Warren Spector has been developing games since the 1980s. In this time he has published several critically acclaimed games, built a gaming studio, helped create a game dev college program, and is now the Studio Director of OtherSide Entertainment’s Austin studio. In short, he is a fountain of information when it comes to the gaming industry. Wanting to learn more about his career and his thoughts on the industry, I was able to interview him.
Nicholas Yanes: You have been professionally developing games since the early 80s. Given how demanding the gaming industry is, why do you think you’ve survived so long in it?
Warren Spector: How have I survived? I sometimes ask myself the same question. It’s partly that, other than maybe teaching film history/theory/criticism classes, I’m not really qualified to do anything else! Seriously, though, I think my longevity comes down to a handful of things:
First, you have to love games to make them but, for me, there’s more to it than that. You have to believe there’s something important about games, something that sets them apart from other media, something that has the potential to impact world culture in significant ways. It isn’t every day you get the opportunity to help birth a new medium of expression – maybe once or twice a century – and I was lucky enough to get into this when no one understood how games work, how they make meaning. I didn’t just watch a new medium grow and mature – I was part of that process. I’d argue we still don’t really understand what games can and should be – there are always new challenges. That’ll either kill you or keep you young!
Second, I’ve always worked on the games I wanted to make. Not once in my 36 years of making games have I been assigned something or been told I have to do something. I’ve been personally invested in every project I’ve worked on, whether I came up with the idea or someone else on the team came to me with it… whether developed internally by one of my own teams or by an external team. It’s like I always tell people – I make the games I want to make, the way I want to make them and if you don’t want what I want to make, let’s part ways now and stay friends. You’re not going to change me.
Third, I’ve been lucky enough to work with great teams. Being around people who burn with enthusiasm and overflow with talent has a way of energizing you. It’s tough not to be inspired when the people around you are obviously inspired themselves. Plus, the people in this business are super smart. I’ll never forget looking at the Ultima Underworld team for the first time and thinking, “I’m the stupidest person in this room.” You may think it’s strange but that was a great feeling. I knew I was going to learn a lot from that team, and I did.
Yanes: On this note, what advice could you offer to people new to game dev on how to have a long career in this industry?
Spector: Well, first, you better love games. Making games is grindingly hard work and if you don’t love the process and the play, it’ll crush you.
Second, have some humility – you might be super smart and still be the stupidest person on a team! Go into it with the attitude that you’re in for some life-long learning.
Third, even though you’re unlikely to have the kind of luck I’ve had – getting to work only on games you want to work on with some astonishingly good teams – at least try to find a place to work that makes the kind of games you love. I might not have survived long if I hadn’t started out at Steve Jackson Games in the tabletop space and at Origin in the digital game world. I loved the games both companies made and that made long hours and hard work a lot easier to take.
Finally, embrace the fact that every 3-5 years the entire industry – the entire medium – is going to change and be willing to change with it. You can’t get stuck in a rut. Revel in the changes and roll with them.
Yanes: The video game industry is dealing with issues of discriminatory practices. One that often gets overlooked is ageism. What are your thoughts about ageism in the gaming industry? Have you heard of policies that help counter this form of discrimination?
Spector: It’s funny, at 63 I’m one of the oldest people still actively involved in game development (not just managing but actually participating in the creative process) but I’ve never experienced age-related discrimination myself. I mean, I’m sure some people think I’m an old man who should just get out of the way and let younger people take over, but no one’s ever said that to me and I’m still getting to make the games I want to make for people who want the kinds of games I like to develop.
Having said that, I certainly know “older” people who’ve had trouble getting jobs. I’m really not sure why that is, but I can speculate a bit.
It may be that those folks are stuck in old modes of thinking or haven’t kept up with what’s going on in games today. I’ll tell you honestly, from a personal perspective, my interest in the content of most of today’s triple-A games is… let’s just say, low, and I bet I’m not alone in that. As I’ve gotten older, my interest has gone way down in being a space marine battling aliens, or a soldier fighting an enemy, or a superhero beating up bad guys, or a guy with a big sword and plate armor taking down demons. I suspect that’s true for most people in their fifth and sixth decade of life. I have to go searching for games that interest me, from a content perspective. It’s hard to make something you don’t want to play. That may explain part of the problem some folks have had.
And there’s the undeniable change in the amount of energy you have as you get older. I can no longer work the kind of hours I used to – I’m just not physically capable of it. But that’s a sixth decade sort of thing. I’ll tell you the truth – probably the best years for me were from 40-45, when Deus Ex was in development. I had the energy of youth combined with the wisdom of age. It was great.
