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What's Next? Spector: 'Design innovation is where the future lies'

Ahead of future-focused <a href="http://www.gdcnext.com">GDC Next</a>, GDC interviewed industry veteran Warren Spector about game dev education, multi-act careers in the game industry, personal influences, and the future of games.

Patrick Miller, Blogger

September 10, 2013

16 Min Read

[Ahead of November's GDC Next, GDC's Director of Online Community Patrick Miller reached out to many games industry luminaries to see where they think the future of video games is headed. This interview is the fourth installment of a multi-part series that will run up until shortly before the 'future of games' conference, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA from November 5-7, co-located with the App Developers Conference.] In an industry as young as ours is, few devs have the experience that Warren Spector has -- or, for that matter, the resume. System Shock, Ultima, Wing Commander, Deus Ex, Epic Mickey -- naturally, I wanted to know where he thought the future of games was headed. Read on to see what Spector has to say about game dev education, multi-act careers in the industry, personal influences, and the importance of game design in the future of video games as a medium. Patrick Miller: The games industry is relatively young, and you're one of the few high-profile game developers who have been around long enough to really have a multiple-act career so far. How do you see your role in the industry evolving and changing? Do you think the industry's treatment of younger up-and-coming talent will change as we see more and more veteran devs stick around? Warren Spector: Clearly, as one gets older, interests, capabilities and, therefore, roles change. I often say I'm the oldest developer still actively involved in the creation of individual games. That is to say that there may be people older than me (I'm 58) in the industry, but most of them are running things rather than making things. To be clear, when I say "I make things," I depend heavily on others -- younger others! -- to do the heavy lifting and long hours I'm not longer physically capable of doing. However, I'll stand by the fact that I still conceptualize the games I work on and, as I put it with my teams, I have one more vote than all of them combined when it comes to the specifics of what goes into the final game. So given that I'm not much interested in being a full-time administrator, what changes have I seen, and what do I expect to see down the road? Well, I certainly think more these days than I ever did before about the appeal of mentorship -- of doing whatever I can to help the younger folks coming up behind me. A lot of them don't need my help -- and don't want it even if they DO need it -- but watching people like Harvey Smith and Paul Weaver and others do so well while working with me (and after leaving me) is really gratifying. I'd like to do more of that sort of "giving people a leg up" in the future. One of the best ways to do that, I think, is to move from development NOT into publishing or business roles -- or even into the relatively hands-off day-to-day role I've tried to fill over the last 5 years or so… No, the way to go, I think, is into education. There are so many game development programs out there at universities, colleges, community colleges… plus a few high schools… heck, even the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts have game development programs in place. I think, as the medium matures, and as developers age, you'll see more and more of them moving into education, teaching from experience in structured ways, rather than the ad hoc approach we've taken to games education over the years. I don't think you'll see the role and treatment of younger developers change much, but the role and treatment of older developers is going to change radically, I bet. PM: You're the first person I've spoken to who mentioned education as a major aspect of your game dev career. What do you think about the state of game dev education? Would you recommend going to school specifically for game dev to, say, an incoming college freshman? WS: Well, the fact that I'm the first to mention this probably tells you a lot about the industry's attitude toward education! Anyway, I know there are some developers who boast impressive academic credentials but a lot of devs (and pubs) clearly think it's a waste of time -- they learned on the job, often without the benefit of higher education, so they hire people with similar backgrounds. Even among the over-educated, I sometimes feel like a bit of an anomaly in that I came to game development after a long career as a professional student. I'm just THIS short of a Ph.D so, needless to say, I value education highly! As far as games education in particular goes, I think it's something of a mixed bag. There are some universities and colleges doing a great job developing the artists and team contributors of tomorrow. There are others selling snake oil. (And, no, I'm not naming names at either end of the spectrum!) Would I recommend a game development education to a college freshman? It all depends. If you're already one of the best of the best in your discipline and you know -- absolutely know -- game development is what you want to do with your life, sure, go right into industry. Okay, that takes care of one in 1000... For all the rest, I'd say get an education, for sure. Learn to be the best of the best in your chosen field but don't neglect the liberal arts (especially psychology, economics and history). Be sure to get some exposure to the other disciplines -- programmers and artists need to know how to work with designers... designers need to know how to work with artists and programmers... ditto for artists, audio folks and so on. I'm leery of places and programs that focus exclusively or primarily on a games curriculum. If all you learn in school is how to make games, you'll just end up rehashing the games of the past. That's bad for everyone. Having