warren spector

warren spector

My name is Warren Spector. I am astonished to say I'm 60 years old. [Laughs.] I am in Austin, Texas, and despite many opportunities to leave for opportunities that were pretty incredible, I'm stuck here and you'd have to blast me out. Actually, I'm pleasurably stuck here.

My experience is that I've been making videogames for -- well, I've been making games for 32 years. Spent six, six and a half in tabletop games with Steve Jackson Games and TSR and probably best known in that world for working on Toon, the cartoon role-playing game for Steve. And then in 1989, I moved over to the digital game side working first at Origin, where I worked on a bunch of games: Ultima VII: Part Two - Serpent Isle and Underworld, and System Shock, Martian Dreams, Ultima VI. A bunch of others. Left there, worked briefly at Looking Glass. I'd worked with them as an external developer but I actually became an employee for a while. Shipped nothing there for a variety of circumstances.

And then went to Ion Storm Austin where I was a creative director and producer on Deus Ex, which moved to 2000. Went from there to do a startup called Junction Point and at Junction Point we worked on a bunch of concept stuff but there came a day when Disney came along and said they wanted to acquire the studio so we could make a Mickey Mouse game for them. And I jumped on it and we made Disney Epic Mickey and Disney Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two. That studio shut down in April of 2013 I think.

Since then, I've been the director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the Moody College of Communication at the University of Texas at Austin where we're teaching 20 participants each year the ins and outs of game development leadership both on the creative and production sides.

I think when you enter into a career you're maybe not thinking about where you wanted to go, but when you started working in videogames what were you hoping it would be a path towards? I'm guessing you weren't thinking working in games academia in Texas.

Actually, I was.

Really?

My professional experience at Origin was -- we really did want to change the world. We saw so much potential in videogames as an artform and as a medium of communication. One of the reasons I went to Origin in the first place was because Richard Garriott was already changing the face of videogames, or at least that's the way I saw it. And once I got there, I certainly felt a feeling that Richard and Chris Roberts were actively trying to make videogames something more than they were. And I certainly fell right in line. I loved games but just thought that they were kind of adolescent power fantasies and recreations of people's D&D campaigns and even then thought they could be more. And we talked about it. It's not like everyday we did, but we talked about changing the world. And, you know, we didn't, but videogames certainly have changed the world.

There were plenty of us back then. Not just at Origin, but elsewhere, who were certainly consciously thinking that we were doing something special that had a bigger future than anybody could imagine. You know, you asked about teaching and on that note, you have to remember how I got into the game business in the first place: I was an obsessive tabletop D&D player mostly, and some Call of Cthulhu. But I was a tabletop role-playing guy to an extreme and played a bunch of board games. I mean, I was kind of obsessive about it.

While I was working on my PhD, I was getting a doctorate at the University of Texas, in fact, and dropped out. All I had to do was finish my dissertation. I had finished my coursework, I'd done my orals. I presented and defending the first three chapters of my presentation. All I had to do was finish and I would've been Dr. Spector, but the opportunity came up to take a minimum wage job at Steve Jackson Games making games and I dropped out and my mom cried for 10 years. But I always figured at some point I'd get back to teaching, if not as a permanent thing then at least as a part of my life.

You wrote on your blog in September about a piece in The New York Times about games' ability to become someone else and you wrote: “Sadly, even games that do let you “become” someone else, usually do it badly or inaccurately or in a puerile manner. They don’t do their research or they don’t do it with intention. But they do it. And it amazes me that the mainstream doesn’t realize it.”
Before I go any further with this, do you remember writing about that?

Honestly, no.

[Laughs.] I mean, it was September, so about three months ago.

That was -- I have a memory like a sieve, man. I don't remember what I had for breakfast this week. But what I'll say is I think games have the unique capability to put players in someone else's shoes, to let them experience a world, if not the world, from the perspective of someone who might be completely different from them. We have the capability of letting you feel like you're a Syrian refugee and what is that like. We can put you in the shoes of a 12-year-old Egyptian boy in the year 2 and let you experience what that's like in a way that no other medium is able to do. And instead what we do most of the time is we let you be the last space marine between the earth and the alien invasion.

[Laughs.]

And I have no problem with that but when it's a steady diet of that and all hardcore gamers, at least, expect I think it's a problem. And when that's the image we portray to the rest of the world to the mainstream audience, I think there's a problem there and there's an opportunity for us to be better.

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I'm always fascinated by the mainstream perception of videogames. Why do you think the mainstream doesn't realize that this medium is capable of so much more? Sometimes people like that talk and it sounds like they're describing games 25 years ago. Not necessarily that games today are doing much different, but it doesn't seem like they're even looking.