So how do you deal with all those age-related issues? You build teams of like-minded people who share your mission and your passion and you work through them. You learn from them, get energized by them, often just get out of the way of them! At least that’s what I do. But anyone who discriminates against someone in their forties is nuts! Those people are gold!
Yanes: In addition to being in the gaming industry since the 80s, you’ve also lived in Austin for decades. What is it about Austin that is making it such a desirable game development area?
Spector: Yeah, you’d have to blast me out of Austin with TNT or something. It’s partly just the usual life stuff. I mean, I have friends here I’ve known for years. And family. Tough to leave that. And I’ve never been afraid to say “no” to people. I’ve been offered lots of jobs – really good jobs that I probably should have taken – that would have required a move, but I’ve always been okay turning them down. You have to decide what’s important to you. And for me, life outside of work is super important. Again, though, I’ve been lucky as hell – lucky enough that people have let me stay here and build remote studios for them. I did that for Looking Glass, Ion Storm, and Disney. I could have moved to Boston or Dallas or Los Angles when those folks came calling, but I said to all of them “Let me build a studio for you in Austin” and they all said yes!
Personal stuff aside, there are plenty of reasons Austin is a development center. It all started with Steve Jackson and Richard Garriott. When they set up shop down here, they laid the foundation for what is today a thriving game development scene. If there’s no Steve and no Richard, there’s no game development in Austin. But they were here and they developed talent that was second to none. That attracted more talent, which led to more studios, which would shed resources periodically which led to more start-ups, and so on and so forth in a virtuous cycle.
And then there’s the fact that Austin is a state capitol, home to one of the largest universities in the country, has a thriving music scene, lots of writers, a ton of movie theaters… There have always been tech companies here, going back to Tracor and Lotus and Apple… Prices, though going up, are still lower across the board than other game dev centers… You put all that together and why would anyone ever leave?
Yanes: On the subject of Austin, what are some of your favorite restaurants in the area?
Spector: Weird question… But, heck, sure. If you’re up for barbeque, I’d go to the Salt Lick out in Dripping Springs. For migas (an Austin specialty) go to Trudy’s. For Tex-Mex, it’s gotta be Enchiladas y Mas. For Mexican it’s Fonda San Miguel. If you want great key lime pie and good prime rib, head over to Barlett’s. For “fancy food” it’s Uchiko or Barley Swine. If you want Italian or sushi or Indian, you can get better elsewhere. Similarly, if I were going to open a restaurant, it’d probably be a Nathan’s Hot Dog place or a real New York-style deli – you’d have no competition! Oh, and chili – can’t forget that! Go to the Texas Chili parlor.
If you’re interested in Places Where a Lot of Game Design has happened, go to Trudy’s, the Texas Chili parlor or Rudy’s Barbeque. There’s something in the food at those places that has led to lots of good design work over the years!
Yanes: When I last interviewed you, you were heading Junction Point. Junction Point was purchased by Disney in 2007 and shut down in 2013. There is a belief that any studio purchased by a larger company will be shut down in a few years. How true do you find this view to be?
Spector: Well, if history is any guide, it’s sure true that remote studios get shut down pretty regularly! Looking Glass shut down its Austin office when the company ran into some financial difficulty. Eidos shut down Ion Storm shortly after I left to do a start-up (though I don’t think there was a cause-effect thing going on there). Disney shut down Junction Point. EA shut down Origin. The received wisdom here in town is that the money’s elsewhere so Austin gets the shaft.
I mean, if EA wants to save money (or Eidos or LG or Disney) where do they do it? They’re not going to shut down their home office (where the money is), so they look remote and shut us down. Reasonable explanation.
But, really, how stable is any company in the game business? Any studio that gets out more than a couple of products and keeps its doors open for more than six or seven years is doing spectacularly well. There’s just a lot of turnover in the game business.
When I interview people, they often tell me they want more stability than I can typically offer (being small and/or remote). I always tell them if they want stability the game business isn’t for them – they should go write accounting software or something. The reality is, you don’t retire from game development at 65 with a gold watch from the first company you signed on with. It just doesn’t happen.
Yanes: On the subject of Disney, Bob Iger claimed that Disney has never been good at making video games. Why do you think traditional media companies consistently fail to understand almost every aspect of the gaming industry?
Spector: I read Bob Iger’s comments where he said Disney wasn’t good at making games, but someone pointed out to me that he specifically said “publishing games.” So, you could make the argument that a lot of people – including me – misread his statement. However, the fact that Disney shut down all of its internal development and went back to being strictly a licensing organization still shows a lack of commitment to the game space that’s not uncommon among traditional media companies.
