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Spector: "Thank god for the indie space"

Veteran designer laments lack of progress in mainstream gaming, discusses his return to development

Last week Deus Ex and Epic Mickey designer Warren Spector announced his plans to return to the world of game development full-time. Spector is leaving his academic appointment at the University of Texas at Austin to join OtherSide as a studio director and to specifically work on Underworld Ascendant and System Shock 3. In a recent interview with Gamasutra, Spector said that it's important to stay current with the times. Technology and game development can change at a rapid pace.

"...when I first started talking to the university, I told them I'd take a three-year commitment, because the game industry changes so quickly. I was worried that after three years, y'know, the relevance of what I know would start to diminish," he said. "And I wanted to make sure I didn't become one of those teachers who used to make games, who used to know how games were developed and why. I knew I needed to keep my skills honed, so that was part of it."

Spector also just missed being in the midst of game development. "And part of it was just, y'know, I make games. It's kind of what I do. I've been getting the itch to make something. It's been coming on for a while now," he continued. "And finally, the last little piece of the puzzle was Paul Neurath, who I've worked with several times at Origin and Looking Glass, he came to me and asked if I wanted to make System Shock 3. Making System Shock is one of the best parts of my professional life, so the opportunity to bring that franchise into the 21st century...I just couldn't say no. Put that all together, and I decided it was time."

"I can't believe I'm about to say this -- I'll never work in this industry again -- but in the mainstream space I really haven't seen a whole lot of progress"

While Spector's been on the sidelines the past few years, he's also been watching games evolve, but the veteran designer doesn't believe there's been enough happening to really advance the medium. "I can't believe I'm about to say this -- I'll never work in this industry again -- but in the mainstream space I really haven't seen a whole lot of progress. It seems like we're getting more finely-tuned, prettier versions of games we've been playing for years," he remarked.

Where Spector does see more progress is from the indie community. "Thank god for the indie space, there are people trying interesting things there," he said. "What I want to do, is I see a variety of places where we could make some strides that would help take games to the next level. The biggest one, for me, is more robust characters and character AI. We've gotten very good at combat AI, we've made great strides there, but I don't think we've done much in the world of non-combat AI and interacting with people -- human or otherwise. We haven't done a lot with conversation, and establishing emotional relationships with characters in games. So I'd very much like to play with that."

He added, "Also, while I've seen some efforts, especially from the guys at Arkane, to sort of extend the design philosophy of Origin and Looking Glass -- that whole 'immersive simulation' and its philosophy of empowering players to tell their own stories. I'd like to go further with that. It's nice to see more people trying, but I think there's a ways we could go as well, in terms of empowering players to tell their own stories. Those are the directions I'm going to try to go in. We'll see if I can pull it off."

Spector also clarified that System Shock 3 isn't going to be built with hundreds of people. He doesn't want to repeat what happened at his former studio Junction Point. "I've done the big team thing. We had 200 people at Junction Point, in the studio itself, and 800 people around the world working on the game. So I've done the big-budget, huge team thing, and at this point what I'd like to do is smaller, lower-budget, almost like 'games as a service' model games that require somewhere between 10-20 people to make. I don't want to get much bigger than that," he explained.

If the project necessitates more staff, the plan is to outsource: "I think we can work with external partners to create a virtual, larger team that will allow us to compete with the larger teams and the larger budgets without actually having to build that. I don't want to get so far away from the game that I have to spend all my time running an enormous studio and dealing with publishers. I want to be in the thick of it, so smaller teams is part of the deal."

While Spector is immersing himself in the world of development again so that he can be a better teacher as well, he doesn't intend to return to academia full-time. That said, he will still volunteer at The University of Texas. "I'm not walking away from the Academy," he stressed. "I've told the folks at the University of Texas, I've told them I'm not leaving. I'm just changing my role. I'll be volunteering as long as they want me. I'm happy to come in and give as many lectures as they want me to do. I'm happy to serve as chairman or just a member of the board of advisors for the program. I'm still planning on staying involved, but just not as a full-time gig. My full-time gig is going to be making games again."

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James Brightman

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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.

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