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System Shock 3 Has A Direct Vision: Playstyle Matters

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Warren Spector knows where System Shock has been and where it needs to go.

The original System Shock is one of the early progenitors of what we know now as the immersive sim--games like Dishonored, Prey, and Deus Ex all share similar DNA, and even a few key developers. The original 1994 game and the 1999 sequel, System Shock 2, gave players a terrifying first-person sci-fi adventure that combined RPG elements with the freedom to solve problems and overcome enemies however you saw fit with the tools and abilities given. Development on System Shock 3 is now well underway, and when the first gameplay trailer was revealed recently, it came with a wave of nostalgia and excitement. To see the series live on is one thing, but anticipating a sequel to a beloved game that's 20 years old at this point is another.

One of the original creators of the series (and genre) is at the helm, too: Warren Spector. Best known for leading the charge on the early immersive sims, particularly Deus Ex (2000), he and his team are looking to meet expectations while pushing a fairly niche genre forward. GameSpot producer Mike Mahardy had a chance to catch up with him and talk about the history of the games he's touched, the modern gaming landscape, and how all of that is feeding into his team's work on System Shock 3.

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System Shock 3 is still early in development; the recent trailer being pre-alpha footage. OtherSide Entertainment is currently only 14 members deep, including Spector, but the team is looking to expand as development ramps up. OtherSide Entertainment's's first game, Underworld Ascendant, may not have gone the way they'd hoped, but it seems that Spector and company are aware of what needs to be done to make a worthy successor for System Shock.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and readability.

GameSpot: You were there with the early immersive sims and wrote a few Ultima games, then with Epic Mickey you were trying to go in that vein with a Disney property. But what's that pressure like now? Do you feel any pressure to hold up this legacy of these early iconic PC role-playing games?

Warren Spector: I feel more pressure on this project than I think I have on any other. Even working with Mickey Mouse, I knew we could do the job, and I knew we had the budget and the

team to live up to people's expectations. Here, we really are in this sort of "AA" space, not the AAA space. Paul Neurath, my partner, and I made a conscious decision that we'd already been down that road of AAA, many times and wanted to do something smaller. But I think the AAA expectations are still there.

And so I think if you ask my team, I think you'd hear that I'm pushing them pretty hard for AAA quality at the AA price tag. There are expectations with the scope of the game and the legacy of the original games. So yeah, there's some pressure. You bet.

The original System Shock (1994).
The original System Shock (1994).

Before we dig more into System Shock, what's your take on the current state of immersive sims, which I know is now a nebulous term. Working on the sequel to one of the more iconic immersive sims ever, what's your take on other studios that are making similar games in the modern space?

Certainly, you have to talk about Arkane [Studios]. Prey was a little System Shock-y, you could say. But all the games that team does are in the immersive-sim vein. With guys like Harvey Smith and Ricardo Bare and some other folks who've been there, Steve Powers and Mani Martinez and others, they're steeped in the history and have contributed to the genre. So no surprise there. The Hitman games; they're doing some of that, [letting you] solve problems the way you want and really be immersed in the world with all the other aspects of immersive sims people have come to expect.

A lot of people talk to me about the Bethesda games, which I kind of think of as kissing cousins! Not really in the same vein, but they're trying to simulate so much in worlds that are so big. I think what other immersive sims try to do is immerse you in a smaller world that's more deeply simulated. So they're similar but a little different. The coolest thing though recently was seeing Zelda: Breath Of The Wild actually incorporate some elements that I would say are immersive sim-like. I would never ever say there was any influence there, but it's cool to see people coming around to that sort of thing. Those are the ones that come to mind most for me right now.

Yeah, I think just two weeks ago in Zelda, someone figured out a new way you could mess with the physics in order to make that motorbike you can get like electric powered. It's fascinating.

Yeah, it's all about players picking a playstyle. I don't know if we've ever talked about it, but years ago, probably 15 years ago, I wrote up a manifesto and the first draft was 12 pages and no one would read it cause developers don't like to read I guess! And I did an eight-page version, and a four-page version. Anyway, to make a long story short, I eventually got it down to two words: "Playstyle matters." That is the most succinct version of what I like my games to be about and what I like other people's games to be about too. Just letting players decide how to interact with the world, not forcing them to interact with the world the way I want them to. And certainly the Zelda: Breath Of The Wild team accomplished that as well as anybody ever has.

