Warren Spector: No Weapons, Why Metacritic is Irrelevant, and a New Teaching Gig

Warren Spector, I think it can safely be said, is never terribly shy about offering his opinions on various matters. His recent interview with Rock, Paper, Shotgun! is full of just that; Spector talks at length about his opposition to violence in games, the issues that plagued Epic Mickey, and what life is like post-Disney.

A couple choice samples:

RPS: …you’ve gone from being the authority on tough guys in trench coats to their most outspoken opponent. But, I mean, are you really over that stuff?

Spector: My geek credentials are in good order, you know? I love fantasy games and I love science fiction. I love real-world near-future kinds of stuff. But I wanted a change of pace. After Ultima Underworld and Ultima VII: Serpent Isle, I was so sick of fantasy. I “never wanted to do another fantasy game” at that point. So I started doing some science fiction stuff, which I liked. After a couple of Deus Ex games, I wanted to do something different again. People expect you to fit in a slot. A square peg only goes in a square hole. But I wanted to do something different.

And:

RPS: …For whatever you might end up working on next, have you given any thought to the idea of removing guns entirely?

Spector: I almost hesitate to say this, because I don’t know if it’ll actually happen, but I can’t tell you how desperately I want to impose the “no weapons” restriction on whatever I do now. Just to force myself and the team to solve a lot of tough problems. Guns and swords, they’re such crutches for us. They’re so easy for us to do. Unless we force ourselves to do the hard things, I’m not sure we ever will. I don’t know. I may not actually do that. I may end up doing a game where you get to shoot lots of people. Who knows? But I’d very much like to impose that constraint on things. We’ll see.

And, as though that weren’t enough, Spector also decided to take a shot at Metacritic, the reviews-aggregation service that has become something of a bane of game developers of late.

“Metacritic, at best, rewards games that are conventional and well understood by players and critics alike,” Spector wrote. “New and challenging things are, by their very nature, disruptive and easily misunderstood. Aggregation of opinion, at best, offers hope and guidance to people whose goal is to maximize profitability but little to people whose priorities lie elsewhere.”

Spector is hardly the first to raise questions about Metacritic, but he might be the most high-profile developer to do so publicly. Last month, Kotaku’s lengthy discussion on the review aggregator’s failings brought the issue to greater awareness. Before that, a study presented at the Games Developers Conference 2013 revealed some of the different ways that average Metacritic scores can be weighted and manipulated.

“When we put our faith in Metacritic as an impartial, scientific measure of quality, we should probably ask ourselves whether the crowd—the crowd of journalists as well as players—is really wise or just mediocre, incapable of recognizing and rewarding the new and different.”

Spector, of course, recently accepted a teaching position at the University of Texas, in which he will help oversee the creation of a new game design academy. And, you know…for all the man’s contrarian positions on certain gameplay elements, he can still argue quite powerfully for changes in the philosophy of game design that would, on the whole, make for vastly better games.

6 Responses

  1. Infinitron says:

    “In Epic Mickey, it was a couple of things. It was the dynamically changeable environment. As far as I know there had never been and still has never been another game where you can dynamically remove and restore parts of the terrain, characters, objects, that sort of thing.”

    what

  2. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    Compare these two Metacritic scores, then watch both movies again, and you will know why Metacritic is a steaming pile of monkey AIDS:

    http://www.metacritic.com/movie/casino-royale
    http://www.metacritic.com/movie/skyfall

    Spector is a good guy and an iconic dev, but a cool idea for a game with great execution can only suffer from any philosophical or political constraints tossed over it like a wet blanket. Making a good game is damn hard. Don’t constrain yourself unless it somehow makes the game better.

  3. Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

    Until just after submitting my reply I thought I was posting on Gamasutra. And I’m only drinking coffee right now. Not a good start to my evening of work on the game…

  4. Jim Franks says:

    I obviously have a lot of respect for the guy, but I personally believe the reason why violence is so common in games is because game mechanics lend very well to violence, rather than some sort of perverse or moral failing.

