Warren Spector – Lecture 1


Started with board games. Steve Jackson is one of his mentors. He started working for him early on. Worked at TSR followed by Origin. Not a big fan of EA. Specifically mentioned their proclivities to lay people off.

Ultima 6 was his first realization that games could tell stories. Bad Blood game & Chris Roberts claiming credit for it – what’s the deal with that.

Steps in the evolution towards giving players more control over their experience. Not just the minute to minute part. The overall arc of their character and how the story unfolds.

Worked about 7 years everywhere he’s worked.



“The scary bit: We’re making it up as we go. How scary is that?”

“I’m a very wordy guy.”

Why Games? Why UT?

  • Millions of players
  • Diverse audience (added women & older people)
    If you want to find the wierd kind, look for the one who doesn’t play games – Henery Jenkins, MIT
  • 30 billion a year revenue
  • Pilloried by Congress

Secret Agenda

See this dialog and cooperation taken to a whole new level. games in gaming. History. Criticism. Analysis. Effects Studies. Development. Production. Marketing. Permanent ongoing part of the curriculum. Doesn’t care which department. Bella Center thing? Entre into the mainstream of education.

What do developers get out games education efforts?

“A lot of us don’t even have high school degrees.” One of the things which come out of universities is new ways of thinking about stuff. If anybody sits up here and tells you they have the secret – drill them.

No common vocabulary. Prevents ability to work together.

In the game business, secrecy is the norm. At GDC, you get just the tip of the iceberg.

“Freedom from the demands of wannabes.” We do not have the time to deal with all of the people who want to make games.

We get some staffers. Not people we have to train.

More up-to-date development processes. SCRUM method specifically mentioned.

Developers get credibility.

Games offer a new way to look at society. “A new window into culture.”

A new medium to explore and shape

If you’re NOT excited by this – find a new line of work. It’s not a solved problem. It’s very hard for people people to take big chances. Universities are still – I hope – about taking chances.

Has UT Season Tickets.

Modeled after Inside the Actors Studio. (Minus the end questions! ARGH!)

Course Topic Areas

  • Analysis (How do games work?)
  • Practice (How do you create a game?)
  • Business (How do you reach an audience?)
  • Culture (How do games affect us?)

Talk about if online games are games at all. He doesn’t think they are. Richard Garriot does.

One of his frustrations is that gamers are so undemanding. They keep accepting the same game, just with fancier graphics. Games can be more than they are now.

How do we start thinking about game design?

Many of the questions he’s going to be asking are driven from his own biases.

An approach to design

“Gaming will progress at a rate that’s tied to our awareness and exploitation of what makes games different from other media.” This is a “true fact.”

The key to the future of gaming

What makes games unique?
* Power to transport
* Immersiveness
* Participation & Responsiveness

ARGH. He got a KOTOR reference wrong.

Especially on a PC. Note: Bias.
If you stop playing a game – the game stops.
Player driven experiences – we can share authorship. (Dues Ex!)
Games become like constrained life. Let players find out something about themselves as they play. We’re the first medium which is two way.
“The best moments in the game belong to the players. A lot of people disagree.” (Specifically mentioned Tim Schaefer)

Shared Authorship Games

The Sims
Deus Ex
Tony Hawk
Elder Scrolls: Oblivion
WoW (Uh…)

What’s So Special?

  • Players interact in REAL-TIME.
  • Players make significant CHOICES.
  • Those choices have CONSEQUENCES.
  • RESPONSIVE worlds make consequences apparent to players.
  • Each play session is UNIQUE.

No patience for turn based games any more. (Unless playing with other people.)

Wishes Bioshock could have done more with it’s moral choices. “Who are you?” is a critical question to ask. “I can’t do that because what it says about me.” (Re harvesting little girls.)

Feedback is a word that you’re going hear constantly.

Re Unique: “It drives everyone crazy. I don’t care.”

Snort. He just stopped and caveated a description of a “place” as a “virtual place” even though everything about his story and body language belied that contrivance. He had really been there and knew it as well as any place he’d actually touched.

“I’m a little given to overstatement.”