Regardless of his intent, you have to say that most of the successes in videogames have come from dedicated videogame companies, not from media powerhouses. Why is that? Hard to say. I’ve only ever worked for Disney, so I can’t really speak to what happened or happens elsewhere. (And I love Disney so no dirt-dishing from me!)
Anyway, if I’m going to speculate, I’d say the lack of success among traditional media companies probably has to do with the fact that they just have other priorities. They have only so much money to spend. Where are they going to spend it? On their core businesses or in some crazy new field that is, formally, only tangentially related to those business even if the content often seems similar?
Then there’s the appearance that media companies overvalue their content. That leads to thinking along the lines of “Well, if we just move this superhero over to this new medium it’ll work because they’re so popular everywhere else.” That clearly doesn’t work. Gameplay has to come first. Layering in content over mediocre gameplay is a recipe for failure.
And then, in addition to fundamentally not understanding the medium, and overvaluing content, there’s just the commitment necessary to succeed in any new medium. You can’t just expect to be successful overnight. (And in videogames “overnight” can be years!) Now, Disney stuck with videogames for many years, so you can’t fault them for their commitment, but other companies have dipped a toe in the water when success would have required a good old-fashioned dunking.
Oh, and let’s not talk about budgets. To compete in the triple-A space, as all of these media companies seem to want to do, you need a lot of money. I’m just guessing, based on my experience, that the budgets just aren’t competitive…
Yanes: After Junction Point ended, you helped the University of Texas at Austin build the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. From your experience developing this program, what do you think academics and students don’t fully understand about video game development?
Spector: I don’t think you can make a blanket statement about what academics and students understand or don’t understand about development. Some programs are really effective at teaching students what it’s like to make games. Others aren’t so hot. Few of them prepare students for the world of traditional game development – mid-size to large teams… long timelines… that sort of thing. It’s hard to recreate those kinds of things in a classroom setting. (Again, some programs do fine with this, but most simply can’t do it.) Many, maybe most programs seem more geared toward indie-style games. Which is fine. There’s a thriving indie scene nowadays and creative indie developers are always welcome.
If there’s one thing that drives me crazy, though, it’s when game development courses are taught by people who’ve either never made a game or haven’t worked in the field in many years. If you haven’t done it, how can you teach it? And things change so rapidly in the videogame business, if you haven’t made a game in the last 3-5 years, your knowledge, at least in some areas, is woefully out of date.
When I started the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, one of my toughest challenges was finding qualified instructors. I needed people who had real leadership experience on real, shipped titles. And I needed people who had done that within the last three years. Now, most people who are actively making games actively want to make games (go figure!). Finding people who wanted a break to go teach was a huge challenge. I eventually found two great guys, but it wasn’t easy. Too many programs don’t go to the trouble of seeking out people like I did, but students would be better served if they did.
Yanes: Given how frequently game dev software, hardware, and business models change, how do you keep up-to-date on the latest info? Do you focus on just one area, or do you accept that one will never be completely up-to-date?
Spector: It sure isn’t easy keeping up with what’s new in the world of gaming. As you say, things change all the time.
I guess the most important thing is to surround yourself with other developers and talk constantly about what everyone’s seeing, what everyone thinks is coming down the pike and so on. No one person can know everything, or even most things. As in most aspects of development, you always want to surround yourself with good people.
Then, of course, there’s the Web. No shortage of information there. There are a handful of sites I check on a regular basis.
Finally, developers often have contacts at various companies who can (under NDA, of course) reveal plans far enough in advance to allow us to take advantage of new platforms and so on.
Yanes: The Denius-Sams Gaming Academy is no more. Can you take a moment to discuss what lead to this program’s closing?
Spector: This one’s easy – money. A program like the DSGA doesn’t just happen. It costs money to make it work. That’s especially true for a program like ours that didn’t charge tuition! Twenty students got two semesters of leadership and development training for free. It was kind of crazy – cool, but crazy. Anyway, we got an initial investment that carried us through three years and that was it.
Honestly, by the time those three years were up, I was kind of itching to make games again anyway, so it worked out. (Frankly, I thought it was important to get back to making games even if I intended to go back to teaching someday. I just didn’t want to be one of those teachers whose knowledge was so far out of date as to be basically useless.)
Yanes: You are currently working with OtherSide Entertainment. I’ve only heard good things about OtherSide’s work culture. Why do you think OtherSide does to have such a positive work experience?
