Q&A: Disney Interactive Studios' Warren Spector
The founder of Junction Point Studios talks with GameSpot about joining forces with the House of Mouse, the new E3, and micropayments.
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When he worked for Ion Storm, Warren Spector oversaw development of Deus Ex, an ambitious cyberpunk PC first-person shooter that allowed gamers to--among other things--set fire to innocent people. Now he's working for Disney, as announced at the E3 Media and Business Summit earlier this month.
Spector's current outfit, Junction Point Studios, was acquired by Disney Interactive Studios for an undisclosed sum. While Disney Interactive and Spector might seem strange bedfellows on first glance, the move makes more sense given the company's recent efforts to expand its legitimacy in the gaming arena.
In April 2005, the publisher acquired Tak and the Power of Juju developer Avalanche Software, followed closely by Turok developer Propaganda Games. In 2006, the publisher acquired ATV Offroad Fury Pro developer Climax Racing, and then established Fall Line Studios, an outfit designed to focus exclusively on Wii and Nintendo DS development. To keep these acquisitions churning out titles, Disney Interactive has also said it will ramp up its game development budget from last year's $100 million, eventually more than tripling it with an estimated $350 million spent a year.
Spector recently took some time out to talk with GameSpot News about the Junction Point acquisition, why he chose to leave the world of independent game development, what he thinks of current industry trends, and more.
GS: First of all, when did Junction Point start listening to acquisition offers?
WS: The moment Disney actually made one. You know, I'm kind of an independent development champion and pretty committed to that. At least I thought I was. But the opportunity with Disney was just so good, and the project was just so compelling, that when you look at the big picture, the best way to make this relationship work and the best way to get the game that we're working on done was clearly to be an internal studio.
The reality is, though, I really wasn't interested in leaving the world of independent development. It wasn't my intention. But, again, this opportunity was just too good to pass up from a creative standpoint, from a life-goals standpoint--career goals, more precisely. It just seemed like the right thing to do.
GS: Did anyone else even approach Junction Point about an acquisition, given that you are something of a champion or figurehead of independent development?
WS: Junction Point was formed about two years ago, two-and-a-half years ago now. And over that time, we've done a lot of concept development for a variety of people. And there were a couple of things that we did where in order to close deals, some other folks had the option to buy at some point if they wanted to and if we wanted to. But it's not like people said, "Hey, we want to buy you. We want to buy you now. We want to do this with this project."
So there were some sort of contractual terms that would have given other people the option of opening the discussion and having an exclusive right and all that sort of stuff. But Disney is really the only outfit that said, "OK, look, we all know the best way to do this is for you to be internal. Let's talk about that." So no, no one else really did.
GS: At Junction Point, you're working on original titles as well as games based on Disney properties now, right?
WS: Well the sort of strategic plan for the studio is absolutely that we'll be working on both over the course of what I hope is a long and fruitful relationship. Yeah.
GS: And you've worked on some pretty big game franchises before, but I don't think you've got any experience with licenses as high profile as Disney typically offers. How are you approaching the whole "working with existing intellectual property" like that?
WS: Well, the idea of working with licenses in general is really appealing to me. I don't know if you remember at the 2004 Game Developers' Conference, I gave the design keynote where I basically annoyed half of the development world and became the champion of half of the development world. I certainly took a lot of heat for a talk about how licensed properties and sequels weren't the death of creativity, that in fact they can be a spur to creativity. And at the time, I kind of lamented the fact that I had never really had the chance to do a licensed game. And so I've kind been out there looking around for the right opportunity because I think it will be an interesting and very different kind of challenge.
So the opportunity to do a licensed game is something I've really wanted to try my hand at for a while. Talk to me in a couple years, and we'll see if I like it. But it's something that I've actively wanted to do, that I've actively sought out, and the opportunity to work with Disney properties in particular is like starting with the top of the heap. So I'm really pretty psyched about it. And, so far, things have been going really well. It's really exciting talking to people about the possibilities in a variety of licensed games.
GS: So you don't mind giving up that control over the characters and the properties that you're working with?
WS: Heck no. I mean, I love creating original properties. I love creating characters. You know, JC Denton will always have a little piece of my heart, and leaving that guy behind is not an easy thing to do. In fact, it's weird how attached you get to characters and worlds and stories that you create.
But on the flip side, I'm not so arrogant or egotistical to think that if someone gives you access to the Pixar library or the Disney backlog or the back catalog of properties and characters…it would be crazy not to want to play in worlds as rich and to play with characters as compelling as the ones in the Disney catalog. I mean, there just aren't a whole lot of entertainment companies around that can boast of having created like 10 of the top 20 most recognizable characters of all time anywhere in the world.
And it hasn't happened yet, and it may never happen, but just the opportunity to talk to a John Lasseter about storytelling--I've just a got a feeling the guy can teach me something. If I ever get the chance to sit down with a Brad Bird, I've just got a feeling that's going to make my work better.
So how do I feel about giving up control of the creative process? There's a small part of it that I'm giving up, and I hope it never comes down to me not being able to create new properties, and certainly that isn't Disney's intention for Junction Point Studios. But I'm looking at it as a positive opportunity. Sincerely, you just don't have to create everything from scratch to have a great time and to reach a lot of people with really cool stories featuring really compelling characters.
GS: In May, there was a Hollywood Reporter article talking about Ninja Gold, saying you were working on a game with John Woo, but it was pretty vague about the details. Will that be a Disney-published, Junction Point developed title?
WS: We're talking about all sorts of stuff, but that's not what we're talking about right now.
