Warren Spector – Denius-Sams Gaming Academy

In his D.I.C.E. 2013 keynote speech, Warren Spector observed “I have spent thirty years championing a very specific kind of game.” That kind of game is very systemic, encourages player creativity, and respects the power of a human story. Spector has applied this design philosophy to games in many different genres. At Origin Systems he worked on the narrative-heavy space combat series Wing Commander, the Ultima Underworld games, and System Shock. At Looking Glass he worked on Thief: The Dark Project. While at Ion Storm he served as Game Director on the landmark FPS/RPG hybrid Deus Ex. Warren later co-founded Junction Point Studios and revived forgotten Disney characters in Disney Epic Mickey. I’m leaving out some important titles for brevity. To date Spector has credits on 21 games, many of which are considered classics. Though his games are varied, they all share the touchstones of his design. They have a distinct flavor he’s spent the last 25 years defining. Recently Warren has been working with UT Austin to create an academic program to prepare game developers for creative leadership roles in the game industry.


You cut your teeth in this industry at Origin Systems making smaller games with shorter development cycles. Most recently you worked at Junction Point, a AAA studio which housed over 150 people. The difference between those two environments, in terms of scale, is pretty dramatic. How does that change in scale impact your duties as a game director? How does it impact your enjoyment of the development process?

Well, in point of fact, I’ve always worked with what would be considered large teams for their time. All teams were smaller 25 years ago, but Origin teams were bigger than most. Still, that having been said, my role has changed over the years. Junction Point had 200 people at its peak and we had even more people working out of the office on our behalf.

Origin LogoOrigin Systems was a development studio founded by Richard Garriott and his brother, Robert. Origin was home to Garriott’s famous Ultima series as well as a host of other landmark properties like Wing Commander and System Shock. The studio shut it’s doors in 2004 when it was dissolved by EA. I interviewed Richard Gariott back in 2012 while working on another site..

Inevitably, my role has become more removed from the day-to-day work of the people in the trenches. Nowadays, I work mostly with studio-level leads, leaving them to work with discipline leads who, in turn, work with the people doing what I call “real work.”

The key is that I’m always intimately involved in starting a project and shutting it down – in the concept phase, when you’re determining what game to make, and in the endgame

phases, when you’re making the game fun. And I always get one more vote than everyone else on the team combined. In that way, I’ve been able to maintain some control over the finished project while empowering every team member to make the game their own.


Disney is notoriously protective of their properties, especially iconic ones like Mickey Mouse. How did the decision to include classic Disney characters like Mickey in the Junction Point games impact the development process? What was the process like to get approval for all the narrative content you wanted to include in the game?

Disney was surprisingly open to what we wanted to do narratively and in terms of including various characters. Anywhere there were any concerns, we talked it through with the powers that be and came to what we all agreed was the right decision. I’m not kidding when I say there were no cases where we wanted to include a character or a story element where we were told “no.” There were plenty of cases where Disney made points we couldn’t argue with, so we made changes in the design

WS_2008_01_Pixar Ball_cropped

You could say film is Warren’s second love after games. Chronologically, his interest in film came first, as there weren’t very many games at all when he was in his teens and twenties. Since he was young Warren aspired to be a film critic. In college he studied film, and even wrote his masters thesis on the history of Warner Brothers cartoons. He’s pictured above at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California.


In your D.I.C.E. 2013 talk, “The Graying of Gaming”, you mentioned that you think a lot about your legacy, and how you can use your experience to benefit younger developers. Thinking beyond the technical training you offer at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, what sort of philosophy would you like graduates of the Academy to espouse?

Mostly, I want people to leave the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy with the knowledge that there’s no one way to solve most development problems. Solutions are driven by circumstances and the needs of your team. You have to be flexible. That’s a starting point. Beyond that, I want people to leave with the knowledge that leadership and management aren’t the same thing – and the wherewithal to know which a given situation or position requires. Mostly, I want the DSGA to provide people with the equivalent of years of experience in just nine months. If it works, that’ll accelerate people’s careers and do a service for an industry that, in my view, is notoriously badly led (and, no, I’m not excluding myself from the set of all people who’ve screwed up over the years!).


In your 2010 PAX Keynote you said “Games deserve a seat at the cultural table”.  How far away are we from achieving this? What can players and developers do to help the perception of this medium with non-gamers?

I think it’s just a matter of time before we’re well-established as a diner at that table. Any medium with the kind of financial clout and broad reach we have today has to be given its due by the cultural gatekeepers. We’ve made great strides already. To enhance our cultural reputation, I think we could be a bit more demanding in the kinds of content we support and demand. There’s a lot of sameness in commercial games and apps – a lot of slam-bang-action blockbusters on the one hand and simple puzzle games on the other. There’s a middle ground other media occupy with adult content. We could learn from that, I think.


The open structure of the levels in Deus Ex is still very unique. What was the level design process like for that game? What did the development team find challenging about creating those spaces?

