Spector aims to build "Navy SEALs of game development training"
Industry veteran hoping to fill a critical void in the games business; he wants to cultivate the next round of leaders
Warren Spector has been producing games for more than thirty years, and now he's turning his experience and talents to the task of training a new generation of leaders in the rapidly evolving game industry. He's joined the University of Texas at Austin to head up the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy and create a certificate program to train leaders for the game industry. Currently he's interviewing prospective faculty members and lining up the first class of students that will start later this year. GamesIndustry International spoke with him in depth at GDC about this effort. To kick off our Feature Focus on games education this month, here's our full conversation with Spector.
Q: There's a tremendous amount of work involved in setting up an academic program from scratch.
Warren Spector: I haven't started teaching yet. I'm looking forward to the day I stand in front of a class of full of students. There are a lot of challenges. There's great joy in sitting down in front of a blank screen with a keyboard and an empty hard drive. There's also the challenge of doing that. On the plus side, there's no one at the University of Texas to say “No, that's not the way you should do it,” because nobody's done it. The university has a handful of undergraduate courses that are focused on game development, but in terms of building an entire program it just doesn't exist. As someone who's hired lots of people out of game development programs, what are those students not getting? What are they lacking, and what can we do that's different?
I was talking to Mike Gallagher at the ESA, and he told me there are 384 game development programs in the United States - we're the 385th. With very few exceptions, they all seem to be doing the same thing, which is teaching people the nuts and bolts of making games. How do you write game code, how do you create in-game hard assets, how do you design a level, and how do you work on a very small team? I looked at that and said “What could we do that's different?” From the perspective of someone coming in with thirty years of experience making games, what does the industry need from academia that it's not getting? Or what does it not do very well internally that we can fill a void? I looked at both of those things and said nobody's teaching the skills and knowledge necessary to become the future producers and game directors of video games of tomorrow.
"For an industry that's getting to be a hundred billion dollars, which is an absolutely terrifying number, we have to do better...and we can"
Since I had an empty hard drive and a blank screen, I was able to say “That's our focus. That's what we're gonna do.” I got the support of the administration at the University of Texas, I got the support of our development council. The academics saw the value, every time I talk to students they get the value, and when I talk to our development council, which is made up of industry professionals, they get the value. Nobody's teaching leadership, and so we're gonna do that.
Q: Usually leadership slots are filled by promoting someone or by hiring from outside the company. Promoting from within can be tricky, though, because while a person may be a good programmer that doesn't mean they'll be good at managing a team.
Warren Spector: How do you become a producer or a director or any other kind of leader in the game business today? First you find a company that will hire you in some capacity or other, and that's lucky break number one because the competition is fierce. Then at the company there's someone who has the time, willingness and ability to mentor you; that's lucky break number two. The company then has to grow fast enough or somebody has to leave so there's an opening for someone in a leadership position; that's lucky break number three. Then the company has to identify you, out of every single human at that company who wants to be a leader - and everybody thinks they should be leading everything at game development studios - as the one person they're going to give a shot. That's lucky break number four. Then the company has to get lucky, by osmosis or watching people make mistakes, that you can actually succeed. I've had great designers where I said, “Let's make you a lead designer. Hope it works out!” Or “You're a great lead designer, let's make you a game director. Here, have $20 million to make your first game.” It's insane. Think about how many lucky breaks that takes. For an industry that's getting to be a hundred billion dollars, which is an absolutely terrifying number, we have to do better than that - and we can.
Q: You're trying to give more people more preparation to improve the chance of their success.
Warren Spector: There are two kinds of responses I get to the “learn to lead” core message of the program. One is “Wow, that's amazing, that's great!” The other is “You're absolutely crazy! There's no way to learn leadership except by hard experience.” I think that's nuts. I just look around at business schools and law schools and medical schools... what about the military? They teach leadership, so I know you can.
Our program is called the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy because the Denius family and the Sams family have been very generous with us. We can actually not charge tuition, and we're paying every student a $10,000 stipend. So we're paying you to learn. But because of that, I'm going to feel no compunction whatsoever about washing people out of the program. If you're not cutting it, and I hope it never happens, you're going to wash out. We've paid you - it's almost like a job - then the rest of the team that's there gets to experience the joy and reality of “You're now down a designer, no you can't have more money or time, how do you get your game done?” It's a real-world experience.
