All of Warren Spector’s games over the past few decades have been about “emergent gameplay,” which give players choices so that they can solve problems in their own way. Spector has been religious about this view, which contrasts to the tastes of game writers such as Amy Hennig, creator of the Uncharted series, where games more often follow a single path with a cinematic, movie-like structure.
By contrast, his own games such as Deus Ex and Epic Mickey are intended as canvases for players for more creative expression and for choosing different ways to solve problems. Spector has been teaching game design for the last three years, but now he’ll get a chance to show what he means again. Spector announced last week at the DICE Summit, the game event in Las Vegas, that he was joining Paul Neurath’s OtherSide Entertainment to create System Shock 3.
This new System Shock is going to be the third in a series that hasn’t has a sequel since 1999. Nostalgia games are an increasingly big part of the video game market, as fans gravitate to properties that they are familiar with — and then play those games with their kids. It’s a lot like the new Star Wars movie, viewed by both adults and kids alike.
Spector realized he wanted to make emergent games many yeas ago. It was when he played Dungeons & Dragons as a youth. His dungeon master was Bruce Sterling, who went on to become a famous sci-fi novelist (he won Hugo awards for the Bicycle Repairman and Taklamakan). He realized that players could take part in a story and affect its direction.
“What was great about that moment in 1978 wasn’t being told a story by Bruce,” Spector said in a talk in Montreal. “It was telling a story with Bruce and with my friends. That night, I realized that players could be authors. I spent my career trying to re-create that feeling.”
He had a series of moments of clarity all along that theme. With Ultima IV, one of the landmark releases of the 1980s, he realized that games could have the same thematic depths as movies or books. In 1989, he was watching a playtester work on Ultima VI, doing something that was completely unplanned, something that its designers hadn’t expected. Spector said he wanted such unpredictable moments happen all of the time in future games, so players wouldn’t have to play the way that he wanted them to play.
In June 2000, he launched Deus Ex, where players could solve problems using their own paths. They could play in stealth mode or go in guns blazing.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview from the DICE Summit.
GamesBeat: You decided to go back and do a new studio and make a new System Shock. Can you talk about the process of how you got there and why you’re doing that?
Warren Spector: I’ve been teaching. I’ve been the director of the Gaming Academy at the University of Texas for three years. When I started that, I told the dean of the college that the game industry and the medium change so fast that after three years, I’d start to feel like my relevance was diminishing. I’d fall behind. So I made a three-year commitment and three years are coming up. I knew I would be doing something. Maybe I’d do a startup of my own, maybe write comic books for a year.
Out of the blue, Paul Neurath, the founder of Otherside and the guy who created Looking Glass, he came to me and said he got the rights to System Shock back. All the pieces fell into place. The timing was right. There were very few projects that could tempt me. I don’t think I’ll get to make another Deus Ex any time soon. But the opportunity to make another System Shock is too good to pass up.
GamesBeat: Were there many other opportunities like this? Did Deus Ex ever come up?
Spector: No, no. The Eidos Montreal guys are doing a great job with it. It’s theirs now. More power to them. There were some folks who made noises while I was teaching, but when you make a commitment you live up to that commitment. There was no way. Even for System Shock—I told Paul I couldn’t leave until the end of the school year. I owe it to the university and I owe it to the students. I’m going to work part-time on my own, mostly weekends and maybe some nights, on System Shock 3. It’s only in June that we’ll start ramping up the project.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like there’s something unfinished in the System Shock series?
Spector: I wouldn’t say unfinished exactly. I haven’t played the games in many years, but my memory is that we left a lot of questions unanswered. We’ll see if I do this, but it’s so early—I’ve come up with a scheme whereby we can go answer those questions. Let’s put it that way. We’ll let players answer those questions. For the old fans, it’ll appeal to them because they’re going to be experiencing things that they’ve been through in a new way. And it’ll all be new to new players.
GamesBeat: Who do you feel the System Shock fans were? What drew them to it way back when?
Spector: System Shock, the original, is a pretty hardcore gamer’s game. Everything we did was for hardcore gamers back then. I look back on the UI now—in fact, I tried to play the game about a year and a half ago. The UI is like, what were we thinking? It’s a good idea to use every key on the keyboard, right? My god.
What they got out of it, though, was the then-state of the art in what we call immersive simulations. The idea, at Origin and then later at Looking Glass and Ion Storm and Junction Point, was allowing players to solve problems the way they wanted to solve them, and in that way create unique experiences for themselves. The idea of sharing authorship with your players is what games can do that no other medium can. Making a game where every player experiences the same thing sounds—what’s worse than boring? We allowed them to express themselves and show off their creativity.
GamesBeat: Is that what you call emergent gameplay now?
Spector: Emergent gameplay was certainly a part of it. We were doing the best we could to allow that to happen. But after System Shock you get to Thief and Deus Ex and games like that. We get more and more clever. We have better tools. Now we can take emergent gameplay to a whole new level.
GamesBeat: Not everyone gets a chance to work on so many games. But also, you’ve worked on a number of games with a consistent point of view like that. How did you get to that?
