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AGDC: The Warren Spector Interview

AGDC: The Warren Spector Interview

September 6, 2007 | By Brandon Boyer

As the UT Videogame Archive kicked off both its fundraising drive and, unofficially, Austin GDC itself, we met up with Junction Points Warren Spector on an otherwise particularly dreary and mud-slicked night behind Ultima creator Richard Garriotts Lake Austin estate. Spector, a co-chair of the Archive, was on hand in full support of the project and to provide Looking Glass-era ephemera for the organizations silent auction.

Nearly two months since the surprise E3 announcement that his upstart studio had been acquired by Disney, we were eager to learn more about the relationship between the two companies, and how it tied in to Spectors own history in the cartoon world.

Speaking through the clash of games-industry cover band The Captains of the Chess Team, an animated Spector gave Gamasutra a few veiled hints at the output we can expect from the now-Disney studio.

How did you get involved with the UT Videogame Archive?

Well, my background is actually as a film historian. I was a guy who was into primary research materials, and so it kind of bugged me that there was nowhere for my stuff to live after I shuffle off this mortal development coil. I ran into Bill Bottorff here in Austin at the Game Developers Conference last year and started lamenting the fact that Ive got all these boxes of design documents, concept art all this stuff, and theres nothing to do with it.

He just sort of grabbed that and went to the Center for American History and said, hey, theres a resource here that we should be preserving. He asked me if I would come in and give the same lament I gave him to the folks at the center. I did, and they were really enthusiastic. I got Richard [Garriott] involved, and then we got George Sanger, the Fat Man involved, and once you have that kind of horsepower, its tough to stop it.

What kinds of material are you going to be contributing?

Ive got man, my wife will kill me if I dont find some other home for all this stuff I have everything from 150 drafts of the Deus Ex design documents, to the first contract Chris Roberts ever signed for Wing Commander, to paperwork about lawsuits thatve never been made public and everything in between.

Will that all be publicly available for people to look at?

Eventually thats the purpose of this event. It seems strange to me that libraries have staff, and stacks, and the staff catalogs it and you put it out and its there! But it doesnt work that way, you need to raise money to hire the people, to pay the staff and for the storage space, and to make it accessible. If this event goes well, the University of Texas - the Center for American History - will hire a couple people who will actually be responsible for cataloging the collections, and then we can actually start accepting donations of material, and frankly continue funding.

The key here is, even if people couldnt attend this event, I mean I hate to turn this into a sales pitch, but I have two pleas. If this is something you support, go to the Center for American Historys website and donate money, because we need a home for all of Richards stuff. Even if you dont care about mine, trust me - we want to preserve Richs stuff. So we need money.

Secondly, stop throwing away all the stuff that goes into your day to day game development life. You would not believe the things that Ive seen from people who I will not name thrown away. Theyre valuable historical documents and theyre gone forever. So stop throwing stuff away because soon therell be a home for it.

Moving on to Junction Point it sounded like you had an announcement to make at GDC last year, did that get held back?

Its funny, I actually didnt have an announcement to make last year at GDC. I ran into one reporter on the street, and we talked about my hopes and dreams and what I left Ion Storm to do, and what I was pitching to people at the time, but I had barely begun pitching and I was in the middle of a non-compete, so it wasnt like there was a huge announcement or anything.

What happened with the companys involvement with Source?

We wrapped up our work with Valve a while back. Especially with the acquisition by Disney, the whole equation changed at that point. Weve been working on concept development for Disney for almost two years now, off and on, and at this point that doesnt involve Source.

Are you still looking into episodic games?

Ah, Im still pitching it, but you know, its an interesting challenge because right now there are two ways to succeed in episodic. You can either be an established player like Valve that can really say this is what were going to do, and were going to make it work, and weve got the track record, and the cash, and the fanbase to do it. Or, were going to do smaller, less sort of out-there, crazy, risky things.

I think the Sam and Max guys are doing a fantastic job. What I wanted to do was compete with Valve without the resources. [laughs] I was also unwilling to go after venture capital or give up a percentage of my company to make it happen, so that all kind of went away, sadly. I havent stopped fighting for it, but now I have to fight from within a publisher that its a good thing for them.

Would you mind talking about cartoons for a bit?

Im happy to talk about cartoons!

Your masters thesis was on Warner Bros. cartoons?

Yeah! It was a critical history of the Warner Bros. cartoon. I interviewed a bunch of the old directors -- Bob Clampett, Art Davis. Chuck Jones read my thesis and autographed it! I have an autographed masters thesis!

