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AGDC: The Warren Spector Interview

Are Disney and Warren Spector's recently acquired Junction Point studio a match made in cartoon heaven? Probably more than you might think, and in this exclusive interview, _Deus Ex

Brandon Boyer, Blogger

September 6, 2007

11 Min Read

As the UT Videogame Archive kicked off both its fundraising drive and, unofficially, Austin GDC itself, we met up with Junction Point’s Warren Spector on an otherwise particularly dreary and mud-slicked night behind Ultima creator Richard Garriott’s Lake Austin estate. Spector, a co-chair of the Archive, was on hand in full support of the project and to provide Looking Glass-era ephemera for the organization’s silent auction. Nearly two months since the surprise E3 announcement that his upstart studio had been acquired by Disney, we were eager to learn more about the relationship between the two companies, and how it tied in to Spector’s own history in the cartoon world. Speaking through the clash of games-industry cover band The Captains of the Chess Team, an animated Spector gave Gamasutra a few veiled hints at the output we can expect from the now-Disney studio. How did you get involved with the UT Videogame Archive? Well, my background is actually as a film historian. I was a guy who was into primary research materials, and so it kind of bugged me that there was nowhere for my stuff to live after I shuffle off this mortal development coil. I ran into Bill Bottorff here in Austin at the Game Developers Conference last year and started lamenting the fact that I’ve got all these boxes of design documents, concept art – all this stuff, and there’s nothing to do with it. He just sort of grabbed that and went to the Center for American History and said, hey, there’s a resource here that we should be preserving. He asked me if I would come in and give the same lament I gave him to the folks at the center. I did, and they were really enthusiastic. I got Richard [Garriott] involved, and then we got George Sanger, the Fat Man involved, and once you have that kind of horsepower, it’s tough to stop it. What kinds of material are you going to be contributing? I’ve got – man, my wife will kill me if I don’t find some other home for all this stuff – I have everything from 150 drafts of the Deus Ex design documents, to the first contract Chris Roberts ever signed for Wing Commander, to paperwork about lawsuits that’ve never been made public and everything in between. Will that all be publicly available for people to look at? Eventually – that’s the purpose of this event. It seems strange to me that libraries have staff, and stacks, and the staff catalogs it and you put it out and it’s there! But it doesn’t work that way, you need to raise money to hire the people, to pay the staff and for the storage space, and to make it accessible. If this event goes well, the University of Texas - the Center for American History - will hire a couple people who will actually be responsible for cataloging the collections, and then we can actually start accepting donations of material, and frankly continue funding. The key here is, even if people couldn’t attend this event, I mean I hate to turn this into a sales pitch, but I have two pleas. If this is something you support, go to the Center for American History’s website and donate money, because we need a home for all of Richard’s stuff. Even if you don’t care about mine, trust me - we want to preserve Rich’s stuff. So we need money. Secondly, stop throwing away all the stuff that goes into your day to day game development life. You would not believe the things that I’ve seen – from people who I will not name – thrown away. They’re valuable historical documents and they’re gone forever. So stop throwing stuff away because soon there’ll be a home for it. Moving on to Junction Point – it sounded like you had an announcement to make at GDC last year, did that get held back? It’s funny, I actually didn’t have an announcement to make last year at GDC. I ran into one reporter on the street, and we talked about my hopes and dreams and what I left Ion Storm to do, and what I was pitching to people at the time, but I had barely begun pitching and I was in the middle of a non-compete, so it wasn’t like there was a huge announcement or anything. What happened with the company’s involvement with Source? We wrapped up our work with Valve a while back. Especially with the acquisition by Disney, the whole equation changed at that point. We’ve been working on concept development for Disney for almost two years now, off and on, and at this point that doesn’t involve Source. Are you still looking into episodic games? Ah, I’m still pitching it, but you know, it’s an interesting challenge because right now there are two ways to succeed in episodic. You can either be an established player like Valve that can really say ‘this is what we’re going to do, and we’re going to make it work, and we’ve got the track record, and the cash, and the fanbase to do it.’ Or, we’re going to do smaller, less sort of out-there, crazy, risky things. I think the Sam and Max guys are doing a fantastic job. What I wanted to do was compete with Valve without the resources. [laughs] I was also unwilling to go after venture capital or give up a percentage of my company to make it happen, so that all kind of went away, sadly. I haven’t stopped fighting for it, but now I have to fight from within a publisher that it’s a good thing for them. Would you mind talking about cartoons for a bit? I’m happy to talk about cartoons! Your master’s thesis was on Warner Bros. cartoons? Yeah! It was a critical history of the Warner Bros. cartoon. I interviewed a bunch of the old directors -- Bob Clampett, Art Davis. Chuck Jones read my thesis and autographed it! I have an autographed master’s thesis! I’m pretty sure -- I was enough of a geek about animation history that I’m pretty sure that I was the first person on the planet to put together a complete listing of all