said all that, there are areas in which I think academia is doing a less than optimal job in preparing people for careers in gaming. But I'm going to keep those cards close to my chest for a while... PM: You've mentioned that you can't take the physical stress of game development these days; is this something you think needs changing? How have you seen typical crunch conditions affect the process of making games (or the quality of the games themselves)? Does this stress prematurely remove older devs from the business -- devs with useful experience? WS: Well, to be clear, I could -- and can -- handle the physical stress of development. It's just that it's a lot harder than it used to be! Do I think this is related to crunch? Do I think it needs to change? No in each case. Frankly, when I was younger -- up until my mid- to late-40's actually -- I kind of enjoyed crunching. Obviously, it can get out of hand when it goes on too long, which it always seems to do, but I know of very few projects (none, actually) that get made without some extra effort. It's a fact that crunching becomes more difficult as you get older, but that's kind of working for me, in a weird sort of way. See, as I get older, I find myself wanting to mentor more and make less, if you see what I mean. At 58, it just seems better to work with younger, more crunch-worthy developers and help them as much as I'm able. Note that this doesn't mean abandoning development in favor of pure management or a business role or something -- it just means approaching development from a different angle, sharing the creative work of game-making even more than before. Frankly, that seems like a pretty natural career and life progression, one that very well could be specific to me, not a problem that needs to be solved. PM: In games, we're used to talking about what future tech will bring the medium of games, but we're less accustomed to talking about what future design will bring. Who do you see doing cutting-edge game design work? Do you see emerging mechanics, sub-genres, theories, design processes etc. that you think will have a reverberating effect on the video games of 5-10 years from now? WS: I've always been less interested in tech than in design, less in art than in experience. Rather than get into specific designers or studios, called out by name (which would just get me in trouble!), I think it's better to take a larger view and focus on trends. On the plus side, I think there's incredibly interesting stuff happening in the indie world these days. The fact that there are so many ways to reach an audience -- an audience, no longer the audience -- interesting, innovative games are all but inevitable. Used to be, the Independent Games Festival at the Game Developers Conference was little more than a place where wannabe mainstream game developers could show off their portfolio pieces. I used to walk around that display and think, "Oh, isn't that cute -- another conventional shooter… Oh, and there's another conventional RTS." Today, that's not true. I walk around the IGF area and think, "Holy Cow. Talk about creativity! How'm I going to compete against that?" The Experimental Gameplay Workshop at GDC is another terrific example of developers, working alone or in small teams, can make games unlike anything the mainstream business would never think of greenlighting. Some of these games are mechanics-focused, some are story-focused, some are, well, weirdness-focused. But all of them make clear that neither tech nor art defines the future of games -- tech and art promise a future of prettier, more expensive games. Design innovation is where the future lies. My only fear is that the work of the indie developers (and, to a lesser extent, mobile developers) won't have the kind of impact on traditional games developers and publishers they should have. So far, I'm not seeing much of the indie and mobile work flowing back into the work of people (sadly) like me and other traditionally triple-A developers. I hope that changes. Frankly, I think it will change, but not because the young whippersnappers of indie and mobile games coming to work for the big, mainstream companies…The change will come because digital distribution will allow them to reach players. The low cost of development will allow low cost of sales. And all that together will mean indies will become a new mainstream. At least that's my hope. Maybe it's a dream and I'm just fooling myself. But I'd love to see a de-emphasis of traditional gaming and more focus on, and success, for smaller, riskier games and developers. PM: How do you think the mainstream game audience's expectations of a video game will change in the future? Will people be more receptive to games that make us feel more complicated emotions than simply "entertained"? How do devs and publishers need to prepare for that? WS: I'm not sure I see the mainstream game audience's expectations to change so much as I see the very nature of the mainstream game audience itself to change. More to the point, if you just look at what's going on even today, we're rapidly moving toward the day when the mainstream audience is the only audience. In the same way everyone's a movie-goer and TV-watcher, someday soon, everyone will be a game player. What will they be they be playing? Clearly, there will continue to be what we think of as triple-A games, played by an audience that self-defines as "gamers." The hardcore variety. And there will continue to be simple, compelling mobile-games, played by people who would rather die than identify themselves as gamers. But my hope is that we'll see the rise of games that cross audience-boundaries by leaving behind a geeky focus on traditional game conventions as well as the time-wasting characteristics of the best (or at least best-selling) swipe-swipe-tap-tap games. Your question implies its own answer -- we need to stop thinking of ourselves as the only medium on the planet that is defined only by the need to be "fun" (whatever the hell that means). What should developers and publishers do to prepare