Life After Disney: Warren Spector's Exit Interview
Veteran dev says he "doesn't understand" Junction Point's closure, triple-A is "soul crushing" and expresses interest in mobile and episodic
What's that you say, GamesIndustry International audience? You want to hear more from Warren Spector? Well, you're in luck. As we talked with Spector about writing a regular column, the long-time designer expressed an interest to finally discuss his Disney and Junction Point experience. Legally, he wasn't able to until after April 1, but now he's free to share his story.
Even though Disney shuttered the studio he worked so hard to build up, Spector appears to harbor no ill will towards the media giant, nor does he seem to regret selling Junction Point. Following Disney's closure of Junction Point, Spector is not entirely sure about what he plans to do next, but it's clear that he'd like to work with a much smaller team and that mobile and episodic gaming are very appealing to him.
In this highly detailed, exclusive interview, Spector offers his first post-Disney opinions on what it was like working for the Mouse, what he's learned from the experience, what type of games development he may pursue in future, and much more.
Q: What's the most satisfying thing about your time with Disney, and what's the biggest regret?
Warren Spector: The most satisfying thing? Let me think for a minute. There were a lot of satisfying… more than satisfying… things. I guess I'd say that number one was getting to work with Mickey Mouse. I went into the whole thing thinking that opportunities to do cool things with a character as well-known and beloved as Mickey come along, well, never. Doing something a little different with the little guy was an amazing experience. And kind of changing the way some people though about him - reminding them (and him) how adventurous and heroic he could be was awesome.
I also have to say, the creative people at Disney are everything you hope they'd be - there's lots of talent there and it was exciting to feel like part of something bigger than yourself… bigger than 'just' a game company.
Oh, and I can't forget bringing Oswald back - that was us, Junction Point, and Disney Interactive. I wanted - still want - that guy to be the symbol of Disney games, the way Mickey is the symbol of the company. No one else had done anything with him, it was all Interactive. I thought we should have gotten more credit than we did. I know everyone at Junction Point was proud to have played a part in his return to the Disney family and to the world.
The biggest regret? Can I say 'that it's over?' I loved being able to say 'I work for Disney' and I can't say that anymore. I left a lot of friends there, and not just at Interactive. Also, I guess I'd have to say I went into the Disney experience as a game guy (obviously) but with a couple of 'checklist of life' things I still hadn't done and with the idea that Disney would be the perfect place to do them. I really want to produce a movie someday and make some cartoons… and I've always wanted to work on a theme park attraction. Yeah…I thought I could do all that at Disney. I mean, where better, right? But that didn't happen. Yeah, I regret that. But maybe I'll get to do that somewhere else. I'm kind of between gigs right now, so if anyone wants a no-experience movie producer or theme park designer, tell 'em to get in touch.
"I've learned that I don't play politics very well, that's for sure, and I'm not great with bosses, generally"
Q: What lessons have you learned from Junction Point's acquisition, working for a large company after that, and then the subsequent closure of the studio?
Warren Spector: Well, I've learned that I don't play politics very well, that's for sure, and I'm not great with bosses, generally. I've learned that anyone in the game business who thinks they understand how big, publicly traded companies work because they've worked for EA or something have NO CLUE. Disney's a BIG company, and things change when you have that many divisions and employees. I spent a lot of time saying to myself, 'There has to be a reason for this… There has to be a reason for this…' I just didn't get how a lot of decisions got made - but I think that was my problem, not Disney's. Overall, the company's pretty amazing.
The closure of the studio? I don't know that I learned much from that, to tell the truth. I don't really understand it, but it is what it is. Junction Point had a good eight year run. We built a great team. We worked on a bunch of cool stuff, even if a lot of it didn't see the light of day (Sleeping Giants… Ninja Gold… some other stuff I can't talk about). And we shipped two triple-A titles which, Metacritic notwithstanding, sold better than any games I've ever worked on and about which I received more - and more heartfelt - fan mail than I've ever received. I'm good with all that.
Q: Do you regret selling Junction Point to Disney?
