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GDC Europe: Spector On What Games Can Learn From Other Media

Talking in a packed GDC Europe keynote, Deus Ex and Disney Epic Mickey co-creator Warren Spector delivered a lyrical discussion of video games and how the medium should -- and shouldn't -- learn from other media to shine in its own right.
Talking in a packed GDC Europe keynote, Deus Ex and Disney Epic Mickey co-creator Warren Spector delivered a lyrical discussion of video games and how the medium should -- and shouldn't -- learn from other media to shine in its own right. As we "find ourselves in the center of a cultural firestorm," Spector noted, the game industry draws from many different traditions and media. He asked a simple question -- are we simply an amalgam of other media, or are we something very unique? So, yes, film directors such as Spielberg and Del Toro are moving to be creative directors in games, but there are many developers who secretly want to be making movies. When and why is it OK to be borrowing from other media, and when should we break away and do our own thing? The Disney creative director said that borrowing is a vital form of the maturation of industries. As early films took idea directly from theater in early times, radio took personalities from films, and then TV took stars from the radio. So it's OK to borrow and take concepts. Yet the obvious film-to-game comparisons don't necessarily play out as you might expect. Editing in films is almost "the recreation of a dream," but in games, it's not the job of the game director to decide where the action should be framed. Spector says: "We don't want to cut away," and points to Hitchcock's Rope -- a single-take movie -- as an example of where game-like perspectives without editing works horribly in films. In fact, the design veteran noted of video games: "We are a literal medium that's all surface" -- but this is nothing to be ashamed of. In games, "we're not about the imagination, we're about the experience." Pacing is something else that you need to get right in games -- whereas films have a captive audience who are unlikely to leave the theater, you need to hook gamers straight away. And characterization is another difficult area -- as Spector points out "games are not about the magic moment, they're about the repeated action." In fact, he suggests, "our job is to find ways to change the context around the repeated action" -- so "it feels different the thousandth time" versus the first time. This is something that the movie industry doesn't necessary "get," but the video game industry needs to perfect in order to succeed. Tabletop games are another interesting area -- and Spector says that, although it's tempting to take a lot of cues such as virtual dice-rolling from classics like D&D, it's just too complex and derivative -- why not just use computer-generated techniques like AI and physics? But game masters are an interesting area that can be well-integrated into games if cleverly done. Spector then referenced radio for its evocative powers of sound effects and imagination, and comic books for their amazing economy of storytelling and cleverly serializing narrative. Comics are also great for inspiring iconic images, rather than photorealistic, since "a lot of us having worked out that the Uncanny Valley is a bad place to go". Concluding his section on comics, the developer points out that, even though comics are moving beyond a subject matter niche in recent years: "If we don't break out of the big buff guys with swords and... space marines, we're going to get marginalized the way that comic books have been in the United States." The designer then looked at oral storytelling, saying that the concept of having interactive stories discussed and expanded on -- an age-old concept -- has a lot to teach into the gaming space. This feeds in to his overarching concept -- that "playstyle matters." Spector implored the audience that the player has to come first when you make games: "We have to put our ego on hold... and let the players tell the story." This is the heart of what's really important about games. Overall, "we have to embrace the players as partners," and we have to let players learn things about themselves through play. What do games have that are different? There's the "power to transport" -- the ability to become another character entirely, and we can immerse people in worlds that appear completely believable. Games alone are about the power of repeated actions, and we can respond and change the experience based on what the player does. If the player comes out of the end of a game as a different person, having learned something about themselves, "not just upping some stats from D&D," then -- Spector claims -- we will really be maximizing the potential of video games.

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