Im pretty sure -- I was enough of a geek about animation history that Im pretty sure that I was the first person on the planet to put together a complete listing of all the Warner Bros. cartoons. Other people have since published their own, but I was the first one to do that. Im a pretty serious hardcore cartoon geek.

Theres been a lot of interesting stuff on John Kricfalusis blog lately

His blog is awesome!

Hes been covering a lot of animation principles about music, and timing movement to beats do you think about that with game design, as well?

[laughs] Um, would you mind telling my team that? Yeah, that is one of my big soapboxes right now. Its funny because even the team doesnt really buy it just yet. Well see what we ship the game with, if I manage to make my case.

This might be a bit of a touchy topic, but the term Disney-fication has been used as a pejorative for perhaps watering down edgy material is that something youre concerned about in working for Disney?

You know, were still in that rose-tinted glasses phase. I mean, Ive been a Disney employee for what, since July 12th or June 12th or whenever E3 was. So far, things are looking pretty good. Obviously you have a concern any time you deal with a bureaucracy that big and that entrenched and that necessary I mean, this huge organization with lots to lose if they screw up.

Realistically, though, I think you know, I warned them who I was, and I told them this is what I do, and if you dont want it, go somewhere else. I think the key for gamers to understand is that what I want, if you can hear the air-quotes, is broader than what the game industry has so far allowed me to do.

One of the beautiful things about working with Disney is that, actually, you dont have to fight to do things that are a little more daring graphically. You dont have to make something that looks like every other game. You dont have to go for that super realistic sort of look, and no ones pressuring me to do the hyper-violent, guy-with-two-guns-wearing-sunglasses-at-night stuff.

While I have no problem with that, Im not making judgments about games like that, Im at a point in my life and my career that it just bores the hell out of me. I dont want to play games where all I do is run around and kill everything that moves any more. I just dont want to do that.

Working with Disney, at this point, it makes a lot of sense. They actually do have a different attitude about appropriate kinds of content. Now, you know, if a year from now I may be singing a different tune, I mean, who knows. Right now, Im hopeful that -- on a very different scale the same way they want Pixar to do Pixars thing, and theyre not messing with that, Im hoping theyll let me do my thing and not get bogged down in all the bureaucratic stuff that may have resulted in some issues in the past.

For people that have never played it, can you describe Toon, your pen and paper RPG?

Boy, that was a long time ago. In 1983, I started working at Steve Jackson Games, the board and tabletop game company here in Austin. Steve was my first mentor, I mean, as a gamer, he made me a game designer.

I was actually an assistant editor, and I was going through the box full of game ideas that hadnt really gone anywhere and I pulled out this three page manuscript, and it was SPI case format if that doesnt mean anything to you, google it from [Manifesto Games founder] Greg Costikyan, called Toon, The Cartoon Roleplaying Game, and it was like Oh my god! This is like the most amazing I mean, like, this is me! This is my game!

I talked to Greg and asked if I could do some work on it, because the SPI case format its not funny. It was a great simulation of cartoons, but not funny, so Allen Varney and I grabbed that and turned it into this weird little thing that we debuted at GenCon in 84, and its still selling today! Its unbelievable.

Whats the premise is it all oversized hammers and TNT?

Yeah! Its all about the bag-of-many-things that you can pull some random thing out of. Anything youve ever seen in a cartoon can happen in the game. Its all about barely-controlled chaos. The whole idea is to boggle the game master, which we called The Animator, the idea is for the players to do something that is so outrageous and so impossible that The Animator just goes [shrugs shoulders] I dont know what to do, sorry, give me a minute while I think about it. The goal is not to get all serious and play these campaigns that went on for years, but it was a nice change of pace and made people laugh when you dont feel like going in the dungeon as Conan. It was a ton of fun about simulating the chaos of the cartoon.

Are those things that youd still like to explore?

Yeah, absolutely, the interesting thing is how powerful having a human game master is. One of the big I dont want to say its a problem but one of the big constraints in a video game is what a literal medium it is. In a paper game, you can literally leave critical tables out of your rules and players can still play, but a video game it all has to be very specific, where if you dont plan it, if you dont account for it, it cant happen.

One of the things I would love to do someday, and weve started to take little baby steps toward this I want to try to create a game master system, a simulation of a game master that can actually dynamically respond to what players are doing. When we do that, several iterations from now, maybe well be able to do something as crazy as Toon. For now, I think we need to take baby steps.

So, if we were to do something cartooney --

Something sort of wacky or ballooney?

-- Right, if we were to do something like that, I think we would have to be careful about what we do, and how ambitious we get in terms of controlled chaos, because computers and video games are much more about the control part than the chaos part.

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