Gamasutra: There are a lot of licensed kids games factored into that.
WS: That's certainly true, but the audience needs to demand more. We need developers who have a much broader base of experience, knowledge and education. It would be nice if we had some developer who had read Aristotle's Poetics. If we could somehow internalize the fact that all games don't have to be male adolescent power fantasies…there's more than we can do than that.
Gamasutra: If the player demand isn't there, the impetus is going to be on the developers themselves to advance the media. No one's going to tell anyone to make better games. It's going to have to come from the creators.
WS: You know, I fight that, and I've been fighting that every day for the last 15 years. You don't want to know how many projects I've been told to “just go make a shooter.” I had one publisher tell me “you're not allowed to say story any more.” It's a constant battle to do something other than what everyone else is already doing.
Gamasutra: What do you think is next-gen, since that's what everyone is talking about now? Have we even mastered the current generation?
WS: We haven't mastered anything, we're just making it up as we go along. The interesting thing to me is that most of what I hear in context to next-gen is “look at all the polys” or how “photo-realistic” the games are now. I would hope that we could use some of this amazing power in the hardware for better A.I., and I don't just mean A.I. that can kill me better. Better actors is a big challenge. Stop building movie sets and make a world we can interact with instead. These things are huge. There are all sorts of things we can do beyond pretty pictures. Of course, early on in the life of a console, that's what you're going to do. We can do what we used to do but make it prettier. I think we need to look beyond that.
Gamasutra: A long time ago I heard you talk about wanting to make a one-block RPG that's just one city block and all the people and experiences involved in that.
WS: If you could find a publisher that would front that, I'd still make that game.
Gamasutra: Do you think that's actually something that can be done with the technology we have now?
WS: I think there are huge design problems that need to be solved there. There are huge audience expectation issues that need to be addressed. I think that a version of that could have been done before and certainly could be done now. It would be a really interesting challenge. It would be extremely risky from a development and commercial standpoint.
I think it could be done. I think it's a mistake to look for gigantic, revolutionary steps, or plan for them. There's probably somebody in a garage somewhere that has all that working and will change the world completely. All I want to do in terms of my career and the games I work on at Junction Point, at the end of my career, when I shuffle off of this development coil, I want to be able to look back and see that every game I did was some logical, evolutionary step towards some clearly defined goal. Even now, if I look back on all the games I've done, I've been really lucky and blessed to work with people who wanted to go in the same direction I did, and we have made evolutionary steps. I think looking for the be-all-end-all 1 block roleplaying game, the simulated city block is not the point. The point is that every game takes a step closer to that, and we may fail. Failure is fine. I always say this to my teams, and they hate it when I say this, but “I would rather fail gloriously than succeed at something mediocre.” Some day we'll get there.
Gamasutra: Who do you think, if anyone, is doing the right things to advance the industry in that direction?
WS: Well, there are plenty of people doing plenty of interesting things, I want to be clear about that. As for moving it that direction, I wish I saw more people doing that. I think that you certainly have to look at the Rockstar guys with Grand Theft Auto, they're doing some interesting stuff with player directed narrative. The Bethesda guys with Oblivion and other games are doing real interesting things. The Valve guys are doing amazing things with character and with interactive, cinematic storytelling. I think you're going to see some really fascinating things come out of Doug Church at EA. He's working on projects that... I should really keep my mouth shut about. Point is he's working on some really interesting stuff right now that will shake things up big time. Peter Molyneux. Will Wright. Thank God all these guys exist.
Maybe this is my ego talking, but I look at what Junction Point, and Ion Storm before that, did and I see us doing something different and unique. In fact, I was talking to a publisher the other day and they said “what about competing with this game or that game,” and I said “I don't care.” I don't compete with those games. Even if our subject matter is similar or our gameplay is superficially similar, I really do believe what we do is unique, and if people see that they should send me a resume and we should talk if they think they can contribute. There are plenty of people doing interesting things. In this particular arena, I'm most excited about the stuff that Doug is working on that I can't talk about.
Gamasutra: I'm particular hopeful that it's possible to advance games in the area of interaction and, not immersion necessarily, but dynamics and depth. It seems like the danger is people getting worried about being too influenced by a game that's closer to reality. Of course it's the people who are already disturbed and would be influenced by anything. It puts an extra layer of responsibility on the developer that wasn't there in the past.
WS: There's an assumption in what you're saying that deeper simulation and more player control must equate more realism, which isn't the case. You can simulate a fantastic world that has nothing to do with the real world out there. It's important to remember that. We don't have to strive for greater realism, we can strive for more a iconic, stylized or fantastic approach as long as it's internally consistent and the player can reason with the simulation and figure out how to interact with it. My guess is that players will feel more on an emotional level about their characters in Spore than they ever have, or maybe ever will, about a human character in any other game ever. I don't think we have to focus on creating a realistic world, I want to move away from that. It's hard to convince publishers to do this. I would love to do a game that isn't realistic, please let me do it! Bear that in mind.
Another point is that if you're going make a game that allows players to make significant choices that puts them in control of a narrative or of a character in a simulated world, you do have an obligation. You have an obligation to show the consequences of choices. One of the biggest problems with games, especially more linear games, is they say “kill everything that moves. Good player!” “Or win this game,” and then they pat you on the back for solving a puzzle, killing virtual things or crashing a car in a fantastic way. It's pathetic that I'm saying this 10 years after we began work on Deus Ex and the Ultima games that have a strong ethical core, but the fact is that we have to show the consequences of choices or those choices are meaningless. We have to show that, if you kill somebody, then someone might think that's great but there's going to be a lot of people that are really mad, and that has to have a direct impact on your gameplay experience.
It can't just be rewards for solving a puzzle or killing that thing or even saving that thing. Even saving someone, because there might have been someone who wanted that person dead and now they hate you. So in the context of a story that players are sharing in the telling, you have to show the consequences and it's really hard to do. The reason very few people do what we're doing at Junction Point, and what we did at Ion Storm, Looking Glass and Origin is because it's really hard to do, and it's a lot of extra work that's satisfying to developers and players who get it, but it's not necessarily something that immediately increases sales and it certainly costs money. It's more expensive to make games that have choice and consequence than it is to make a game that has an illusion of choice and one scripted consequence.