Well, I'm of two minds on that 'cause on the one hand I agree with you, that in some way public perception hasn't changed about videogames. But on the other hand, you know, when so many of the high-profile games are yet another shooter or yet another science-fiction or fantasy real-time strategy game or yet another fill in the blank, it doesn't really surprise me that what you might call "non-gamers" still see us in that old-school lens.

On the flip side of that, though, we're at a point where it isn't much of an overstatement to say that everybody's a gamer. Lots of people don't define themselves as gamers and who deny that they're gamers, but how many people haven't played what's the current of Candy Crush Saga. Or when everybody is playing games on Facebook and then on mobile -- you know, how many people play poker online? How many people play Solitaire on their laptops? Everybody's kind of a gamer now. They just haven't realized it yet. And eventually -- in fact, I'd argue that we've already won. Gamers have already won. We're gonna get to the point where -- you know what? People are playing games in the White House. In fact, I would bet a lot of many -- it's already happened -- I bet Barack Obama has played Dance Dance Revolution. I'm totally making that up.

[Laughs.]

Insert

But it wouldn't surprise me at all because I bet his daughters play.

So, we're right on the edge of everybody being a gamer and when that happens all the criticism and all the fear -- it's gonna go away. You know, it's just gonna get away. Nobody thinks that movies are the end of civilization as we know it, but go back to 1930 and people actually believed that. Nobody believes that rock and roll was the death of Western civilization, but go back to the '50s and '60s and people believed that, you know? My mom thought that watching The Three Stooges and Bugs Bunny cartoons were gonna turn me into a juvenile delinquent or put me in therapy the rest of my life.

And no one worries about that now. And it's the same thing. Eventually, we'll be the medium that everybody gets and there'll be some new medium that, "These kids today, what are they doing?" You know, that the world hates and fears. It's inevitable. It's gonna happen.

Sure, but what’s also interesting is people say this a lot and you just did, too: “We won. Everyone is a gamer now.” What does that mean? Who lost?

When I say "we won" what I mean is that our critics, who used to be legion, no longer have much of an argument to make. In any argument or debate there are winners and losers and we won the debate pretty handily. And it's a direct result, I think, of the pervasiveness of games today. When everyone's a gamer, you can't really argue that games are dangerous or just for kids. The argument is over.

There is a way in the game industry that some knowledge and expertise is gated. I'm guessing since you've done that lecture series and extensive interviews with people in the industry, it's something you feel pretty strongly about. When did you start to notice that access to expertise in the game industry is lacking?

Well, it's an attitude that's born of painful experience. You know, when I started no one knew anything. We were making it up as we went along. And I was kind of a third generation game developer. There were generations before me who were really making it up. You know, the guys at Infocom didn't have -- well, the guys who made Adventure, anyway -- had nothing. The guy who made Star Raiders in 1980 had nothing. You know, Sid Meier making Civilization had nothing. They were really making everything up. And so, the creative leadership -- the only way to become a creative leader was to do it and fail, do it and fail, do it and fail until you didn't fail because there was no model, there was no education, there was no way to learn other than by doing it. And for production processes -- frankly, even today, there isn't any way to study how to be a producer. You can learn, you can study at a school how to be a programmer or how to be a 3D artist. But where are we teaching game design? As a discipline? Where are we teaching production as a discipline? And so I saw a gap there in our leadership training, thought that in the same way that the military and business schools -- however well you think they do, they certainly attempt to teach leadership skills and I thought we could bring that into the videogame world and maybe give some people some career acceleration or some skills as they enter the industry that it might take them 10 years to acquire because that's how long it took me.

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I mean, I think, too, if you are an aspiring developer working in your house or you are a writer or if you're a fan -- I read somewhere you wanted to be a film critic at some point, right?

Yeah. You know, when I was younger I wanted to be a filmmaker, a director, or really more a producer. I always liked the idea of putting the team together and working with people to make sure you're working on the right idea and conceptualizing stuff and overseeing things. I always found that really appealing in that Walt Disney, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick sort of way. Those were the models for me. But I realized early on -- frankly, when I was in high school making little 16mm movies and cartoons -- that even then there were so many people more talented than me that that was not a realistic career path. And so I loved movies almost more than I can tell ya. I was a seven-day-a-week movie guy. I don't even want to tell you all the crazy things I did. I would go to sleep at 6 o'clock and get up at 11 and watch movies all night on TV. I really did see a movie in the theater seven days a week for a couple years in high school.

And so I knew a lot and I read a lot and I studied a lot and wanted to be a game critic. Not a reviewer. There's a difference between reviews and criticism. And I always saw myself as a historian and critic, but then games came along and completely derailed me.

