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Shock to the System

Part two of our interview with Junction Point boss Warren Spector.
Last week, in part one of our interview with Warren Spector, the Junction Point president discussed life after ION Storm and Deus Ex. Here, in part two, Spector talks Bioshock, online gaming and why he thinks the games industry is overcharging its customers.
GamesIndustry.biz: I guess the most prominent game that's coming up for you at the moment is Bioshock. It's content is definitely high concept, as well as being adult. How do you think games like that go down with the general populous? Do you think it's going to work?

Warren Spector: I hope so. Irrational grew largely out of Looking Glass. I consider them friends and hope they succeed. I find the concept a little outrî, I guess [laughs].

I hope the public embraces it. I certainly think that if the unwashed masses give it a chance they'll find the gameplay intriguing. That seems likely. And if they allow themselves to be immersed in that unique, strange world that Ken and the rest of the guys there have created, it'll be something really special.

You talked about Deus Ex being quite dangerous, in terms of the content of the follow-up games. Is there a risk that those who buy FIFA and Need for Speed simply don't 'get it'?

Yeah. You know, the reality is that I've made games that have sold pretty well, but I've never done Half-Life sales, or The Sims sales, or sales of pick whichever Squaresoft game you want. It may be that as we currently make these things, there may be a limit of the size of the audience of people that really want interactivity.

It's one of the things I said in my [GDC] talk. The truth that dare not be spoken is that games are work. And most people want to play when they play and work when they work, but not work when they play.

What's the way forward for Junction Point? Are we going to see more 'dangerous' games or are you going to produce stuff that you know will sell?

A little of both. My team hates it when I say this, but my motto really is 'fail gloriously'. I would rather fail at trying to do something that's really amazing than succeed at doing something that's mediocre. It's really true.

What's the worst that happens? I'll go and work in a book store, or something? I don't want to look back on my life and say, 'I made another driving game. Woohoo. I made a game based on that movie that really wasn't any good.' What's the point? So yeah, I think you'll see some dangerous stuff.

There are a couple of things, though, that need to be said. One is that I'm never going to name a game something that most people can't pronounce. I'm done with that. And I've always tried to do this - I don't think I've succeeded particularly well - but there are so many interesting fictional contexts and genres that you really can find something that people already care about.

I will never try to convince somebody to be interested in the thing I want to make a game about. I'm going to find things in the world that people are already interested in and already care about.

I think that was one of the secrets of Deus Ex's success. It was not just the gameplay, I did very consciously look around and say, 'Wow, it's three years before the Millennium and every other website is touting some conspiracy theory. Everywhere I turn it's like nano-technology and bio-genetic engineering are going to be the next big thing.' So I really tried to make sure we tapped to all these things. People were already saying, 'I'm interested in this. Give me something about this.' And so I think you'll see that from us.

The online gaming dream is very much a reality now, in both the console and PC spaces, especially given what Sony announced this morning. What do you think, in very broad strokes, are the possibilities of online gaming?

It's frustrating for me, because I don't personally enjoy online games all that much. I love stories, and I love telling stories and participating in the telling of stories, and all that stuff, but I think one of the things we do so well is that we can make everyone feel like a hero. Once you get into a massively multiplayer situation, everyone can't be a hero. The definition of a hero is that you're special, right, and that the things you do make a difference, so someone needs to crack that or it's all for nothing.

I know Richard Garriot's been talking about Tabula Rasa and been trying to solve the MMO story problem, which everyone tries to tackle and goes, 'Oh, I don't know.' So I think if they do that, it'll great. If it's just more of the same, well, it's a great business. Richard and I have had huge arguments about that. $15 a month, and get yourself 8 million people: [laughs] Okay, I'd be okay with that.

But fundamentally, World of Warcraft - the most amazing thing in the world - reaches fewer people than the average television show. We overcharge for a niche product. I've said that enough times that I'm surprised I haven't been killed by some EA exec or something, but it's true. We make a lot of money because we overcharge for a niche product.

And the big challenge for us is to find ways to reach the 90 per cent of people in the world that don't even think about picking up a controller and playing a game. Will the PS3 change that? I don't know. Will the Xbox 360 change that? I don't know. Will the Wii? I don't know. I do know that I've now bowled with my 71 year-old mother-in-law. That's the trick.

I don't think World of Warcraft has proved anything other than that there are 8 million people in the world that are prepared to pay a lot of money for the kind of pleasures we were able to provide 15 years ago. And now the guys at Blizzard hate me. Excellent.

Do you think that games like WOW and EVE Online provide a style of gameplay that allow people to escape reality and find solace in anonymity?

I suppose that's possible. I've never thought about it like that. I don't have a ready answer for you. I don't see solace in anonymity, although I'm going to have to think about that.

I see a couple of things. One is that I see a lot of very pretty pictures, and I see some interesting obstacles between you seeing the next pretty picture. What's over the next hill? What's over the next hill in World of Warcraft is something that's pretty darn cool.

There's also something almost Pavlovian which Blizzard's always got. There's something about a ring hitting the ground in Diablo; it's a sound that still makes me salivate. And I think World of Warcraft has that in spades.

There's a joy in leveling. Before I worked in electronic games, I worked with Steve Jackson and TSR on face-to-face role-playing stuff and I always wanted to do games that didn't have level systems, and were more deeply simulated. And then I got to TSR and it was like, 'People really, really love, 'I'm level 19.' Levelling is really powerful. I mean, I can guarantee that right at this instance, while we're talking, my wife is playing World of Warcraft. I mean, she's an addict. Caroline Spector: addict.

There's something going on there, but I think it's mostly the joy of exploring and discovery and the behavioural psychologist's wet dream of nearly random reward schedules that drive you to continue playing so that you can get the next little pill.

So we're not going to see an MMO from Junction Point?

I hope not [laughs]. It's funny. I was watching the PlayStation Home thing that Phil Harrison was showing [at GDC]. At Looking Glass, I worked with a bunch of guys and we put together a proposal called - interestingly enough - Junction Point. It was that. That was it.

From there you would spin off into smaller adventures that were much more like a traditional TSR-style roleplaying adventure. And I still think that's a model that I could really get behind and I still hope that I can do that, but in terms of a traditional MMO? Nah. I'm just not the guy.

So when are you planning to bring the Junction Point products out into the open?

At the last possible second we can. I love talking, I love games, I love talking about games. I really feel passionately that what we're doing - and here are the capital letters - The Right Thing To Do. I think that most of what passes for a game, even now, just sucks. It's hard for me not to talk, but I've seen the dangers of doing that. I'm hoping that in the next couple of months we'll have something to say.

How do you think Vivendi's going to feel about the fact that they haven't signed your game?

[Laughs] I have no idea. Yeah. I think when we do announce what we're doing, I think people are going to be very interested, very surprised and there'll be lots of people saying, 'Oh my God, I can't wait,' and a lot of people saying, 'He's completely out of his freakin' mind.' I can't wait.

Warren Spector is the president of Junction Point Studios. Interview by Patrick Garratt. To read part one of this feature, click here.

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