Warren Spector proclaims victory in gaming culture wars

PAX 2010: Epic Mickey, Deus Ex creator kicks off fan-centric trade show by urging greater acceptance of the diversity inherent to the interactive medium.

Who was there: The 2010 Penny Arcade Expo keynote address was delivered by Junction Point founder and Epic Mickey creative director Warren Spector.

What he talked about: In previous years, the Penny Arcade Expo in Seattle, Washington, has been christened by individuals that rank among the pantheon of gaming and geek culture, ranging from actor Wil Wheaton to gaming icons Ken Levine and Ron Gilbert. This year was no different, as the creators of the popular Penny Arcade Web comic landed Junction Point founder Warren Spector as the PAX 2010 keynote speaker.

Warren Spector is currently working on Epic Mickey.

Spector's reputation in the gaming industry is well earned. Having started his game-design career working at Origin Systems in 1989 on such games as Wing Commander and Ultima VI, Spector went on to be the creative force behind such classics as the Deus Ex and Thief franchises. In 2005, he formed Junction Point, and by 2007, the company had been acquired by Disney Interactive to create Epic Mickey, which is due on the Wii later this year.

Spector began his keynote address recapping his personal history and how his formative years had very little to do with gaming. When he was a kid, he said, computers weren't around--let alone home gaming systems--and his interests skewed toward superheroes, fantasy novels, comic books, and sci-fi movies.

"I can quote pretty much the entire HP Lovecraft collection," he said. "I was really a nerdy little kid."

As the years progressed, Spector's interests remained much the same, as he latched on to the worlds of Batman and Bugs Bunny, as well as television shows like The Three Stooges and music from The Beatles. Spector noted that many of these forms of expression were derided by his elders, and the fact that they are now cultural emblems "goes to show you that you never know what's going to have lasting value."

And then came the advent of Pong, but Spector said that while he sunk many a quarter into the arcade machine, it wasn't a particularly impactful moment in his life. What did impact him, though, was LucasArts' Star Wars, which he saw in a theater in Chicago. Spector said that until that moment, the sci-fi genre that he knew and loved had been largely marginalized, as people believed that it couldn't ever turn a buck. However, this movie validated science fiction with the mainstream, he said.

Around this time, Spector said that he also become engrossed in Dungeons & Dragons. His experience with D&D was different, he said, because his first taste came while he was an adult. Since he wasn't a kid when he came to it, he never considered it geeky or weird, or had anyone tell him he was engaging with the devil by playing it. Instead, the game, as well as others like it, was merely the way he and his friends socialized.

"D&D at its best was about collaborative storytelling, and that set me on a course that I'm still on today," he said.

That course took an abrupt turn toward gaming when he walked into a friend's living room one day and saw people huddled around a television set, playing Star Raiders on the Atari 800. Though he still did not know he would become a game designer, he became infatuated with the thought of a gaming console in his living room.

He took his first steps toward his future career in 1983, when he joined Steve Jackson Games. From there, he moved to TSR. In 1989, he finally landed at Richard Garriott's Origin Systems, and the rest is history.

As for why all this matters, Spector said that a new medium arises only about once a century and that those interested in gaming today are seeing it grow and flourish before their eyes. However, he believes that the medium is in peril, in part because of the xenophobia many gamers exhibited toward those who are just now becoming interested in gaming.

"We have a brotherhood, and for all of the confidence, when we go out in public, I've seen people get insecure," he said. "It's as if we yearn to be accepted by the mainstream, but when the mainstream takes interest, we start complaining. We get upset when developers try to reach a casual audience. Nongamers enjoying the things we have enjoyed for years, as if them discovering that diminishes us some."

"I want to celebrate the ways that we are no longer special, no longer unique," he continued. "We spent 20 years to convince the masses that we are cool, and to stop beating us up, and now we've won."