Q: Welcome to reality.
Warren Spector: That's what we're trying to do, we're trying to recreate the experience of real-world development and real-world publishing in the context of an academic environment. I think it's necessary; it can't just be an artificial “learn to make your passion project, you're making art!” We can't do that, there are plenty of places doing that, and I don't mean to put that down. I think it's a great and valuable thing to do, but I want people coming in who have already done that, and are ready to do something a little different.
Q: In the distant past of game development, marketing and product development were in different camps. Product development would finish a game and toss it over the wall to marketing, saying “Here you go, market this.” Now I think, especially with new business models like free-to-play, that marketing and product development really have to work together from the beginning. Are you incorporating some marketing thinking into this program?
"Communication is going to be key, interaction with marketing is going to be key... What we're doing is almost like an MBA meets game development"
Warren Spector: Very much. Because we're starting from the assumption that people already know how to make games, we're able to focus on different kinds of things. Because we're trying to produce leaders, or people with the potential to lead someday, we have to focus on that. What is leadership all about? It's about creating a compelling vision that's not just compelling to you, it's compelling to an audience. What is an audience? There's the audience of players, obviously, but there's also the audience of people who have to take your game to market. There's the audience of people who have to fund your project. There's the audience of people who are your team. We have to teach you how to communicate across all of those barriers, and there are barriers between them, there's no doubt. Communication is going to be key, interaction with marketing is going to be key. This is a hope, not an actual plan - I'm talking to other departments in fine arts, marketing and PR, and hoping some of their students can create actual marketing plans, so people get real experience of working with external partners. What we're doing is almost like an MBA meets game development.
Q: I think people should really take more time to think about the potential market for a game and how they're going to find an audience before they even start creating the game.
Warren Spector: We have thirty weeks with these students, and we're going to take three solid weeks conceptualizing, just coming up with what game everybody is going to be working on. Everybody's going to be working on one game, and everybody thinks I'm crazy for that but I'm going to try it anyway. Twenty people all working on one game... Part of the program is going to be "Why make this game? Why is this game going to stand out? What's the thing that differentiates this? How are we going to market it?” That's all part of the initial conceptual phase. In the real world, if you don't get sales and marketing on board, as well as the finance guys, you're not getting greenlit. At the end of that concept phase, I'm going to be evaluating it, the other faculty members are going to be evaluating it, we're going to be a review board. I'm going to browbeat my development council into participating. We've got the chief creative officer for Electronic Arts, the co-founder of BioWare - pitching to those guys could be a little intimidating! Coming up with answers to all of those questions is going to be critical to the whole program. At every stage you're going to have to justify your existence, because that's the way it is in the real world.
Q: You don't have to have a complete program, but you have to have some answers when they ask "Who's going to buy this?”
Warren Spector: In the concept phase you don't have to have all the answers, but you better have thought about that. You can't just make art projects all the time.
The other thing that people think I'm crazy for is: are you going to focus on the mainstream of industry right now, which is still AAA console games? Part of the program is going to be focused on the mainstream of game development, and part of it is going to be focused on how indie developers can create sustainable business. Because they're not getting that training, they're getting training on how to make a specific game that they burn to make. You look at most indie developers, they might make a second game... and after that, what do they do?
Q: I guess they get a job.
Warren Spector: Or “I'm gonna build a studio!” and two years later their studio is fractured because nobody has taught them the ins and outs of creating a sustainable business. I think, because I've done startups and I've worked for internal studios associated with big publishers, I'm safe in saying there's enough overlap between those two that we can serve both needs. We'll see about that, I've got my fingers crossed.
Q: Well, like you said, it's only thirty weeks.
Warren Spector: Yeah, it's gonna be interesting. It's thirty weeks... we're looking at it as kind of the Navy SEALs of game development training. Not everybody makes it through the whole training and it's gonna be tough. You'll come out of it a two-fisted coding, designing, and asset-creating team.
Q: I'm sure the second year you do this it's going to look different than this first year.
