Warren Spector: New Job, Emergent Game Design, Fears and Legacies

Warren Spector was recently appointed to a new job at the University of Texas at Austin: he is now the director of said university’s gaming academy. Because of course there would be a stellar gaming academy in Austin!

Or, rather, there will be:

Deus Ex creator Warren Spector has been named director of The University of Texas at Austin’s Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, a development-focused post-baccalaureate program that will launch in the fall of next year.

Spector was one of the first industry veterans who signed on as part of the Academy, joining Blizzard COO Paul Sams, Ultima creator Richard Garriott, EA CCO Richard Hilleman, and BioWare co-founder Greg Zeschuk. Only 20 candidates will be selected for the program’s first semester, and the first batch of incoming students will receive a tuition waiver and a $10,000 housing stipend.

He was actually already working with the U of T in an advisory role prior to this appointment, but now that it’s official…well, let’s just hope that his influence on the next generation of game development professionals results in more games like Serpent Isle and Deus Ex.

Of course, since the academy hasn’t quite started up yet, Spector still has a bit of free time on his hands, and as such has been giving a few interviews and talks. Gamasutra has a piece up about a recent talk in which Spector discussed the benefits of emergent game design:

…speaking at New York University Game Center’s annual PRACTICE conference on game design, he says that what unites the broad variety of his favorite games is that they exploit the power of emergent gameplay.

In his “oversimplified universe,” there are scripted, linear games like BioShock Infinite, The Walking Dead and Heavy Rain, and player-driven games like Deus Ex and Dishonored.

“I want to focus mostly on games that put players in control of the experience,” Spector says — with the important caveat that he “absolutely adored” many linear experiences, including Heavy Rain and Walking Dead.

“Games that don’t offer quote-unquote ‘real choices’ might be just fine,” he suggests. “Some people may want a game that’s all about squeezing a virtual trigger, or moving forward like a shark, or solving a puzzle that shows more about how clever the designer is, rather than how clever they are. I’m just more interested in emergence than in scripted adventures… and I believe once players get a taste of that kind of game, it’s very hard for them to go back.”

Spector’s favorite definition of the term “emergence” is “engines of perpetual novelty.” His historic collaborators, like Harvey Smith and Randy Smith (unrelated) agree — the latter Smith sees “less pre-scripted agenda” on the part of the developer, whereby anything can happen, and players share authorship with developers. Doug Church believes firmly in the future of procedurally-generated narrative, and says emergence empowers player choice, even while complexity and scale leads to cost and risk.

“[I don’t think] this is just ‘Warren and his buddies over beers thinking we’re smarter than everyone else’, “says Spector, citing the work of developers like Richard Garriott, BioWare, Rockstar, Lionhead and Maxis for working closely alongside emergent gameplay concepts.”

He also sat down with Rock, Paper, Shotgun! for an interview, the first part of which has been posted thus far. In it, he discusses his love for the PC platform and his legacy as a game designer, including why he was drawn to create darker-themed games:

“A lot of people keep saying ‘where is our Citizen Kane, where is it?’ A lot of people think Bioshock Infinite is it, some people say Deus Ex is it. People look for the moment that we became an artform. I think we became an artform with Pong. Maybe even Spacewar for crying out loud.

“My first actual conscious memory is my dad taking me to see The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. There’s a dragon and a Cyclops. That movie gave me nightmares. Ray Harryhausen is one of my heroes and I got to meet him – he was everything you’d want a hero to be, and that was awesome. Sinbad changed my life. And then when I was three I saw King Kong. It gave me nightmares for years. I was about two or three when I saw Sleeping Beauty for the first time, and Maleficent turns into a dragon and the forest that the hero has to carve his way through. You think about Alice in Wonderland, you think about Snow White, when the trees turn into alligators. All these scary scary moments that turn you into a fantasist.”

We talk briefly about these kinds of stories and I ask Spector if he has any thoughts as to why he was drawn to the dark side. “We’d need years of therapy to answer that”, he laughs. “I think the contrast is important, as you say. I showed a vertical slice of an early Epic Mickey build in my talk and it was dark and gray. And I said to the art team, we need more contrast. We want a game that’s dark, but we need the light, we need the contrast. I think you just hit on that – the scary moments work in those classic Disney films, and even in Jason and the Argonauts or Invasion of the Bodysnatchers or a Hitchcock film, because they show a happy world and snatch it away from you.”

He also touches on something that he previously discussed with the RPG Codex:

…”The biggest change – and I don’t know why this happened – but people are interested in story again. I came from a tradition of storytelling but I’ll never forget – and this is a quote by the way – I was at a product meeting at Eidos and I was told, “Warren, you’re not allowed to say the word ‘story’ ever again.

“It blew my mind. Now, nobody’s saying that. Everyone wants narrative games and it’s a question of asking how we tell interactive stories. And we have the gamut now, everything from Telltale with The Walking Dead and The Wolf Among Us, and Beyond and Heavy Rain from David Cage at one extreme of storytelling, and somewhere in the middle Bioshock Infinite and the stuff that Valve does, and then at the other end the kind of games that Bethesda’s making and that I like to make. It’s the other extreme in terms of player empowerment. We have every extreme of narrative experience out there, which is great for gamers.”

It doesn’t look like RPS have quite gotten around to publishing the second part of that interview, but I expect it’ll be online shortly.