Player experience comes first

It’s not about you. It’s true in all games. Players – people want to leave their mark.

In other words…

  • Give players the tools to DISCOVER and/or CREATE gameplay
  • Provide a CONTEXT in which players act
  • BOUND player experience
  • Don’t DETERMINE player experience

“Half-life is the ultimate roller coaster ride. I want to create worlds.”

The Playful World – Mark Pesce. “Well worth reading.”

“Why aren’t we letting the player decide that? …you and the player collaborate to create the final story. Every freedom you give the player is an artistic victory. And every needless boundary in your game should feel to you like a failure.” – Orson Scott Card, Compute Magazine, 3/1991

“I live by that.” Strongly emphasized. Also a lot of positive statements about Ender’s Game.

Collaboration is the key

  • Total freedom isn’t the goal.
  • Player and developer must have equally strong voices.

No interest in creating a Holodeck. Players are terrified of making choices. They stop dead playing the game. That tells you a lot about how most games are like about choices.

The developer’s voice

  • Developers create the RULES of the game.
  • We create the SOUNDS and IMAGES.
  • We determine what TOOLS players have at their disposal.
  • If we don’t allow something to happen, it can’t happen.

“Understanding Comics” – Scott McCloud. “Read this book.”

Games are responsive

They require direct action, on the part of the user, to be complete.

Player Intention

  • The ability of the player to device personally meaningful goals…
  • To formulate and execute plans to achieve those goals…
  • Using the information and resources provided by the game.

Intetionality is one of the core concepts of gaming. Idea from Doug Church.

If you have that in the back of your mind as you’re conceiving your first game, you’ll be way ahead.

Summing up

  • Gaming will progress by exploiting its unique characteristics
  • Games are THE medium of shared authorship.
  • Player experience trumps designer creativity.
  • Games are participatory rather than interpretive.

It’s not about you is one of the toughest things to embrace as a game developer.

“I have the thickest skin of any human being you’ve ever met.”

“Favorite game of all time is Zelda a Link to the Past on SNES. A linear game without choices.”

Q & A

Question: Should we not make literary games?
It’s not that those games shouldn’t be made. It’s that it’s holding back the medium. People will find those roller coaster experiences as less and less interesting. All I really want is a broader range of possibilities.

Question: what do think about different control schemes?
Guitar Hero is a fantastic game. The investment to buy the controllers is a barrier to entry. From a development perspective, it’s a nightmare because other systems don’t have those controllers.

It forces developers to think more creatively. Most people won’t leave their little box unless they have to. That’s all good. I don’t know if it’s going to push games into the mainstream. I’m sure glad it exists.

Question: unintelligible.
The games business is a wacky business. A lot like the movies. 80% of product fails. Just survival is really tough. Every time I go to a publisher, I have to fight the same fight (that player choices, multiple endgames, see biases list.) I will not compromise on those issues. We have an opportunity to create a new art form. Who gives a “darn” about maximum profit? You have to be willing to say you believe in that.

Question: unintelligible.
Because there are a lot of old farts who are not going to be around pretty soon. We don’t always know what’s going to have lasting value in the moment. You just never know. Whatever medium isn’t understood by the current cultural gate keepers, that’s the stuff that the adults rebel against. Assuming we find our footing as an art form, we’ll be fine. We could very well end up a cultural backwater. It’s not like there’s a department of Comicology, because the comic industry allowed themselves to be neutered.

Clint Hocking response to Rogert Ebert’s statement that games aren’t art – showing a complete lack of historical context. Read his response: http://clicknothing.typepad.com/click_nothing/2007/08/on-authorship-i.html

Question: How is technology shared if information doesn’t flow between developers?
Technology is shared through licensing. Imagine how effective if Steven Spielberg had to event a new camera every time he wanted to shoot a movie? We’re at the point where we have to license engines and then twist them around to make them do what we want.

There are pockets of people who talk to each other all of the time. If their employers found out it would be a disaster. Same point about design.

Question: Is middleware going to take a hit because of the suit Silicon Knights vs. Epic?
No. They’re the only place in town. It’s just too expensive for most developers to write their own.