Warren Spector: Absolutely not. No way. Being part of Disney had its ups and downs - what doesn't? - but the last seven years gave me the Very Best Experiences of my Professional Life. Seriously. The very, very best. The opposite is true, too, but let's not go there. I want to remember only the good times. I got to work for the biggest media company around... got to see the Disney parks in a way few people get to see them… got to meet some of my heroes (and people I didn't know were my heroes but are now)… got my hands on history in ways that still give me the chills… Heck, I got to sneak into the tunnels under the old Ink and Paint building, pitch cartoons in the Hyperion Bungalow and poke around in Walt Disney's old office on the studio lot. Plus, I got to work with a great team in Austin. What's to regret?
Q: Disney's just shut down LucasArts, and plans to shift from internal development to licensing for Lucasfilm properties, according to their statement. Is it fair to wonder if Disney may do that with other properties it owns?
Warren Spector: It's certainly fair to ask the question, but I can't say I have inside information on Disney's future plans in the games world. I know there are big plans and big hopes for Disney Infinity, and it seems likely that will occupy most of Disney Interactive's time and focus, at least for a while.
Q: What advice would you give developers who get an offer for their studio?
Warren Spector: Advice is worth what you pay for it, but the one thing I'd tell people is do NOTHING for money. Don't make a game just to make money; don't sell your studio just for the payday. I sold Junction Point to Disney because working for that company was a lifelong dream. Just to be clear, I turned Disney down the first time they tried to acquire the studio, so it wasn't something I did lightly.
I know I've been the luckiest guy in gaming - worked with the best, smartest, most creative people you can imagine… never had to work on a game I was told to make or about which I wasn't passionate… got to work for my dream company for five years as a cast member and two as a contractor… But lucky or not, I've never done it for the money.
Money follows success and success follows passion. Don't compromise on passion. Oh, and learn the power of the word 'no' - thanks to Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts for teaching me that one.
Q: You worked with a very large team on Epic Mickey 2. Are you looking forward to working with a smaller team in the future? Would you ever tackle something on such an (ahem) epic scale again?
Warren Spector: Oh, man, am I looking to work with a smaller team! I loved the Junction Point team. Position by position, that was one of the best, most talented, teams I've ever been privileged to work with. But there were just so darn many of them. I like to interview every candidate for every position at my studio - and I sure like knowing everyone's name. When you get to nearly 200 people and have another… well… insane number of partners outside the studio itself, knowing everyone's name is nearly impossible. And interviewing everyone? Forget it.
As far as the scale of future projects goes, you never want to say 'never,' but I sure hope I can work on smaller projects, at least for a while. As cool as triple-A games are, the time and money that go into them now is just soul-crushing, at least for me. There are so many voices you have to listen to, so many legitimate stakeholders, it's just a lot less fun than making games should be. I think there are plenty of smaller-scale, still-high-risk - that ain't gonna change! - projects to tackle out there.
Q: What's next for you? You've talked in the past about academia, and there must be interest from people who'd like you to work on a variety of games. Will you be writing, designing, consulting, producing?
"Money follows success and success follows passion. Don't compromise on passion"
Warren Spector: I wish I knew what came next. It's funny. I look back on a 30-year career and realize I've always left one company or studio with a very clear idea of what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. Not this time. I can't say I was surprised at what happened at Junction Point, but I thought of myself as a Disney Guy right to the end.
I hadn't really given much thought to next steps I hoped I wouldn't have to take. And I realized pretty late in the process just how burned out I was. My wife, the lovely Caroline (buy Beyond the Wall, which includes her essay about Game of Thrones and the Wildcards books, Inside Straight and Busted Flush, edited by George R.R. Martin where she has some stories)… Anyway, Caroline will tell you I, and we, have never taken a real vacation. I don't know about that, but now that I've had some time off, it feels pretty good. It's taken months, but the burnout is fading and I'm actually starting to enjoy this.
Right now, my stock answer to the 'what's next' question - and you're the first person outside of family, friends and potential partners to hear this - is 'I'll talk to anyone about anything and if the perfect opportunity comes my way, I'll do it.' If it doesn't, I'll wait around, do some consulting, if anyone's interested, write and lecture a bit, play games, read books, that sort of thing, until I experience… what do normal people call it? Oh, yeah, 'boredom.' I really want to feel what bored is like. And then I'll do a startup or teach or something. Teaching is a real possibility, and I might go that way, but there are still things I want to make, so I can't say for sure, yet.
