeh
Grenadeh

The man is right, I'll give him that.

ChiefFreeman
ChiefFreeman

Has been.  No one cares what he thinks anymore.

John_Read
John_Read

can't believe this guys made deus ex

Hurvl
Hurvl

"As a developer, I have to say, I'm as interested in making games for the billion or so phones and tablets out there as I am in making the kinds of games on the kinds of platform I've supported before." As a PC-only gamer since 1998, I have to say, I'm as interested in playing games for the other available platforms out there now as I was before - i.e. not very interested. It's good that Warren Spector is open to make games for other than the traditional/hardcore platforms, that means more possible job opportunities and more variety for him, but I'm not open to play anything that's not on my preferred platform. I don't expect to be interested in anything he's going to be involved with, but that doesn't mean I'm uninterested in hearing what he has to say. This was an interesting article.

"We live in a world of virtual goods where none of us own the 0s and 1s. What are you going to do?" Whine, rant, rage, you know, the usual.

Devils-DIVISION
Devils-DIVISION

The more I hear from this guy, the more I feel sorry for him.


bbdavo55
bbdavo55

WHY THE FUCK IS WARREN SPECTOR ALL OVER THE GAMESPOT NEWS? HE CAN'T EVEN MAKE A GOOD MICKEY MOUSE GAME! FUCK OFF!

Unfallen_Satan
Unfallen_Satan

When I was young and he made Deus Ex, he was awesome to me. He's not awesome to me anymore, but Epic Mickey is game I'd want my kids, when I have kids, to play. I hope he will make more games in the future, maybe use his connection with Disney and Disney's connection to Studio Ghibli to make some truly extraordinary games.

Mkeegs79
Mkeegs79

a guy with no job and made a game that bombed. Hmm. This guy is irrelevant. He is at least to me.

Vambran
Vambran

We are not in a Sega , Atari and Neo Geo World anymore. TV's are flat now and people no longer use 56k.  Times are changing and ... what was i saying again? Oh yeah get those kids off my dang lawn i'm trying to watch my stories.


BrianC6234
BrianC6234

Phil Spector isn't very smart. This nonsense and his comment about Nintendo. Why even listen to this guy anyway?

georgebot84
georgebot84

Spector has a lot to say for a guy who has not made a good game in a long time.
Maybe he should focus on creating and developing a decent game, rather than doing interviews and trying to garner hype for himself.

I see an article about what Spector thinks everyday on GS, Kojima barely ever talks.  Which one has made a good/great game recently?

monstachruck
monstachruck

I wonder if he's required by contract to have some sort of Mickey-related stuffed animal in every photo of himself now?

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

Well, I wonder if he's thinking of making Ultima Adventures part 3.  He was a character in Savage Empire and Martians Dreams after all.  Hell, I found out about the guy partially because he was in my party in Martian Dreams.  I think I gave him a shotgun and he pulled a Fallout 1 "Ian" and shot me in the back a bunch of times.  But he hit a lot of enemies too.  Mostly.


YukoAsho
YukoAsho

I don't know if I'd agree that "the boat has sailed" on digital ownership.  People still buy real books, and most music comes DRM free.  The movie industry still sees value in physical blu-ray releases.  Really, the only industry that's trying to push the digital-only agenda is video gaming, and considering the next gen systems are shipping with BD drives, I don't see the digital only agenda succeeding any time soon.

hotdiddykong
hotdiddykong

@Kashmiro 

You know what i find funny?


Epic Mickey 2 went Multiplatform instead of Nintendo exclusive and it become WORSE

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

@CyrusDrake20 

Aw, that's not cool.  He seemed like he'd be nice guy in person from his interview.  I guess I should've predicted that when he kept shooting me and the rest of the party in Ultima Adventures: Martian Dreams when I gave him the scattergun or shotgun or whatever it was called.

Origin probably based that aspect of his game character's personality off of the real person.