the Warner Bros. cartoons. Other people have since published their own, but I was the first one to do that. I’m a pretty serious hardcore cartoon geek. There’s been a lot of interesting stuff on John Kricfalusi’s blog lately… His blog is awesome! He’s been covering a lot of animation principles – about music, and timing movement to beats – do you think about that with game design, as well? [laughs] Um, would you mind telling my team that? Yeah, that is one of my big soapboxes right now. It’s funny because even the team doesn’t really buy it just yet. We’ll see what we ship the game with, if I manage to make my case. This might be a bit of a touchy topic, but the term ‘Disney-fication’ has been used as a pejorative for perhaps watering down edgy material – is that something you’re concerned about in working for Disney? You know, we’re still in that rose-tinted glasses phase. I mean, I’ve been a Disney employee for what, since July 12th or June 12th or whenever E3 was. So far, things are looking pretty good. Obviously you have a concern any time you deal with a bureaucracy that big and that entrenched and that necessary – I mean, this huge organization with lots to lose if they screw up. Realistically, though, I think – you know, I warned them who I was, and I told them ‘this is what I do, and if you don’t want it, go somewhere else.’ I think the key for gamers to understand is that “what I want”, if you can hear the air-quotes, is broader than what the game industry has so far allowed me to do. One of the beautiful things about working with Disney is that, actually, you don’t have to fight to do things that are a little more daring graphically. You don’t have to make something that looks like every other game. You don’t have to go for that super realistic sort of look, and no one’s pressuring me to do the hyper-violent, guy-with-two-guns-wearing-sunglasses-at-night stuff. While I have no problem with that, I’m not making judgments about games like that, I’m at a point in my life and my career that it just bores the hell out of me. I don’t want to play games where all I do is run around and kill everything that moves any more. I just don’t want to do that. Working with Disney, at this point, it makes a lot of sense. They actually do have a different attitude about appropriate kinds of content. Now, you know, if a year from now I may be singing a different tune, I mean, who knows. Right now, I’m hopeful that -- on a very different scale – the same way they want Pixar to do Pixar’s thing, and they’re not messing with that, I’m hoping they’ll let me do my thing and not get bogged down in all the bureaucratic stuff that may have resulted in some issues in the past. For people that have never played it, can you describe Toon, your pen and paper RPG? Boy, that was a long time ago. In 1983, I started working at Steve Jackson Games, the board and tabletop game company here in Austin. Steve was my first mentor, I mean, as a gamer, he made me a game designer. I was actually an assistant editor, and I was going through the box full of game ideas that hadn’t really gone anywhere and I pulled out this three page manuscript, and it was SPI case format – if that doesn’t mean anything to you, google it – from [Manifesto Games founder] Greg Costikyan, called Toon, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, and it was like ‘Oh my god! This is like the most amazing – I mean, like, this is me! This is my game!’ I talked to Greg and asked if I could do some work on it, because the SPI case format – it’s not funny. It was a great simulation of cartoons, but not funny, so Allen Varney and I grabbed that and turned it into this weird little thing that we debuted at GenCon in ’84, and it’s still selling today! It’s unbelievable. What’s the premise – is it all oversized hammers and TNT? Yeah! It’s all about the bag-of-many-things that you can pull some random thing out of. Anything you’ve ever seen in a cartoon can happen in the game. It’s all about barely-controlled chaos. The whole idea is to boggle the game master, which we called The Animator, the idea is for the players to do something that is so outrageous and so impossible that The Animator just goes [shrugs shoulders] ‘I don’t know what to do, sorry, give me a minute while I think about it.’ The goal is not to get all serious and play these campaigns that went on for years, but it was a nice change of pace and made people laugh when you don’t feel like going in the dungeon as Conan. It was a ton of fun about simulating the chaos of the cartoon. Are those things that you’d still like to explore? Yeah, absolutely, the interesting thing is how powerful having a human game master is. One of the big – I don’t want to say it’s a problem – but one of the big constraints in a video game is what a literal medium it is. In a paper game, you can literally leave critical tables out of your rules and players can still play, but a video game it all has to be very specific, where if you don’t plan it, if you don’t account for it, it can’t happen. One of the things I would love to do someday, and we’ve started to take little baby steps toward this – I want to try to create a game master system, a simulation of a game master that can actually dynamically respond to what players are doing. When we do that, several iterations from now, maybe we’ll be able to do something as crazy as Toon. For now, I think we need to take baby steps. So, if we were to do something cartooney -- Something sort of wacky or ballooney? -- Right, if we were to do something like that, I think we would have to be careful about what we do, and how ambitious we get in terms of controlled chaos, because computers and video games are much more about the control part than the chaos part.

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About the Author(s)

Brandon Boyer


Brandon Boyer is at various times an artist, programmer, and freelance writer whose work can be seen in Edge and RESET magazines.

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