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Gamasutra sits down with Spector to catch up on how is return to full-time game dev is going, roughly a year into his work on System Shock 3, and what sorts of stories games tell best.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

April 28, 2017

15 Min Read

Back in 2013, veteran game maker Warren Spector left the world of full-time game development to become an educator.

Three years later, he came back. He stepped down from his role leading the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy and signed on as creative director at OtherSide Entertainment, where he now leads development of System Shock 3.

"I wanted to make sure I didn't become one of those teachers who used to make games," he explained to Gamasutra last year. "Who used to know how games were developed and why. I knew I needed to keep my skills honed."

This affords him what seems like an interesting perspective on game development. Spector stepped outside the day-to-day concerns of working inside a studio and spent years trying to prepare young, aspiring game makers for challenges they face in today's game industry. Now he's back on the inside, helping to figure out the shape of systems and mechanics. Working through the production process. Making games again.

Gamasutra sat down with Spector at GDC last month to catch up on how the process is going, roughly a year into his full-time gig at OtherSide. It was an interesting conversation, especially if you're at all interested in where games are at these days, where they came from, and what sorts of stories they're best at telling.

How did your return to full-time game development go?

Well first of all, I did buy a PC finally. I knew the form factor I wanted, and I knew the graphics capabilities I wanted, and it took me a while to find just the right thing but I finally did. I don't know if I should plug the computer I bought, but I did buy one. And I've been playing a lot of games on it, which is good.

"I find that the idea of asking questions, and having a dialogue with your players, much more interesting than just saying 'here's my story.'"

And as far as getting back into game development, it's everything that game development is: it's joyous, it's frustrating, it's scary and annoying and great and exactly what I hoped it would be.

Have you hit production yet?

Oh, we're still in concept phase. I'm a big believer in figuring out what game you want to make before you start making it. So we're still hammering out game systems, working on our narrative, so we're very early on.

What do you think of GDC, having attended for so long and now being back in the role of a game dev attending?

Well I've been to every GDC since the '80s, when it was the Computer Game Developers Conference --

In Chris Crawford's living room?

No, I missed that. It was in a little hotel somewhere south of San Francisco, and it was about 250-350 people, something like that. And I remember my most vivid memory of that was, first thing I went to was a session, a lecture given by a guy named Joe Ybarra -- a big-time producer at EA at the time.

And I remember thinking, "I will never know as much about games as this man does." And then a few years later, he was a friend of mine! But has it changed? Of course -- just look around. Now we've got what is it, 30,000 people coming? Some of them old gray-hairs like me, some of them 20-somethings. Indies, triple-A developers...it’s changed. It's a completely different show now.

What advice might you give to other game devs now? 

Well it depends on what kind of game you want to make. I'm not good at answers of one thing.

The first thing is, always try to make projects that are personally meaningful to you. I realize that it's easier to say and harder to do; sometimes you just have to do the work for hire, and create something that meets someone else's needs. But find something you're passionate about. Whatever you're working on, find something to be passionate about in it.

And then, don't be lazy. I don't mean in the sense of working hard or not, I mean don't assume that games are a mature medium. And that we've explored everything that game are capable of creating or doing. Find that one new thing. It doesn't matter what game you're making -- you can always sneak one new thing into a game. And always look for that one more thing in the work you're doing.

I remember you talked up the possibilities of AI in games, especially non-combat AI, last year. Where do you stand now?

Well, realistically, I'm not sure System Shock is the place to be exploring non-combat AI, given that we're going to follow along in the tradition of everybody being dead *laughs* and communicating the story through video logs, emails, AR projections and all that.

So this is probably not the game to be exploring that particular aspect of game design. But what I do want to do is take the idea of choice and consequence and recovery, the stages of choice, consequence, and recovery from those choices, I want to take that to a whole new level by creating an incredibly reactive world. And then letting players interact with the world in a deeper way than they have before.

So that's largely the thrust of System Shock 3, as much as I can talk about it.

Oh yeah, that's fine. I'm gonna be honest with you, I've never played a System Shock.

Gah! You know, you can still buy System Shock and System Shock 2.

I know! I think it's great. I've tried to play them both, a few times, but...they're pretty old.

