Power to the Players

[An interview with Warren Spector to coincide with the Game Masters exhibition at ACMI. Originally published in issue #228 of Hyper magazine, August 2012.]

“If I’ve done anything in my 29 years of making games, it’s that I’ve championed a single idea and been sort of bull-headed about pursuing that idea.”

Warren Spector – one of the most well-known, passionate guys in games development and with a head that is inexplicably not at all bull-shaped – is telling me about the various accolades he keeps receiving for his work in game design, the latest of which is the “Game Master” bestowed upon him by Melbourne’s ACMI. He seems a little confused by the fuss.

“It makes me feel uncomfortable, if you want to know the truth,” he continues. “I just put together teams that want to investigate my idea – that doesn’t seem like any particular genius or anything. I mean, I just find an idea that’s really interesting to me, and I manage to hire people way better than me to execute it.”

Spector’s first game was 1990′s Wing Commander, and what’s followed since has been a string of games in huge franchises, such as Ultima, System Shock, Thief, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey. He’s come a long way from what he describes as his days of “just me and a blank screen”. He likens his role today to sitting on top of a stagecoach full of hundreds of game developers. “They’re like a team of horses that have made the run from Austin to Amarilla a thousand times, and all I have to do is sit there and make the horses go where they know I want to go. But when I do my job wrong, I have to pull on those reins pretty hard,” he laughs. “Like with Deus Ex – that was the most dysfunctional team I’d even been a part of. At the end, I’m pretty confident in saying that everybody looked at it as the high point of their careers.”

Lemon-Lime >>
So let’s take a look at Deus Ex, then. Pretty much the entire gaming world revisits the game again and again; us here in the HYPER crew are no exception, and I wouldn’t be surprised if our mentioning it has you reinstalling it right now. What was Spector’s secret? How did he make a game that resonates with us so deeply, even over a decade later?

“Deus Ex had one thing going for it that no other project that I’ve ever worked on – or frankly, even heard about – had,” Spector tells us. “John Romero, bless his heart, came to me and said, ‘Make the game of your dreams. No one will ever tell you to do anything. Do exactly what you want with no interference.’”

“It’s the only time I’ve ever closed my eyes at the beginning of a project and opened them up three years later to see the game that I’d imagined. It’s really special to me in that way. No one interfered. No one bugged me. There was no focus testing, there was no marketing guy telling me to do this or that, there was no business guy telling me that I was spending too much – it was exactly what I wanted to do, the way I wanted to do it.”

And that was something that was reflected in the game, too. Players could do whatever they damn well pleased, whether it was picking the lock on a door or blowing it to bits; sweet-talking an NPC or making him talk to a gun. Years later, we still discuss with friends how we solved our problems in Deus Ex, which characters we let perish, which paths our stories unfolded upon. It’s literally a game that’s all about us and our choices, and Spector confirms that this is no coincidence.

“I’ve championed one idea for nearly 30 years,” he repeats, “and that idea is empowering players. I try to get myself and my designers out of the game so that players can express their personality, show how creative and funny or serious or whatever they are.”

“One of the things I have to beat into a designer that comes to work for me is that if they ever say a player ‘has’ to do something, or ‘this is the bit where they do X action’, they have to forget it. We’re done talking. Rethink it. Because as designers, we should never force the players to do anything. Get yourself off the stage so the player can get on it.”

Pathfinding >>
Spector likens the choice-and-consequence model of the average modern game to “an enormous pick-a-path book; like five scripts jammed together with cinematic pictures added to it”. While he admits that some such games, such as Heavy Rain, can still be a “work of genius”, it’s still not the sort of game that he’d never try to make.

Remembering the enormity of my choices in Deus Ex, I ask Spector if he thinks any game has come close to its profound choice-and-consequence system since.

“Probably none,” he says flatly. “I don’t say that to be arrogant, I say that because there’s another thing I have to tell my designers all the time to differentiate what we do from what other developers do. And that is that we don’t play the metre, and we don’t let players play the metre. We don’t judge the players.”

“In all the other choice-and-consequence games I can think of, one of two things is true. Either the choices don’t matter – like yeah, you can make a choice but at the end of the day nothing about the story changes, nothing about your character changes, nothing about the world changes. And the other thing they do is: ‘You can be good or evil!’ And there’s always a needle or a metre, and you go and check that and basically, what that’s saying to the player is, ‘I am the designer. I’ve decided what is wrong, what’s light and dark, what’s good and evil.’”