Creating levels for Deus Ex was a bit more complex than other games I’ve worked on, for sure. Instead of just planning a single path through a level, the designers had to conceive of several. We had to make sure there were combat and stealth-oriented paths as well as ones that allowed significant character interaction. It was almost as if each level was actually three levels! And beyond that, designers had to take into account, as much as possible, how players might exploit our simulation to come up with paths we never even intended. It was a lot of work most developers don’t have to worry about.

WS_2001_02_GDCA Harvey Smith_CroppedDeus Ex was unique for its time, and has an enduring legacy. The lead designer on Deus Ex, Harvey Smith, has continued making games which emphasize the multiple-path approach to level design. Smith was the co-creative director on Arkane’s 2012 stealth action title Dishonored which features similar level design to that found in Deus Ex. It also encourages the player to accomplish a singular goal by utilizing different mechanics and level routes. Pictured are Harvey Smith and Warren Spector in 2001 at the Game Developers Choice Awards accepting the award for Excellence in Game Design.


The 2012 E3 show was extremely bloody and brutal. The AAA content shown was pretty graphic, and a lot of people, including you, had the opinion that it may all be a little too much. What do content creators need to ask themselves to ensure they’re incorporating violent content for the right reasons? What, if anything, would make you willing to work on a game which included graphic violence?

There’s nothing that would get me to make a game with the kind of gratuitous violent content I saw at E3 the last few years. We seem to be reveling in adolescent power fantasies masquerading as adult entertainment. I have no interest. I just think gamers simply need to demand more and better games… different games… genuinely adult games. I think a lot of it comes down to publishers thinking twice about pandering to the core gamer audience. They have to recognize that the audience for games is much bigger and broader now. If we’re not careful, we might lose that audience.


The games you’ve worked on are often praised for their ability to blend a linear narrative with open-ended, systemic gameplay. What is the key to combining narrative and systems design in a way that’s harmonious? Why does it often feel like these things exist in opposition?

Well, it’s just a whole lot of work to balance narrative and gameplay! I think we’re seeing more developers – mainstream and indie – trying to solve that problem, which is nice. I wish I had a better answer to your question because it would mean I’ve identified a better solution to the narrative/gameplay problem. But all I know how to do is make games where the developers own the narrative arc and the players own the minute-to-minute experience. That’s all I do. It works pretty well but I’m hoping there’s someone out there who can figure out something better.

WS_1981_02Warren showed this picture of himself at the age of 26, in his 2010 PAX Keynote. “This was me in grad school, this was 1981, surrounded by everything that defined me as a person… This is the important part right here – funny-looking dice.” Also pictured are a movie projector, Disney paraphernalia, and a “high-tech” portable typewriter.


You’ve really focused on producing games which are highly systemic and include many opportunities for player expression. Games like this, by their nature, are pretty complex. How do you introduce all these systems to a player without overloading them? How do you get players excited to learn new systems and ensure they aren’t daunted by their complexity, or overwhelmed by the possibilities?

I wish I could answer this question, but I’m not sure I’ve ever succeeded at introducing complexity to players without overwhelming them! Disney Epic Mickey probably came closest and that was by simply introducing different abilities in controlled environments, before forcing players to use them in more stressful situations. Another element is, I think, to create systems and situations that reward logical thinking – it’s not about guessing what the developers had in mind, but about thinking about what you’d do in the real world and then applying that to the game situation at hand.


I can think of a number of experienced designers who have become involved in education. Brenda and John Romero are now teaching at UC Santa Cruz. James Portnow teaches at Digipen. What’s behind your decision to go into teaching? Was part of your decision driven by a reluctance to head back into the development world after the closure of Junction Point?

After 31 years of making games, I was looking for some different challenges. I wanted to stretch different muscles. Teaching seemed like a good way to do that. I’m certainly encountering situations I’ve never thought about before. We’ll see how it goes!

WS_1999_09_650_ROMEROIn 1997 John Romero contacted Spector and asked him to found a new branch of his studio, Ion Storm. “John Romero called me and basically gave me the opportunity of a lifetime… He said ‘Make the game of your dreams. No creative interference. Do exactly what you want. No one will tell you anything. I’ll give you a bigger budget than you’ve ever had, a bigger marketing budget than you’ve ever had – go, go, go.’”* The game born out of that collaboration was Deus Ex.
*Spector’s 2010 Pax Kenyote


How has the game publishing business changed since you started developing games? What do you wish modern game publishers would do differently?

You don’t have time for me to answer this! Everything’s changed since I started developing games! At this point, no one knows what business models or distribution methods will work. It’s a frontier out there – a wilderness. If I knew what was going to work I’d probably just do it!


If you only had one paragraph to advise a young person just starting a career in game development, what would you tell them?

Learn to write some code. (In other words, do as I say, not as I do!) You don’t have to be great, just reasonably knowledgeable. Games are software and it’s crazy not to acknowledge that, no matter what your discipline might be.



Rob is a software engineer and amateur game developer. He lives in Bellevue, Washington.

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