It's funny, because needless to say, I needed to replay those games before starting to work on the third game in the series. And when I started playing the first one, I emailed Doug Church, who was kind of the creative driving force behind that first game, and all I said was 'oh my god, this game is hard!' And his response was just "...1994."

Environmental storytelling in the original System Shock

And I said "Oh my god, this game is big!" and his response was "1994."

"Oh my god, this UI is terrible!" "1994."

We did the best we could, you know.

Well since you've been reimmersing yourself in some recent games, are there any you'd call out as especially worth studying by fellow devs?

Well, Dishonored 2. There's a particular kind of game I find most appealing, and the Dishonored series is right in that vein so it's pretty cool.

So I'm playing Dishonored 2 right now, and...well mostly, to be honest, I've been a little disappointed in the games I've played, and haven't played very much. What I do is, I play a game until I get so frustrated that I have to stop, or throw my controller against the wall or something. Or I've learned everything I'm going to learn from it, or I finish it. And I finish very few games.

But you know, I've played some Metal Gear Solid 5. I'm woefully behind, so I've been playing some Shadow of Mordor. Certainly there's some intriguing different things in that game, so that's worth taking a look at. I'm obsessed with some mobile games, there's this little puzzle game called Hundred that I just love. I'm playing it obsessively right now. And these aren't new games, but I think the Go games from Square Enix are a ton of fun. Deus Ex Go, Lara Croft Go, and Hitman Go -- I just find those great ways to pass the time.

There was a minute there where we were sure Shadow of Mordor's Nemesis system was going to be the next Big Thing in game design. Seems like we were wrong -- not a lot of devs picked up what Monolith was putting down.

Well, it's kinda their thing. I can't speak for any developer but myself, but if somebody's already done something, what's the point of doing it yourself? It's like, come up with your one new thing.

And one of my rules for any game I work in is, there has to be one new thing, something no one's ever seen before or done before. And that's already been done. Why would I do it again? I mean, there are certain elements of it that I find intriguing; like, it's nothing new, but characters you interact with on an ongoing basis, who change over time, that's pretty cool. But having them interact with each other, you know, it's an interesting idea. It's theirs. It's not something I'm going to adopt.

So what is it about Dishonored 2 that impressed you, that you think is worth calling out?

Nothing specific. I think it's just the overall immersion of the world, and the behavior with the characters. My ultimate goal is to empower players to tell their own stories, and play the way they want to.

You know, I had a mission statement that was 12 pages long that no one would read. then it was an 8-page version, then a 4-page version, and I ultimately summed it up in two words: "playstyle matters." And the Dishonored games really express that exceptionally well.

So it's not any one thing, but I do wish other developers would take a look at that and do more of it. I'm looking forward to Mass Effect, and those games have certainly adopted some of that approach to game design, and the more people who do that, I think the better off we're going to be, as a medium. And the more enjoyment players are going to get out of what should be genuine interactivity. Most games fake it. The immersive simulation games try not to fake it. So it's that attitude, more than any specific thing.

Yeah, in your Deus Ex postmortem I was surprised to see you acknowledge how much was faked.

Yeah, unfortunately. There's a lot of stuff that isn't, too! What we did was, we had to make sure that each dominant playstyle was represented, for sure. But beyond that, players really did discover their own solutions. 

Sure, many devs these days cite that specifically as a big influence on their work.

Even back then, I was gratified that a lot of developers told me that they were inspired by it. And that was part of the point! 

I was surprised to hear you trace Deus Ex back to your time playing Dungeons & Dragons. How did you wind up playing D&D with Bruce Sterling?

I moved to Austin, Texas to go to grad school, and at that time Austin had an amazing science fiction writing scene. And Bruce was part of this circle of writers, and I fell in with this circle of writers, and another friend of mine, Bud Simons -- he writes under the name Walton Simons -- Bud had been playing in a campaign with Bruce. And invited me to come along to play in this campaign, and it was just...he was just a guy.

At that point, he hadn't even published his first novel yet. He was just a friend. I hung out with him at parties, and then eventually started gaming with him. I was a board gamer, and had never played D&D but then in 1978 there it was, you know? Everything else sort of went away.

