If you click on a link and make a purchase we may receive a small commission. Read our editorial policy.

Warren Spector: "I couldn't care less about maximising profitability"

OtherSide's resident genius gives his 4 criteria for success at Sweden Game Conference

If you're trying to condense a thirty year game career which has spanned Ultima, Wing Commander, System Shock and Deus Ex into a thirty minute talk, you've got to be prepared to be blunt and honest, and Warren Spector is happy to be both. However, the veteran designer actually prefaced that headline quote with "Don't tell any publishers," so some of you should probably forget you ever read it. For the rest of us, there are some fascinating lessons to learn from the Deus Ex creator's year-a-minute presentation.

Spector was speaking at Sweden Game Conference in Skovde last week, as organised by Sweden Game Arena. Never one to filter himself too strenuously, Spector opened his talk with a strong message - sales do not necessarily mean success. But they might.

"When you make a game, you have to have a purpose, you have to have a reason to make the game you're making," Spector began. "There are lots of games which can be made. Why are you making this one? Why should your players care about what you're doing? Why should your team care? Only when you can answer questions about conflict and outcome and caring, only then can you define success.

"Some value sales, revenue and profit. Don't tell any publishers, but I couldn't care less about that"

"You need to know what you're doing, how you're going to do it, but you also need to know how you're going to know when you've done it well. You need a definition of success. Developers define success in different ways. Some value sales, revenue and profit. Don't tell any publishers, but I couldn't care less about that. My only obligation to a publisher is to sell one more copy of a game than is necessary for them to fund my next game. I couldn't care less about maximising profitability.

"For some people it's about pride, your team feeling like you've done something really great. That's a successful project. Some make games for the ego gratification or validation which comes from critical acclaim, recognition from outsiders that you'd done a good job. Some people define success by how fun a game is. I think fun is a useless word. I don't allow people to use it in my studio. It's meaningless and doesn't help anyone to make a game."

For Spector, it's none of those things, although he accepts that he enjoys the pleasures they all bring. Instead, his criteria for success is fourfold.

"The first is player power," he explained. " Are you epowering players to tell a new story in collaboration? Next, have I delivered one thing in the game that nobody has ever seen or done before? Thirdly, have I allowed the player to see the world through the eyes of someone different to themselves - have I let them walk in someone else's shoes? And have I made a game about something beyond what's on the surface? Have I made them think? These are the four things which define success for me."

That first point, telling a story in collaboration with a player, is something so unique to games that the medium has a "moral obligation" to fulfil its potential, says Spector. It's a theme he's tried to thread into every game he's ever made, encouraging players to see their choices as a part of the ongoing narrative of the experience, having a tangible effect on the outcome. It all began, he says, with a game of Dungeons and Dragons over 40 years ago. It probably helped that he had Bruce Sterling, one of the leading lights of modern science fiction, as his DM...

"If I told you how that campaign ended, I'd be crying on stage. My entire professional life has been about recreating that feeling I had playing D&D in 1978"

"He was a great storyteller," Spector says of Sterling, "but what made that experience special wasn't being told a story by Bruce, it was that my friends and I were telling a story with him. We had to use our wits to overcome the obstacles Bruce threw at us. It was like a great band, working together to create something none of us could do alone. If I told you how that campaign ended, I'd be crying on stage. My entire professional life has been about recreating that feeling I had playing D&D in 1978."

Spector was similarly bold in his presentation of the second criteria - that of innovating. If you're not breaking new ground in some way, he believes, you should probably find yourself a new career.

"Frankly if you're just copying other people's work, why bother? First of all, it's boring for developers, but games have been around for, what, 40 years? We're still a young medium. If you think games are a solved problem, you need to think harder. If you look at mainstream AAA games today, you'll see a lot of games that look and feel like each other. A lot of games that look like old games with prettier pictures. We're too young to assume we know everything."

Spector illustrated his third criteria, that of giving the player a new perspective, with an example from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who penned a thought experiment on vampirism. How, says Brooks, can a human ever decide whether they want to be a vampire? Sure, there's the immortality, the superhuman strength, the power to mesmerise and enthral, not to mention the sudden leap in sartorial elegance, but once you actually become a vampire, you'll be someone else entirely - how is the you now supposed to judge what that person would want?

Essentially, Brooks is saying that a shift in personality that big, to truly be in someone else's shoes, is so alien as to be impossible. Spector agrees that it's incredibly difficult, and admits that he's always struggled, but believes that games are the best medium to try and achieve it.

"In my opinion, every developer should make sure they have something to say, before they start saying it, before they start working on a game"

"Frankly I don't think I've ever come close to succeeding in this, but I'm committed to trying. Failing at this every time so far is part of the reason that I subject myself to the hell that is game development. You know there are great joys in development, but there's also great pain.

"I don't know if David Brooks plays games, but if he did then he'd know we've already provided an answer for this. Games offer the opportunity for players to try out behaviours which we wouldn't want them trying in real life. You don't just watch someone else, you become someone else when you're playing. No other medium can let you experience life choices and the consequences of their actions."

Finally, Spector finished on a contradiction. Make a statement. But make that statement a question. Returning to his first point about collaborative storytelling, Spector says that games should avoid the didactic positions more usually found in books or cinema.

"Do you have something important you want players to explore," he asked. "In my opinion, every developer should make sure they have something to say, before they start saying it, before they start working on a game. We're as capable of saying profound things as any other medium, but I think we have an inferiority complex.

"Actually, to contradict myself - games shouldn't make statements, they should ask questions, ask players to ponder situations. If you really want to make a statement, make a movie or write a book."

The full talk can be heard below, courtesy of Sweden Game Conference.

Topics in this article

Follow topics and we'll email you when we publish something new about them.  Manage your notification settings .

Dan Pearson avatar

Dan Pearson