Research Triangle Park is a stronghold of the video game industry, so it's apt that Raleigh is home to the East Coast Game Conference, one of the largest industry gatherings on the Eastern Seaboard. Though the top-priced passes, talks, and tutorials, whether they're master classes on 3-D graphics or primers on starting an indie studio, are geared toward industry professionals, there are also affordable community-day passes (April 19, $25) and individual tickets to events of wider interest—particularly, as the Oculus Rift lands on consumers' faces, the VR Summit (April 22, $49).
For its keynote speaker in its eighth year, ECGC landed no less a legend than Warren Spector (April 20, 2 p.m.), a pillar—and often, a sharp critic—of game design who is known for artful, choice-rich role-playing-games like Ultima and Deus Ex. Spector, currently the studio director of OtherSide Entertainment, recently told the INDY about the transformation of the industry during his three-decade career and the "unique combination of art and science" that is creating a virtual world countless players can make their own.
INDY: You've said that your organizing principle is that player style matters. What does that mean, and how have you put it into practice in your games?
WARREN SPECTOR: It's pretty simple, really. For me, there's almost a moral imperative to do with a medium what it can do that no other medium can do. That means empowering players to "share authorship" in the telling of a story. It's sort of like Dungeons & Dragons, where there's a dungeon master who creates the bare bones of a story, with players deciding for themselves how to interact with those bones to put some meat on them. The resulting story isn't the one the dungeon master wants to tell, and it isn't the story the players want to tell; it's a combination of the two.
The same thing works—and seems essential—in video games. Sadly, in most video games, we provide the illusion that players have some control over the narrative, but it really is an illusion. In my games, I try to make it more than illusory. For example, in Deus Ex, the team created an overarching story, but the minute-to-minute belonged to each player. You could fight your way past problems, if you wanted. You could sneak past problems. You could ignore entire missions. Same thing in Disney Epic Mickey: you could get through that game erasing everything in the environment or painting in the missing bits. In both cases, the game took note of what you were doing, and the low-level narrative changed accordingly. Every player ended those games having had a unique experience, unlike any other player's.
You're the director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas–Austin. How has that changed your approach to making games, if at all?
Teaching has changed my thinking about game development in pretty profound ways. The most important thing I learned is that the world of games has changed pretty radically in the three years I spent at UT. The students, through their questions, comments, and attitudes, and even through the games they played, made it clear they were going to enter a world radically different than the one I lived in for my thirty years as a developer.
Specifically, today, the importance of data in design is undeniable—knowing what players think and do is critical in a way it never used to be. The whole idea of games as a service, rather than as a "fire and forget" business, is new to me, and I'm really looking forward to exploring that. Digital distribution and social media have changed the way in which developers relate to the audience. And rising costs on the mainstream big-budget side make indie games look more and more appealing. I hope there's something in the middle—call it "Triple-I," maybe—I'd like to try.
Oh, and working with the twenty students in Austin reminded me how much you can get done with a small, dedicated, talented team. I don't see myself running a studio of 200 or more any time soon! Been there, done that, don't want to do it again.
Do you see game design as creative, technical, a bit of both, or something else entirely?
Video games are a unique combination of art and science. If creativity wasn't a driving force—maybe the driving force—I wouldn't be making games. But it's important to remember that we're making software. One of the things I love most about making games is how collaborative and interdisciplinary it is. You need designers, artists, programmers, audio folks, testers. And all of those disciplines, which speak different languages and think differently, have to work together like a well-oiled machine.
One theme that runs through almost all of your titles is the idea of choice. What are some ways you've explored that over the years?
It's funny, everyone thinks the games I've worked on are about player choice. That's true, to an extent, but they're really about something a little different. Choice without consequence is meaningless. The game has to notice and respond to player choices or you're just spending time and money for nothing. And once the consequences are revealed, there has to be a chance to recover. In other words, if you go into a situation guns blazing and you don't like the result of that choice, the game has to allow you to settle things down and avoid a perpetual combat situation. I'm actually going to be speaking about this at ECGC.
Both Deus Ex and System Shock were influenced by dystopian ideas. Do you think any of that will wind its way into System Shock 3?
I don't want to give away too much about the new System Shock game, but I will say I don't see conspiracy theories playing too big a role. I'm more interested these days in things like corporate power and influence, and the seemingly inevitable singularity—when machines become as smart or smarter than humans. I'm pretty sure we'll be exploring those things.
You've often been a vocal critic of the game industry and the big, loud, stupid, Michael Bay-esque titles that define the medium in the eyes of many. Who do you think is making the most exciting games right now?
Well, I have to confess a real fondness for the stuff Telltale's making. They may be choose-your-own-adventures with pretty pictures, but I find them really compelling, if not terribly indicative of where I think games should go as an art form. I really don't see much that's new and exciting in the Triple-A space. Most big-budget blockbusters seem like the same old games we've been playing for years, just with prettier pictures. Thankfully, there's all sorts of interesting stuff happening on the indie side of things. I'm hoping Otherside can kind of bridge the gap between Triple-A and indie, and innovate a bit in what might appear to be traditional genres.
Game culture is often rightly derided for sexism and racism. Even so, it has made great strides over the last thirty years. In what ways do you think it has and hasn't changed?
I think you have to really stretch the idea of "great strides" to feel really good about where we are, culturally speaking, in game development and in the games themselves. It's still noteworthy when a game features a female protagonist, or a significant character of color, or someone my age! (I'm sixty.) And in game development, it's kind of the same thing. We'll know we've made it when it's no longer noteworthy that we have a female programmer on a team, or an artist who isn't a twenty-something white guy.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Infinite Lives."