Take Five: Warren Spector’s gamesmanship

Famed video game designer Warren Spector delivers a keynote Friday at the inaugural Madison Games Development Conference at Alliant Energy Center. Spector is known best for the critically acclaimed video game Deus Ex and for stints with organizations such as Disney Interactive, where he helped develop Epic Mickey for the Wii, and the University of Texas at Austin, where he built a new post-baccalaureate game development program.

In this Take Five interview, he discusses the future of the video-game industry.

IB: Without giving away the store, what do you plan to emphasize during your keynote at the Madison Games Development Conference?

Warren Spector

Spector: I’m going to be talking about how developers can define success. Typically, success is measured by revenue generated, profitability, and audience size. That’s all well and good — anyone who says they don’t want to make money or reach the largest possible audience with their work isn’t likely to stay in business long — but games are also an art form and that means there are other measures of success that may be less obvious but are no less important. I’m talking about advancing the state of the art, working on things that are personally meaningful, that sort of thing. I’m going to be talking about all of that, success metrics of all sorts.

IB: Madison is trying to develop video gaming as a strong component within its information technology industry cluster. Among technology hubs around the country — you happen to reside in one, Austin, Texas — is this a common economic development goal or is Madison unique in this regard?

Spector: To be honest, it’s a little surprising to me that Madison isn’t more of a gaming center. I mean, Austin is one because of the coming together of a variety of factors and forces that Madison can boast of, as well. I’m talking about a great university, the state Capitol, music, writers, non-game tech, and filmmakers. Any place that has all that has the foundation of game development pretty well covered.

There are lots of places that would like to be game development centers but surprisingly few that manage to pull it off. Maybe it’s the winter or something. I lived in Lake Geneva for two years and I know from experience how brutal Wisconsin winters can be!

IB: Given the choices-and-consequences and role-playing concepts you’re associated with, how have your video games been applied to business education and/or corporate training?

Spector: Sadly, if my games have been used in business education or corporate settings, I don’t know about it. I do think games — many of my games, very consciously, at least — can allow you to learn something about yourself through your play choices, but I’m not sure the lessons apply all that well to a business setting.

IB: At one point, you wanted to be a film critic and you were part of archiving a pretty important collection, that of David O. Selznick. How did your knowledge and love of cinema help you create video games?

Spector: Interestingly, I think I had to unlearn more as a result of coming from a film background than I had to teach to game developers. Linear media are all about the author or filmmaker’s intent. When you watch a film, you learn what the creator thought about a particular topic. As a reader or viewer or audience member, all you get to do is decide whether you agree or disagree.

Games work differently, or they can work differently. In a game, you’re an active participant in telling the story. You’re the hero. That means you can decide how to interact with the world and, to a greater or lesser degree, how the story unfolds and even what the story means. I’ll give you an example: I was talking about Deus Ex with some players one time and one of them complained to me what a right-wing story the game told. Before I could answer, another player said, ‘Right wing? It was left-wing propaganda all the way!’ And the truth is they were both right. The meaning of the game lay as much in the way each player interacted with the world and in how the denizens of the world responded as it did in anything my team and I might have put in the game. That’s the beauty and the power of games  — we can turn every player into an author. I think that’s incredible.



IB: Do you consider Deus Ex to be your Gone With the Wind or Casablanca?

Spector: Wow, no one’s ever asked me anything like this before. At some level, I think it’s for others to assess the quality or nature or significance of the work, not me. And games are such a young medium [that] even after being around for about 40 years it’s hard to say we’ve achieved the level of sophistication of a Casablanca or a Citizen Kane or the professional polish of a Gone With the Wind.

What I will say is that I’m immensely proud of Deus Ex. That’s partly because the team came so close to realizing the dream I had when I conceived the game. The team did all the real work, just to be clear — I mostly tried to stay out of their way! But it’s also because I’m so amazed and pleased that 17 years after we shipped people still care about and play the game. That’s really special. Almost never happens.

IB: Final question: You got into video games somewhat accidentally, but for young people interested in pursuing opportunities in this field from the start, what kind of careers does game development have to offer?

Spector: I really did fall into game development, first in the tabletop game business, a business that really came into its own thanks to Wisconsin’s own TSR Inc., and later in videogames. And it never occurred to me back then — it was the late 1970s — it never occurred to me that it would be a lifelong career. I thought it was just a way station, a couple years of making the rent. But, man, was I wrong. I’ve been making games, or teaching people how to make them, for over 30 years now.

I’ve seen us go from a niche medium for geeks to a mainstream medium where everyone’s a gamer. And where it used to be one person, or four people or 10 people doing everything, game development can now involve hundreds of people on a given project. Instead of generalists, we now value specialists, programmers of all sorts, artists of all sorts, designers of all sorts, testers, marketing people, business folks … there’s a place in game development for just about anyone. It’s a great career.

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