Warren Spector is famous for his work on games like ‘Deus Ex’, ‘System Shock’, and ‘Ultima Underworld’ at Origin, Looking Glass and Ion Storm. Soon after Ion Storm shut down about two years ago, Spector left Eidos to found a new studio now known as Junction Point Studios. We talked to him about his company, his view on recent developments in the gaming industry and what is next for him.
Hey Warren, thanks for your time. First of all, have you been to E3 this year?
I was there. I haven’t missed an E3 show yet.
What were your impressions? Any games you’re specifically looking forward to?
My first impression is that everyone’s getting better at graphics and
it’s getting tougher all the time to suss out which games actually play
worth a damn. My second impression is, “wow, our animations are so bad compared to our worlds now.” We HAVE to work on that. Games I’m specifically looking forward to include Assassin’s Creed, which was pretty much the game of show, for me. Great characters, great animation, great setting, and based on what I saw, at least the likelihood of some great gameplay.
Mass Effect and Mercenaries 2 from Bioware/Pandemic looked cool–the former for its characters more than anything else and the latter for the freeform gameplay. Spore continues to amaze me. Other cool E3 stuff included the Wii – if developers actually make games designed to exploit the controller, it’ll rock; if they just shoehorn old gameplay onto the machine the controller’ll be a problem, so let’s hope developers “get it.”
Surprisingly, there seemed to be less sequels at E3 this year – even EA tries to create a new franchise here and there. Do you think that’s a trend that is going to continue?
I hope the trend continues! I have nothing against sequels and
licenses but, man, we have to try new things. And, I agree, this E3 it seems like people are starting to take some chances. Platform transitions often result in a bunch of new IP being shoved out there and this transition period seems like no exception.
There are two very different approaches to “next-gen gaming”: Microsoft’s and Sony’s is basically “better graphics mean better games”, while Nintendo’s is “different control means better games”. Who is right?
Neither approach is “right.” All that matters is content. The
platform(s) with the best content–the coolest gameplay, the best characters and stories–will win. Overemphasis on graphics OR interface will be a
If you ask anyone in the gaming industry what’s their big plan for the future, almost everyone will say: “We have to reach out to the casual gamers.” Do you agree?
Not really. I think we have to broaden the range of content we provide because our audience is changing. Appealing to “casual gamers” is part of that. But equally important is our need to reach out to “hardcore gamers” (like myself, truth be told) who are sick to death of rollercoaster rides
and killfests and rehashes of games I’ve been playing for ten years.
Is it possible to make games which appeal to both hardcore and casual gamers? Or do those attempts always end up as an disappointment for one or even both groups?
I think the key is making a game that’s true to itself, internally
consistent, sure of what it is and who it’s aimed at. Trying to appeal to
everyone seems like a sure way to appeal to no one. I’m a believer in making games you want to play yourself. And then hoping there are enough people out there like you to support such an effort!
Does the gaming industry maybe need more “celebrities”? I mean, if you look at Hollywood (like many in the gaming industry do), people don’t say: “Oh, look, a new movie from Dreamworks” but “Cool, a new movie from Steven Spielberg.”
The game industry needs ways for potential players to determine if
they want to play your game instead of the thousands of others that come out every year. That can be respected reviewers whose work is consistent enough to allow readers to judge whether they’ll like a game based on reading a review. That can be a license. That can be a celebrity developer or voice actor or whatever. Games don’t typically sit on shelves long enough anymore for word of mouth to spread to enough potential players. You need something to attract attention. Doesn’t matter what it is. Celebrity is just a tool.
Let’s talk a bit about Junction Point Studios. The company has been founded about 1.5 years ago, but it’s been pretty quiet until now. What have you been doing so far?
JPS currently has about 20 people. We started out working on a pretty epic game with a supportive publisher but, through no fault of our own, the deal got cancelled after about 9 months of work. Since then, we’ve been working on some stuff with Valve (can’t talk much about that), doing concept development for some folks (can’t talk at ALL about that, sadly!) and pitching some new game ideas. We’re keeping plenty busy!
What’s your job there exactly? How deep are you involved into development?
I often ask myself what my job is, exactly! I’m involved in all the
creative aspects of concept development and planning. I evaluate and approve all the implementation work (though I don’t do any of that anymore…). I spend a lot of time on studio management and deal-making these days, which I hope ends soon!
How hard has it become to survive as an independent developer? A lot of renowned studios had to close in the last years, once famous designers like Ron Gilbert talk publicly about their frustration…
Doing a start-up is certainly a roller coaster ride, that’s for sure!
I can’t speak to whether it’s any more or less difficult than it used to be, since this is my first shot at it, but it’s very, very hard. Given that we have only one funding model in the game business–publishers fund and own everything–you’re kind of at their mercy. I long for a time when there are other sources of funding and other ways to reach audiences. It’s not that I hate publishers or anything. It’s just that a business with only one way to fund development and reach an audience seems pretty fundamentally broken.
If I saw a solution, I’d be all over it. I think there are some
opportunities for film-style financing, though that effort is still in its
infancy. And I’m a huge believer in online, episodic content as a big part of our future. For that to happen, though, it’s going to take an already well-funded developer or a non-publisher source of funding. And we’re back to the publisher-only model problem…
The <a href=”http://www.junctionpoint.com/” target=”_blank” class=”gross”>JPS website</a> states: “The company’s goal is to tell stories with players, not to them”. Can you go more into detail? What should games do differently to immerse the player into the story?
If I go into much more detail on this, I’ll end up writing a book.
Let’s just say this: The key for me is not to preplan every step of the
player’s experience. Putting players on rails, even if it does result in an emotionally compelling experience, seems like kind of a waste of time. To my mind, if we CAN offer players a choice, if we can let players make a decision, we should always do so. And then we have an obligation to show players the consequences of their choices and decisions. The game should unfold differently depending on how you play, how you solve problems. But, like I said, this is a book-worthy topic, and I better stop there!
Most of the games you’ve made in the past were about making choices. Is story your “next big thing” or are there other areas that you’d especially like to improve?
Well, I’m all about collaborative storytelling, but there are clearly
other things to explore in gaming. Or, better said, there are new ways to get at the kind of collaboration I think is so important. Our worlds are sadly underdeveloped in terms of dynamic, interactive possibilities. We’re still building the equivalent of movie sets, with cardboard cutout characters and flat scenery substituting for human beings and three dimensional places. I’d love to get deeper into interactive worlds. And the state of acting in games is pathetic. Not just voice talent and the like–our characters are stunningly unexpressive. We can do better. And on a purely funcational level our human animation is sad, sad, sad…
Thinking about choices, ‘Deus Ex’ is still the only game that comes to my mind where you can really choose how to do a mission. Why is that? Is it too difficult for a designer to think of more than one solution to a problem? Or is it the players who prefer linear games?
I wish I knew why more people didn’t offer players DX-like choice. It
certainly is hard to pull off. And as well as DX sold, you could make an
argument that players are just as happy with more linear games. Guess I’m going to have to keep plugging away and hope the world follows!
Final question: When can we expect an official announcement of Junction Point’s first game?
Your guess is as good as mine! But I’ll keep you posted.