Question: unintelligible. What about online games?
I hate online games. I wish they didn’t exist. I really do. The freedom is an illusion. Online gaming is different than MMO. I’m in a world of 10k of my closest friends. He’s not real interested in the social aspects of MMOs, because the tools most games provide are primitive and horrible. No one has, or probably ever will, solve the problem of how do you make 10k people feel like the hero of the story. You do the same things over and over. I want to some something which is much more meaningful. I’d rather do my socializing in person.

If someone were to solve the problem for how to make me feel like the hero in a MMO, I’d be all over it. Guildwars is kind of close.


I’ve got a whole proposal about instancing and MMOs. If I had a way to get together with specific people, and we could go out adventuring, that would be awesome (in a constrained space.) When you throw 10k people in one place, you get a mess. You get a society, but you don’t get a story. And you don’t get a compelling experience for me. I really wish people would stop making those games, but that’s just my prejudice.

Question: unintelligible
Digital distribution is a large part of our future. Read Chris Anderson’s book “The Long Tail.” Retail space is the most constraining thing in the world for creative goods. The big problem (for games) is we’re the only medium which doesn’t have a secondary market. [This is no longer true of just about all creative mediums now.]

I left Ion Storm to work on funding via an “alternate money stream” and came “this close” to pulling it off. Something with Saemus Blackley. [What the heck was it? F2P?]

We need another way to raise money. Currently we don’t have that.

Question: What about game developer unions? Unionizing?
EA_Spouse post about crunch. (http://ea-spouse.livejournal.com/274.html) There was talk about unionizing & paying overtime. Game developers will go 9 months of 7 day weeks. It doesn’t help make the game quicker or better. It’s just bad. I really believe in unions. I was really supportive of the workers. They’re being exploited, so yeah. As a developer, if I had to pay overtime, the US game development industry would cease to exist. All of game development would go overseas. We just couldn’t afford it. We can barely afford it now.

$273k Martian Dreams.
$5.5 million Deus Ex.
$11 million Deadly Shadows.
Next game is going to cost at least twice that. Welcome to the world of next gen development.

Wonder why the publishers don’t want to take risks?
Wonder why we don’t have alternate financing?

That’s the dilemma. That’s stifling creativity. The business is broken.

If my expectation is I’m going to spend $25 million, and I have to start paying overtime, profit goes to zero. Industry goes to China.

I hope I figure out a way to not have to exploit my workers. A union would just kill it.

Question: Processes?
We keep looking for new processes. We’ve tried waterfall. We’ve embraced Agile. SCRUM seems pretty well suited to game development. It’s a creative endeavor that quality is the only thing which matters. Things don’t have a predictable end-state like a bridge or a widget.

If the game isn’t fun, you have to make it fun. You have to fix it.

The definition of beginning pre-production, you have sufficient tools to start building the game.

Question: unintelligible

Worth the risk?

  • Risk sometimes leads to failure
  • Sticking with the tried-and-true, the stuff we know works, IS easier. IT’s often quite profitable.
  • But it’s not good enough
  • Better to fail gloriously than to succeed in mediocrity

Did we succeed?

  • “I never thought to try that!”
  • “I always solve the that problem another way.”
  • “What do you mean that weapon’s useless? It’s my favorite…”
  • “Where the heck are you? I never saw that part of the game before?

You need to be constantly play testing. The instant we have 5 minutes of gameplay – we record it. We watch the player experience without talking to them.

Question: unintelligible
There are two types of developers who do that. They started with, or had a lucky hit, who have enough money to make AAA who own their own fate. There are also smaller people who also control their own fate and do something small (Example: Tino’s Fruit Stand: http://www.bigfishgames.com/online-games/1880/tinosfruitstand/index.html). I don’t want to do that. That’s the dilemma.

Kathy Schoback did a wonderful GDC talk re game sales vs. Game budgets. (http://www.gamespot.com/articles/gdc-rant-heard-round-the-world/1100-6120449/) $10 million and up – great business. $2 million and below – great business. Anywhere in the middle – you’re doomed. You’d better have corporate backing.