Spector went on to say that "we have to get past this not wanting to let others in the club" and that gamers need to embrace the fact that the world is "catching up and catching on." He said that the mainstream's interest will only serve to validate and support games as a cultural entity, and not just a fad that will disappear. He also emphasized that all great forms of media went through an acclimation phase, where they were first vilified and then wholly embraced.

This attitude, he said, is a generational one, in which those of one generation refuse to accept the culture of the one that follows them. Spector said that when he was a kid, the marginalized culture was TV, comics, Elvis, and Bugs Bunny.

Spector emphasized also that gaming is in the cultural crosshairs right now, and those on the inside cannot afford to alienate outsiders with interest. He brought up the controversy surrounding California's violent game law, the opening arguments for which will be heard by the Supreme Court on November 2. "This date could be the start of when we are the first entertainment medium ever to be denied First Amendment protection," he said.

Therefore, it is important to increase the gamer army, he said, because when grandparents and little sisters and whoever else become interested, the medium as a whole is more difficult to marginalize. Further, it is these types of players who will continue pushing the medium forward, because more players will demand more types of play experiences beyond just saving the world from aliens or killing dragons with broadswords.

Spector then issued a challenge to those in attendance. For gamers, he said that it is important to demand more from their experience and to urge developers to give them something new and better. And in a bit of self-referential humor, he said that the core crowd should give developers the chance to change their place, making games about mice and not just about men in trench coats with dark glasses.

He then called on developers to "honor what makes games unique," saying that the industry doesn't need more rail shooters or games that "ape the conventions of 35-year-old paper RPGs." Publishers, in turn, need to give developers room to be creative and take chances.

And to everyone, he said that the industry and those who follow it need to get over their collective inferiority complex. "We are different, younger, less mature, but as potent of a cultural force [as] anything else on this planet," he said.

Quote: "Every activity that has survived has become an insider activity. All you have to do is wait for the previous generation to [said quietly] die."-- Warren Spector, on gaming's ascension to mainstream acceptance.

Takeaway: Spector's keynote address emphasized that gamers need to embrace the diversity inherent to the gaming medium, saying that the core crowd should not snub those with more casual interests. In turn, the entrance into the mainstream will solidify the medium's place as a cultural staple, much like plays, novels, and comics before it.

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Discussion

49 comments
tenaus
tenaus

@RealFabioSooner nice picture

6h05tly
6h05tly

@Giorgio879: That's exactly why I'm buying Epic Mickey. It's about time a platformer other than Mario is re-imagining the genre :)

Giorgio879
Giorgio879

He is right, both the community and developers must embrace the diversity of the medium and it's audience. Also, publishers should really let developers explore new grounds, if they come with a new concept, support them so they can execute it well is the best way to secure success. In my opinion, the gaming industry needs to grow to a point where not only audiences can find anything they might be interested in, but also that developers are allowed to create games they want to, not being severely limited by the notion of "only AAA FPSs bring true profit", big and small games deserve a chance, sure, sometimes a game or a concept will fail miserably, but is better for the medium that developers are allowed to try, regardless if they fail or success at the long run.

Shadowboro
Shadowboro

Wow, after reading this article I've just lost a lot of the respect I've had for this man and all the contributions he made to core gaming. "We get upset when developers try to reach a casual audience. Nongamers enjoying the things we have enjoyed for years, as if them discovering that diminishes us some". How can you say that? How can a man with your intellect and creative brilliance be blind to all the harm that casual and social gaming have caused over the last few years. Fewer hardcore games, lower (or close to no) difficulty or challenge to completing a game, dumbed down gameplay mechanics so the "casual" crowd can enjoy them too and that's to name just a few of the problems this trend caused. It's sad to see that a man like Spector who is such a respected person in the gaming community and has given so much to it can't seem to stay in touch with what the people who enjoyed and respected his work - the real gamers - want from a videogame and is perfectly ok with giving them the middle finger and jumping on the latest money grabbing scheme. It's just sad!

