Warren Spector – Lecture 6 w/Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc

Marc “MAHK” LeBlanc


Work History:

  • BlueSky/Looking Glass
  • Origin
    ** Ultima Underworld
    ** Underworld 2
    ** System Shock
    ** Flight Unlimited
    ** Terra Nova:Strike Force Centauri
  • Ion Storm
    ** Thief
    ** System Shock 2
    ** Deus Ex
    ** Thief 2
    ** Visual Concepts – Sports Games
    ** NFL 2K2, NBA 2K2, NCAA Football 2K3
  • Mind Control Software
    ** Oasis
    ** Field Commander
  • Casual Games
    ** Stomping Grounds
    ** Arrrrrr!
    Spector met him when he was finishing up his MIT Masters degree and play testing games.
    Teacher, Lecturer, Writer, SMoG (Secret Master of Gaming)

Question: “What in your background prepared you for a career in gaming?”

Only child. Didn’t play a lot of games as a little kid. Played D&D. Played in the cell of the original town hall from the 1850’s.

Question: “All board games all the time?”

A lot of digital games once I got access to a computer in elementary school. [Boy is this a familiar story. For him it was an Apple II, for me it was a Commodore Pet.]

Question: “Was that the point where you transition from being a player to creator?”

None of the teachers knew what they were doing with it. People could just take a pass and go use the computer for whatever. They had no comprehension. [One could argue that most still don’t…]

First game was a Steve Jackson melee thing (fight and run.) Lunar Lander clone.

“Steve Jackson makes such wonderful roleplaying games, but once you get to combat it slows way down. A 15 second combat encounter takes three hours to play. I’ve always felt they should be on the computer.” – Spector [Paraphrased]

Question: “Cutting classes. Making up games… MIT?”

Was a huge Infocom fan. Zork, Planetfall, etc. They were an MIT startup. Wrote a Infocom parser. Better than most of their games. His english language parser turned into his science project. Tried to get a job there, but never heard back from them. Got him interested in AI. At the time, everyone thought strong AI was just around the corner. Used a taxonomy based approach (animals have hair, etc.)

Went straight from Basic to Lisp. Learned Pascal, some C, Prolog, Smalltalk, basic Assembly. [Interestingly, that’s Paul Graham’s list of languages almost exactly.]

Question: “I had expectations as to what working with a team of MIT team of students would be like. I’ve noticed how well-rounded they were. (At least the ones I’ve interacted with.) How real-world oriented they were – entrepreneurial. Is there something about MIT’s approach which fosters that culture?”

The CS department is in the Engineering department, not Math at MIT. [Long diatribe on the specifics of x32 programming. Answer diverged from original question.] MIT does give you a lot of perspective into the hardware as opposed to a math-based ciriculum.

Question: “One thing that amazed me about Blue Sky/Looking Glass was how strong and coherent a culture it had. That’s not to say you guys all got along. Screaming at the top of people’s lungs very frequently. I want to talk about the toxic and inspiring culture of Looking Glass in a minute. Did you guys all meet at a dorm? Doug Church. Tim Felman. Dan Schimdt. James Fleming. Moby Games is your friend, go look them up.”

Here’s the real story: Paul Shawcross used to run a D&D game. Right around the time when that happening, one of the other player’s had an uncle who was starting a game company. Doug Church left MIT for there. Once that connection got made, a giant long chain of nepotism. Friends. Boyfriends. They just kept pulling in MIT people.

Question: “Many of you started working at Blue Sky. Ended up living at the same house.”

Three guys at Looking Glass had forgotten to buy the heating oil for the winter. When they move, they get a few more people. Grew to 10 folks. Became “the house of 10 dumb guys”.

“Saw my 1st chia-pet there. Had my first hot mountain dew with with marshmallows. (Hot molten dew.) All of the machines were named. Had to name my machine before you guys would talk to me.” – Spector
At MIT, all of the computers had DNS names with formal names. If you weren’t part of one of those clusters, you could name them as whatever you want. Themed names per group. Status symbol.

Question: “Looking Glass culture was toxic and inspired. An yet great games came out of that studio? Is that an accurate assessment of the culture?”

It was very youthful and energetic. Basically of a particular MIT campus culture. Everyone assumes you’re smart. Who did the work first got to decide how the work was done. It’s all about fighting to have your vision. Collective ambition.

“Driven by passion and respect. Incredible. Spent the last 15 years trying to recreate that somehow.” – Spector
Some of that has to do with the time and place. A group that size and inexperienced could make a game. It really was the college startup energy. Actual ones. Not just games.

It’s not just MIT. If you have an opinion you’re supposed to rant, march, protest. Very much a speak out and express your passion kind of culture. That’s the base culture required. [This is not modern day American college culture for damn sure. Way too much groupthink. Downright Orwellian. He’s disconnected ]

Question: “Read Warren Bennis: The Secrets of Great Groups. Have you left that behind personally? Are you still trying to find that passion that adversarial group?”