Why is it that so much of the game industry is under more lock and key than the film industry. Like, I think of the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. for the Wii, which came with a CD with a couple of five-second sound clips of coins and an interview with [creator Shigeru] Miyamoto where they chopped down all his answers to a single sentence. Why is this so different than the other entertainment industries?

I think it's because we're so immature. I mean not as individuals. As a medium, I mean. We've been around for 40 years, which sounds like a lot but really isn't. I mean, it's partly that. I think it's partly that -- though it's never been true of my work -- I think there is a perception, and to some extent there was at least a reality that we were a medium largely for kids.

Again, I don't think we started out that way. I don't think we've been that for the last decade or so. But there was this period where really most of the games were being played by kids and they're not interested in serious criticism and shouldn't be. I think it's also that -- we're making software. And that means that technical aspects and the process are really important or at least more important -- I think they still are, but you could argue that they're less important. And so a technical innovation can really make a difference. And so there's kind of a secrecy thing that I've always thought was stupid. I mean, I'll give you -- I've got so many ideas for games I couldn't possibly make them all. And I'll tell you what they are and if you can make a game based on an idea that I give you and you can do it better than I do, you deserve to succeed. I have a high degree of confidence that you'll do it differently than I will and I'll still get to make my game.

Insert

But I think it comes from immaturity. I also think it comes from the fact that game developers aren't sexy. You know, if you look back at movies and television and music, you've got some highly visible, pretty good looking people. And so there is a fan interest that we don't have. You know, like, all the movie magazines in the '20s and '30s and even teens, they kinda got the ball rolling. It was like a little snowball that got bigger and bigger and bigger until now. You know, movie grosses are publicized and budgets are publicized and all that stuff because movies really are a mainstream medium in a way that we're not. And lots and lots of people care about a movie and there's a whole tradition of openness to an extent that someday I hope we reach but we're not there yet.

[Laughs.] You're saying in part some of the secrecy of game developers comes from the fact that they're slightly less attractive?

I think people are less interested because we're less attractive. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.] I mean, I've always wondered whether it had anything to do with the Japanese origins of the industry, and it all coming from a more conservative business culture. But I don't know.

You know, I bet you're right. I never thought of that. That is probably true, at least the console side of things is a Japanese phenomenon. I mean, on the PC, I think we got 'em beat in terms of history depending on where you start. But there probably is some spillover there. And remember -- you know, when we started, when Richard Garriott was a teenager making Ultima 1, he was a punk kid, right? I mean, nobody cared.

Yeah.

You know, and so nobody was really paying attention, which frankly was kind of nice. It was nice when nobody was paying attention and you could get away with all kinds of crazy stuff. But you're probably right. There probably is a Japanese aspect to this.

You mention the history and with the history comes just a lot of stuff that has been made. I wanted to ask you about the visibility gap, both dealing with it as well as how you think it might be unique or a variation of what it’s like working in film, TV, or literature. Prevailing wisdom is that visibility is just as important if not more so than a quality product. How involved were you on that side with Deus Ex or your other games?

If by visibility you mean "discoverability" -- getting people to realize your game exists -- I think the problem has gotten much worse. Think how many games go live on the Apple store every day, how many games are available on Steam. And in the online world, the traditional ways of getting the word out are way less important than they used to be. Magazines and TV ads are either secondary or too expensive. Tough problem: You can have the best game in the world but if no one knows about it, who cares?

Insert

As far as Deus Ex goes, I was very involved in getting the world out. Same goes for every game I've worked on. I love talking to gamers and to the press, so my publishers tend to put me out in front of them as much as they can. I eat that stuff up!

Right. That's something that has become part of your job description over the years, which is talking to press and having to hedge that line between what marketing teams want you to say versus what you as a creative person would like to say. What is it you wish big budget studios would loosen up and let their people talk about to people outside of the company?

Honestly, I don't care. [Laughs.] I mean, if people wanna talk that's fine with me. If people don't wanna talk, that's fine with me.

Yeah.

I don't burn to know the budget or the Sturm und Drang of behind the scenes on Minecraft. That doesn't interest me. And I think there's a fair amount of communication within the game development community. Not necessarily official, but there are mail lists and Listservs and forums for secret masters of gaming and there's all sorts of stuff we talk about that the publishers and funding people would be appalled about. So, there is enough of the kind of communication that I think is important.

I'll tell you a funny story that's related to this. I was working with -- I've got to choose my words carefully but I was working with a well-known Hollywood director, a well-known film director, and he or she asked if we could go to E3 because -- oh, why am I being coy? Because he had never been to E3 and was curious what it was about. And so I took him to E3 and we were walking around the show floor and I was getting stopped every 10 feet to sign an autograph or shake a hand or do an interview or something. And at one point -- I hope you don't mind cursing --

No, no. That's fine.