Q: On what platform do you think innovations in game design are occurring? What are examples of innovative design that you've seen lately?
Warren Spector: I'm pretty sure we'll see - continue to see - innovation on all platforms. The question for me is at what cost and with what level of risk. The level of innovation in triple-A console gaming is inevitably going to be limited, just because of the cost and risk associated with playing in that space. It's a lot easier to innovate in smaller, lower cost projects and in the PC space, which has basically been left to the indie developers - a good thing, in my opinion.
The cool thing isn't so much the innovation itself as the ability of innovators to reach an audience. Thank digital distribution for that. There have always been downloadable games but today we're seeing that mainstreamed where, in the past, it was pretty much limited to gamers, people in the know, who would go out of their way to find the stuff.
Innovative games today? Sure. I hate to be conventional in my identification of the unconventional, but you have to point to Journey as a game unlike anything else. I don't know if there's a generalizable model there, but who knows? It's certainly something different and that's a good thing in and of itself. I'm also totally psyched about the episodic stuff Telltale is doing - I sure hope that changes the financial and distribution models in gaming. I'm certain that's generalizable and I want in.
Q: Do you think the PS4, the Wii U and whatever Microsoft is doing will be as successful as the current consoles?
Warren Spector: Prediction is a fool's game, so I'll give you a qualified 'maybe.' It seems likely that success will come less than usual in the pure gaming space and more in the home entertainment space. And there, the consoles are going to be up against some stiff competition. But it seems likely that the multi-purposeness (is that a word?) of the consoles will be enough of a differentiating feature to keep consoles going for a while, at least.
The biggest risk associated with consoles, at least to me, is that they're frozen, hardware-wise, while mobile platforms - phones and tablets - will continue to get more and more powerful. I mean, where do you think the iPad or Kindle Fire or Surface or whatever will be in 3 years? 5 years? It's crazy to think about. And the consoles will still be right where they were in 2013 or whenever they come to market. That'd be a little scary to me if I were a console manufacturer.
Q: At the PS4 intro there was a lot of talk about the new hardware encouraging innovation. Are better graphics really innovation? Is there something about the PS4 that will allow innovations in game design, and what might that be?
Warren Spector: Better graphics are better graphics. Nice to have, but that's about it. The irony is that increased hardware horsepower often sends us back a few steps in terms of design innovation - it takes so much energy just figuring out how to achieve graphical quality players expect, make sure our characters can pathfind around increasingly complex game worlds, and so on. Just figuring out what to do with new hardware eats up design bandwidth. I'm certain we'll come up with all sorts of innovative designs, but it might take a while.
And if I knew what design innovations the PS4 might allow us to pursue, I'd probably be pursuing them. That's the thing about innovation - you can't see it coming! If you could, it wouldn't be all that innovative, would it?
Q: Mobile games have been reaching a broad new audience of game players, but those players are typically gaming in smaller time slices. Does immersive, long-session gaming have a future on mobile platforms?
Warren Spector: I sure hope so. I'm really intrigued by the possibilities inherent in the growing community of phone and tablet players. And by 'community' I mean pretty much everyone. How many smart phones and tablets are out there? A billion? More? And whether they self-identify as 'gamers' - and most probably don't - they ARE playing a lot of games. Who wouldn't want to reach even a fraction of an audience that big?
If - make that when - I give mobile gaming a shot, I see two big problems that need to be solved. Well, three, if you include the free-or-99-cent problem. But I'm way less interested in that problem than I am in the other two. First of those is the fact that there are no buttons or sticks on mobile devices. Before anyone says anything about peripherals that make phones more gamepad like, I don't think you can build mainstream success on the back of a peripheral.
Anyway, I have no idea how to make a 'real' game on a stick-and-button-free platform, one that allows freeform exploration of a world, say, or the kind of choice-and-consequence narrative play I like to deliver. Solving that problem - and I'm convinced it's solvable - would be huge. I'd love to give that a shot.
The second problem that needs solving is the one you raised - we've trained players to consume game content in five-minute chunks. People, myself included, play standing in line waiting for coffee or on a bus, situations like that. How do you tell an epic interactive tale (or even a small, personal one) in five-minute chunks? I don't know how to do that either.
