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Warren Spector (en.)

“Hardcore Gamers´

male adolescence

power fantasies”

warrenspector_01.jpg

He is one of the Gaming Industry’s Living Legends — and a modest guy. Warren Spector was producing classics like Ultima Underworld, System Shock or Deus Ex, he has worked for Origin, Looking Glass and Eidos’s Ion Storm. In 2005, he founded Austin based Junction Point Studios. Jörg Langer talked to Spector, who started his career nearly 24 years ago as editor for board games publisher Steve Jackson Games.

Junction Point Studios --

Jörg: Warren, you have left Ion Storm in 2004, just months before it was closed down by Eidos. Now rumour has it that you’re working on two games. Can you tell us more about them?

Warren Spector: Honestly, I can’t say too much right now. My partners would be upset with me, and I have done enough talking about games before they were ready to talk about. The experience at Ion Storm taught me a lot, so I will talk when I really have something to say.

Jörg: But there are many designers who have a worse reputation by far in that respect: Peter Molyneux, for example, or Dave Perry…

Warren Spector: Peter, Dave and me share some characteristics, I think. (laughs) But there is one thing I can say: When we will actually announce what we’re working on, people will find it very interesting. The thing I’m most excited about is that half the people in the world will say: ‘Have you lost your mind? What were you thinking?’ And the other half will be really, really excited.

Jörg: What about the rumours that it will be a cartoon game?

Warren Spector: Don’t believe everything that is said or written on the web. Anyway, I am looking forward to that reaction, it will be fun to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it and how cool it is.

Jörg: So when could be the time to talk about your new project?

Warren Spector: I was hoping to do it at GDC 2007, but the timing didn’t work out right. The time might be right at E3 in July, or it might be at Leipzig Games Convention in August, who knows? I hope the fans in Germany are still there — when I was at Origin, Looking Glass and Ion Storm, I could count on a third of my sales coming from the Germans. Whenever I talk to publishers I remind them not to look just at the US. Unlike most others developers, my games nearly always sell at least half of their figures in Europe.

System Shock 1 and 2 are two of the most skillfully narrated games of all time.

Jörg: Will your new game be singleplayer only?

Warren Spector: It’s hard to make any game nowadays without a multiplayer component. But I am fundamentally a singleplayer guy, so it’s mostly singleplayer.

Jörg: Then you would agree that multiplayer as in Counterstrike or MMOs like World of WarCraft aren’t necessarily the future of the computer games industry?

Warren Spector: I have this argument with NC Soft’s Richard Garriott all the time — he is one of my mentors and a good friend of mine, so it’s all a good natured argument. Massively multiplayer games are a great business. But still, if the bestselling MMO is World of WarCraft with 8 million players, that doesn’t even get you into the territory of the potential of singleplayer games! I think MMOs and multiplayer have a long way to go before they are THE future, in capital letters.

Jörg: Especially if you consider WoW to be a ‘monthly series’ and compare it with big singleplayer series like Final Fantasy or GTA.

Warren Spector: Yes. Although, as a business person, I might rather have 8 million people giving me 15 dollars a month. But as someone who creates stories and wants people to learn about Life and themselves, I’d rather talk to 30, 40 millions of people. Not that I’ve ever even come close to that, but someday games will clearly appeal to the same audiences as television and movies. And the MMO space is much, much smaller than that, and it will remain that way.

Jörg: Why is there so much violence in many modern games? For example, Gears of War is a great game, but does it really have to show all that blood?

Warren Spector would rather like to talk to 30 million gamers...

Warren Spector: Many people in the Games industry are still looking backwards and not forwards. There is so much emphasis on graphics now. I have been saying this for ten years, but it gets worse and worse and worse. Because the hardware and our capabilities get better and better and better. We can now do the things we’ve always done and make them look more extreme and more realistic. So I am not sure there is more violence in games today, I think it just looks more convincing now. My hope is that, as we look at how we use the PS3 and Xbox 360, we start to see the new things we can do and not only how to make the old things look better.

Jörg: And the violence doesn’t help to give games a good reputation with a broader audience.

Warren Spector: Yes. There are other things going on in the industry, though. Loco Roco is cool, or Animal Crossing, or Little Big World which Phil Harrison showed at his GDC keynote. There are definitely counter trends. It’s the hardcore games audience — which still accounts for much of our sales — that is still mired in male adolescence power fantasies. We need to move forward, there are many people trying to do things very differently.