-- at one point he just stopped me and said, "Who the fuck are you?" You know? And in that world, I'm reasonably well known. But I could go out on the street tomorrow and yell, "I'm the guy who created JC Denton!" or, "I made Disney Epic Mickey" and no one would care. [Laughs.] Right?

Yeah.

To prove that, after we got done walking the show floor, we left the Staples Center, we were walking on the street and a very well-known famous actress came up and made a beeline for this guy and I ceased to exist. I no longer had any existence in the known universe. So, you know, we're just not that kind of public profile kind of medium because we're not mature, we don't look good, and -- you know, I say this a lot and I believe it. I wish I had the numbers, but I would bet a lot of money that more people saw Inside Out than played the most successful Call of Duty game, and Call of Duty's revenues are the result of overcharging for a niche product.

I don't know if that's true, but movies are still mainstream in a way games are not.

Yeah. I think about that a lot and I always wonder -- like, how do you explain the work you've done to people outside of the game industry? How do you even explain what a AAA or big-budget game is to someone who doesn't pay attention?

Most of the time I fail. I mean, my mom asks what I do for a living all the time and I say, "Mom, you know, I don't know."

[Laughs.]

I often give people two books to read when I'm trying to describe what I do for a living. I give them A Pound of Flesh, which was written by a Hollywood producer, and I give them Microserfs because those are the people I work with everyday.

Now I would give them a copy of Austin Grossman's You. There's a book called You, which is a real insider's look -- it's a novel but it's a real insider's look at videogames. But, you know, usually you have to fall back on cliche: "Well, it's sorta like movies but you don't just watch it, you get to interact with it." But as soon as you start to say, "Yeah, I design rules and systems and create problems and puzzles that you get to solve the way you want," you just lose them.

Their eyes gloss over. I can imagine.

Yeah.

The perception I run into a lot is that people forget videogame are made by people. I've done a lot of interviews for this and the way I label it is people describe videogames almost as a renewable resource and forget that individuals are working on these things. I totally understand what you're saying and that there are certainly celebrities within that world, but why is it that an entire workforce can seem entirely invisible to the public and to the audience?

Oh, I think it gets back to what we were saying before. I just don't think people care. To some extent, I think that's true.

Yeah.

You know, if we had beautiful programmers and handsome designers, they might care more. But on top of that, for many years, I think at least on the publishing side which, until the indie scene kinda took off, was the way you made games, what was their incentive to publicize the people making the games? If you make someone a personality, a public personality, all that means is they have more power, you know?

Yeah.

So, where was the incentive? Now, I mean, strangely, I started at Origin, which had a culture of publicizing the people who were making the games. I mean, there was a concept there of what was called authors. Richard Garriott was the frontman for the band and Chris Roberts was the frontman for the band and I became the frontman for the band. You know, there were others who were expected to go out and promote the work that they were doing and that their teams were doing. Over time, I think, more and more people saw the value in that as a way not the way, but a way to get the word out about a game.

You know, Sid Meier and Wright and Shigeru Miyamoto and Hideo Kojima -- you can look at those folks and just put their name on the box and you're guaranteeing a certain number of sales. So there's value in that. But I don't think the publishers particularly wanted to go down that road. There was no benefit to them.

What do you make of the state of innovation in games from the industry, which I say narrowly to mean the bigger companies?

Oh, what innovation? I don't know what you're talking about.

[Pause.] Well, I mean --

No, I'm being a smartass.

Sometimes that can be a sensitive thing, though, to assert that especially in a conversation this where people who have been in the industry a long time hear that and will go, "What do you mean there's very little or no creativity?"

Well, I didn't say there was no creativity. There's a lot of amazing creativity happening.

Yeah.

I don't think there's a lot of innovation. I think right now, especially with development costs in that core gaming space, they're so high it's tough to innovate. You know, like, why would you do something groundbreaking when you could do Fill in the Blank 17 and put prettier pictures on something you already understand. Why would you not do that? You know, I have no interest in doing it. I'm not sure I'll ever do another AAA game. "Never" is a big word but I don't have any interest in repeating what I've already or what someone else has already done. But that's what you get 50 to 100 to 300 million dollars to do. You have to understand why that is.

But the nice thing is there is innovation in the game business: It's just in a different part. You know, we now have an indie space. We have -- we're at a point where if you have an idea, there are tools that will let you make it, and there are so many ways to distribute it you can actually find an audience. The problem is those tools have become so ubiquitous that there's a discoverability problem. You know, how do you get your game noticed out of the thousands that go up on the iTunes store? How do you make your app the one that people notice? So there's a real problem there. I mean, anybody can make a game now.