This is something that should be up to the player, Spector feels. “Who gives a darn what I think is right or wrong – what do you think is right and wrong?” he implores. “I’m going to let the player explore that. I honestly don’t feel that I’ve played a game in the last five years or so that gave me that feeling, that the game was about me – not the story creators or the game designers.”

Mouse From the Machine >>
Spector suggests that it’s about trusting the player to be an adult capable of making his own choices; to not spoon-feed him a particular experience, and to let him tailor it to his own idea of what a game should be. The lack of trust is inherent in the gaming industry these days, Spector says, and it doesn’t know what it means to create a ‘mature’ game.

He’s currently working on Disney Epic Mickey 2, which he admits he has been questioned about repeatedly due to its apparent difference to the darker games in his portfolio, such as Thief and System Shock.

“Good lord, how many games can you make about guys who wear sunglasses at night, or guys who wear chainmail and swing enormous axes?” he says. “The thing that surprises me is that people don’t see that the underlying philosophies behind Deus Ex or Epic Mickey are essentially exactly the same. They are about players expressing themselves through play, letting them tell their own story.”

He’s aware that Mickey might be brushed off as a light-hearted cartoonish thing for children, and he has some strong thoughts on the industry’s perception of maturity.

“I was at E3 this year,” he says. “I saw a lot of slow-motion blood sprays. I saw a lot of fill-in-the-blank shooter sequel number fours, and a lot of beheadings and breaking walls and putting your fist through somebody – and let’s not forget the buxom 19-year-old sucking a lollipop while wielding a chainsaw and wearing a schoolgirl outfit. I will go to my grave believing that Epic Mickey was the only mature game at E3. And all that stuff that actually passes for mature content? It’s actually adolescent crap. Junk. I can’t believe people can’t see that mature content in Epic Mickey, and they apparently do see it in pick-your-favourite-shooter game. I don’t get it.”

New Vision >>
With the triple-A scene so saturated in casual violence and noisy, blood-spattered visuals, I ask Spector where he thinks the industry’s hope lies. Are designers held back creatively by what audiences apparently expect from their big-name games?

“I actually think that right now is the best time that you could possibly imagine to be a game designer or developer with a different vision,” he says. “As recently as ten years ago, you had to get approval and funding from a publisher, you had to get the publisher to put your game in a box, you had to give your game a traditional marketing and ad campaign – you were completely dependent on the publishing model. And now it’s just not true. There’s a thriving indie game movement; there’s mobile games, iOS and Android where four guys in a garage can really do something magical, you’ve got independent distribution, you’ve got digital distribution through Steam and Kongregate and Origin…”

Spector says that there’s no telling which game will be the next Deus Ex, or which game will next echo in our gaming histories – but he’s incredibly excited for the potential of today’s games, and where the future will see the medium.

“No one knows what the future of gaming is like. Is it social, is it mobile, is it triple-A, is it story-based, is it puzzles? Nobody has a clue – not the people at EA, not the people at Disney, not the people at Ubisoft or Zynga, nobody has a clue. If you have an idea, you rule. You are as likely to succeed and change the world as the CEO of a triple-A publisher. And that’s amazing – I mean, come on!”

4 thoughts on “Power to the Players

  1. good piece. Spector is one of my heroes and Deus Ex one of my favorites. I remember replaying one of the early sections because the people I respected didn’t like the way I’d been doing things, and the people I didn’t respect were all “hell yeah, blow them away.” One of the few games where I genuinely went out of my way not to kill people, at least for about half the game.

    I remember Deus Ex 2, in development, and Spector kept saying things like “well, it’s not my game.” One of the things I liked about Deus Ex original is that it had both skills and the modules – which made sense to me. I feel like modern games, which keep reducing the RP systems, think players are idiots. In Deus Ex the choices I made about upgrading my character mattered, and there were a lot of ways to do it. It’s one of the three things that disappointed me about Deus Ex 3 (the other 2 being the boss fights and the end of the game, which was AWFUL (and then repeated by ME3, nearly ruining the entire trilogy for me.)

      • I remember quite well, at the time, in gaming sites, a discussion of Invisble War’s upgrade system for characters, which was based on new nanite systems. The skill part was removed. I forget the word the designers used but the idea was that each upgrade should feel big and very noticeable and reduce the number of ugrades.

        Spector’s comment on this was wishy washy, and boiled down to “it’s not my decision”. The impression I remember getting was that he was in some senior supervisory position, but felt that it wasn’t his place to be making such design decisions.

        Might still be able to find it online with a search for previews of Invisble War, though it might require the wayback machine, which is always a pain.

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