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Warren Spector on E3: VR is a fad

The veteran designer shares his thoughts on what's right and what's wrong with the industry

E3 2015 was jam-packed with new games, new technologies, and plenty of the same old showmanship as companies labored to convince everyone that the new products coming out this year are bigger and better than ever. But how does this compare to previous E3 shows, and how do these new products compare to the products of past years? Someone with a long history in the game industry is the ideal person to assess this, which is why running into industry veteran Warren Spector at E3 was such a fortuitous occurrence. He graciously agreed to answer some questions about E3 and the industry, from his perspective as a game designer, producer, executive and now program director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas at Austin.

GamesIndustry.biz What was your overall impression of this year's show compared to the past?
Warren Spector

I think I've been to every E3 show since the first one. The biggest change I've observed over the years is the shift from a retail show to media event. Back in the day, E3 was all about getting stores and chains to order your game. Today, E3 seems much more focused on generating buzz and drumming up interest in individual games, overall product lines and killer hardware.

The big thing I took away from this year's show was that the major publishers and hardware console manufacturers aren't dead yet. So many people have been ringing the death knell of consoles, but there still seems to be plenty of activity and enthusiasm in that sector. I'm not sure if that's because consoles are still as relevant as they ever were or because the big companies are really good at giving that impression. I mean, it could all be smoke and mirrors. Hard to say. But consoles looked pretty vibrant at E3 this year.

GamesIndustry.biz What was your impression of Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, both compared to each other and compared to previous years? Did anything stand out, either positive or negative, for you?

"I see amazing possibilities in VR for social media and virtual meetings and training and crazy stuff like dealing with phobias. But for entertainment? I'm just not seeing it"

Warren Spector

I didn't make it to any of the press events this year. I did follow some of the coverage and the overwhelming impression I got was that there are sure a lot of games coming up with numbers after their names. I get why that is, but I don't have to be happy about it. At least there were a few new IP games. Take what you can get I suppose. I was also struck by how games all seem to look alike these days (well, except for Nintendo games, which all look like Nintendo games...). Okay, maybe it's always been like that and I'm just getting more crotchety as time goes on.

Sony seemed like they were showing the most new IP, which was great, but I still find it weird that they seem committed to "owning the living room." I mean, I already have too many boxes that do basically what Sony Vue does. Why would I want another one?

Honestly, though, I always find the big press events a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Never understood all the whooping and hollering that goes on when publishers show off their seemingly identical trailers. (Did I just ensure that I'll never work again?...)

GamesIndustry.biz How does it feel to see the Deus Ex franchise continuing?
Warren Spector

I feel great about the franchise continuing. It could have been a disaster, I suppose, but the team at Eidos Montreal really seems to get what made the original game work and they're doing a nice job with it - they've only made three or four design decisions I wouldn't have made! I really enjoyed playing Human Revolution - it felt (and equally important, sounded) like a Deus EX game. I had the Deus Ex experience and, for a change, I didn't know all the secrets. That was pretty cool. I'm really looking forward to Mankind Divided.

GamesIndustry.biz As usual, there were many new games being shown, but the majority seemed to be sequels or remakes or brand extensions. What's the status of innovation in the console space, to your mind? Are the new consoles giving us anything besides prettier pictures?
Warren Spector

Well, it's not like sequels, remakes and brand extensions are a new thing. And I've been complaining about "the same old games with prettier pictures" for a while now. Really, we've been in that world for years now. Innovation has always been a tough sell.

For sure, there are some games that look like they're going after something new - No Man's Sky comes to mind - but when I look for new and different gameplay, I start with the indies, not the triple-A folks. Indiecade was pretty rockin' this year. Some really interesting stuff there. It was nice to see Microsoft and Sony showing their commitment to indie games. That gives me hope.

GamesIndustry.biz It seemed like VR and AR were getting a lot more attention this year. Did you experience any of it at the show? Is this really the Next Big Thing in gaming technology, or is it destined to be a niche for the hardest of the hardcore?
Warren Spector

I've been pretty consistent in my belief that VR is a fad. I think it'll generate some interest among the hardcore gamers. And I see amazing possibilities in VR for social media and virtual meetings and training and crazy stuff like dealing with phobias. But for entertainment? I'm just not seeing it. I don't think most humans want to look stupid (everyone looks stupid in a VR headset) and they don't want to isolate themselves from the world. I mean, if someone's sneaking up behind me with a baseball bat, I want to know about it, you know what I mean? And let's not talk about nausea.

It's weird, I worked on a couple of games that supported available VR headsets back in the '90s and I was really jazzed about it. Now, I'm kind of over it.

AR, on the other hand - that seems pretty exciting. There's some potential there. Even the low-hanging fruit of AR gaming seems compelling. Bring on the AR.

GamesIndustry.biz What was the most interesting game you saw at the show, and why was it interesting to you?
Warren Spector

Can I say Deus Ex: Mankind Divided without seeming too self-serving? Okay, I'll drop that.