Gamernametaken
Gamernametaken

@Gwoolhurme Not saying you shouldn't respect the man for what he has accomplished, but he talks a lot of shit and that i can't tolerate. #1 Sony has sold more consoles than any other brand on the planet since ps1... MS has started to get good at that as well... and we have lived in a MS world since what windows 95? or was it even before that? who cares point is his statement was retarded... and we do live in a Sony and Microsoft world trailed by Nintendo. 

Gamernametaken
Gamernametaken

@nocoolnamejim Because uh i guess the guy is jobless and they trying to keep him interesting and hopefully find him a job at Nintendo?

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

@John_Read I know right?

Just what happened in the last decade that changed him from a brilliant writer to a self-righteous prick and a hack?

What a horrifying thing.

Cloud_imperium
Cloud_imperium

@Vambran We were not in Sega and Atari world anymore but now we are also not in Big 3's world . Something else will take over casual gaming market . It have always been like this , whether you like it or not but no console market is permanent forever .

voljin1987
voljin1987

@georgebot84 comparing spector with kojima?? lol.. atleast spector made a game... epic mickey was quite good btw.. mgs4 was a dumbed and watered down "movie" with some gameplay elements just thrown in to classify it as a game.. last good game by kojima was mgs3 snake eater.. you wanna know why.. coz it was a game... with gameplay and not 15 hrs of cutscenes..

DukeMagnum
DukeMagnum

@monstachruck the dude's a big nintendo fan, posing with stuffed animals probably comes natural to him.

Ovirew
Ovirew

@YukoAsho I hope you're right, though I tend to think it'll be a tough fight to keep physical games alive.  I guess only time can tell how things will go.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

@Icepick_Trotter @Vambran 

Yeah, they priced themselves out of the market honestly.  Too bad, they made some great franchises too.  I was such a KOF addict for a while.

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

@voljin1987 @georgebot84 While MGS4 was indeed the weakest of the series, it's still miles better than anything out there.

"last good game by kojima was mgs3 snake eater"

Opinion. Peace Walker has the most content and gameplay out of any MGS game and is critically acclaimed to be one of the best MGS games.

Rising, despite fan backlash, was eventually accepted and turned out to be an amazing game that competes strongly with Hack 'n' Slash games like Bayonetta and DMC.

MGSV is building massive hyph, uses an all-new engine, very graphically advanced, and seems to innovate the MGS formula further.

What has Warren done? Oh that's right a cute little licensed Disney game that tried out some cool stuff but eventually fell into mediocrity.

georgebot84
georgebot84

@voljin1987 @georgebot84 Warren, is that you?  Look at the review scores of MGS4 and compare with Epic Mickey.  
There are a lot of other developers that make good games, that don't throw out baseless assumptions all the time.  Ken Levine is another one.
I'll care what Warren has to say after he makes a decent game.  Epic Mickey was a huge let down by the way, both critically and commercially.

mike300zxt
mike300zxt

@Ovirew @YukoAsho Europe has already enforced second hand sales of digital good. I hope it happens in North America as well.  If I buy something, digital or not, I want the ability to sell it when I'm done with it.

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

@voljin1987 @arc_salvo @Icepick_Trotter @Vambran 

No, it's cool.  I made that avatar to object to another guy who used to have a Phoenix Wright avatar who hung around Gamespot in the past.  I think I objected to a few of his comments, but I don't think I've seen him in quite a while.

voljin1987
voljin1987

@georgebot84 you are confusing epic mickey with epic mickey 2..  epic mickey sold quite well.. also epic mickey 2 wasnt a bad game.. it just did not do anything different from the original which is why it was panned.

i am just pointing out that atleast spector created something we could play.. and epic mickey for all its limitations was quite fun.. something mgs 4 wasnt. if i had i sit through a 15 hr cutscene, i wouldnt have purchased a game.. i would have purchased a sitcom/television serial drama dvd..