Warren Spector On 'Pathetic' Interactivity In Game Worlds - Developer Pop Quiz #14

Epic Mickey

Developer Pop Quiz is a weekly interview series in which we ask developers from around the industry the same 10 questions and post their responses.

One of the most respected names in the games industry, Warren Spector, just released his first major game while at helm of Junction Point Studios. "Disney Epic Mickey" has been one of the most anticipated games of the year, and the mind behind it has years worth of experience and wisdom, which he was happy to share in this week's Developer Pop Quiz. These answers were submitted while "Epic Mickey" was still in the final testing phase.

Name: Warren Spector

Title: Vice President and General Manager

Company: Junction Point – Disney Interactive Studios

Job Description: Creative Director and guy-who-runs-the-studio

First title worked on: Tabletop Games – "TOON: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game"; Electronic Games – "Space Rogue" (first work ever) or "Ultima VI: The False Prophet" (first significant contribution)

Most recent title worked on: "Disney Epic Mickey"

What game has most influenced you, and why?

That's easy - "Dungeons & Dragons." Without "D&D" there/d BE no videogame business. But "D&D"'s real influence on my work was showing me how a storyteller and players could collaborate in the telling of a story. If you want to talk about computer or video games, I have to give you two. First, "Star Raiders," because it so clearly indicated that games could send us places we could never go any other way and let us do things there we’d never be able to do in the real world. That was a powerful idea to me. Second, "Ultima IV," because it was a game about more than just killing monsters and collecting treasure. The idea that games could explore questions of ethics... could challenge players to think about their lives – their REAL lives – was huge. I've spent most of my professional career trying to transport players to other worlds where they’d tell their own stories and, through their virtual behavior, maybe even learn something about themselves that they could take back to their everyday lives. That all came from "D&D," "Star Raiders" and "Ultima IV."

What are you playing right now?

Not a blessed thing! Well, okay, I pass some time – a lot of time, really – playing "Drop 7" on my iPhone... But the painful truth of game development is that most of us play far fewer games than we used to, when it was all just for fun. And when you're in the final days of a game's development (and by "days" I mean "year"), if you have time to play anything other than the game you're MAKING, you're doing something wrong. Right now, I'm all "Disney Epic Mickey" all the time. Once this is done, I'm going to dive into the enormous, and growing, stack of games-I-must-play and no one will see me for a while. Can't wait!

What was your first break in the games industry?

Back in September of 1983, Steve Jackson (of Steve Jackson Games fame) offered me a job as an Assistant Editor at his company. My first job was as Associate Editor of Space Gamer and Fantasy Gamer magazines. I made minimum wage! The first game work I did was taking a choose-your-own-adventure called "Thing in the Darkness" by Matt Costello and whipping it into shape (not that it needed much – Matt was a solid designer even then!) And then I dug a manuscript out of the slushpile – it was Greg Costikyan's "TOON: The Cartoon Roleplaying Game." I saw huge potential in it and talked Steve into letting me and Allen Varney, another SJG design guy, develop Greg's basic idea into a full-blown roleplaying game. "TOON," probably more than anything, put me on the map when it debuted at GenCon in 1984. (We debuted the same day as West End Games' "Paranoia" – there are some great stories around our friendly competition at that show!)

What's the best advice you've ever gotten?

One of my film professors at Northwestern, Stuart Kaminsky, one of the fathers of film genre studies in the United States, told me to study the things I DIDN'T think I was interested in. The stuff that I already knew about, knew I was interested in, would take care of itself – the stuff I didn’t know enough about to have an opinion? That was the stuff to dive into if I was going to grow as a person and as a scholar. (Hey, that's how I thought of myself back then – what can I say?) He was totally right. (For the record, that conversation was in the context of me trying to finagle my way into this comedy class and he was trying to push me into another professor's documentary film class. I hated documentaries, or thought I did, but ended up loving them and having my whole view of film changed by a class I didn't want to take about a subject I thought I didn't like!)