Jörg: Will there be a time when people look back at computer games as they are today looking back on board games, or pen-and-paper games like your old boss Steve Jackson is still doing them? When you will be the dinosaur talking about the good old days?

Warren Spector: It’s inevitable. Frankly, I am already feeling that way. I am 51 years old, that must make me one of the oldest people still actively involved in developing games.

Jörg: The years don’t show.

Warren Spector: Thank you. I have always said that the games business either keeps you young or kills you. I have people working for me and I am older than their parents! But to answer your question seriously: Someday some new medium or some radical revolution of what we’re doing will be coming along and display us. Something the kids understand and the adults fear.

Deus Ex 2 blieb deutlich hinter dem ersten Teil zurück.

Jörg: And we will be the ones saying, ‘this must be forbidden by law!’

Warren Spector: Exactly. And I can’t wait to see that day! Video games are an incredible powerful medium, and we’re so much in the cultural crosshairs right now. The spotlight is on us, everybody is looking on video games effects and violence. In a way, we’ve taken off the pressure from television and comic books, or the video arcades in the 80ies. The other point is: people like Steve Jackson still have something relevant to say. There is a clear progression from what he did and what I learned from him to what I’m doing today. So I hope that, in 20 or 15 years, I will still be around giving speeches…

Jörg: When you look back 15 years into the past: Was it a better time for games in terms of creativity and your influence on games?

Warren Spector: At some point in the last year or two I’ve become a cruchity old guy and I constantly find myself saying stuff like “things were better in the old days!’. Of course, we’re always putting our rose coloured glasses on when we talk about the past. But it does seem that it was easier and more fun then. When you’re working with ten guys in the basement of a building and you’re all sitting on beach chairs all day…

Jörg: Probably your back wouldn’t allow you to do that anymore.

Warren Spector: Hey, I’m working out, I’m pretty flexible, don’t go there! (laughs) That was a different feeling than leading a team with a hundred people where you don’t even know the names of everybody that works for you. At Junction Point, we are 24 people now and it feels great! The sort of collaborative group creativity we have is very much like in the old days. But that’s going to come to an end. Just generating the art assets and the audio assets and the level of overall quality that is needed today — it really makes it hard to be innovative and creative. Especially when you’re an external studio.

Warren Spector auf der GDC 2007

Jörg: So towards the end of the project, you will expand your team?

Warren Spector: Definitely. I will try to keep the team size down somewhere in the 50 to 60 person range, and to outsource a lot of stuff. But many people say that, and at the end of the day they’re going up to a hundred or 120 persons.

Jörg: You are a PC developer, obviously, although you’ve had your console experiences. Do you think that modern consoles resemble a PC so much that there is no real difference anymore?

Warren Spector: PS3 and Xbox 360 and, to some extent, Wii are functional equivalents to a high-end PC. In some ways, they are more powerful, in some ways, they are less. But fundamentally, the NextGen machines have levelled the playing field, so everything we can do on a PC can also be done on a console, and vice versa. Even when I was a hardcore PC developer, which is not possible anymore, even then I could never understand why to make a game different just because it’s for a console. I just don’t get it. Gamers are gamers. Give them a great game, give them a great experience, that’s all it’s about.

Jörg: What are you playing at the moment?

Warren Spector: A bunch of things. I’ve finished Zelda: Twilight Princess recently. It started out pretty slow, but the last one or two hours of that game just blew my mind, I was so happy with it!

Jörg: Although Zelda is very formalistic, it’s always ‘find object A in dungeon A and kill boss A, then do it again with B’.

Warren Spector: Yes, it’s weird. I could talk an hour about why I love Zelda games and why I shouldn’t, based on the games I like to make and what I think games do best. But I still love them. I am playing a lot of DS stuff, a lot of GBA stuff, in fact. There is a game called Rhythm Tendoku, it’s just a spectacular music and rhythm game. I’m playing a lot of those bit generation games for GBA, like Orbital. I am playing Resistance on the PS3. I’ve played Gears of War on Xbox 360. I want to play Crackdown, and — well, you’ve got me there, I’m drawing a blank now, but I really play much.
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Interview (c) 2007 Jörg Langer