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The Comeback: Why Warren Spector is making games again

"I wanted to make sure I didn't become one of those teachers who used to make games." After years away, veteran game designer Warren Spector tells Gamasutra why he's itching to make games again.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

February 22, 2016

11 Min Read

After nearly three years as a full-time educator, veteran game designer Warren Spector is itching to make games again.

That's a sentiment most developers can empathize with: the innate urge to sit down and just make that game. It's partly why he'll be taking a break from directing the University of Texas at Austin's Denius-Sams Gaming Academy this year to join OtherSide Entertainment full-time, and assemble a new studio to work on System Shock 3

But another big reason he's returning to game development -- and to the influential franchise whose progenitor, the 1994 Looking Glass game System Shock, he helped produce -- is pressure to be engaged, active and relevant in a game industry that seems to undergo seismic shifts on a regular basis.

"The business and the world of game development has changed so radically, even since I started teaching," Spector told Gamasutra via phone last week. "I needed to get back out and immerse myself in it, so I understood the world my students were about to enter."

In the course of the call Spector spoke to what he's learned about the nature of game design from teaching it to others, and how he hopes to push it forward a bit more by returning to the well of the first-person "immersive sim" philosophy of design he himself helped pioneer, more than twenty years ago.

It was an interesting conversation, so we've taken the liberty of reprinting an edited version below in an effort to shed a bit more light on where Spector is coming from -- and where he's aiming to go.

Why go back to full-time game development?


"I wanted to make sure I didn't become one of those teachers who used to make games."

There are a bunch of reasons. You know, the first thing is, when I first started talking to the university, I told them I'd take a three-year commitment, because the game industry changes so quickly. I was worried that after three years, y'know, the relevance of what I know would start to diminish.

And I wanted to make sure I didn't become one of those teachers who used to make games, who used to know how games were developed and why. I knew I needed to keep my skills honed, so that was part of it. And part of it was just, y'know, I make games. It's kind of what I do. I've been getting the itch to make something. It's been coming on for a while now.

And finally, the last little piece of the puzzle was Paul Neurath, who I've worked with several times at Origin and Looking Glass, he came to me and asked if I wanted to make System Shock 3.

Night Dive Studios published an enhanced version of Looking Glass' 1994 game System Shock last year

Making System Shock is one of the best parts of my professional life, so the opportunity to bring that franchise into the 21st century...I just couldn't say no. Put that all together, and I decided it was time.

You've already been helping Neurath with Underworld Ascendant, right?

Yeah, I'm on his board of advisors. What that means is, I see design documents and get to comment on them. I see videos of gameplay and get to comment on everything from graphics to gameplay.

He keeps trying to send me builds but...this is actually embarrassing to admit, but I don't own a PC. So I just ordered, about a month ago I ordered a killer laptop but I can't get a delivery date on it. So I haven't been able to play any of the builds, which is humiliating. But once my PC shows up, I'm going to start playing builds and giving them feedback on that.

But from talking to the team, and seeing the videos, and seeing the design documentation, I know they're on the right track, and it will be an Underworld for the 21st century. I'm proud to be an advisor on the project.

Let's dig into design, for a minute. How has the field of game design changed in the last few years, from your perspective, and where do you hope to take it?

I can't believe I'm about to say this -- I'll never work in this industry again -- but in the mainstream space I really haven't seen a whole lot of progress. It seems like we're getting more finely-tuned, prettier versions of games we've been playing for years.

Thank god for the indie space, there are people trying interesting things there. What I want to do, is I see a variety of places where we could make some strides that would help take games to the next level. The biggest one, for me, is more robust characters and character AI. We've gotten very good at combat AI, we've made great strides there, but I don't think we've done much in the world of non-combat AI and interacting with people -- human or otherwise. We haven't done a lot with conversation, and establishing emotional relationships with characters in games. So I'd very much like to play with that.

Also, while I've seen some efforts, especially from the guys at Arkane, to sort of extend the design philosophy of Origin and Looking Glass -- that whole "immersive simulation" and its philosophy of empowering players to tell their own stories. I'd like to go further with that. It's nice to see more people trying, but I think there's a ways we could go as well, in terms of empowering players to tell their own stories. Those are the directions I'm going to try to go in. We'll see if I can pull it off. 

Any other notable examples of non-combat AI design that have influenced you?

I don't want to get into specific projects, either positively or negatively, because that gets me in trouble. But one thing I will say, is that every time I talk about non-combat AI, someone starts flaming me because everybody wants to do the right thing, but...it's hard to get publishers and game designers onboard.