The game that really got my shorts in a knot was Cuphead. It may just be that I'm a total classic animation geek, but that game looked phenomenal. I'm not usually a graphics first guy, but I'll make an exception for that one. Can't wait to play it.

'30s era cartoon-based Cuphead

I was also taken with Wattam over in the Indiecade booth - unique, filled with childlike wonder, a real sense of discovery... Just a nice piece of work from Funomena and Katamari Damacy designer, Keita Takahashi.

I was intrigued by Nintendo's Mario Maker. It seems so out of character for Nintendo to let loose their death grip on the quality associated with their IP. And to involve their audience so much? That's nicely out of character. Mostly, I'm excited for Nintendo fans to learn how freakin' hard it is to create compelling gameplay!

Having said all that, I really wanted to see The Last Guardian and No Man's Sky, but that just wasn't in the cards for me. I suspect they would have impressed, too.

GamesIndustry.biz Was there anything that really surprised you at E3? Anything that really disappointed you? Anything that left you filled with hope?
Warren Spector

I was surprised to see so little mobile stuff. I guess E3 really isn't that kind of show, but with all the talk about the demise of consoles and the rise of mobile, I expected more.

As far as disappointments go, I've already talked about the sequels. I worked really hard to avoid games that had a 4, 5 or 14 after their names.

Hope? Sure. Again, indie games seem to be thriving, even in the world of traditional consoles. Just check out games like Tribal and Error or Chambara and you can see that there are still new design ideas to explore.

GamesIndustry.biz You've completed the first year of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. What was that experience like for you, and what have the graduates told you about their experience with the program?
Warren Spector

The experience of building a game development program from scratch was pretty amazing and I'm really grateful to The University of Texas for giving me that opportunity. After I left Disney, after 31 years of making games, I wanted a bit of a hiatus. I was looking for some different challenges and man did I get them! Finding the program's focus (leadership and management in game development), hiring a terrific staff of industry professionals, building the curriculum, planning a year's worth of lectures, figuring out how academic institutions get things done - lots of work, lots to learn.

Once the students showed up, things got really exciting. We found a great group. We had some students who'd been running their own indie studios, some folks who'd come right out of the mainstream industry, a bunch of game dev graduates, both undergraduate and graduate... The diversity and varied personalities made it feel like the most extreme version of building a game team.

At the end of the day, I think we were able to expose the students to the realities of game development. We were able to help many of them get jobs at places like Telltale, Turbine, Gearbox, 2K and elsewhere. I think it's safe to say they all left with an appreciation for how difficult development can be, how challenging it can be to lead a team creatively, how important it is to be a great team member and how tough it can be to manage the process that results in a shipped game. I hope we gave them some tools to deal with all those difficulties and challenges.

Best of all, several of the DSGA participants clearly left the program changed as people.The skills of leadership and management are transferable to all aspects of life and several of our students came to realize that.

GamesIndustry.biz You're now in the process of accepting applications for the second year of the Denius-Sams Academy. What are you looking for in your applicants, and what should they expect to get out of the program if they are accepted?
Warren Spector

What we look for in applicants is experience making games - you have to have been part of a game team, whether in an educational setting or a professional one. We don't teach programming or design or art creation - we teach leadership, so we expect people to come in already knowing the basics of development and with some expertise in their individual discipline.

"The thing I'll be paying attention to is the evolution of business models. It almost seems like no one knows how to make money anymore. A little scary"

Obviously, we look for people who aspire to leadership positions - production, creative direction, lead design, lead programmer, art director... And applicants have to convince us they have the potential to lead.

All 20 students work on one game for 9 months and everyone gets a chance to lead the team so people leave the program with hands-on experience producing or directing a relatively large-scale game with a relatively long development cycle - opportunities they might not get for years in the real world.

More specifically, we teach people how to conceptualize projects, how to create and maintain a creative vision, how to balance creative and business needs, how to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise during development, how to work with people from different disciplines and with people whose communication style differs from your own, We talk about finding the right team structure for your people and your project and what it means to work in different development methodologies.. We talk about budgeting, scheduling, pitching techniques and more. We cover a lot of ground - ground that most other game development programs don't cover.

To be clear, we don't expect anyone to leave the DSGA and get a job as creative director on the next Deus Ex game right out of the gate, but we believe we can provide some career acceleration so they get there sooner than they might have otherwise.

Oh, and did I mention there's no tuition? The DSGA is free. And we give each student a $10,000 stipend, too. Yeah, I know - crazy, right?

GamesIndustry.biz What trends in gaming will you be keeping your eye on over the next year?
Warren Spector

The thing I'll be paying attention to is the evolution of business models. It almost seems like no one knows how to make money anymore. A little scary. Personally, I'm going to be working on figuring out mobile and games as a service. I know way too little about that world and when I get back in the game, I need to be prepared for a brave new world.

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Steve Peterson

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Steve Peterson has been in the game business for 30 years now as a designer (co-designer of the Champions RPG among others), a marketer (for various software companies) and a lecturer. Follow him on Twitter @20thLevel.