YukoAsho
YukoAsho

Gag me with a spoon, Mr. Spencer. Gamers don't reject nongamers because they're "entering the club." Gamers reject nongamers because it makes our lives more difficult when we have to fish through the never-ending sea of gimmicky crap borne of a misguided desire to create the latest fad. Indeed, these cynical pieces of shovelware only serve to alienate said nongamers. Really, how many of the Wii's touted "new audience" are going to come back for another system? They already barely buy games because they've already bought Wii Play or whatever. Thankfully the film industry has (mostly) moved on from this, and I fully expect the gaming industry to move on from this silly, gimmick-driven phase and go back to what we were doing before - luring people in with quality experiences, rather than flashy lights and silly flailing. Also, considering that Mr. Specter hasn't been involved in a game of any worth since Deus Ex and Thief, maybe he shouldn't talk like he's coming off the mountaintop with the Commandments in hand. The last two people to do that were Richard Gariott and John Romero, and you saw how it turned out for THEM.

Langway
Langway

@Truelori He was the keynote speaker. There is no requirement to cover up, or not cover up, what you have, or have not failed at when being invited to deliver a keynote. He and I are also of the same generation, and believe me when I say that we are all very happy about not having to press a start button anymore. Of course, there is still that annoying "power on" button. Maybe your generation can take care of that for us.

TrueIori
TrueIori

He just trying to sell his game , all the other crap he spewing is just nonsense to cover up the fact he has not made a good game in years. If it where up to him in 10 years we all be playing games that revolve around pressing the start button...

akiwak
akiwak

@ the_requiem You are missing the point completely then. The Bread and Butter of any industry is the ability to offer a good variety. That you think that there should be a debate between Casual and Hardcore shows that you did not pay attention to a single word Warren was saying. If we are just accepting enough to just consider ourselves gamers then the industry can continue to grow and flourish without the negative stereotype that is currently perceived. Lets just accept that there will be other flavors and just because there are other flavors doesn't mean I have to buy them. Not every single flavor out there has to be to my liking but if my friends or family seem to enjoy it; who am I to say that they are not true Ice Cream enthusiast? It's become somewhat off-putting to try out gaming for newcomers when the control already looks like more than what they can handle. I've been playing since the days of Atari and Nintendo when we only had to worry about 2-3 buttons. Now new gamers have to worry about over 11 different functions on a control PLUS the fact that now buttons can also be combined or lightly press for a different output. As long as the gaming community continues to grow, who cares how many get converted from Casual to Hardcore as long as it happens.

the_requiem
the_requiem

@akiwak If you notice I didn't agree or disagree with either. My point was hitomo getting all those thumbs down even though he made a good post and explained where he came from. Good analogy with ice-creams. But remember, even after all those flavors, vanilla chocolate and strawberry are bread and butter of ice-cream industry. Am as eclectic with my games as I'm with ice-creams, yet there is nothing more satisfying than a load of chocolate ice-cream, or playing God of War NUR+. Comparing to other "arts", you can see even though there are all kinds of movies being made, yet only a few specific ones of specific genre get the summer blockbuster treatment. One key point missing in this casual vs hardcore debate is that casuals don't go hardcore as much as hardcores go casual [job, family, life etc. forcing them to play bit-sized casual games more often than spend a weekend playing Starcraft2]

akiwak
akiwak

@the_requiem Let me simplify what Warren was saying and relate it to Ice Cream. Let's see I'm guessing here that the most popular flavors of ice cream are Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry. What if all Ice Cream companies only came out with those flavors only. Yes they are the most popular amongst Ice Cream fans but then we would just grow tired of them. What would be the incentive to buy this companies Ice Cream versus the other. Sure One company might focus on make it low fat but others would maybe try to make twice as much fattening and double the sugar. Companies could try varying degrees of such combinations but in the end we would still only get Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry. Many people like these flavors but many people will also like to try new flavors. Warren is simply trying to make Pistachio Ice Cream and maybe follow it up with Coconut. @ hitomo Just because you love Chocolate, Vanilla and Strawberry doesn't mean that's WHAT I LIKE.... I would like a little bit more variety and I'm sure others who may not be fans of ice cream might be willing to try it, if a certain flavor catches their eye. Lets keep an open mind and allow everyone to have Ice Cream! Many different flavors, lets find some for you and let us help others find one for them.