I was unwilling to compromise the scope of the kind of a game I wanted to make. I wasn’t willing to give up 1% of my company. It’s bad enough having someone who understands games telling you what to do. Having someone from outside of games as an investor, I couldn’t do it. I’ve seen too many companies sunk by VCs.

If digital distribution could work, maybe alternative financing would work. [Kickstarter?]

Question: How do you get in the game business?
I have no idea how I got into the game business. You can’t generalize from my experience. The easiest, but most ego sucking, is to get a job in QA. You’ll end up hating whatever game you’re testing. It doesn’t matter what you want to. On Underworld, one of our testers was a PhD from MIT.

Gets you in the door. Gets you in daily contact with the most senior people on a daily basis. You can show them that you get their vision, their game, and how to make their games better. To show what kind of games you would make. Hands on with the tools…

If you’re not willing to do that, you’d better be the best artist, programmer, writer, something or you won’t get in. You probably need to be a specialist in some way. We are going to get more resumes than we have openings. If you can demonstrate that you’re a master of a game relevant skill, you will get a job.

Question: MGS series?
The Metal Gear Solid games are becoming much to cinematic. Not a big fan.

Question: What do I think about video games being used to expose true/meaning?
“What can we learn from video games” – James Paul Gee. (http://www.amazon.com/Video-Games-Teach-Learning-Literacy/dp/1403961697) The capability of games to teach is powerful and under-apreciated. My wife played an early beta, but she’s never finished Deus Ex. She accidentally killed a dog. There are guns in the game and there are dogs. You never have to kill a dog. But in a game that’s all about choice and consequence, it would be stupid to prevent that from happening. I made it disturbing on purpose. She was so disturbed by it, that she had to stop playing. I’m sorry that she had to stop playing the game, but that was an appropriate response.

We can put players in situations where they become so uncomfortable is a good thing.

Question: Can games be used for satire? Teaching?
I hope every game I’ve done has had some level of social criticism in it. Take Bioshock. You can learn a lot about Ann Rands philosophy by playing that game. Some of it’s implicit. Some of it’s explicit. You can get quite an education playing that game.

It’s so hard to do humor in games. A simulation of humor is not well understood like a trigger or a tennis racket. Most of what we do is to make people feel more clever than they are. We don’t know how to do humor.

Someone has to figure out how to do a love story. How do you make a genuinely funny game where the player is funny – not the creator?

Someone needs to make a damn musical. A musical game which isn’t just a rhythm game. That’s going to take creativity and tools which I can’t even imagine.

Question: unintelligible
If you want to be a designer, you have a couple of routes. You are not going to start out as the guy who conceives the game. There are too many ideas already floating around. There are plenty of tools out there which allow you to build something which is so cool and compelling that the company is interviewing you has to hire you. Tailor it to them specifically. [Ack – oneitis!] Do a good mods. It ain’t easy.

If you’re trying to figure out what to study because every company is looking for something different. You need to have some technical chops. At least an introductory programming chops. You want to take some graphics classes. You’re the place where everything comes together. Even if you’re a bad artist, get yourself some graphics training.

Get yourself a really good liberal arts education. Economics. Behavior Psychology (rewards specifically.) Film classes because we’re a visual medium. You need a little bit of everything.

You need really good communication skills. You need to be able write & speak. Take every chance you get to speak in front of a class. You will be giving presentations. Take some writing classes. It’s very hard to be the shy person in the gaming business.

You must be a great communicator.

Question: unintelligible
You can’t rollback the clock. I am encouraged by the fact that are enough ways to reach an audience. There are inexpensive games out there which are hugely creative. There are 1-2 million dollar games out there. I just can’t make them, because it doesn’t fit what I want them to do.

You can still make a game for next to nothing. The problem is reaching an audience for it. It’s just not going to sell. It doesn’t matter how good of a game it is.

Related Posts:

Lecture 1 Warren Spector
Lecture 2 w/Patrica York
Lecture 3 w/Harvey “Witchboy” Smith
Thinking, Fast & Slow – Irrational Perseverance
Lecture 4 w/Hal Barwood
Lecture 7 w/Mike Morhaime