I think we were at Arkane a month before Prey released, and on the wall, they have a sort of list of rules for making the game. I think it's 11 things and one of them was "ladders suck in games." It was funny seeing those, they use those rules in their games for the most part. Obviously, in Dishonored you don't need them because you can just teleport. But I'm reminded of that.

I did this on Deus Ex for the first time. I put together a list of commandments and I had--hey go figure--10 commandments and Harvey Smith added the adenda. I still use those basically unchanged...well that's not true! I changed them up a little bit based on the content, setting, and the specific genre. I put up little posters all over the office that probably drive people crazy. They're kind of like the motivational posters that everybody hates, but one of them says "Playstyle Matters." One of them says "Never judge your player." We never say "this is the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do."

Early screenshot for System Shock 3.
Early screenshot for System Shock 3.

Have you ever broken any of them?

Oh, constantly. Reality catches up with any kind of documentation very quickly in this business. You have to draw a line through some of them, when you can't live up to them, but sure, you never live up to all of them. They're aspirational more than anything else. If you aim for the moon, you might fall short, but at least you tried, right? Every game should do things that no one's ever done before.

If you know how to do it in advance, it's probably not worth doing or you're not trying hard enough. So you're always going to fall short. I hate everything I've ever done! I mean, if you're ever satisfied, you might as well hang it up. All I see is the flaws or what could have been!

When you say that every game should do something that other games haven't done before, can you talk about anything System Shock 3 is doing that you might consider that?

Sure, in about nine months! It's a little too early, but I will tell you that we have two things that I think are really going to set the game apart. I really hate to be coy, but I'm not ready to talk about them because they may not work in the way you want. You fall short a lot of the time, but we're trying two things. They're both kind of similar to what other people have done, but we're taking them much further and in some interesting directions. Next time we talk, we'll have lots of interesting things to talk about.

I feel more pressure on this project than I think I have on any other. - Warren Spector

It seems like a unique situation to me that you're making the sequel to one of the games that established the genre. Where do you see System Shock 3 fitting into the modern immersive sim landscape?

Well, the simple answer is that it has to. I know that doesn't answer your question, but in terms of level design, depth of simulation, and storytelling technique, there's been so much advancement that we need to at least keep up. Early on we put together a list of things we were going to do to match the state of the art. And then we have a couple ways in which we want to push things further. Given the whole "playstyle matters" approach, I'll give you a couple of hints.

It's not like we're going to take first-person combat places that it's never been before. But there are some ways in which we need to push further; level design. In particular, the interconnectedness and the three-dimensionality of levels nowadays has changed. Games like Bioshock, which is again not exactly an immersive sim in my mind, but clearly a cousin, took environmental storytelling to a whole new level. You walked into a room and you know the room's purpose. You see writing on the wall and it advances the narrative.

There've been so many advances that we need to keep up with and we're going to do that, and then innovate in a couple of other areas where creativity and design coincide, and actually count for as much or more than budget and team size.

You mentioned level design. Can you expand more on what you mean by the interconnectedness of level design nowadays? Is that a result of having better technology than before or is it just how people think about level design differently?

I think it's more about how people think. In the first System Shock, if you look at the levels, they were huge, which encouraged exploration, but they were full of dead ends. There was virtually no verticality to it, which was ironic because it was one of the first games where you could look up and down. And yet we never really took advantage of that in any great way. One of the hallmarks of immersive sims has been that they're paced a little different. We don't force you to play the way we want, and you can go running and gunning through the typical immersive sim. But we don't force you to do that.

I think the way most people play is by seeing or hearing a challenge, noticing there's something around the corner and lean around the corner and see what it is without exposing themselves. Or by hearing a distinctive sound of a 'cortex reaver' and then stop or slow down. Then make a plan to deal with that challenge using my capabilities, both as a player and as a character with a build-out, the things I'm carrying with me, my tools. And then it's go, go, go, see the consequence of the execution of that plan and then see another challenge, make a plan, execute.

Spector talks about giving players a chance to plan. This early screenshot from System Shock 3 may be showing one of those moments.
Spector talks about giving players a chance to plan. This early screenshot from System Shock 3 may be showing one of those moments.