But the fact that I don't know how to solve the stick-and-button problem, and the five-minute-session problem, is exactly why I'm so psyched to try. No one has licked those problems yet and whoever does it will, as they say, rule the world.
"If - make that when - I give mobile gaming a shot, I see two big problems that need to be solved"
Q: Has the MMORPG become too big and too expensive to profitably create; is that the lesson we should draw from Star Wars: The Old Republic?
Warren Spector: I have no idea. I don't make or play MMOs. When someone figures out how to tell a real story, with real heroes, having a real impact on a believable world, then maybe I'll play.
Actually, maybe that answers your question, as much as someone with virtually no experience in the field can answer. The problem with MMOs for me is that they tell even weaker stories than single-player games - a result of having to accommodate the needs of each player and his or her 10,000 close personal friends. Actually, more like millions of close personal friends. That's a hostile environment for storytelling.
And that story-hostility turns most MMOs into opportunities to wait for quests to respawn or to engage in exactly the same quests as everyone else. Sometimes I think MMOs are more like team sports or RTS's than they are like RPGs. I mean, they have some of the characteristics of roleplaying - customizable characters and the conventions of fantasy or SF storytelling - but really they seem to be about each player taking on a specific role in battle. It's more like being on a basketball team where you're a Center/Tank or a Guard/Healer or a Forward/Rogue and so on. That doesn't feel like roleplaying or storytelling to me.
Q: What do you think of the idea of 'midcore' games; something with the depth of a hardcore game but that's approachable by a large audience. Is that really possible, or even desirable?
Warren Spector: Possible. Desirable. Necessary. I think the success of games like The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain and Journey and even World of Warcraft speaks to the appeal of traditional, approachable games. I'd go into more detail, but for now let's just say I think the secret to achieving the kind of approachability you're talking about lies in balancing skill, choice, goals and ethics. But that's something I'd like to talk more about in my column for you guys so I'm shutting up now.
Q: You've created quite a variety of games in your career. Is there a particular style or genre that you really want to work on now?
Warren Spector: I definitely want to mess around with mobile stuff - phones and tablets - and I'm intrigued by multiscreen gaming. I guess that just makes me another face in the crowd, doesn't it? Everyone's saying the same thing these days. I want to try to make 'real' games in that space - not just rail shooters or swipe-driven puzzle games. I want to tell stories and collaborate with players in the telling of them. Beyond that, I don't know much except I'll probably steer clear of cartoony stuff for a while. And I'm really hoping to make smaller games - games normal humans can finish (i.e., games that can be played in a few hours instead of the uncompletable 100-hour extravaganzas of my youth). I'm thinking smaller, deeper worlds packed densely with replayable story content, not epic quests where you have to do all the boring traipsing around and other stuff that movies wisely cut out.
In a weird sort of way, I've only ever worked in one genre and I don't see that changing. It doesn't matter whether I'm working on a fantasy game or a flight sim or a real-world simulation - I see every game I've worked on as just another step on a single evolutionary path. They're all about offering players more and more power to express themselves through play. The best way to tell you what I mean would probably be to just go and read the manifesto I wrote a long time ago. I've tried to live by that - and build or work with teams that lived by that - regardless of where I worked or what I was working on. Whatever I do next will embody these principles, too.
Q: The game industry has expanded tremendously in sheer size and scope, but have games made much progress as an art form? Are we at the beginning of a new flowering of innovation, or has everything been done to death?
Warren Spector: I certainly don't think we're anywhere near the point of everything having been done to death. I feel kind of silly saying 'we're still a young medium,' after 30 years of making games, but that's just what we are. I mean, put it into perspective: Had movies made all the advances they were going to make by 1925? Had television made all its advances by 1960? Has popular music ever stopped changing, mostly for the better? Obviously not.
Games will continue to evolve over time. If you have any doubts about that, make sure you check out the Independent Games Festival pavilion at next year's GDC - or try to squeeze into the Experimental Gameplay Workshop there. I was blown away by what I saw this year - and last year and the year before. The level of creativity and innovation is crazy high. And, best of all, the creators of those games can now reach a huge audience. That's a major step forward for the medium. I think we're good for years to come on the “flowering of innovation” front, even if it doesn't come from the mainstream game space. And who knows? There might be some mainstream developer out there who's going to change the world in ways we can't even imagine. It's still early days, as I said.