Few games have ever registered the impact delivered by Deus Ex. Saying the dystopian future-shocker's influence on genre gaming in general was "massive" isn't hyperbolic. The absolute darling of turn-of-the-Century narrative obsessives, the title not only won countless Game of the Year awards in 2000 and granted chief development creative Warren Spector the status of gaming megastar, but also provided an anchor to the sensational rise and demise of Eidos-owned Texan developer, ION Storm.
The success of Deus Ex catapulted Spector to the top of the A-list. His CV read like a dream, listing major projects such as Wing Commander, Ultima, System Shock and Thief. Deus Ex emerging as the game of its time was merely the crest of a glittering wave. Spector could do no wrong.
Inevitably though, ION Storm's light shone brightly, briefly and very publicly, ending in tears in 2005 when Eidos finally closed the doors on what goes down on one of the most spectacular news stories in game development history.
Other leading figures John Romero and Tom Hall were already long gone from the disgraced Dallas office, leaving only Spector to walk away from the Austin outfit, announce the formation of his own company - Junction Point Studios - and then melt into the background.
Having remained largely quiet for the past two years, it seems as though the wait to find out what Warren did next is almost over. A news story emerged just before last week's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, saying Junction Point had signed a title to Vivendi (since dismissed as untrue) and Spector himself was listed as a speaker at the event.
He agreed to meet us on the proviso we didn't talk about specific titles. No problem, we said. He was looker older and greyer than the heady days of Deus Ex, and told us that the keynote he'd just given on storytelling in games was "just awful". He didn't want to do it, he said. We crossed the road to get away from the convention centre and find a Starbucks (Man behind counter: "Wow! You're Warren Spector!") and then a quiet patch of grass.
He's a very nice man, is Warren Spector. Here, in part one of our interview, he discusses the Vivendi "signing", when we can expect to see Junction Point's first games and why he's expecting the games industry to think he's "out of his freakin' mind" when we do. The second part of this feature will be published on GamesIndustry.biz next week.
Q: So, if you don't want to talk about story in games...
[Laughs] I'm happy to talk about story in games. It's okay. It's just officially getting up in front of a crowd. I've got one more in me, and that's next week in Austin, Texas, at South by Southwest, and then I'm done.
Q: Are you looking forward to South by Southwest? It's traditionally a music festival, right?
Yeah, it's cool. It was started by a bunch of old friends of mine, and I've been beating on them for years. 'Come on, there's this interactive community in town, let's start supporting it.' Finally they're starting to take it seriously. It looks like a pretty big deal this year.
Q: Will Wright's going this year?
Yeah, Will's going, and a bunch of other folks. It's going to be cool.
Q: I know you don't want to talk about specific products, but you announced a couple of weeks ago that you're working with Vivendi...
Well, don't believe everything you read. If you want a scoop, that actually is not true. I'm not exactly sure where that came from. So you're the first person to hear that.
Q: Have you got no idea where that came from at all?
Q: Who actually reported on it first?
I guess it was Game Developer magazine. I'm not sure. I tend to not pay attention to all that stuff. A bunch of people have been congratulating me here and I've been like, "Um, no. Premature." Still there will be some sort of big announcement sometime soon, but it's unclear when or what.
Q: So how are things going at Junction Point in general?
Things are going really well. We're up to 24 people now, and we've got two IPs that we've worked on, with several months of work on each of them. One of them we're working in collaboration with a fellow you would have heard of out of Hollywood, and one of them is based on a game-world that I created about 15 years ago with my wife. I've been waiting for the technology to catch up with the ideas in there.
So we've been developing those, and we've got another four or five smaller things that we've been working on; concept development stuff.
Q: After the collapse of ION Storm, which was a very public affair, have you been taking stock? Are you glad to be away from all of that?
Yeah. You know, I could see the writing on the wall long before I actually left. There was a Dallas office, and it was so noisy and so much in the spotlight, that down in Austin we were able to function without anybody paying a whole lot of attention. It was the ideal development scenario. It was great.
When Eidos took ownership of ION Storm, for a while there it was great. I really enjoyed working with those guys, but there came a point where they wanted to move in a particular direction from a creative standpoint, with games like Backyard Wrestling and 25 to Life. I literally looked around at E3 one year and said, 'Wow. Which of these things is not like the others?'
And so I figured it was time to move on, and eventually the moment came. So I left, really... I felt real bad. I kind of deserted the team, which was the worst thing about it, but they soldiered on for another couple of months. Then Eidos shut it down.
Q: How is life after Deus Ex? How have things moved on from that point?
Well, you know, you're only as good as your last game. I think I got a little too far from the games, for one thing. I really became enamored with being a part of Eidos. I mean, the folks there at the highest levels of executive management actually listened to me for a while, which was a new experience for me.
It was a company I really thought I could help move to the next level. I got so distracted with publisher level stuff that I kind of lost sight of the games. I had very, very talented people there, and I kind of feel as though I didn't mentor them as well as I could have and should have. If I had to do it differently I'd probably pay less attention to the publisher side of stuff and more attention to the games.
But we took a lot of chances in Deadly Shadows and Invisible War, and we did a lot of really, really risky things. And I think too many. Not enough of them paid off. The overall result was games that I'm still proud of, and games that I still enjoy playing and I'm proud to have been involved in the development of, but I don't think they lived up to expectations.
Q: How influential do you think Deus Ex was?
I don't know. You tell me.
Q: I think it was very influential. The name still gets bandied around a lot today as a 'genre concept'. Do you think of it as being at the forefront of a genre?
You know, I hope so. I've been working on games like that - as the key creative guy, as the producer in various capacities - for 18 years now, so for me it was just the logical evolutionary step.
But I think that gave us an understanding of how that shared-authorship, simulated story games works, which I think a lot of people don't have. I never said this publicly before Deus Ex shipped, but I've said it a couple of times since, I wanted to shame the rest of this industry, because so much of what we do is pathetic.
I mean, 'pathetic' is kind of my pet word, but so much of what we do is pathetic. We work in this medium of endless potential, and what we do is rehash games we were making 20 years ago. It's just sad.
Q: Don't you think it's a problem with all creative industries? It's certainly a problem with film where you have to fit inside a certain mould to make it into the publisher model...
I honestly think we have it worse. There are a variety of ways to reach an audience in every other medium. There are independent record labels, there are indie movies, there are downloadable TV-like presentations...
With games there's "the audience," then there's; well, what? I feel like we changed things a little bit. I don't know how much. I think people are starting to figure out that it is a lot harder to do games like Deus Ex and Underworld and Thief and Ultima than it appears.
Warren Spector is the president of Junction Point Studios. Interview by Patrick Garratt. To read part two of this feature, visit GamesIndustry.biz next week.