Where do you look for inspiration?

I don't go looking for inspiration. It just sort of finds me – at least when I'm lucky (and usually when I least expect it!). Ideas come from the synthesis of everything you do, see, read, experience, enjoy, hate, you name it. I play a lot of games (usually!). I watch a LOT of television and see a lot of movies. I read a ton – novels, non-fiction, comic books. I listen to music – I PLAY music. I hang out with friends. Everything gets sort of mashed up and, usually at 4 in the morning, I wake up with an idea that I HAVE to write down before I forget it. Years pass and that idea leads to another and another, and next thing you know there's a game to make or a book to write or a lecture to give. It ain't science and you can't force it. Inspiration is magic.

What's the biggest lesson you've learned about game development?

Experience counts for very little, especially as you rise through the ranks. I know that sounds crazy, but I really think it's true. Unless you're just doing the same game over and over, or each game you work on is an exercise in executing a little better than before on well understood problems, the fundamental fact of game development is that no two games are alike. No two teams are alike. No two genres have the same constraints. No two platforms offer the same challenges. Basically, I always say that the goal with each new game should be to make different mistakes than you made last time. That's about the best you can hope for. Okay, having said that, I know I'm being a little flip here – of COURSE experience is a good thing, usually. But it's really overrated in a business, an art form, where the hardware changes radically every five years or so... design is advancing at a ridiculous rate... and we're still inventing new genres and distribution methods and so on. It's just crazy. But crazy is good. Constant change is fun!

Who do you think will come out on top this console generation?

Gamers. Which is to say, everyone. It seems pretty clear that the market can handle three platforms, plus handhelds, plus smartphones. I mean, there are dips and upswings in the sales and revenue curves, but mostly, the business seems to be doing okay. And with so much competition, so many audiences to target, the reality is that this is the first console generation that truly offers something for everyone. Like I said, gamers win.

What do you think is the biggest problem current games suffer from?

The answer to this question depends entirely on your perspective, as a gamer and as a developer. As a guy who makes singleplayer, character-driven, story-based games, the biggest problems we face are really crummy non-combat AI and conversation systems that haven't evolved nearly enough in the last 15 years. Oh, and the level of interactivity we allow in our game worlds, even when we're at our groundbreaking best, is just pathetic. But if you're in the social media games space or the iPhone games space or in the MMO space, your answer is probably totally different. And that's pretty cool. It speaks to the incredible variety of game types, distribution methods and business models available today. Can you say "golden age?"

What is the most important thing that has happened to gaming in the last 10 years?

Sadly, I'd have to say online gaming, defined as broadly as possible. The ascendance of MMO's and social media games has completely changed the landscape for gamers and developers (and publishers, of course). And the fact that so many folks are in the digital distribution business is huge. All of that has happened in the last 10 years. As a guy who doesn’t much like playing multiplayer games and who doesn't get online gaming, generally, I don't always like what I see, personally, but there's no denying the radical shift online gaming represents.

Where do you see gaming in 5 years?

I've always said prediction is a fool's game and I'd rather not play. Seriously, I have no idea. I have ideas about the games I want to be making and playing five years from now. But more important, there are more and more gamers and game developers out there all the time, so what I want isn't important. What seems certain is that there will be an explosion of more variety, more options, and a broader audience – a younger AND older audience. We'll be getting our games in more ways than I can imagine. And, yeah, that's the crux of the biscuit right there. My hope for gaming in 5 years is that there's someone out there right now, working on a game or a distribution method or something that I can't even imagine. I want there to be someone in a garage thinking "I'm gonna show that Spector guy... that Molyneux guy... that Hocking guy... those Harmonix guys... all those guys... I'm gonna show them what gaming's all about!" And I hope that someone is right. We’re still young enough, as a medium, to keep the dream of revolution alive. Bring it!