Lorne Lanning had told me that he had heard and felt that very little or no money is being spent on R&D at bigger game companies. Can you verify or corroborate that? I don't know what the budgets are like that go into that.

You know, all I can say is from my experience that's always been true that very little money went into R&D. No, it's not a joke. The "R&D" happened in the context of making a specific game. I mean, there was all sorts of stuff that no one in the world knew how to do on the first Wing Commander game. Chris Roberts was just not gonna take no for an answer. He was gonna find a way to make that game and as part of making that game, he had to solve a lot of problems. On Epic Mickey, we did a ton of R&D. But it was in the context of making that specific game and, frankly, I think the way you get to do that is, A, have a track record of succeeding with the thing no one knows how to do and being willing to say "no" and walking away from a deal.

You know, I've always said I have no idea how I keep getting work. I mean, I really don't. I always say I make the games I wanna make the way I make them, and if you're not interested in that, let's just not do business together and we'll stay friends. You know, don't think you're gonna change me.

And realistically, if that means I can't find anyone to fund my next game, I'll open a bookstore or something. You gotta stand for something and believe in something and figure out what you won't compromise on. Because from the perspective of being 60 years old, I can tell you that when your entire professional life is defined by -- in my case, what is it, 24 things? They better all be things that you're really passionately committed to. You know, striving for mediocrity is not a way to have a happy life. And so, you just have to decide what's important. Lots of people decide that what's important is selling a kajillion copies of a remix of something that's come before and that for -- what, six, eight, 10 games a year that works_exceptionally_ well. [Laughs.] For the other 3,000 games, you know, not so much. But it works enough that the big companies can make some money, I guess.

It's been interesting to watch in the last few years how many games are getting sequels and remakes like Hitman and Thief and Tomb Raider and of course Deus Ex with lots of microtransactions. What do you make of those -- I don't even want to say "returning to the well," but that phenomenon in general?

Well, I have mixed feelings about it, okay, because I take great pride and pleasure in the fact that Deus Ex has come back. You know, I think people expect me to be upset about it and angry: "I'm not involved in it anymore, how could they do that?"

Well, did you see the stuff about George Lucas and the new Star Wars out this week?

No.

I mean, I’m not comparing you to George Lucas at all. But obviously this is something you have in common.
He described it as "a divorce," and although he isn't upset about it he also said he hasn't used the internet since 2000. I know you use the internet because we emailed yesterday.

Yeah, well, I have a very different feeling about it. I liken it to having a baby and, you know, watching your child move out of your house.

Yeah.

And it's -- the feeling of having been part of something bigger than yourself is really amazing. The fact that someone 15 years after we shipped Deus Ex is making a game in the spirit of the originals and frankly really getting it? They've done me proud, you know? And they've done the franchise proud. So on the one hand, I'm really happy that people are going back to well.

Where I have an issue is when you do a game and then you do Fill in the Blank 2, Fill in the Blank 3, Fill in the Blank 4, and Fill in the Blank 5, and Fill in the Blank 6, and I'm gonna stop now. You get what I'm saying.

Yeah.

Are we really going to see the 17th game in the series or the 27th game in the series? That strikes me as a real problem. The other related problem -- and to answer the question you didn't ask -- is one of the more damaging things I see in the game industry right now is this feeling that you wanna create a game not as a game but as a service.

Games as a service -- the idea is to get people playing your game and getting them to play forever, to overstate a little bit. And I hate that. I hate it. What I wanna do and what I wish more games did is create something that is whole in and of itself, you play it, you get a complete experience, you get something that is personally meaningful to some human who can help make it, and then you move on and play the next game. It would be like watching the same movie for 27 years with minimum improvements. And that's a real issue for me. I just don't know that I wanna do it. Hey man, I'm really excited about the next Star Wars movie as anybody. You know, reboots are fine, but if Disney and Lucas end up making, what is it, 7, 8, 9, 22, 23, 24 they're just gonna kill it.

Yeah. It sorta struck me -- I don't know how up you are on current big-budget games, but what has struck me as odd is just how similar, for example, Fallout 4 and Metal Gear Solid 5 when they're both series sort of the same age and they could not have started out any more different.

I haven't played either of them yet, but based on what I've heard, it sounds like Fallout 4 is an expanded better version of what Bethesda's been doing for a while. And there's nothing wrong with that. I respect the kind of games they make. I mean, they're much more like the kinds of games that I like making than most other developers. And what I've heard about Metal Gear Solid V is that it's moving in a direction that I find really exciting of player empowerment and players telling their own story, being a little less puzzle-oriented and a little more problem-oriented. I mean, those are all good things and I'm excited to play Metal Gear Solid V in a way that I haven't been much excited about playing some earlier entries in that series.