Spector: I’m glad you’re hearing good things about our culture. That’s great. Creating and maintaining a positive culture is hard work and it’s nice to hear it’s paying off, at least from the perspective of an outsider.
I think the key things we do are over-communicate, empower people and have clear goals.
Communication, within and across disciplines, and up and down in the organization is critical. Creating an environment where information flows freely in all directions is a big culture plus. And I think we’ve done a good job of that. I think everyone feels free to speak their mind and contribute to the projects and the studio however they feel they can be most effective.
Empowerment is also important. There’s a fine line between providing not enough direction and providing too much. I think we walk that line pretty well.
Having clear goals is also important. At OtherSide, we make a particular kind of game – immersive simulation games. That’s it. We’re all committed to that genre. Everyone we hire has to buy into the mission. That helps ensure everyone’s pulling in the same direction. (To be double sure, I’ve put up little posters around the office with some of the tenets of immersive sims printed on them. Just a reminder of our mission.)
Oh, and we haven’t crunched too much. (Just a little before milestones…) Not crunching is a good thing.
Yanes: OtherSide Entertainment recently published Underworld Ascendant and is currently developing System Shock 3. What are some of the elements of these games that intrigue you?
Spector: I’m totally committed to the idea of “sharing authorship” with players. Like a Dungeons & Dragons Dungeonmaster, we (the team) “own” the narrative framework – the what and why of player interaction. But players own the minute-to-minute.
In games like this, we allow players to choose how to interact with the gameworld, to solve problems the way they want to – not the way a designer planned it. We set up challenges and problems, layers get to make significant choices about how to deal with them, see the logical but not predictable consequences of those choices and experience the ramifications of those consequences. Players can even do things that surprise themselves – and us.
Why is this important? I guess it’s that we’re the only medium ever that’s been able to engage players in this way. You’re not just being told a story; you’re basically telling the story yourself. At the end of the day, each player creates their own, unique experience. No two alike!
We’re the first medium that can turn every “user” into a “creator.” That’s really powerful to me.
This idea of shared authorship – the core of the idea of immersive simulations – is what makes us unique. It’s the fundamental thing that differentiates us from all other media. Who wouldn’t want to push that idea as far as it can be pushed?
(I could go on for days about this!)
Yanes: Reflecting on all the people you’ve worked with and hired, what advice do you have for people now interested in entering the gaming industry?
Spector: There are as many paths into the games industry as there are people who want to get into it.
The first bit of advice I’d give is to decide if you want to be part of the traditional game development side of things or the indie side. If you’re an indie developer you’re going to wear a lot of hats and need to make yourself the most capable generalist you can. If you go with a traditional development model, you need to specialize in something – and you need to be the best at that something to stand out from the intense competition for positions. Are you an engineer? If so, what kind? Graphics? AI? Something else? Are you an artist? What kind? Environment? Animator? Rigger? Texture? Concept? Something else? Are you a level designer, a systems designer, a combat designer, a scripter or something else? Know thyself, I guess I’d say.
Once that’s out of the way, make games. Developers who get jobs have portfolios. They can show off the games they’ve worked on. And don’t show off partial stuff – you need to prove you can finish something.
I’m asked all the time if a degree in game development makes a difference. The answer isn’t straightforward. There are some programs that look good on a resume, some that don’t make any difference at all. Regardless, just having a degree won’t get you a job. (That’s one of the problems in games education these days – students are being churned out by the thousands when there aren’t enough industry jobs to take them all in.) I guess I’d say, getting a degree of some kind is a good thing these days – graduating is another way to show that you can finish something.
The strangest advice I usually give is not to undervalue the humanities. Learn to speak and write clearly… learn something about history – you never know when you’re going to need to know how a medieval castle functioned or how a World War I biplane flew. Take some economics and psychology classes. Those are directly applicable to what designers do. Take some classes or teach yourself about the disciplines other than your own – artists should know something about programming and design… designers should know something about programming and art… programmers should know something about art and design… Each discipline has its own way of thinking and its own language. Being able to talk to people outside of your discipline is huge.
Finally, have a life outside of games. If you come to me and say “I love games” that just makes you like everyone else who applies. If you come to me and say “All I do is play games” you’ve just talked yourself out of a job. I want people who have some life experience. If all you do is play games, all you’ll ever do is imitate the games you’ve already played. I don’t need that. The medium doesn’t need that. We still have too much innovation ahead of us.
Yanes: Finally, what else are you working on that people can look forward to?
Spector: Hey, isn’t System Shock 3 enough?