RealFabioSooner
RealFabioSooner

@andy8913 Spot on! I've noticed this trend too. It's what I call the prog rock syndrome - execution is more important than concept. I can understand that gaming, as an interactive pursuit which depends a lot more on immersion, benefits a lot from technical execution, but it would be good to see reviewers giving more weight to new concepts. @tenaus I don't think focusing on one title in particular will be any good, 'cause when we stick to one or two works personal vision and opinion starts to factor in too heavily. And yes, of course a bunch of games try new things that simply don't work out, are poorly executed, or are downright not fun. But let's be honest here, most reviews work on the familiar and build on their scores as long as these familiar elements are progressively well-executed.

the_requiem
the_requiem

@hitomo: Kind of disappointed with all the thumbs down you're getting. For all the complaining I've read about casual gaming and folks hating/disagreeing without giving good reasons, one would expect your post to be better appreciated. You've raised some good counter-points to what Warren said, but looks like most folks here have already lined up to be sheared.

isshiah
isshiah

@hannify i think our generation is used to technology moving at a fast pace. i doubt we'll be left behind.

6h05tly
6h05tly

@tenaus: Well, since I played the game myself, it wasn't the gameplay that made it different (but one of the better examples of a 3rd party dev taking use of the Wii controls), but it was the mature/adult aspect that diversified itself from most of the Wii software out there. It is a rarity to find mature content on a Nintendo platform so this was an answer for us grown-up gamers to enjoy a console that focuses on all types of demographics (casual, core, non-gamers, new gamers, etc.)

VarietyMage
VarietyMage

Spector just needs to remember what happens when people force the demise of an activity (I'm looking at you, Richard Garriott). If enough of the previous generation say enough, that activity dies instead of the previous generation - goodbye, Ultima, hello WOW and Everquest. Same goes for AD+D 4th edition - I hope it dies with all the spectacle of buggy Windows Vista (and its patched clone, Windows 7). Backwards compatibility in everything is necessary if you want to retain the current fan base. Don't piss off your fans, ever.

isshiah
isshiah

he is a wise man. all this 'save the children' nonsense will stop once we get a generation of younger politicians who know what they're are talking about - instead of grumpy old 70 year olds making decisions on technology.

tenaus
tenaus

@andy8913 Innovation is good, but when the game is not as fun as something that sticks to an older formula, it's harder to justify buying it. Also what was it that No more heroes did differently?

andy8913
andy8913

@6h05tly Totally agree, developers need to take more risks with game design, more unusual and innovative approaches to the way games are made. The problem is the industry as a whole needs to start embracing this. How many times do we see titles which try something different - No More Heroes, Beyond Good & Evil, Mirror's Edge, Madworld, Alan Wake - scoring 7-8 in the gaming press? Yet games which retread the same old ground, like the new COD, Halo, and Gears of War, all being hailed as masterpieces with scores of 9+. Look at Starcraft 2 - most reviews admitted it was just the original with a fresh lick of paint, yet its one of the highest rated (and best selling) pc games of recent times. Some would argue that the lower scores reflect flaws in the games I mentioned and others like them, but surely when you try something new you can't expect everyting to gel perfectly first time? Maybe reviewers and gamers alike should be more forgiving of the flaws in games that truly break new ground...

syafiqjabar
syafiqjabar

@silverdoe Maybe you've never heard of Deus Ex?