There’s more of a constant struggle to keep the well full when I was just a kid. Some stuff I would gladly leave behind. Better communicator now.

Question: “You’ve worked on a huge variety of games at many companies. Are you a big company guy? Little company?”

Right now, I’m a little company guy. Easier to find the energy and passion similar to Looking Glass. There’s little agility in today’s games. The production schedules are so long. Pipelines are so deep. The small games experience is pretty charming.

In small games there’s an embarrassments of riches.

Question: “For all of the roles you play, you’ve been a critical resource on the games you’ve worked on. Yet, you haven’t had that Project Director title.”

Brief period where he was the creative, technical, and everything lead on a project. 6-9 months for a prototype. They didn’t pick it up after.

Question: “What does that say about the nature of authorship. Does it mater?”

It’s a who care sort of thing. I’m not a game designer. I’m a game re-designer. Recognizes what’s good about a high concept and turns it into a little nugget of fun.

Question: “Do you think we’ve see a Mark LeBlanc game?”

Oasis is basically that. There is a AAA game he hopes to do some day. A lot like the prototype one canceled. The Game Design Workshop he runs at GDC is the Mark LeBlanc game.

Question: “You do game every system. Including life systems. That’s one of the qualities of all game designers.”

[Series of insider references.]

Question: “You have said many times: I hate the word fun.”

First, it’s vague. Second, it’s this trump card which allows people to turn their brain off. Ends discussions. It makes game design too mystical. Humanistic mystery. Limits our ability to think about games as purely objects of entertainment. Would a cathartic game be fun? [I wager he’s following this: Critical Proximity.]

Question: “Senet?”

One of the oldest games in the world. Played for 3 thousand years in Egypt. Precursor to Backgammon. Spaces on the board start to get names based on Egyptian gods. If you make it to the end you become one with Ra. Eventually this game takes on religious significance. People start playing this game to determine what their afterlife is going to be like. Every great Pharaoh has one of these games boards in their tomb to help them through it. The game goes from the daily life, two player, game to a religious, single player, game. Like the Tarot except with ultimate stakes.

Fun is an inadequate word to describe that.

Fun allows you to characterize things as kids stuff. Waste of time. Comics are going through the same thing.

Question: “You substituted a taxonomy for fun.”

The 8 kinds of fun. What you’re trying to make the player feel. As a straw man, he has a taxonomy of different ways this is done:

  1. Sensation
    Game as sense-pleasure
  2. Fantasy
    Game as make-believe
  3. Narrative Game as drama
  4. Challenge
    Game as obstacle course
  5. Fellowship
    Game as social framework
  6. Discovery
    Game as uncharted territory
  7. Expression
    Game as self-discovery
  8. Submission Game as pastime
    [Read the paper. It’s important. I should do a line-up with Koster’s Theory of Fun & Schell’s Lenses.]

Question: “Are there practical applications of it?”

It’s not part of a process. There’s no checklist for it.

“I think you’re underselling it.” – Spector
I’ve written design documents this way. It’s all about communication when you’re talking with other people about a game. Allows you to focus the conversation on a specific part.

Intuition and Intellect: Deconstructing the Design of Oasis

Oasis is a minesweeper variant with some city-building mechanisms.

Audience questions.

Question: Unintelligible.
Main indicator indicator of difficulty was the ratio of the city populations and the number of barbarians that were doing go come. Proportional to the difficulty level. Some map size tweaking to make the Oasis easier/harder to find, but was a minor effect. On higher difficult levels, there are time constraints. You don’t have enough time to do everything. Even on the lowest difficult level, we wanted that sense of impending doom, so went real-time instead of turn based.

Question: Unintelligible.
Games which inspired it: minesweeper and civilization. [Duh.]

Question: Unintelligible.
Original spark was being the anti-minesweeper. Every click in minesweeper is this moment of peril. Wanted to have the inverse.

Question: Tangible metrics to tune difficulty curve.
We did collect some high level metrics internally. Level # when you finished. Didn’t do rigorous measurement.

Question: Unintelligible.
Oasis compelled him to leave his previous job. Friends game him money to make a specific game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Specific to Oasis. One click failure possible with a plague city. Don’t do this sort of thing. “Bad click causes loss.”

Question: Paper prototyping.
Didn’t do it for this. Small game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Tuned around an arbitrary choice based on tech for board size.

Question: Unintelligible.
Publishers are pushing all kinds of stuff. Example given was a shared leaderboard system used by one of their publisher. Made the game worse. Channels gameplay. The sense of competition reduces freedom. External demands on the game aren’t necessary in the interest of the game.