Spector: Here’s the pathetic thing about myself. It’s not a deep, dark secret, but the pathetic thing about my career is I’ve spent the entire, what is it, 32 or 33 years doing nothing but trying to re-create the feeling I had in 1978 when I first played Dungeons & Dragons. It wasn’t someone telling me a story. I was working with my friends to tell our story. When I started making games–
GamesBeat: That was with Bruce Sterling?
Spector: Yeah, Bruce was my dungeon master. Obviously he was a terrific storyteller, but he also knew that we were storytellers too. That’s been my mission. One thing I tell my students all the time is that you need a mission. You need to know what you stand for. What are the things you won’t compromise on? Everything I’ve worked on, it’s all about the same thing, all the way up to Epic Mickey. A lot of people didn’t see it there, but they’re all about players showing off how clever and creative they are and telling their stories.
That’s all I’ve ever done. That’s all I’m interested in doing as a game developer. I just want to do it a little better every time.
GamesBeat: How do you feel about some of the other extremes that could be taken along that spectrum, like open worlds as opposed to very directed stories?
Spector: There are other media that tell linear stories better than we do. So why do it? Movies tell linear stories better than games. There’s a kind of moral imperative to do what make a medium unique. What makes us unique is that we can have a dialogue with our players. We can empower them in ways that no other medium can. I have to do that. If publishers and partners don’t want that, I can retire. It’s what I think is important.
GamesBeat: So you’re a crusader with this idea.
Spector: Oh, yeah. I’m a total nutty advocate for a particular kind of game. The funny thing is, back in the day when we were working on games like Underworld and System Shock, we’d sit around saying, “Why doesn’t everybody make games like this?” Now there are a lot of places doing it. Arkane, with Dishonored, is doing the same sort of thing. A lot of people point to the Bethesda games and the Rockstar games and the Irrational games. But we’re all just sort of cousins. We’re all doing player empowerment in different ways.
What I really like doing is—there are a lot of games, open world games in particular, that are an inch deep in terms of their simulation and their player empowerment, but they’re miles wide. What I try to do is make a game that’s hopefully more than an inch wide, but inches wide and miles deep. There are a lot of people making games that are sort of like what I like to do, but nobody’s doing it quite the way I like to do it. That’s a reason to keep making games.
GamesBeat: It’s also not just creating more lanes for the player to go down, right?
GamesBeat: In Medal of Honor, you always had a way to outflank the Nazis, but that was just giving you a few lanes to move down.
Spector: Yeah, it’s more than that. The key for me in the games I’ve worked on is, can the player surprise the people who made the game? That’s the key. It’s not about branching choices at all. It’s about players solving problems in ways that the designers don’t think are possible. When I hear people describe their experience and they talk about something that I would never have guessed, that’s when I know I’ve won.
GamesBeat: So you wouldn’t be in agreement with people like Amy Hennig, whose games are a good example of a certain kind of linear storytelling? The Uncharted series is very well done, but I guess you’d categorize it as something outside of what you’re interested in.
Spector: As a developer I’m not particularly interested in doing that. I’m not interested in directing movies like David Cage or the Telltale guys do. As a player I love those games. Because I advocate for something, people think I’m trying to tell them what they should like or what they should make. That’s not it at all.
One thing that’s amazing now is the variety of games that are available to players. As a developer I have this thing I want to do. I want all of my games to express that fundamental philosophy. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for—Amy is a friend of mine. We joke about this all the time.
GamesBeat: What happens to your point of view when we move on to different platforms, like VR?
Spector: We’re well positioned to take advantage of VR. Not in the sense of long-form first-person perspective games with a headset on your head, but–maybe someday we’ll be able to do that, we’ll want to do that, but for now I think the idea of immersion in another world is what Otherside does and what Junction Point did and what Looking Glass did. We’re well positioned to take advantage of what VR offers. As a developer it’s going to be a lot of fun to play with that.
GamesBeat: What a developer should do, then, is take advantage of the unique things that VR makes possible?
Spector: Well, that’s true of any medium. If you look at the history of movies, they started out imitating stage plays until they figured out what made them unique. Then movies became an art form of their own. If you look at any medium, they all go through that process of imitating what came before. Then they discover their uniqueness and exploit that. We’re at the point now in games where we have an idea of what makes us unique. That’s why I no longer cringe when I say, “We’re an art form, get over it.”
Games deserve as much critical consideration, actual critical analysis, as any art form out there. I hope we start getting more of that critical review soon.
GamesBeat: Becoming an academic for a while, do you think you learned anything in that process that makes you a better game developer?
Spector: I certainly learned that the world of gaming has changed, even in the last three years. I’ve never made a mobile game. I’ve never done a free-to-play game. I’ve never done a game as a service. I’ve never done a game that took advantage of data metrics in its design process. I’m not sure I actually want to do any of those things, but I know I have to learn about them. I have to immerse myself in that. The students have taught me, because that’s the world they live in. I certainly learned that there’s stuff I need to learn, which is exciting.
GamesBeat: Is there anything there you think you’ll apply to System Shock?
Spector: Too early to tell. Talk to me again in a couple of months.
GamesBeat: You said you’re trying to do a triple-A game without a triple-A budget.
Spector: Maybe that’s an overstatement. But if anybody wants to invest I’ll happily talk to them.