ElisabethinCA
ElisabethinCA

@Hitomo - No, the problem w/ games and gaming is people like you. So "grandma and little kids" have no right to be gaming? And dev's shouldn't make games that reach family audiences? You and people like you are the reason gaming gets such a bad name. Your arrogance that dev's should only cater to you and what you like, and spend every resource they have developing only games and hardware that you like is just appalling. You obviously have a personality disorder because your me, me, me attitude isn't normal. Why can't there be games out there for everybody to enjoy? Because the world revolves only around you? Do us all a favor, go crawl back under the rock that you came out of. I for one enjoy a lot of the AAA games as well as the ones that never reach mass marketing. And at the same time I do love to watch my mom play the Wii w/ my niece and nephew. Especially when the weather is bad and they can't go out and play. What an ass you are.

ChamomileBaths
ChamomileBaths

I was an avid gamer for years. Now all I play is iPhone games. Tell me what you want, but for $60 I can play 30-40 games that are all fresh and different. As opposed to one game that's run of the mill but loaded with features (if the gameplay's stale, I don't care about the features)

gbrading
gbrading moderator

I completely agree with Warren Spector. Inclusiveness and diversity are crucial.

hitomo
hitomo

lol ... just had a look at the screens for epic.mikey ... man ... no wonder hes takling all that bull, if he wants to sell this game to anyone ...

hitomo
hitomo

yeah, right .. waterdown my gameing experience even more by making me play games that wehre created to serrve the needs of grandma and some little kids, wich are better off playing outside and getting to know the real world give me games that are technically masterpieces on the other hand and totaly bugfree and polished on the other hand, as long as the devs arnt willing to fullfill those two simple promisses, everything else is just marketing bla so, Disney wants to have its share on the gaming-market ? and here is Warren S. to ease and soften the masses and also hyping them for the upcoming Disney Software the market isnt evolving by the thoughts of dinosaurs like Warren S. or Peter M. , they are only hollow ankermans for faceless profitoriented companies never forget that playing a game is always just PLAYING, games can reflect the culture they are created for, but just sitting around, playing isnt creating any cultureal value mass production and massconsumption is what destroys individualism and quality I cant understand that gamers would sell all there ideals and things videogaming as interactive.media stands for, just because some guy who didnt make a noteworthy game in years promise them that they will be threated with more respect and being accepted as cultural staple in return dont go mainstream! ... you could as well poke your eyes out and let warren s. guide you through the rest of your life

6h05tly
6h05tly

Everything Spector said is absolutely true. Coming from my own experiences in this gaming generation I'm a bit disappointed that developers are more focused on "selling themselves out" to make a profit instead of "taking risks" and contributing more to an industry they decided as their profession. I recently ended my support on the Xbox 360 due to these facts (tho I agree that the other consoles are no better too, sigh) and I just get outraged every time a new FPS comes out, which in my opinion is over-saturated and more of a shovelware property than most of the Wii software out there. So my final argument is this: Games these days are becoming too conservative in terms of entertainment that may/will occupy us for a short period of time. Games (and yes, game designers) need to be more liberal, to think outside-the-box, and wow us with games that may redefine, and hopefully put good use to the industry's full potential. Otherwise, the videogame industry may result to dire consequences down the road (which is something I don't want to see coming anytime soon. Sigh...)

Scotterius
Scotterius

I am more impressed by the comments here than what Mr. Spector said. It has sparked a lot of genuine introspection and self analysis. Its too bad our community so rarely shows such gentle intellectualism. It is comforting and wonderful to see it here. And...now I am going to to kill something before the need to hug rises further.

Ignition93
Ignition93

Warren Specter, the Intellectual Badass.