for a future where everyone is a gamer? I think the answer is exactly the same as the advice financial advisors give their clients in times of turmoil and change -- maintain a balanced portfolio. Anyone who puts all their eggs in one basket, focusing on only one type of game, on one platform (or type of platform) with only one monetization scheme is probably doomed. Other than a growing, more diverse audience, there's nothing certain about the future of gaming -- other than the fact that there will be a future, something that wasn't as certain as you think just a decade or two ago. PM: Is hardware on your mind at all? Are there emerging hardware trends or specific devices that have caught your eye as something specific to pay attention to? WS: I'm hugely interested in mobile games. I mean, who wouldn't be interested in delivering games to a platform that boasts something like a billion users, all of whom have a little game-playing device in their pockets… a billion devices all connected to one another… with real humans on either end. Now that's some hardware I'm jazzed about. The other stuff -- VR, AR, new consoles? Meh. I'll think about it, but mobile seems way more interesting to me right now. (See? What'd I say about ensuring I'll never work again?...) PM: Sometimes it seems like the best ideas in tech and games simply didn't happen at the right time. What do you think we might see come back (perhaps a spiritual successor) once the time is right? WS: Sure. Back in the mid-90s there was a big VR movement, led by the Cybermaxx headset and he Forte VFX1. They had full immersion, head tracking, the works. What they didn't have was optics up to the job. (You couldn't read any text onscreen it was so bad.) Those were way ahead of their time. It'll be really interesting to see if Oculus Rift is coming along at the right time or, when the history is written, it'll just be another breakthrough that didn't break through. Other than that, nothing's coming to mind off the top of my head other than what Trip Hawkins was trying to do with the 3DO. Like some other current and future game devices, the 3DO was pretty much on the money, but ahead of its time -- I just think everyone already sees that an expensive entertainment box, offering high-end graphics and other entertainment options beyond games is a good thing… maybe a better thing than a lower cost device that does nothing but play games. PM: What (and who) do you and your peers look to for inspiration? What influences currently inform the your work and those you admire? WS: Look at today's most popular games and it's pretty obvious what our inspirations are. Movies, you say? Uh uh. Television? Nah. Comic Books? Try again. No, the inspiration for most games is… other games! Maybe I'm cynical, but I don't see a lot of daring, innovative or even interesting things in the mainstream of gaming. I do see a lot of rehashed classics with better graphics. (I love ensuring that I'll never get work from any publisher again…) Luckily, we have that thriving indie scene that's doing all sorts of new and unusual things. Sure, some of the indies draw inspiration from earlier games, but they tend to deconstruct those games rather than remake them…with better graphics. And some indie developers are exploring new systems, gameplay and narrative. There's a future for you! What influences me? Well, for a while there, I was clearly inspired by Walt Disney! Mostly, I'm inspired by headlines, by news, by whatever happens to be floating around in the cultural zeitgeist. I tend not to want to convince people to be interested in something -- I'd much rather find things they're already interested in and give them an interactive look at that. No matter how fantastic or science fictional a game of mine may seem, I hope people take something back to the real world when they play, something that's relevant to their lives and our world. PM: "I hope people take something back to the real world when they play"? That's a fascinating sentiment; how do you design for this? WS: First, I think the real world applicability "test" applies largely to narrative games. It would certainly be much, much more difficult to design for real-world applicability in an abstract puzzle game, for example. Assuming you're making a game where this idea makes sense, you design for it by offering players real choices about how to interact with the world. You show them the consequences of those choices. You set up situations where it isn't all about winning or solving a puzzle -- you set up situations where players have to decide for themselves what is and isn't the right thing to do. You want players moving through the game world and, occasionally stopping, taking their hands off the keyboard or controller and sitting back (at least metaphorically) to think about what they're doing, the reasons they're doing it and the best way to do it. If you're just forcing players down a path of pre-planned story and/or a single challenge/solution path, you're not going to get there. But giving players freedom to choose in an option-rich, consequential world is a huge win, in my book. At various times, the people I've been lucky enough to work with have expressed this idea in many ways. One I find particularly useful is the question, "Is the world watching and responding to what the player does?" Ask that question and give the "right" answer, and I think it's inevitable that players will think about how they'd apply what they learned from playing your game a particular way to their experience of the real world. Simple, right? Not so much... Registration is now open for GDC Next and the co-located ADC. The first 500 attendees who sign up can save over 30% on ADC, GDC Next, or a combined VIP Pass -- but reduced-price passes are selling fast, so register soon! For all the latest news on GDC Next, subscribe for updates via Facebook, Twitter, or RSS. Also, check out the previous 'What's Next' interviews with Sunni Pavlovic, James Paul Gee, Raph Koster and Chris Pruett.

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