One of the other things about Fallout 4, and this is revealed within the first hour, so it's not a spoiler --

I'm not worried about it.

[Laughs.] You're playing as a parent who is going to go kidnap your kidnapped child, but --

Wait, it's a "rescue the princess" game? I've never played one of those before.

[Laughs.] But imagine you wake up in the dystopia 200 years after a cryogenic sleep and the _last_thing you decide to do is to rescue your child. You want to go off and do all these other things and collect tin cans and garbage in buildings. I don't think it's intentionally making a comment about parenting.

I hope they are because one of the things I tell my students and one of the things I do when I'm conceptualizing a game is I have a rule: Always ask what your game is really about. If all it's about is what's happening on the surface, I kind of think that's a waste of time.

Games can have thematic power and they can explore things that are beneath the surface. They can have subtext. The big difference for me between the treatment of theme and subtext in games and in other media is other media answer the questions they ask, and games allow players to answer the questions. Right? Disney Epic Mickey was about: How important are family and friends to you? And we let players explore that question and answer it for themselves. In Deus Ex -- by the way, there were three or four questions that I wanted players thinking about even subconsciously as they played Epic Mickey. Same thing for Deus Ex, but Deus Ex, one of those questions was, "What does it mean to be human?" You know? But you don't answer it. Games are a dialog between the developer and the player and that dialog is really interesting to me.

And so I hope that Fallout 4 really is a game about parenting. [Laughs.]

[Laughs.]

But the thing about Bethesda games that's really fantastic is they create these big open worlds and they let each player decide what's fun and what's not and what experience they wanna have. I mean, I find that really exciting. You don't have to care about the story in Fallout 4, I suspect, and you can still have a great time playing the game. I mean, I think that's a plus, not a minus.

Yeah, you just wouldn't be a great parent, is all.

Well, but that says something. I mean, if what they want to do is explore what is good parenting, then maybe you're really thinking about that as you play anyway.

I don't want to fixate on Fallout 4 too much, but given your board-game background -- they make these big, expansive worlds but then I at least feel this often in open-world games where I don't actually feel like I'm part of the world. Like, Fallout 4 does stuff where the way that they acknowledge you is they'll comment on your gender or the armor that you're wearing.
But when I was growing up playing D&D, that was never the most exciting thing or what made me feel like I was part of that world. Why is that so difficult for videogames to be able to do that in the way that a board game or a human storyteller might?

Well, it's because we don't have a virtual dungeon master. I should just give you my narrative in games talk. The problem is our non-combat AI is terrible and our conversation systems haven't made any progress since 1987 and our simulations of the world are constrained to the physical and not-so human interaction. And, you know, because human dungeon masters can adjust the game and the narrative to what the players say they're interested in through their virtual actions. And we can't do that. All we can do is respond to very simple things. And it'd be nice if someone really tried that problem but, dude, you have_no_ idea how hard it is to create a virtual dungeon master. If anybody knew how to do it, I suspect they'd do it.

So, it's just a really hard problem. I mean, that's why you don't see games responding more to different kinds of actions. But having said that, and not to pat myself on the back, but my teams have actually made an effort to deal with that problem. You know, in Deus Ex, you know, the response to your gender was, "Hey, you shouldn't have gone in the woman's bathroom." Which just, frankly, shows that the world is noticing what you're doing and responding to it. But we're constantly feeding back to the impact of your actions on a minute-to-minute basis. That's really fascinating to me, having the world notice what the player is doing and feed back a reasonable response to each player's choices. That's not just responding to gender and the damage you did. You know, "Hey, you shouldn't have killed those guys. There must have been another way to solve the problem." Or, "Good. All those terrorists deserved to be shot. That's the only way to deal with them." And then really giving the player the power to solve whatever problem you throw at them the way they want to and the world responding appropriately.

I mean, that's the only thing I try to do. I've said this before: My entire career -- this is pathetic, by the way -- but my entire career has been trying to recreate the feeling I had in 1978 when I played D&D for the first time and realized that I was telling a story with my friends. That we were all the storytellers. It wasn't just an author or director telling us a story and telling us, "Here's what I think about the world. What do you think?" It was us telling the story and telling the story of what we thought about the world. That's the power of games and I don't we're exploiting them.

What percentage of the actual creative decisions that goes into a game does a creative director on a modern game actually get to make? If they wanted to inch things in that direction could they? Or no?

You know, I always tell my students, "Don't model your career after mine because I'm an anomaly."

Yeah.

