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.


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.

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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?

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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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