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Interview: Warren Spector on Getting Design from Good to Great

"I think every narrative should have a subtext - a question or set of questions it asks players to think about. You want them exploring the question through their choices as they play."

Warren Spector is best known for creating Deus Ex while at Ion Storm Austin. He has since created Epic Mickey for Disney and he is now the Director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas at Austin.

I had the opportunity to ask him questions over email as part of a series of interviews about getting design from good to great (you can read a previous interview with Richard Garfield here). As a game design consultant, I help developers turn their games into hits, so I was very interested about his method for creating his remarkable hits. His process to choose which project to realize is particularly interesting.

Warren Spector  on the University of Texas campus

PAG: While in the early stages of a project, how do you choose which direction to go in? Which idea to pursue out of all of the possibilities?

WS: I have a whole process I go through - a series of questions I ask myself to determine if an idea is worth my time to pursue. The questions are: What's the core idea? Why do THIS game? What are the development challenges? Is the idea well-suited to games? What's the fantasy? What are the verbs? Has anyone done this before? What's the One New Thing? And what is this game REALLY "about?" If I don't like the answers, I ditch the idea. If I DO like the answers, I have a template I use - a form I fill out - to determine if I understand the idea well enough to keep going with it. If I can't answer all the questions or fill out the form to my satisfaction, I move on to the next idea. Ideas are easy...

One more thing: It occurs to me I should explain the question "What is your game about." Basically, I think every narrative should have a subtext - a question or set of questions it asks players to think about. You don't want to make them explicit, and you don't want players thinking about them consciously - you want them exploring the question through their choices as they play. For example, Deus Ex was "about" this:

  • "What happens if you drop a guy who believes in right and wrong, black and white, into a world that's all shades of gray?"
  • "What does it mean to be human in a world where human augmentation is a reality?"
  • "What would the world be like if every conspiracy theory people believed to be true was, in fact, true?"
  • "How would the world be better off - in a new dark age where we had free will, in a world of total peace created by a sentient AI but lacking free will, or as it is today (ruled by the Illuminati, of course)?"

I just think games, like any other narrative medium, can explore things below the surface action depicted.

PAG: When you have an idea (for a gameplay mechanic or something else) that's pretty good but not quite great yet, how do you push it to that next level?

WS: Well, ideally, you don't even start a project that doesn't at least have the potential to be great. If you start out with a clear enough vision - a picture in your head of what a game can be - it's just a matter of grindingly hard work and, frankly, an unwillingness to compromise on what's important, that takes an idea to the next level. If you believe in something, you just make it work. I don't really know how to answer any better than that. I mean, the difference between something good and something great is the width of a human hair. Making things great is the art of game development. I suppose someone will tell you there's data you can gather to help you make something great, but I think that's a crock. Greatness is magic, not science.

PAG: When a teammate brings you an idea that you don't believe is a good fit for the project, how do you handle that?

WS: I won't even look at an overall game concept if the person pitching it hasn't gone through my questions and filled out my form. So a lot of ideas don't even get to my desk. If you're talking about specific features, it's a question of having and communicating a clear enough vision that people instinctively know whether something fits or not. I call what I do "defining the creative box" - if everyone on a team knows where the lines are that define that box, they won't even bother pitching something outside the lines. And if they do, you just have to be straight with them and tell them their idea doesn't fit. (Happens all the time - leaders have to be willing to shoot straight with people...)

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