Warren Spector is one of the most renowned developers in the history of gaming. Looking at his body of work, it’s obvious that the central motif behind his approach are immersive games that offer players freedom to explore at their will. Up until today, Deus Ex is heralded as a milestone in gaming – a game that fully shows his vision and philosophy while combining elements from different genres. In our interview, Warren Spector talks about his current opinion on gaming and the industry, opportunities for young developers, his love for Zelda: Breath of the Wild and his dislike for F2P games.
Wall Jump: Can you name the last game you enjoyed and what you liked about it?
Warren Spector: The new Zelda – Breath of Wild – is pretty impressive. It’s nice to see developers offering players the chance to solve problems the way they want rather than solving puzzles the way the designer wanted them to. I’m not crazy about open world, go wherever you want games, but I’m always psyched about games that fall into the “immersive simulation” category, where you really feel like you’re in an alternate world and can play with a simulation and, ultimately, create your own unique experience. Breath of Wild is validation that the immersive sim style can appeal to a really large audience. That’s totally cool.
Wall Jump: You’ve developed games in various genres for many different platforms. The gaming industry has changed and equally to the music industry the “older” generation often states that “things used to be much better in the old days” – do you agree or disagree?
Warren Spector: I agree AND disagree. On the one hand, I miss small teams and standalone singleplayer games. Today it’s all about multiplayer, competitive, free to play or loot boxes, long tails and DLC – people watching other people play… all that stuff does, I admit, seem weird to me. Not bad, but weird.
But at the same time, we’re in an age where anyone with an idea can make a game and reach an audience with it – that wasn’t true even ten years ago, let alone in the “olden days.” How cool is it that a woman in a garage can grab a free game engine, make a game and distribute it digitally. The variety of games and game styles is astonishing now. Hard to look at that and say this is anything but a great time for games. No matter how old you are!
Wall Jump: What is your impression of the current state of the gaming industry? How has it changed over the last decade?
Warren Spector: Well, I think I already answered that to some extent, but here you go. The gaming industry – the mainstream, triple-A games, tend to be kind of uninteresting… and I have just ensured I will never work again. Too many games with a number after their names, too many sequels and reboots… But there are also thousands of indies out there making whatever the hell they want and not worrying about Generating Maximum Revenue or ensuring that their games are “sticky” enough that, for years at a time, players won’t go playing some other game. The state of mainstream is “meh.” The state of the medium is pretty solid.
Wall Jump: There are people on social media platforms who actually hate people like Anita Sarkeesian (Founder of Feminist Frequency) because of her criticism of the portrayals of women in video games. Sean Murray (No Man’s Sky) also got death threats and there are many more examples. It seems that video games have become serious business, I mean really serious?! What’s to do about it? Did you have similar experience due to the development of your games?
Warren Spector: Well, thankfully, I’ve never received death threats, but I’ve certainly gotten my fair share of negative feedback! I think what you’re seeing is that games reflect cultural change and trends, which is to say that Western culture is becoming more coarse, I think, and gamers aren’t immune from that. That coarseness is, obviously, reflected in online communication styles. Perhaps I’m complicit in allowing the problem to continue, but I try to stay focused on making the games I want to make with the full knowledge that some people are going to not like what I do and will overreact to that.
Wall Jump: Exaggerated: 25 years ago, 10 people could create a game which is still known today. Nowadays over 100 people create games, of which most are forgotten two weeks after release. What do you think about this development? Do you believe that there will be a rethinking inside the gaming industry during the next couple of years? Or is money always right?
Warren Spector: I think what you’re seeing is a very healthy split in the way games are made. Yes, in the mainstream of triple-A development, teams are large (and getting larger), but there’s an equally healthy indie movement that allows us to go back and make games for less money with much smaller teams. At its peak my last studio, Junction Point, had about 200 people, all working on a single game (and to that you can add a LOT of contractors and outside partners). So, basically, I think the model from 25 years ago is still valid.
Wall Jump: How do you explain the unbelievable boom of “social games” – especially F2P-games? Is this maybe the bill the gaming industry has to pay for its innovative poverty? Is the new generation of player bred to actually like these games?