I really have made the games I wanna make the way I wanna make them and when I'm working with external teams, I only support teams that express that philosophy of player empowerment and shared authorship. If you really want something bad enough, you can find a way to do it. Maybe it's as an indie. I'm sure it's really hard for AAA developers to sneak stuff in but you can always find one thing. You can always do one thing that no one's ever done before in any game. I just believe that.

So I think creative people probably have more control than they think they do. It just takes a willingness to get fired.

What is that ecosystem actually like, being a creative director on a big-budget game?

Well, it's interesting and it's become more interesting over the years and not necessarily in a good way. When you have 200 people at a studio like we had at Junction Point -- and if you look at the credits on Epic Mickey: The Power of Two, there are about 800 names in the credits. You know, you don't even know everybody's name on your team anymore at that point.

But, no, you work through other people. The system is I had half a dozen people who reported directly to me and each of them had a dozen people who reported directly to them and each of them had 20 people who reported to them and it's this giant game of telephone that you have to manage very carefully. You have to have a very clean chain of command, you have to have very clear processes, and you have to know who has the authority to make different kinds of decisions. And then for me, the most important rule of all is: Make sure everybody understands who on the project has one more vote than everybody else combined. That's me. [Laughs.] I just don't have any interest in working on a project where that isn't me. If I say "no," the answer is no. If I say "yes," the answer is yes. And the key is if you ever have to use that power and authority, it means you have failed as a creative director.

What I try to do is I try to work with my direct reports and appropriate people on the team to define what I call "the creative box." And that is: "Here is what game we're making. Here's what this game is about. Everybody understands that, right?" And then within that box, everyone on the team -- I'm gonna overstate to make my case, but everybody on the team gets to do whatever they want, you know? Why should I care if a pixel is blue or green? I don't. Why would I care how a particular game system is implemented? You know? If a particular proposal fits within that creative box then there's a pretty high likelihood I'm gonna say, "Yeah! That belongs in the game." So there's a great deal -- everyone on the team is empowered at a well-understood level and everybody has to pull together and stay within that box. If you can go outside the box, all you do is you nudge them back in. You know? That's what I always saw as my job.

How did that play out at Disney?

I'm not sure in what sense you mean that, but it worked out just fine. I mean, Disney let me do whatever I wanted. [Laughs.] They said, "As long as Mickey Mouse starts as the Mickey we know and ends as the Mickey we know in Wasteland, this world that we created -- in Wasteland, you can basically do what you want." And we had to get his look approved, no doubt about it. They wouldn't let me show his teeth, which I will never understand.

[Laughs.] Okay.

But other than that, you know, as long as you respect the property -- I mean, I love Disney. I've always loved Disney. And I wasn't gonna do anything disrespectful or damaging to Disney or Mickey Mouse or any of those other characters. And as long as you over the course of time show respect for the property, they let me go. You know? You have an astonishing degree of freedom.

Given what you said about the state of innovation in the industry, how do you approach getting students ready to enter the industry and to work on large production teams? How do you temper their expectations or encourage them to go forth and conquer while you’re skeptical of the landscape?

Well, you hope that eventually some of them end up in positions of power where they can really make a difference. But realistically, most graduates from game-development programs won't even end up making games. You know, I mean, I got an RTF degree and I'm not making movies.

Yeah.

So, realistically, some of them won't get into games at all. And some of them will very happily remain what we call individual contributors and just write great code to implement someone else's vision or do great animations and love it. The big thing we try to do -- I'm not sure this is actually answering your question, but the big thing we try to get across is: "Here are the skills of leadership, building a great team. What are the things that go into a positive company culture?"

By teaching them all of those things -- you know, conflict management, how you track a project, how you conceptualize a game -- by teaching them all of those, excuse the air quotes, "leadership" skills, they actually leave our program as better team members. They understand why decisions were made. They understand how a project was structured. They understand how to communicate more effectively with people in other disciplines. And those are leadership skills, but they transfer directly into great membership. And so we're trying to set them up for immediate success as well as long-term figureheads.

I've done some teaching in a couple of game academia programs as well, and I've run into this a little bit -- and I see this not only in academia but there is a poor sense of history about games. I think I've seen it said elsewhere that a lot of people coming up as a developer now are sort of not even aware of games that came out before the year 2000. I had a student who once thought Sonic the Hedgehog came out in 1945.

[Laughs.] Wow.

Do you run into stuff like that?

Yeah. We have no sense of history. I mean, it's like the early movie business. John Ford, great American film director, if you had told him that his work was important he would have said you were crazy: "It's just a job of work." I think that's actually a quote: "It's just a job of work. You make a movie, then you make another movie, then you make another movie. People watch 'em, then they forget about them." And in the game business, it's kinda the same thing. People early on were so busy making games they didn't think about their legacy. You know, they didn't think about 50 years from now what they did. They thought what they did might matter, but they didn't think that how things got made and why decisions were made, that those things would matter when in fact they do.