SicklySunStorm
SicklySunStorm

Really can't wait to play this - I have memories of Castle of Illusion and World of Illusion swirling round, and they're games that just make me smile. Most of the Mickey games I played in the 8 and 16 bit era were great infact - Mickey Mania was also a decent game, with some visuals that really stretched the platforms at the time.

akiwak
akiwak

It's the way I've felt for a long time I welcome what all three platforms have to offer. The 360 and PS3 because most of the games I play are on those systems. The Wii because it is bringing more people into the gaming world, who might turn from casual to hardcore. I think that the reason he made that speech is because he is the one making a game of a mouse and not a man. He is also creating a game on a platform that third party devs have had trouble getting games to go platinum in sales. Nintendo makes a game and it sells millions, less than a handful of other devs have found the same level of success even the games are truly awesome.

starduke
starduke

Words from a genius. I wish I coulda been there.

topraman517
topraman517

I agree with him completely. Gamers and game companies need to be open to completely new types of games.

firehawk998
firehawk998

Warren Spector gave us many awesome games such as Deus Ex, Thief. I wish the man good luck in his future endeavours and also for every Wii owner out here please try Epic Mkickey the game looks epic( no ppun intended)

Cheddarchet
Cheddarchet

Very well said, he was a good choice for this year's keynote speaker.

Thunderstarter
Thunderstarter

Warren, you have yet to cease to amaze me. I also despise "Jock Gamers" (I don't consider them REAL gamers, but I also believe that the definition of that term comes from the person in question) but he's right. We have to accept them all or our wonderful, amazing, engaging industry will die. Alright...I guess I can do it. Just don't expect me to play "Catz 7: Raining Only Cats".

OJ_the_LION
OJ_the_LION

The man speaks truth. Although I don't like some of the things associated with casual gaming, I do like gaming becoming more popular.

D1zzyCriminal
D1zzyCriminal

So, to many of the guys on system wars... stop talking out your hole and start embracing gaming properly! Well said Mr Spector

S2333
S2333

Great talk. I wish I was there to witness it.

northprophet
northprophet

Ouch, Mr. Spector, ouch. I was commenting to my wife today about my distaste for "jock gamers" (those who only play Halo and Madden and their clones). But Spector is right. If gaming is to became the widely accepted cultural medium that most of us want it to be, then we need to make room for everyone, even people we may not agree with. My apologies to my fellow gamers of different taste (especially XBox fan-boys, I've been particularly cruel to you).

lobotomies4free
lobotomies4free

I wish publishers could afford to listen to him. I'll do my part

James00715
James00715

I think the same thing about gaming's acceptance. There's no use trying to convince the parents and grandparents what's so special about games. Eventually when our generation is older and in control, games will be fully accepted.

TheLemonGelati
TheLemonGelati

Yeah, that's one thing that used to bother me a lot, the stereotypes of the game industry. When people say it's a mindless activity, and you should read a book(which I also enjoy) or watch a movie(side note: I hate in movies when the camera shows some guy playing a video game & he's mashing buttons and moving the controller around like some frantic lunatic, sorry.) Then I started introducing my friends to the world of games, such as the musical end of it. I usually will get a response such as "You listen to video game music?.." but once I play a few tracks they can't believe it. Beautiful scores, rock songs and the like. That's just the way we are, it seems we're always to quick to judge and comment on what we don't know. Give it time, they'll continue to come around.

Inconnux
Inconnux

Well spoken from a true pioneer of the medium...

DrKill09
DrKill09

So in other words, everyone on XBox Live quit saying f***** and n****** every five seconds... oh wait, then it would be pure silence. :roll:

GymFox
GymFox

Warren is a bad ***.

Cillerboy
Cillerboy

great speech but i'm thinking about making games as a job and i'm still kinda shy bout telling ppl about it

silverdoe
silverdoe

make game for Wii, use a Macbook. Not my type. I'm a PC ...

afrolightning89
afrolightning89

Good insight by Warren Spector. He makes a lot of sense in this article.

athenian29
athenian29

Well said. Although I don't think the entire previous generation needs to die - just the crotchety old ones that are suspicious of anything being different. So, my Grandma can stay. ;)