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.

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Latest comments (11)

Problem is you cant teach true leadership, its a sum of certain personality traits. Either you are born with the potential for it or you arent, and even if you are, parents need to instill and nurture you with it way before college age. As for learning a business in 30 weeks which many of us still havent managed to figure out after 30 years.. well good luck with that. The industry is moving so fast what worked 5 /10 years ago may not work today. Everything is changing so fast. Everyone is kinda winging it and holding their breathe and hoping for the best.

If someone really wants to teach the future leaders of this industry.. put all your lessons and lectures up on the web for free, then perhaps it may reach them.

Edited 8 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 11th April 2014 1:29am

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Julian Cram Producer 4 years ago
Sorry Todd, that's absolute bollocks.

I've been through a Business Leadership course and it taught me the skills and knowledge to be a successful leader, and showed me these skills can be taught and translated. Proof of this is every job I've done since that leadership course, I've been promptly given responsibilities which leaders usually get, if not the actual title (and subsequent pay rise - but I can't really expect that after a few months).

Moreover, because people have this ridiculous notion that "you're born with leadership skills" it made me realise how fucked up so many companies are because of that very attitude. It's particularly rife within games studios, and it is now no surprise to me why so many games studios collapse under the weight of their leaders' stupendous ego.

This course is will be a welcome addition compared to the scores of useless courses out there, and I for one would look far more favourably at someone who had completed it.
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Yiannis Koumoutzelis Founder & Creative Director, Neriad Games4 years ago
Absolutely. Like with everything else, charisma and talent gives you a great initial boost, and may at times support you in getting away with crap, but that is as far as it gets.

I can't think of anyone better than Warren Spector for this. Hugely successful in his career with deep knowledge not only of the games themselves but the business and leading aspect of it. At the same time down to earth, approachable, realistic. News like these make me consider going back to school! I envy those who will be trained under his guidance!
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Show all comments (11)
I guess we can agree to disagree Julian. All I see is a corporate world that is basically run by "posers' who fake leadership and its a direct reason why the corporate world and overall world is as it is.
Posers I see everyday, true leaders not so much, especially in the corp world. Ask yourself this, how many bosses have you ever had which you truly really admired and thought to yourself, I'd follow that person through just about anything.... Out of the scores most people encounter during their/our lives, we are lucky to find one person/boss/leader like that.True leadership is rare.

If true leadership could just be taught in a classroom, then why is there such a void of leaders and leadership in this world in every area and facet of life? Some things you cant teach, you certainly can help polish those that are blessed however, but for those that arent born with it, all you can do is teach them how to fake it as best they can. Some people are born able to throw a 90 mile fastball, some arent. Some are born with the traits to be a leader, most arent.

Perhaps you are a true leader and the course helped bring that to light, I wish you only the best going forward, god knows we need more real leaders out there

Edited 12 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 11th April 2014 3:57pm

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Al Nelson Producer, Tripwire Interactive4 years ago
Best wishes Warren. Graduate some hot shots. Instead of Seals, maybe Rock School.
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Dan Wood Visual Effects Artist 4 years ago
I agree with Julian on this one. I think there's far more risk that people with sufficient ego to truly believe they have innate natural leadership ability will rely on that belief and complacently end up blaming failing on the people they're leading, rather than themselves for being poor leaders. As opposed to the person who learns leadership as a skill, who is rather more likely to seek to critique and refine that skill.
Having a dominant, alpha-male, charismatic personality seems to very often get confused with having natural leadership ability. To lead effectively, you need to be able to empathise and understand people, and I think it's a tad arrogant for anyone to think they're born with the ability to do that. Some may pick it up quicker than others, sure. You may very well have a natural affinity, but it's still a skill that needs to be learnt.
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David Serrano Freelancer 4 years ago
I looked at that and said “What could we do that's different?”
Devote as much time towards teaching the psychology, behavioral science and sociology of play... as towards teaching the best technical, creative or business practices of developing games.
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?
Visionary talent. The industry needs academia to aggressively recruit the best and brightest students available each year into different areas of games studies in the same way they aggressively recruit the best athletes into their sports programs.
Or what does it not do very well internally that we can fill a void?
Emphasize, and then over-emphasize the importance of personal development. And identify and provide sufferers of the Dunning–Kruger effect with an unavoidable dose of reality.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Serrano on 12th April 2014 9:03pm

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Murray Lorden Game Designer & Developer, MUZBOZ4 years ago
Oh man, this sounds so great.

I'm teaching Game Design and Production right now, for the first time this year. So it's fascinating to hear what Warren's plans and ruminations are for running his course.

I'd love to apply in a future year! Hope it goes really well!
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David Serrano Freelancer 4 years ago
@Todd Weidner


Any man who must say, "I am the king" is no true king. ~ Tywinn Lannister
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 4 years ago
Moreover, because people have this ridiculous notion that "you're born with leadership skills" it made me realise how fucked up so many companies are because of that very attitude. It's particularly rife within games studios, and it is now no surprise to me why so many games studios collapse under the weight of their leaders' stupendous ego.
A collapsed studio is hardly a sign of a talented, natural leaders. That is normally the work of managers who learned their their trade on budget MBA course. There is a difference between a politician and a leader, and the skills what you suggested belong to the former.
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Joonas Laakso Production Lead, Next Games4 years ago
Leadership absolutely can be learned. Don't fool yourself by thinking that you wouldn't be "charismatic enough" to be a leader. Charisma comes from leading. That's as simple as taking initiative and responsibility, and starting to get things done. Some people are better at it by simply being better at confronting their insecurities, but anybody can work on that. (And no, you don't need a title to start leading.)
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