But the biggest problem from the historical standpoint is the people who make the games didn't -- well, there are two things. Like, design documents at the end of a project? Throw 'em away. Beta builds? Who needs 'em. Throw 'em away. Marketing materials? Throw 'em away. Concept art? Throw it away. That sort of thing is a real problem and now you see a bunch of videogame archives springing up, so maybe we'll do a better job of preserving our history. So there's that.

But the other thing is if you told me tomorrow that I had to get Ultima Underworld working on a PC, I couldn't do it. You know, I don't have a machine that has a 5 ¼-inch floppy drive.Try playing a Nintendo game. Unless you have an NES, you're not playing that game. So, it's hard to have a sense of history when you can't even play a game. I mean, play Deus Ex on a modern machine and it's gonna run at 140 frames a second, you know?

[Laughs.]

I mean, it's very hard to play old games.

I talked to the Library of Congress for this a couple of weeks ago. And a lot was made of the new copyright law changes with preservation of software, but they told me it actually didn't impact much in their efforts because -- and this is a paraphrase from a quote -- they got the feeling from a lot of game companies that their output, they don't even feel is culture. In fact, they've run into a lot of trouble just getting game companies to cooperate and send them stuff.
I mean, have you run into that mentality in the industry? I can certainly understand a job's a job, but have you run into that mentality that the output is not even culture? You mentioned a bit about throwing away beta builds and marketing material, but this runs a little deeper.

Not specifically. I think -- you know, like, Disney hasn't preserved any of its videogame work at all. But it's a problem of not having space and not having any idea how to do it. Preserving any kind of digital media, no one knows how to do it. There are conferences every year about that very subject. You just have to keep old hardware around and emulation, is that the answer? What does that say about copyright? It's a tough problem.

I honestly have no idea what EA thinks about its impact on culture or whether what they do is cultural. But, I mean, it clearly is. Anything that is as big a part of our lives as games are today is both reflecting and affecting culture. That I think is self-evident. So if they're not seeing that, I think they're just not paying attention or they're being disingenuous.

I wanted to ask you, also, a little about writers and how there's no real pipeline in the industry for individuals with a script to sort of get teamed with personnel or a large project. The way the industry is structured, it also makes it impossible for a "dream team" of collaborations because they get locked to studios or to jobs. How did that come to be?

Well, it's because for many years -- okay, when we started, one person in a garage could make a game. Again, I go back to Richard Garriott. He did everything on the first four Ultimas himself. I mean, artwork, design, coding. Everything.

Yeah.

And then we moved into a period where games became complex enough that you needed a team and the only way to get the funding was to have some central entity that had access to distribution and therefore the money to actually create a game, right? And so -- again, I just keep going back to movies, right? I mean, we're kind of stuck in 1938 in the studio system.

If you wanted to make a movie, you worked for one of the major studios or one of the minor studios. And if you were an actor or actress, you were under contract from MGM or Warner Bros. or Paramount or RKO. You know, you were under contract. If you were a director, you were under contract. And that's kind of where we are now.

It took some very brave actors and directors and a Supreme Court Case -- US versus Paramount, go look it up -- it took those two things, bravery and a court case to break the stranglehold of the studios and allow for independent filmmakers and actors and actresses. That only happened in the '50s.

Yeah.

We are not a free-agent business. And lots of people have talked about that for many years. And to be honest, I would love to see more of a free-agent business. But for that to work, a couple things have to happen.

One is, we need a much bigger talent pool. Much bigger. If you want to make a movie in Hollywood, there are thousands of people in the director's guild. And if your first choice doesn't want to make the movie, you go to your second choice or your third choice or your fourth choice or your seventh choice or your twentieth choice. That's being a little glib, but the fact is there are lots of people you can talk to to make a movie.

I can think of three people in the entire world who I would trust to direct one of my games.

Yeah.

And if they're not available, I'm not making the game.

[Laughs.]

So, what we need is a much bigger talent pool. That's one of the reasons why schools can be -- whether they are or not is another question -- important because they will help grow the talent pool. And maybe someday we will have more of a free-agent business. You never know.

What have videogames accomplished?

What have we accomplished? I think we've -- well, we've made a lot of people a lot of money.

[Laughs.]

There's that. I think we have had an impact on culture beyond what a lot of people expected. I think we've brought a lot of joy and pleasure to a lot of people. And I think we are at least on our way to becoming the unique artform that we can be and being what really could be the medium of the 21st century in the way that movies and maybe television were the media of the 20th century. I think we have that much potential and I think we're beginning to scratch the surface. But only scratch. So, there's still plenty of work to do.

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