Question: Unintelligible.
Why not publish the game in java. Didn’t feel comfortable with Java as a toolset. The Java that has a wide install base is really really crappy. [Can you say RuneScape or MineCraft?] At the time, the widely available version was Java 1.1. Thought they could make the game faster, prettier and better by doing it in C++. Partially because that was their background.

Question: Unintelligible.
People were making an uniformed choice about difficulty. Tutorial was mandatory. Unlocking required.

Game specific ancedotes

Ultima Underworld

Suggested that you should be able to a pole & a thread and make a fishing pole. Power of emergent gameplay.

Ultima Underworld 2

Only level design experience. Did the Ice Caves by holding down the mouse and scribbling.

System Shock

Some of his art might be in the game.

Question: “First time the team mushroomed and things got much more specialized. Someone owned the combat system. etc. How did that change the dynamics at Looking Glass?”
Made it more contentious. People had territory which could be horned in on.

It was the Microsoft Word user interface. Everything you could do had an interactive user interface element. Then Doom came out and then there was nothing on the screen. Perfect counter-example.

Flight Unlimited

Worked on stuff not related to the flight simulation. Credited as a pilot.

Terra Nova

Got kicked off it for saying that we’ve been working on this for 4 years and it’s not good yet. “He was bad influence and a naysayer.”

“In retrospect you were right.” – Spector


Underlying code system where designers could specify behavior. Didn’t write directly, simulated it. Gave designers tool-level flexibility. Class Type hierarchy-based.

“Hugely influential. Changed Ion Storm. Midway. Junction Point. When applied appropriately it’s a critical tool to getting that semi-emergent gameplay that we all know and love.” – Spector
Kind of stuff that everyone takes for granted now. [What the hell are they talking about? Don’t get it. Is this just straight OO inheritance or is it something else? There was a reference to Unreal, circa 2007, but it’s not their finite state machine stuff. Reference was between AI & Sound systems. Confusion all around.]

System Shock 2

Favorite the Looking Glass game because he contributed to the least creatively. Was purely technical. So it’s the one he can play as a “player” and enjoy.

Thief 2

Wrote one line of code

Sports Games

Everyone wanted to mimic television. Didn’t want to give you the in-stadium experience. More interested in ways that games are not like TV. Learned a ton.

[Spector is really dismissive of sports games. Why? Sports are as worth as any other game aren’t they? Again and again, turns his nose up at them. Well maybe not that far, maybe he’s just be melodramatic. I REALLY REALLY REALLY wish that more time had been spent on this point. I, for one, LOVED my interactions with EA Sports folks at all levels much more so than anyone from the EA Games side. Night-and-day.]


Took an $80,000 pay cut to make that game.

Field Commander (PSP)

Kind of “interestedly” architected piece of hardware to put it politely. Remote teams in three locations.

Stomping Grounds

Wanted it to be called Andrew Leaker’s Stomping Grounds


Was procrastinating writing code for a different multiplayer game. Found a tool to hook up multiple mice to a computer. Made a bunch of prototype games based on that idea. Cute little game. Should do on-line multiplayer to make it an actual games.

Warren Questions

Question: “Board Games. Electronic Games. How much translates from one to the other?”

Board Games => Electronic Games all of it. They’re all games. Game design is design within constraints. Wants to do a game design session with the NFL to work on the overtime rules. Would want to start a sports league playing basketball using the original rules and then evolve them forward every year to see if they go in a different direction.

Question: “How important is it to be able to program to become a game designer?”

To become a game designer it’s very important. Games in their formal structure are programs. You have to be able to get that procedural logic. Lots of psychology. “If you ask Gabe Newell that’s all you need to know.” Some engineering principals. Math (probability > game theory). Be someone with a broad educations in the classic seven liberal arts. [Warren reacted positivity to that last point.]

Question: “Favorite game”

Digital: Pikmin. XCom. Star Control 2. Archon [WOOT!]. Mail Order Monsters.

Board: Go. Tigris & Euphrates. Caliss.

Question: “Names and concepts. Reiner Knizia.”

Math PhD. Massively prolific. Lord of the Rings:The Confrontation. http://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/3201/lord-of-the-rings-the-confrontation

Question: “Paul Neurath

Reason why I’m here.

Question: “Burtal Countdown”

Ritual which adds drama to counting up score at the end of the game. Chris Hacker named it as such.

Question: “Rock, Paper, Scissors”

One of the great mysteries of the human mind.

Question: “Simulation and Emulation”

I thrown an object and there is a Newtonian simulator behind it that carries the object through time and space.
Emulation is I click on a doorknob and the door objective, because there is a rule.

Question: “Embedded and Emergent Narrative”

Embedded is the traditional author narrative. Cut scene based.
Emergent is the gameplay and stories that the player find themselves because game designers were kind enough to allow to happen. A soup of events from which narratives can emerge.