    The process of jumping on a Goomba, crushing it, not just physically but metaphorically, crushing it’s life, it’s dreams, it’s future, it’s chance at redemption, growth.

    That process is enjoyable because humans enjoy responding to simulated threats to their survival and being offered methods of conquering those threats. Violence is a very effective method of solving those kinds of threats. The goomba will kill you, sometimes only with one hit. It’s a threat, and it’s neutralization is in your best interests.

    So would Mario be a better game if it offered a non violent solution to eliminate the threat of every every Goomba? Some sort of abstract way of ‘temporarily trapping them in the environment, some sort of non violent way of disabling them (tranquilizer darts, sleeping gas), some way for Mario to make convincing moral arguments to the Goomba’s sense of ethics’ and so forth?

    I don’t necessarily think it would be better. Different? Sure. The best alternate solution the game offers is simply jumping over them. But that isn’t always the best option, especially if you are already in mid jump and coming down into a dangerous situation.

    When working with game design, being able to detach yourself from everything but the entertainment value of a game mechanic is a useful skill to have. Sometimes jumping on Goombas, as sadistic as it is, is the most entertaining solution, even if it’s the only solution. Sometimes shooting carefully balanced guns at carefully balanced enemies is more entertaining than having philosophical debates with them, or solving elaborate puzzles to ensnare them, or torturing yourself over the ethics involved in removing imaginary threats in an imaginary world?

    Could more games benefit from thinking outside the box? Probably. Could more games be a lot less entertaining by thinking outside the box. Probably.

    Is it time for the ethics debate on how much a Goomba or Cyberdemon genuinely feels in it’s last moments of life? How gamers and developers are sick minded for not thinking of such, and simply invoking methods of removing the threat? How things could turned out differently if someone, somewhere, had a different solution that wasn’t violent? I suspect the conversation would go nowhere and isn’t really that relevant unless it would ultimately improve the games. These threats aren’t real and unless the game’s goal is to make you identify with their plight, most of the ethical debate would simply get in the way of delivering satisfying game mechanics. Even in cases where the fictional threats are based on real things (Nazis in Wolfenstein), the valid argument is more that you might potentially reinforce someone’s hatred Nazis by continually vilifying them, rather than violence being a bad mechanic to use in these games.

    “It’d be nice if we could find less violent, enjoyable game mechanics” to me is a much easier viewpoint to get behind, rather than ‘violent mechanics are depraved.’

    Also, I get the feeling a lot of our elder generation of game developers could benefit from playing modern games like Minecraft that did succeed with game mechanic innovation that wasn’t combat based. It sometimes seems like people are still shaking their fists at Britney Spears, Limp Bizkit, and Backstreet Boys records and those depraved kids who let it happen! It’s easy to grow closed minded, stick with a few classics, fist etched eternally in the air at some era, some concept, some fad, at some time, when in the here and now, people are still making music, still making games. Maybe the corporate level is rather… Corporate, but railing against your fellow artists and sticking your head in the sand is a bit sad.

    • Sanctimonia Sanctimonia says:

      That was thoughtful and interesting, Jim. Thanks.

      What you say about the nature of gaming lending itself toward the use of violence to resolve conflict with respect to “fun” sounds just about right, however something possibly equally as compelling is the examination of human nature when the constraints of society are removed.

      “Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” for example, or the movie “Hollow Man”. When the intricate systems of morality, ethics, religion, police and public shame are absent, man is free to indulge his baser instincts. Games, like film, safely provide this opportunity.

      I see where Spector’s coming from, I’m just not down with games motivated first by anything other than making a great game. Everything else should be secondary. I think a better solution would be to make violence more realistic, in every way, in order to shock the player out of their cartoon fantasy of how violence has traditional been portrayed in the medium. When you can get PTSD from a FPS we’ll have really accomplished something I think.