Deus Ex creator Warren Spector used to be a man always in the headlines, but the past few years have seen his Junction Point studio joining the Disney Interactive family and little else. We caught up with him at GDC08 to talk independence, reputation and the problems with game stories...

Q&A: Warren Spector, Part 1

It was a while ago that Junction Point became part of Disney – what made you want to join them?

There were a lot of things that made me want to be a part of Disney in some way – they approached me several years ago to do concept design on things that I can’t talk about, and that had two effects – on the one hand I just fell in love with the concept and the project, and so to continue with that was really tempting, and I got to know the people at Disney and see where they were going, and saw that this isn’t your granddad’s Disney game studios – this was something new and cool.

And then, to be frank, the industry has changed in some very interesting ways over the past few years, many of them very positive, but one of the things that became very hard when we transitioned into the new hardware generation was that being an independent developer making triple-A titles, competing with the EA internal studios or Activision studios as an independent start-up was really kind of insane. So when you put great project, great people and ‘Holy cow it’s tough being an independent’ into a pot and then stir in the fact that I’m a closet Disney fanatic, well, it was really tempting.

Actually, in 1988, I was working at TSR – the Dungeons and Dragons company – and wondering what to do next, but there were only two things that appealed to me: working as an Imagineer at Disney designing theme park rides or making games. So it’s been 20 years coming!

Recently there’s been quite a few people leaving larger game studios to form smaller ones, much like we saw in the late nineties – even in today’s super high budget climate. Why did you decide that now wasn’t the time to be running an independent studio?

Well, the interesting and very positive thing about the game business now is that, more than any other point in the 25 years I’ve been making games, now there are more ways to reach more diverse audiences than ever before. There’s room in the business now for a $100 million MMO, and a three-guys-in-a-boutique MMO – and for both to be profitable and creatively satisfying in their own way. There’s room in the business now for the $40 million triple-A multi-platform next-gen console title from a major publisher, and there’s room for seven kids at Digipen or several kids at USC making games like Portal and fl0w.

There’s room for people to make casual games, one guy in a garage – my partner at Junction Point decided he didn’t want to compete in the triple-A space, he wanted to make casual games, so he literally went off by himself and created a casual game in a few months that you can still buy. So, I really can’t think of a time in the 25 years that I’ve been making games where there’s that much breadth of opportunity. It’s amazing!

The problem for me is that I don’t want to do little games, I don’t want to do casual games. I want to make big, epic, stupidly complicated, really hard to make, frightening to develop sort-of games. And right now, if you’re a Valve, you can be an independent developer and be just fine. There’s a handful of companies that have infrastructure and teams and track records, but for a start-up right now, competing in the triple-A space – I’d be worried. And I was there, and that was part of my reasoning for joining Disney.

You’re a big believer in interactive narrative in games, and there’s been a lot of movement towards valuing the story element of games over the past few years – years where you’ve been out of the public eye. Do you worry that you’re going to have to re-emerge and say ‘I’m still here, this is what I’ve been working on!’

No, I’ve never cared about my reputation, I don’t care if people like me. But it’s interesting you should mention that because I looked at the schedule at this year’s GDC and all of a sudden there are all these panels and lectures about game story. The way I look at is, well, on the one hand the more people making story-based games like that, the more choice I’m going to find stuff I want to play as a player. So that’s all good – we’ve had some lean years where there wasn’t much I wanted to play.

Also, the more people that tackle a problem, the more likely we are to solve it – I don’t have a monopoly on the truth, I can barely figure out how to tie my own shoelaces sometimes. So the more people thinking about game narrative the more likely we are to solve the really hard problems that are still there left to be solved.

What do you think those problems are?

After 20 years of saying this it’s still sadly true, but there’s the whole teeter-totter model of stories in games – the more game-like you make something the less traditionally story-like it becomes and the more story-like you make it the less game-like it becomes. That’s still true and I don’t see anybody having solved that yet.

Also, there are still a bunch of boring story communication issues, like I’m just really not satisfied that have ‘OK, now you’re in the game part, now you’re in the story part’ – interaction, movie, interaction, movie. That’s just not good enough.

I’m still not satisfied, again as a player, with the quality of our actors or our interactive conversation systems which I think are required for telling stories. I think Mass Effect made some progress on that, I think Half Life 2 made some progress on that, but we still have a long way to go.

My big current soapbox is ‘Hey game writers, get over yourselves and learn something from screenwriters!’ For the past couple of years I’ve been reading a lot of scripts, and what I’ve noticed is that they can communicate really complex emotions in very few words. Less is more – and I’m the worst offender by the way, let me say that up front. But game writers really need to learn to scale back a bit. It’s almost like it’s a badge of honour that you have 250,000 lines of dialogue. How about we try to communicate the same emotions in a lot less?

It’s true that we’re not movies and Hollywood scriptwriters don’t understand the problems, but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a thing we can’t learn from them to make ourselves better. That’s my point – not to hire Hollywood writers, my gosh that’s not the answer – but read some movie scripts. They’re not like game dialogue, not even the best game dialogue.

And that’s just on the single-player side – the big grail for many people in the business, maybe even me, is how to solve the multi-player storytelling problem. And I don’t mean how to tell a story in the context of a ten million user MMO, but just – how can you get three, four, five, six players together and get them to collaboratively tell a story together. That’s going to be pretty powerful, and no one’s nailed that yet.

So, to go back to your question, yeah, the more people that are trying to tackle this problem the better. I think I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.

Part 2 of this interview will be published tomorrow.

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