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GDC 07: Better stories key to industry growth: Warren Spector

Veteran game designer says better stories in games will attract nongamers; fears next-gen hardware could dilute focus on engaging narratives.


SAN FRANCISCO--As the designer of such celebrated games as Deus Ex and Thief, industry veteran Warren Spector probably knows a thing or two about storytelling in an interactive environment. In a packed lecture at the Game Developers Conference today, Spector said creating better and more involving stories in games was vital for the industry, as engaging storylines would attract much-needed newcomers to gaming.

"I don't know about you, but my budgets are going up. We need to sell a lot more copies or we're not going to be able to make games for much longer. I think stories can be key to reaching nongamers, but we have to start creating more emotionally satisfying and interactive stuff," Spector said.

"If what we're already giving people is enough, then all of the nongamers out there--which is most of the world--would already be gamers. We have to give them something different."

Spector, president of Texas-based Junction Point Studios, expressed concern, however, that next-generation hardware may dilute the industry's focus on narrative, as studios battle with the rising complexity of creating the detailed graphics and artificial intelligence that the next-gen hardware is capable of.

"It may be that next-gen hardware will make it harder for us to focus on stories and character involvement and character interactions. People who want to tell stories in an interactive manner, I think their job is about to get a lot harder. The problem is that our characters look better, our world looks better, and players expect a certain level of graphical quality," he said.

"Back in the day, our characters just had to navigate around a 2D world, and that was easy. And then we introduced 3D graphics, and all of a sudden, the graphics became better and better, and our AI struggled just to keep up with navigating in a 3D world. All of that effort that could be used to tell stories may be shifted to just keep up with the graphical possibilities."

Spector's main piece of advice for those in the game industry was to focus on creating shared stories with players, as opposed to straight linear pieces where no player involvement was required. This doesn't mean that all of the focus should move to narrative to the detriment of gameplay, Spector said.

"The best way to do this is to get over yourselves. It doesn't matter how cool or creative you are--don't tell your story, work with players to tell our story. Let players off the rails. And let them explore the inner life of their characters," he said.

"If you think that story has no place in games, you're crazy. If you think story is everything in games, you're just as crazy. It's all about balance."

Spector left Ion Storm Entertainment--the studio behind the Deus Ex franchise--in 2004 and resurfaced a few months later as the head of Junction Point Studios. While Spector did not disclose exactly what his company was developing, he did drop a few hints as to what areas the 24-strong group was focusing its efforts on.

"At Junction Point right now, what we're looking at is how to make characters more expressive in real time without conversations. We're looking at silent movies, at early cartoons--and you would be amazed at how much communication happens without a word," he said.

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