GS: You left Ion Storm originally to found a company based on episodic content and digital distribution and have since kind of shifted back to a traditional model. Now that we've got companies like Telltale Games making a go of it just with the digital distribution, do you think that the time has finally arrived for that format?
WS: I think it's getting closer. I don't think it's quite there yet. You know, you're right. I did leave Ion Storm with a very specific plan and very specific thing I wanted to do. The reality was at the time I think I was a little early. I wasn't quite well-enough established, and I was trying to do the wrong kind of project.
I was approaching it from the perspective of trying to do really sort of cutting edge, AAA, big-budget, epic kind of stuff in a new way, in a new format, with new financing and new ways of reaching customers. And that, I think, was the wrong combination.
I think the Sam & Max guys, you know, Telltale Games--I don't mean anything disparaging about this, but I think their games are scoped more appropriately, let's just say. They're not trying to compete with the BioWares, with the Mass Effects and the Fable 2s and the Half-Life 3s or whatever is the next one that comes. They're not trying to compete with the sort of big, traditional, AAA mega-blockbuster games. And for better or worse, that's kind of the space I like to play in now.
And so I think if I had come out of Ion Storm not looking to do AAA stuff, trying to make games that were a little less risky, a little less experimental, and a lot less expensive, I might have actually pulled that off. But at the end of the day, just the buy-in, just the nut to get that episodic project started, was high enough that it kind of put a lot of people off. And at the end of the day, I found myself frankly with not a lot of choices.
I'm grateful that I had Seamus Blackley and the Creative Artists Agency guys behind me, because they helped me get really wonderful development deals and more traditional development deals. But the reality of the business was that for the kinds of games I make and want to make, the time was not right.
I think perhaps if I had been an established developer--I mean, I certainly have made 18 games over 20-odd years, but as Junction Point Studios, we were a start-up. And if it was Valve going out and doing that, or BioWare, or who knows who, things might have turned out differently. But as it is, things happen for a reason, and I'm in a really good place now.
GS: A couple other growing trends, you were in a panel at last year's Austin Game Conference. You seemed pretty down on micropayments and in-game ads. In the months since then, it's been almost a year, have you seen anything that makes you think they're trending better or worse?
WS: Nope. There are certain in-game ads that make sense to me and things that immerse you more fully in a world. EA's in a perfect position for this. If you're simulating a sports stadium, having in-game advertising just makes sense. For better or worse, stadiums are full of advertising, so it immerses you more fully in this virtual experience. If that isn't the context, get them out of here. This is art, not just money, for me, and I don't want ads messing up my art unless it is texturally appropriate.
And to that point, when we were working on Deus Ex, I really, really wanted to get Coke machines and Jeeps and real stuff in the game, because I thought it would make the simulation of our virtual world even more compelling. The one-sentence description when we started thinking about that game years and years ago was, "The real-world role-playing game." Well, in the real world, you don't have "Oke" machines, you have Coca-Cola machines and Pepsi-Cola machines. And so there are contexts in which I can see myself using in-game advertising, but they're kind of limited.
And as far as micropayments go, I mean, no. No. Give it away free, charge me a fee for it, charge me a subscription fee, I'm fine with all of that. But $1.99 for a sword or $2 for a mission that you should have given me with the original game, I've just got no use for it. [But] your mileage may vary. I'm just speaking for myself.
GS: Disney is putting together a nice array of internal studios with Propaganda, Climax, Avalanche, and the like. Is there going to be much back-and-forth technology sharing between the groups, or is Junction Point going to keep all the development and tool creation in-house?
WS: I'm going to steal, beg, borrow anything I can. All those guys are going to hate seeing me coming. I want to create great content. I want to make great games. I'm going to use whatever tools are available to me, and I want to create as little as possible, because I want to focus the energies of the studio, the personnel of the studio, on great gameplay, great assets, great graphics, great whatever.
If there is a tool at Propaganda that will help me make a better game, I'm using it. And so far, Disney's been really supportive of that kind of technology sharing. I've had wonderful conversations with the other studio heads, and my expectation is that we'll be sharing our stuff with them, they'll be sharing their stuff with us, and as a result, everybody makes better games.
GS: Outside of the Disney lineup and the announcement for Junction Point last week, what did you think of E3?
WS: You know, it's funny. I saw so little of it. I was doing a lot of prep for closing this Disney deal and preparing for that press conference on Thursday afternoon and everything. I think it's an interesting format for the show, but I saw so little. I never even got over to the hangar. So, really, I just don't have a whole lot to say about the show to be honest.
It seemed kind of weird that it was all spread out, I guess. That's my one thing: I did a lot of walking. But it was certainly nice not having that crush of tens of thousands of people. I do think there's a place for a show like that. Leipzig in Germany is a huge European show and Tokyo Games Show is a huge show over in Japan, and yet North America doesn't have something like that now.
It seems a little odd to me, and I hope somebody comes up with a forum like that that makes sense for the industry. But again, I saw so little of this year's E3, I probably shouldn't say much. I've probably already said more than I should have.
GS: Anything else you just want to get out there?
WS: You know, every single person I've talked to about this has said, "Congratulations. This sounds really cool. But Warren and Disney, what's up with that?" When I talked to my mom and told her I was working for Disney, she said, "It's about time." And my sister, she sent me a congratulatory note that said, "Childhood dreams really do come true."
I've been a Disney freak all my life, and so as odd as it my sound for the epic fantasy cyberpunk hardcore indie guy to be part of the Disney creative powerhouse, this really is the culmination of a dream for me, and I'm as psyched as I've been in years. So I'm looking forward to many years of making great games with Disney. I guess that's about it.
GS: Thank you very much.