It's almost this kind of staccato rhythm, but that requires a specific kind of level design, right? To put it simply, you have to give them those corners and hiding spots where they can detect that next challenge and make a plan. Then you have to give them the tools, which is really level design-related. And we have to use lighting effectively, and use sound effectively in ways that we never did before. In System Shock, you could say [those elements] were there, but it was so primitive. Now people expect much more.

Some people today playing games may not have heard about or even played early System Shock games. Are you leaning more into bringing in a bigger audience? Especially now that the lines between console players and PC players are more blurred than they used to be. Are you trying to cater to both crowds?

Absolutely. We've been pitching the game for a while now to a variety of potential partners and the first slide in my deck is honoring VIP. SHODAN is so well loved by a surprisingly large fan base. We have a fairly large mailing list I've heard from fans over the years. Another company, Night Dive, released the original games a few years ago and they sold incredibly well. We know there's a fan base out there and we don't want to let those folks down. But we also know we need to grow the audience.

I don't remember the exact budget for the first System Shock game, but I guarantee you it was in the six figures. And now you've just got to sell to a larger audience. What qualified as a hit back then qualifies as a dismal failure now. So we have to grow the audience and it's a delicate balancing act. I feel like a gymnast on a balance beam, but we're confident we can do it and time will tell.

I'm pushing them pretty hard for AAA quality at the AA price tag. - Warren Spector

We're certainly building in little elements from the earlier games while not insisting that new players have any understanding of them because, as you say, the vast majority of gamers have not played those earlier games. And in a way I'm kind of glad. I replayed System Shock 1 not too long ago and was reminded, what were we thinking? I mean, we thought it was a good idea to use every key on the keyboard, it's insane! If you look at like the first screen that comes up, you can't even see the scene because all of the commands are up there in little boxes and it just covers the screen.

We're trying to cater to both crowds and I think even the existing fans will appreciate a better UI and user experience. I think everybody will appreciate that. And as you say, the console and PC audience, they're kind of the same audience now. So we've got to have controls that will work on controllers, all that stuff that's required in a modern game.

Another thing that has definitely changed in the last few decades is progression mechanics, which are in every single genre. And I feel like the vast majority of AAA games that come out today, even indie games have some sort of skill tree or progression mechanics. What's your take on that? How are you thinking about that in the actual progression mechanics in System Shock 3?

I don't want to say I'm not a fan. There are a lot of games where that kind of progression you're talking about make sense, skill trees and there are still people who think character classes are a great idea. Again, one of the hallmarks of the immersive sim is it's about you in the world. You the player, not your little 64-pixel-tall avatar or whatever. It's about you making the decisions that you feel are appropriate to the situation. So the most important thing to me is each player's individual playstyle driving the experience. Having said that, we do have, just like we had an in Deus Ex and in other games, body augmentation and fighting modifications.

That was part of the first System Shock. We're going to give you a bunch of body mods and you can only install a handful of them. So there will be some augmentation and character modification. But what we want is for that to be in the service of your playstyle. Hypothetically, if you're a character that likes to sneak around and avoid combat, a cloaking device might be a useful tool for you. So everything is about supporting your playstyle.

In this game, and in other games like it, you develop a character is through your inventory. You're going to be acquiring things throughout the game. The tools you create will allow you to interact with our world simulation and our enemies in unique ways that, again, serve your playstyle.

A horrifying atmosphere is a strong part of the series, and it looks like System Shock 3 follows.
A horrifying atmosphere is a strong part of the series, and it looks like System Shock 3 follows.

So, I take it you don't think character classes fit into that?

I don't understand why video game developers use character classes. I guess it's simple for people to understand "I'm a fighter, I'm a healer, I'm a mage." It's probably sensible and there's a reason why I'm kind of the "King of the Cult Classics," and haven't sold 100 million copies of a game ever. But character classes and all those secret di roles were the best simulation tools that Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had at their disposal when they created this whole role-playing thing. And we have better tools now. I don't get it. As a player, sure, I'll play a game that has character classes, but I'm not a huge fan.

Not to seem reductive, it seems like there are two sides to this for you. One side where you're making a modern game trying to live up to the standards of this legacy. But on the other side it seems like it might be a nostalgia trip, especially with the 25 year anniversary of System Shock.