So what happened to that Austin circle?

Oh, Bruce left the country and you know, we had families and you know, time goes away. People grew up. But tabletop roleplaying, like I said in my talk, was immensely influential. I wasn't playing just with Bruce, I was playing in half a dozen campaigns, run by various Dungeon Masters.

And just seeing how each one works differently, and yet there's always that same core of players telling stories together. That was seminal for me. It wasn't just important -- I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing without that. 

What, specifically, do you value about tabletop role-playing games, or perhaps tabletop games in general?

Well I get enjoyment out of board games, that's the primary thing I value them for.

Fair enough! I suppose I should have asked, what value do they add to your work as a video game designer? Do you prototype mechanics out on paper, for example?

Well, I'm almost ashamed to admit it, but I've never actually done a paper prototype for a game.

I always think 'yeah, I should do that,' but the games that I make are complex enough that it's hard to keep all the rules in mind. And so there are so many little systems that have to interact with one another that it's hard to imagine making a board game.

One of the things that I don't know if I made the point in my talk very strongly, or at all, is if a game could be made in another medium, it's less interesting to me. I like to make games that couldn't be translated into a board game, or vice versa.

And yet so many video games can be traced back to tabletop games like Dungeons & Dragons.

Oh, sure. We would have no video game business without Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson. I always say that every game developer should get down on his knees once a day, face towards Lake Geneva Wisconsin, and say a little prayer of thanks to those guys.


"I always say that every game developer should get down on his knees once a day, face towards Lake Geneva Wisconsin, and say a little prayer of thanks to those guys."

But it's also a problem, because I think personally, too many developers have been inspired by the mechanics of those games. And we have better ways of simulating a world than Gary and Dave had back then. So I would love to see us jettison -- forever -- character classes and you know, the character stats: strength, intelligence, wisdom, dexterity, charisma....I mean, we don't need that stuff. So it would be nice to move away from that.

But also the content; look at the content of games, of many if not most video games, and it's right outta D&D or Traveller. And we could do so much more. Thank god for the indie guys and gals; the indie folks are at least bringing new kinds of content into games.

But Richard Garriott was directly inspired by his D&D campaign when he made the first Ultima game; and we just keep on making guys in chainmail and guys with big guns games. Which are right out of that adolescent power fantasy stuff that defined D&D and Call of Cthulhu and Traveller and Empire of the Petal Throne and all sorts of other games your readers have never heard of.

The other thing that's interesting about those old role-playing games is, I don't know if you're familiar with the term Monty Haul dungeon [pun on deceased game show host Monty Hall, a dungeon designed purely for combat and looting -- thus "haul"] but those were always the most popular things.

It was funny, when I got to TSR, where I worked for a few years, everybody up there wanted to get away from the Monty Haul dungeons, where you knock down a door, you kill the monster, you grab the treasure, you knock down the next door, you kill the monster, you grab the treasure.

And so one of the designers did an adventure module that was the most ridiculous, silly, over-the-top Monty Haul dungeon ever, as kind of a statement. And it was the best-selling module we did! It's what people wanted. And that's also inspired video game developers.

You know, we need to be asking bigger questions. And some people are doing that. Again, the Mass Effect games ask you to think about stuff, the BioShock games ask you to think about stuff. The key for me, as I said in my talk, was not to answer the questions. Video games ask questions. Other media answer them.

I find that the idea of asking questions, and having a dialogue with your players, much more interesting than just saying 'here's my story. Here's what I think about Topic X.' That's way less interesting.

Seems like you're still passionate about the future of game dev. Do you know what's next for the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, now that you're gone?

I'm unclear about that, to be honest. Most of my brain cells are devoted to System Shock 3 right now. I know that they were talking about shifting its focus. Instead of bringing students in and teaching leadership the way we did, there was talk about bringing in guest lecturers and opening up more broadly to the general public.

But honestly, I don't know. I probably shouldn't even speculate! If they ask me for advice, I will give it. 

I ran into a bunch of my students here. It's cool -- they've all gotten jobs or done startups. We really did, I think, change some lives. Which is pretty gratifying. 

Headline photo captured by Ralph Barrera for the Austin American-Statesman

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