Gamasutra: I really like when you know where you're supposed to go, but you've completed all the objectives and decide you want to mess around for a while.
Gamasutra: I was playing Resident Evil 4, which is one of my favorite games in a while, and I just went back through an area that had no reason to return to, and there were suddenly really tough monsters in there. I guess they had figured someone was going to do that and placed a bunch of strong monsters in there for you to deal with. I always appreciate when that sort of thing happens.
WS: Sure, side quests and the ability to go back and revisit places, or play through them differently and see how the situation changes differently. Alienate [an npc] one play-through and then see what happens if you don't on the next time. There are all sorts of things that we can do, but don't.
Gamasutra: You've been a long time proponent of single player roleplaying experiences, what do you think of MMOs?
WS: Honestly, I don't much care for them. If I'm going to have a social experience, I'd rather have it in person. I feel like a blind, deaf and dumb person watching a movie while I'm playing an MMO because the social experience is really shallow. Again, this is one of the things I'll end up talking about at the GDC, but I'm, perhaps to a fault, a story person. I really need narrative. The level of narrative that people have been able to achieve in MMOs has been so shallow. I'm one of those people who doesn't find anything interesting at all in leveling up, finding a +3 sword or paper-dolling a character with a purple cloak. That doesn't appeal to me in any way as a human being. Put that all together and the play experience of MMOs is on par with roleplaying back in ‘87. In all fairness, my wife is a World of Warcraft addict.
Gamasutra: That could probably influence your opinion as well.
WS: I've had this position for a long time. I think if someone solves the problem of “I don't want to interact with 10,000 of my personal friends, ever, and somehow make 10,000 people all be the hero of a compelling story,” then I'll be a lot more interested in that game style.
Gamasutra: That would be interesting if you could potentially make everyone somehow a player in a large epic tale.
WS: It sounds pretty impossible. Junction Point, the game I was working on at Looking Glass, was taking a kind of end-run around the problem. We were actively trying to address that, and someone will eventually. Guild Wars takes an interesting approach. There have been attempts to get at that, and someone will nail it, but it probably won't be me.
Gamasutra: You have a background in writing, what do you feel about writing in stories and games today. Do you think there are any that do it well?
WS: Yes and no. There are plenty of games where the quality or writing is high. I'm going to generalize so much that all of my friends are going to hate me in about 30 seconds, but the games that are really well written tend to have too much writing in them and that's a problem. People don't play games to read or listen, they play games to act or do. We still need to learn some lessons from film and television writers. They can bring a character to life in 6 words and not in 6,000. I think most of the games I've worked on have fallen into that trap as well. I will say that Sheldon Pacotti, who was the lead writing on Deus Ex and Invisible War, he's now back with us at Junction Point, is a spectacular writer and he gets that. I think you're going to see some big strides from us in that area. Characterizing people much more succinctly, and making great writing interesting to players.
Gamasutra: It seems to me that even the method of storytelling has some areas to advance. Sometimes the stories seem immature, and I'm just speaking for myself, but people need to realize what a good story is and make compelling characters and a great universe so that the story will tell itself.
WS: I think you've hit upon something that has 3 underlying problems, and here again I'm going to alienate just about everybody in the game business. First of all, I think there's a widespread belief that, even as developers and players get older, at its core, our market is young and that our games are made for kids - and that people stop playing as they get older. So even the games that are “mature”, I mean seriously, who in their 20s or 30s give a good gol-darn about being the last space marine on a space station who has to stave off an alien invasion? Who cares? Games are still aimed at kids even though the players may be adults. It’s a problem that comes from many developers who have no experience of life other than “I've played a lot of games, I love games, let me make games.” You end up with games about other games and not about life. So that's a real issue. We'll start telling better stories when people who have interesting things to say start making games.
Then there's what the audience buys. One of the big reasons I'm such an advocate of games education and university programs about game development and analysis is because I think we need to change the way our players think. Players just accept what we give them, it seems. I want players that demand more of us. Right now they don't seem to be demanding much more. In fact, without naming names, I've had publishers tell me that there's an inverse relationship between reviews scores and sales, and that quality doesn't sell. I'm sure there's some hyperbole in there, but that's a scary thought.