I don't understand why. Apparently, and I can't say that I've seen this with mine own eyes, but apparently there are lots of folks in AI who agree with me and are actively working on cool things, but you don't actually see that getting into games. As I start working on System Shock 3, maybe I'll have to get some of those guys onboard and show off some of their work.

You're not moving to Boston (where OtherSide is based), are you?

Oh no, no no. You'd have to blast me out of Austin. I've had plenty of opportunities to leave, but that's my home. I've been lucky enough that various publishers and partners have indulged me, and allowed me to build studios there.

Paul Neurath, who founded OtherSide, has been very generous, and so I'll be buliding a studio in Austin. I'm trying to find people who get the concept of what I call "playstyle matters," where what you do actually creates a unique experience for every player. So I'll be looking for people who get that, and building a team in Austin, starting this summer.

What does your new studio look like, do you think?

Bear in mind this is my second day since making the announcement, so everything I say has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I'll tell ya, I've done the big team thing. We had 200 people at Junction Point, in the studio itself, and 800 people around the world working on the game.

So I've done the big-budget, huge team thing, and at this point what I'd like to do is smaller, lower-budget, almost like "games as a service" model games that require somewhere between 10-20 people to make. I don't want to get much bigger than that.

I think we can work with external partners to create a virtual, larger team that will allow us to compete with the larger teams and the larger budgets without actually having to build that. I don't want to get so far away from the game that I have to spend all my time running an enormous studio and dealing with publishers. I want to be in the thick of it, so smaller teams is part of the deal.

With a small team, are you interested in exploring new ways of developing games? Designing for Early Access or free-to-play, for example?

Again, it's early to say. I've been on record as saying I don't much care for the free-to-play model, so unless, as a strategic thing, OtherSide decides that's the way to go, I don't think that will happen. I probably won't be doing free-to-play. I'm kind of a premium game guy.

But I think you have to provide ongoing support and expansions, so I want to provide a complete experience right up front that's worth people's money, and then on an ongoing basis provide new content: new characters, new mechanics, new places to explore and adventures to go on. I think that's what you'll see coming from my studio as we work on System Shock 3.

As you depart from academia, what did you learn in your time as an educator and how did that shape your interest in game development?

Oh, one of the reasons I'm getting back into full-time game development is because I've learned from the students. They are going out into a completely different world. They're going out into a world where metrics, and analytics, are important parts of the design process.

The current DSGA class is working on a game called Roots of Sarkos (pictured) and you can actually go to itch.io and download a beta of that right now. When we released our first beta on itch, I went home and practically cried. Because the idea of releasing a game that isn't finished, that's totally alien to me! 

So the big thing I learned is that the business and the world of game development has changed so radically, even since I started teaching, that I needed to get back out and immerse myself in it, so I understood the world my students were about to enter. The thing I learned is that you learn as much from your students as they learn from you.

Are you worried? Are you scared, at all, of going back into full-time game development after some time away?

Not so much. First of all, I'm pretty confident I can learn. In order to survive in this business, you have to have a reasonably-sized ego, so I'm pretty certain I can learn what I need to learn.

I'm working with a very familiar franchise, so I understand the world -- of the game, at least. I'm going to have a lot of help, too. Paul Neurath spent a year and a half at Zynga, so he understands a lot about the world of game development now, and he's been a mentor of mine for many years, and I expect I'll be learning from him.

And you know fundamentally -- I should never say this out loud -- but the stakes of failure in the game business are not very great. It's not like world peace is threatened, or someone dies, if you fail. If this doesn't work out, I'll do another startup or something. But I'm pretty confident I can learn what I need to learn.

The big challenge is going to be building the team that gets the kinds of games I want to make. I'd rather not have to go back into teacher mode, and educate a team in the whole Origin/Looking Glass/Ion Storm/Junction Point philosophy. So finding people who already get it, that I think will be the biggest challenge, to be honest with you.

I'm looking forward to it. I wouldn't have jumped back into this full-time if I didn't think I could succeed. I'm not really worried, and I'm not really scared. I'm pretty confident we can pull this off.

Will you ever return to education?

I have no idea. It's very satisfying, changing the lives of young people just starting in their careers, and certainly it's exciting to be around people whose enthusiasm and energy are both so high.

And I'm not walking away from the Academy. I've told the folks at the University of Texas, I've told them I'm not leaving. I'm just changing my role. I'll be volunteering as long as they want me. I'm happy to come in and give as many lectures as they want me to do. I'm happy to serve as chairman or just a member of the board of advisors for the program. I'm still planning on staying involved, but just not as a full-time gig.

My full-time gig is going to be making games again.

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