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Devs must define success for themselves - Spector

Ahead of his keynote address at Pax Dev, the Deus Ex and System Shock designer warns that it simply isn't enough to "make a fun little game"

Like many entertainment sectors, the world of video games is a business. But it's a business ultimately driven by passionate and creative individuals. And that matters... a lot.

It's especially important to OtherSide Entertainment's Warren Spector, the industry veteran famous for designing Deus Ex, among other classics. Spector will be giving the keynote address at PAX Dev later this month (a conference that excludes the press), and he spoke with GamesIndustry.biz about the message he aims to deliver to his fellow developers.

At the heart of Spector's talk, called "Developer, Know Thyself", is the notion that creators shouldn't let the commercial side define their success. Moreover, developers should be making games that actually mean something to them.

"It isn't enough just to think, 'Oh I'm going to make a fun little game'... We need to be thinking a little bigger than that"

"The big point I'm trying to make is that it isn't enough just to think, 'Oh I'm going to make a fun little game.' For the sake of developer sanity and also for the medium itself we need to be thinking a little bigger than that, and really think [about] what success means.

"You need to know how you define success to know when you've hit it. What I'm going to argue is that people need to have, without being too pretentious, a kind of personal philosophy. Sure, people define success by revenue generated or profits made or Metacritic scores or whatever, but there has to be something deeper and more personal than that. I'm going to talk about some conventional success metrics and then talk about why we need to go deeper, my own success metrics and then how that can be applied more practically to day-to-day work."

Although Spector doesn't believe in forcing his own philosophy on others, he does think it's important that developers create games that have some real meaning. Games are just as capable as literature, film and TV when it comes to deep storytelling.

"When I talk about my success metrics, one of them is you need more to say than just what's happening on the surface of a game," he continues. "There's no reason why games can't deal with thematic material as deep as any other medium. That's clearly one of my soapboxes. I'm going to repeat that to any audience that will listen to me until the day I die.

"If the way you define success doesn't line up with the place you're working or the game you're working on, you're going to be miserable"

"It's not that my personal success metrics are the right ones or that I expect to get everyone believing what I believe, but every one of us needs to think about that for him or herself. I think it guarantees that you'll make better games, frankly, but it will also help you determine where you want to work, it will help you determine who to hire and who not to hire. It will help you in so many ways if you just think a little bit; be a little bit introspective and think through how you define success.

"If the way you define success doesn't line up with the place you're working or the game you're working on, you're going to be miserable and the game isn't going to be as good as it could have or should have been."

Spector's criticisms of some of the top-selling games on the market don't mean the industry hasn't made progress towards releasing games with deeper meaning. As Phil Harrison pointed out to us recently, it took Hollywood around 40 years to get to the point where it had fine-tuned its storytelling craft, and now we're seeing some really deep games - not just from indies, but even big AAA studios.

System Shock 3 marks a big return to the immersive sim genre that Spector helped found

"There have always been little pockets of depth in games. Certainly Ultima IV was one that was really important to me, and that was about ethics and ethical behavior and value systems. I was pretty blown away by that," Spector says. "It was such a seminal message, not just for me but the industry as well. Ultima IV was kind of the first. Interestingly I think Suikoden forced me to think about the importance of friends and family, in particular, and that was powerful when I played it.

"Now there's some pretty incredible depth in games like Journey, Papers, Please, This War of Mine and others. There are games doing some pretty amazing things, and some mainstream developers are making interesting stuff too.

"I think Telltale with The Walking Dead series [is noteworthy], and Heavy Rain forced me to think about a lot of stuff. I think it's a lot easier in the sort of interactive movie genre, like The Last of Us and Uncharted, to convey messages and tell interesting traditional stories in that format. But we're certainly seeing more depth in game storytelling now than we used to, and even more depth in terms of player agency."

"You're seeing lots of games now that empower players to tell their own stories, which I've been waiting decades for"

He adds, "It almost seems like we're bifurcating now even more than we did before... When you look around the world of games you see lots of cinematic stuff that's pretty linear and straightforward, but you also see games that require incredible creativity. Even something like Minecraft or the Arkane games, Dishonored and Prey. Or Fallout and the Bioware stuff. You're seeing lots of games now that empower players to tell their own stories, which I've been waiting decades for."

Immersive storytelling is an aspect of gaming that can arguably be further enhanced by virtual reality, but VR technology has never been all that appealing for Spector. In fact, he's on record saying that VR is merely a fad. Has he softened his stance on that now that there's been so much investment and hype around VR in the last couple years?

"To some extent," he says. "I find it interesting as a developer, but fundamentally as a gamer I'm still not all that psyched about it. I think VR has a huge role to play in other areas: in training, in a psychologist's office, aversion therapy; VR is made for that. So I think there's a place for it, but there still needs to be some pretty dramatic technological advances. We need to be untethered for sure. We need to get to the point where you don't need an empty 15-foot room. Somebody has to solve the locomotion problem.

"There are fundamental tech problems that I know will be solved. It's just that for games, maybe I'm just an old fuddy duddy or luddite, but I think we've got a pretty good thing going on the games side now... Otherside did a game called Underworld Overlords, which is almost a miniatures game in a way. I think VR is great for that and AR is even better. When you can animate figures moving on a table, that's pretty spectacular and as a gamer I'm psyched about that. But traditional VR, I'm glad people love it and a bunch of my friends are working in it, but I don't know that I'm the guy to be making VR games."