Warren Spector: I think social games are booming because people just naturally like interacting with other people. Look at games over the years – and by years, I mean millenia. Games – well, with the exception of solitaire – were always created to bring people together to compete or cooperate. Games were social until the advent of digital games introduced the concept of the “single-player game.” What you see today is games getting back to their natural state. As far as F2P goes, I will go to my grave not understanding the appeal! If I ruled the world, we’d make something, sell it and move on to the next one! But that isn’t the way of the world anymore. You have to adapt and the audience is never wrong.
Games were social until the advent of digital games introduced the concept of the “single-player game”.Warren Spector
Wall Jump: How do you see the chances for young creators in the current gaming business? With all these free Dev-Kits and platforms (Browser-Games, iPhone, iPad, Indie-XBLA) – do you think it has become easier to make a name for yourself and actually fulfil your projects?
Warren Spector: It’s a real mixed bag for young developers these days. On the one hand, there are so many free tools available, and so many distribution outlets… That means anyone with an idea can make that idea a reality and reach an audience with it. But that’s also the problem. Anyone can make a game now. And that means that getting people to notice your game is incredibly hard. There’s just so much competition, so much noise. Standing out is key and that isn’t easy to do. But if you do it, you can make a name for yourself more easily than you could in the past. It doesn’t hurt that people seem more interested in the personalities behind the games than they used to be. Time was, no one cared who made a game. Nowadays, people like you interview people like me!
Back in the old days at Ion Storm: Tom Hall, John Romero und Warren Spector
Wall Jump: What kind of advice would you give to young creative brains trying to get into the business or standing at the beginning of a possible career?
Warren Spector: Man, there’s a book to be written about this and I don’t think you have space for me to go on quite so long. First, make sure you love games – if you don’t the grindingly hard work of making them will crush you like a bug. It isn’t all fun and games, making games! Second, make games. Competition for positions is fierce so find a way to stand apart. Your application should include games you’ve made on your own, to prove you know what you’re doing and that you can finish something. Third, know thyself. Know what you want to be and do and be great at it. Remember, competition is fierce. Be a great programmer, a great artist, a great designer. And be able to articulate what sort of programmer, artist or designer you are – are you an environment artist or an animator? A systems designer or a level designer? And so on. Fourth, don’t come in touting all your great ideas. Ideas are easy and the people already making games have more than they will ever be able to make in their entire career. Finally, get a broad-based education. Don’t come to me saying you love games and that’s all you do. Talk to me about movies and books and history and psychology and economics… If all you know is games, all you’ll do is imitate other games. I’m not interested in that. Okay, I’ll stop there. Like I said, you could write a book about breaking into game development (and people have…).
If all you know is games, all you’ll do is imitate other games.Warren Spector
Wall Jump: Do you have any idea what would have become of you if you hadn’t fallen for the gaming business? Would you do it again?
Warren Spector: It’s funny you should say “fallen.” That’s exactly what happened. I was just an amateur (and fanatical) gamer when I fell into a job at Steve Jackson Games, a small tabletop game company in Austin, Texas, where I live. I never planned on that. I figured I’d be a teacher – a university professor – teaching film history, theory and criticism. I wanted nothing more than to be a film historian, watching movies, writing books, that sort of thing. That’s probably what I would have done. Would I live my life the same way if I had it to do over again? Absolutely. Game development has been very good to me. It’s been a great career. I’ve worked with some of the best, most creative, smartest people you can imagine. I got into game dev early enough that I got to watch the medium mature from an infant to, well, not an adult – we’re not there yet – but from infant to teenager. It isn’t every day you get to see a medium of expression born and, maybe, play a little role in its development. Also, I’m not really qualified to do anything other than make games so of course I’d do it again if I had a do-over!
Wall Jump: Is there anything else that you always wanted to say but never had the chance to?
Warren Spector: I think I’ve said enough over the years that I’m amazed anyone wants to hear anything else from me, so I’ll politely decline to say any more here. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to answer your questions.
Warren Spector is one of the most influental American video game designers. In addition to Deus Ex, Spector brought a dark side to Mickey Mouse in two Mickey Epic games and worked on games like Wing Commander or Ulitma. He was also the creative brain behind System Shock and Thief and teached game design at the University of Texas.
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