Warren Spector: Every time somebody talks to me about this I say the same thing. "No plan survives contact with the enemy," and the students are the enemy. I don't think this program is going to be the same on day two as it is on day one. Seriously, my plan right now is everybody works on one twenty-person game. By August 27th when we start classes, heck, I don't know, it might be five four-person teams. Anything can change at this point.
I've got twenty students and thirty weeks, so initially I thought give everybody a week, one person plays producer and one person plays director in week one. Different people do it in week two, and so on. But the more I thought about that the more I realized that's not going to work. No way. So my current plan is to have the faculty - I'll have one person who is a creative powerhouse and one person who is a production powerhouse - and they'll be the director and producer throughout the entire two semesters. But whenever we reach a crisis or a challenge point or a failure point, they're going to point at two of the people in the class and say “You're the producer, you're the director, let's talk through some possible solutions to this. This is how people have solved it before, and until this is solved, you're it.” And they're gonna sit back and watch, and help when people need help. Once the problem is solved, the faculty takes over again so we have some continuity across the entire project.
"If all you want to do is write physics code or be a great environment artist for the rest of your life, there's nothing wrong with that, but that's not what I'm looking for"
That's the other reason I want to do a twenty-person team. With a four-person team you get together with your buddies. With twenty people you're going to end up with people who don't like each other, you're going to end up with people with different skill sets, you're going to get people with different work ethics. So you're naturally going to encounter a lot of the challenges that you really do encounter in the real world, even on a relatively small team. So there are those inevitable failures that we can't predict. I haven't told anybody this, but I'll tell you this because we go back a ways - we're going to engineer problems. My role in this is I'm going to be the customer, so I'm going to be coming in and causing trouble and saying "I need a demo in two weeks for E3, and no you can't have more time or more money."
Q: Oh, that never happens...
Warren Spector: I know, but we're going to engineer challenges like that. In an academic setting, those are teaching moments. The other thing that's absolutely insane is, at the end of thirty weeks, if we don't have a finished game, I'm fine with that. I really am. Everybody at UT is thinking “Are you insane? Of course there's going to be a game at the end of this.” But no, the product isn't that game. The product is the students and what they've learned in thirty weeks. They're the product.
Q: It will be interesting to see how the team deals with the fact that the product isn't finished at that point. You're essentially saying "we're canceling this game now."
Warren Spector: One of my development council members suggested we gamify it. I may do this, I haven't decided yet, You know how Monopoly has a Chance deck? Have a Chance deck for all the things that happen in development, and every week you pick a chance event like "Your lead programmer takes two weeks off. What do you do?"
Q: Right now you're trying to get students signed up. Is there a profile of who you're trying to sign up?
Warren Spector: The number one requirement is you have some experience at actually making a game. You have to come in as someone who can contribute in a real, tangible way. It's an advanced class in game development. I'm looking for people who aspire to leadership, maybe not tomorrow but they want to accelerate their careers. Maybe they are someone who realizes they didn't learn enough about sustaining a business or managing a team or creating a positive culture for a studio. Or someone who's an assistant producer who's been working for a year or three in the industry, who realizes “oh my gosh it's going to take ten years before I can move up to full producer?”
So maybe we can prepare them to move up to associate producer when they get back to their employer or go looking for work. So experience making games is absolutely critical, but you don't need a lot. I don't want to scare people away. You have to submit a portfolio of the games you've worked on and what they did and how they felt about it. There's a statement of purpose as to why this program is for you, as opposed to just going out and getting a job. In my dream world we would absolutely have people taking a sabbatical from a company. I don't know if we'll get that in the first year, but in subsequent years that would be fantastic. Then the students would be exposed to people with different ways of thinking and working. Mixing industry and academia is kind of what I'm doing, and if that was reflected in the students that would be amazing.
Q: 'Don't cross the streams!'
Warren Spector: No, no, we want to cross the streams, wise guy! But you have to show an interest in leadership, and I'm going to try to assess the potential for leadership. If you don't have those two things you're probably not the best person for the program. If all you want to do is write physics code or be a great environment artist for the rest of your life, there's nothing wrong with that, but that's not what I'm looking for.