Yeah, it is definitely both. There is a feeling of nostalgia for sure. And that's part of where the pressure comes from. But it actually blows my mind that anybody cares about the 25-year-old game. For years, I wanted to replay it. We did so many crazy things back in the early PC days, I couldn't even get it running. And I asked some of the programmers who worked on it, "Hey, can you get this running so I can play it again?" And they were going, "No way man, I'm not even going to try." So bless Night Dive for getting it running.

Like with Deus Ex, I think I got more requests for interviews and more fan mail for Dues Ex on its 15th anniversary than I did when the game came out. It's kind of the same thing with System Shock. How many 25 year old games do people still care about? You could probably count on the fingers of one hand. So yeah, there's definitely a feeling of nostalgia about it.

It's crazy going back to that world; there are things about it and the narratives in both System Shock 1 and 2 that were either unanswered or, in retrospect, didn't make a lot of sense. It's nice being able to go back and fill in some of those gaps and answer some of the unanswered questions, and occasionally retcon some of the gaping holes and silliness of those earlier games.

On a more personal note, is this the closest you've been to actual development since Epic Mickey 2? You were at the University of Texas, Austin and still worked with games, but is this the first one you're hands-on with again?

Yeah, this is it. Epic Mickey: The Power of Two came out in 2013 and just to be frank, Disney shutting down Junction Point [Studios] as part of their larger "we don't want to do development anymore" effort, it was pretty devastating. I sat on a couch with a remote control staring at a television for about nine months. So there was that period of mourning.

Then I always thought I would end up teaching at some point. I was working on my doctorate and dropped out of the Ph.D program to make games. And it was a great experience helping to build a video game development program at the University of Texas but about halfway through I realized that there were still games I wanted to make. I'm going to date myself here but there was no box, real or digital, at the end of it. No product. And I missed that. Molding young minds was great, but there were still things to make. So, Paul Neurath asked if I wanted to join him in doing this startup and I just said, yeah. I did three years of teaching and got back into game development.

Disney's Epic Mickey: The Power Of Two was the last game Spector was all-in on. Much different from System Shock.
Disney's Epic Mickey: The Power Of Two was the last game Spector was all-in on. Much different from System Shock.

You're working with Paul Neurath again, and you two go very far back. What's that like?

It's funny, we're both control freaks. So, we had some pretty good knockdown-drag-outs, but we're really good friends and so we always end up in a good place and the right place for whatever game we're working on. Paul has a wealth of knowledge about immersive sims. He was the founder of Blue Sky, which became Looking Glass and knows this kind of game as well as anybody. He plays all of our builds and writes up pages of notes. I mean, I do that for my team too, But if Paul's sending [notes in], they're always right on the money. He's a smart guy. So it's been a good experience. It's always good to work with friends.

We've kind of been talking about it on and off, but why do you think System Shock resonates so much? Why is it one of those games you can count on one hand?

I think partly it was ahead of its time. We had a saying at Origin, which kind of leaked over to Looking Glass, where we didn't want to make the best game that ran on the current hardware. We used to say the best game that ran on a 386--talk about dating somebody--we wanted to make the best game and eventually the hardware would catch up with us. And so System Shock, it stressed out the hardware pretty good.

From a design standpoint it really did point in a new direction. The earlier days at Origin, and the Ultima games were kind of hinting at what became immersive sims, and the original Underworld hinted at what these games could be. But System Shock was the first one where you could really say, "Yeah, I'm in that world. I believe it. There's nothing that drags me out of the experience and I really can explore this world that feels not real, but believable."

Then there's SHODAN. I mean SHODAN was such an amazing character and Terri Brosius did such an amazing job of voice acting, and Greg LoPiccolo and Eric Burgess did such an amazing job of making her sound strange and scary. I think that was a large part of it. And then you have to give credit, not just to the team as a whole, which bought into the vision, but Doug Church, one of the unsung heroes of video games. His vision was so clear that everybody was kind of swept along, including me. I think one of the things that's required to make a memorable game is to have a clear vision. Doug did and I supported it, and I helped him wherever I could and the end result was something that was pretty memorable and ahead of its time.

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Mike Mahardy

Writer and Host. New Yorker. Enthusiast of gin, cilantro, and rock and roll.

System Shock 3

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