Spector may not be the guy to be working on VR, but he's exactly the guy who should be attempting to advance the genre of immersive RPG/Simulation. More than 20 years after the original System Shock, Spector left his position at the University of Texas to join up with Paul Neurath at Otherside and lead development on System Shock 3. So how is he approaching the franchise this time? What's he learned over the last few decades of game development that he will be applying to the title?

"I'm a big believer in every game needs to have one thing that no one's ever seen or done in a game before. That's also one of my success metrics"

"I'm going to be a little coy, but I'm a big believer that every game needs to have one thing that no one's ever seen or done in a game before," he says. "That's also one of my success metrics. We're working on one thing that's scary as hell because no one's ever done it before and we don't know if it's going to work. It may end up getting cut because it's this grand idea that we're playing with which might not work out. There is going to be something completely new and scary in this game.

"The big thing we can do now which we couldn't do before is just build a really deep simulation. System Shock and Ultima Underworld before it were built on the back of as good a simulation as was possible back in the '90s, but we can go way deeper in simulating a world now. That deep simulation is going to empower players to solve problems in a way they want to, which I think will surprise people."

Some have speculated that Spector has also come back to System Shock because he wanted to appease the core fans who were somewhat disappointed in his decision to pursue the Epic Mickey games. For someone who's been around as long as Spector, dealing with criticisms from players isn't new, but the world of social media has certainly changed the player-developer relationship in ways that aren't necessarily for the better.

"Certainly the internet and social media are not entirely a positive thing," he says. "It gets back to the talk I'm going to give at PAX. If you're doing things that you believe in, that affect you personally, people saying bad things is irrelevant. You want a close relationship with your players. On the plus side, the fact that we can have an ongoing dialogue with them is pretty cool, and the fact that players can tell each other about the games they're playing in a very direct way [is great].

It wasn't popular with the core, but Spector, a lifelong Disney fan, was going to make Epic Mickey regardless

"They don't have to go through the intermediary of a journalist to find out about a game or whether they're going to like a game or to hear about development of the game. They talk amongst themselves and to developers in real-time. The key for developers is you can't let players design your games for you. If everybody was a designer, everybody would be making games. The key for me is doing things that are personally meaningful. I was damn well going to make Epic Mickey even if everybody in the world hated me for it, and even if it sold one copy to my mother. I had to make that game and I had to make Deus Ex. And I feel that way about System Shock."

He adds, "I've always said this, and I don't know how I keep working, but I've always said my only obligation is to sell one more copy of a game than necessary to get someone to fund my next one. That's my obligation. I tell people this all the time: find a way to do work that is meaningful to you. People work for money, I don't get it... People work for all sorts of reasons but the only one that matters is when you go to bed at night you can say 'I did something that I love today.' That's the only thing you have control over."

That's a key message that Spector would offer both to students during his tenure at The University of Texas or to any up-and-coming indies who approach him. You need to be absolutely 100% certain that making games is what you want to do with your life.

"I've spent my entire life making games and you want to feel like you left something behind, that people are going to remember that you were there"

"I tell them 'be careful what you wish for'," he says. "One sort of truism is when you start making games for a living, you start playing them less and less. It's very strange, but when you live with a game every day, going home and playing a game is not necessarily something you want to do. I'm in awe of people who make games for a living who manage to keep up their game playing habits. So I always tell people be careful because it seems nearly universal that you play fewer games as you get deeper and deeper into making them. I tell them to be really careful; make sure you absolutely love it, make sure you love your role in making games because if you don't it will crush you.

"Making games I describe as gruellingly hard work. I've been on movie sets, I've written novels, I've written comic books, I've played in a band... I've done all those things, but making games is by far the most collaborative and the hardest thing I've ever done."

Spector has seen huge changes in the industry since he started in tabletop games in the early '80s, and he's certainly left an indelible mark. But he's not done yet. The long-time designer admits that he thinks about his retirement, but he wants to ensure that his legacy is as good as it can possibly be first.

"It's not true to say that video games are for kids, but it's clear that I am leaving the core demographic behind with each passing year. My answer to that is to empower my teams. I've always tried to align myself with great teams that are passionate about what they were doing. And now I just try to align myself with great teams that are passionate and are younger than me. You've got to surround yourself with younger people when you get to be my age.

"As far as legacy goes, I've been thinking about that for a while actually. I'm 61 and not ashamed or afraid to say that. When I hit about 50, which is older than most developers... What I think most people are going to discover when they hit 50 is that they do start thinking about that word, legacy, because you spend your entire life with something. I've spent my entire life making games and you want to feel like you left something behind, that people are going to remember that you were there.

"Just to bring this full circle, you don't get there by just making a fun little game or even a fun big game. You get there by taking a big risk and doing things that are personal and meaningful to you. And have that one new thing, always pushing the boundaries. I still feel a need to do that, and I think the medium needs people to do that.

"And if you do that, maybe you can make a difference. I like to think that the games I've produced, designed and directed maybe made a little difference. Other people can decide that. Will I retire? We'll see. I'd be lying if I said I hadn't thought about that, but I think I have a few more games in me."

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James Brightman avatar

James Brightman


James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.