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MIGS: Spector Calls For 'Pioneer Spirit,' 'Renaissance' In Tough Times

MIGS: Spector Calls For 'Pioneer Spirit,' 'Renaissance' In Tough Times Exclusive

November 18, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar

November 18, 2008 | By Mathew Kumar
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

As the opening keynote for the fifth Montreal International Game Summit, celebrated game designer Warren Spector (Deus Ex) had to live up to his own legacy.

Origin and Looking Glass veteran Spector, whose Junction Point development studio is now owned by Disney, recalled a pessimistic talk he gave at the summit in 2005, "Gaming in the Margins," where he discussed industry challenges, from new hardware to increased media scrutiny -- and turned out to be "pretty much wrong about everything."

"The positives are all still positive and the negatives aren't so bad," said Spector at the keynote. "Maybe it was because I was an independent developer struggling to survive, while now I'm in a corporation [Disney] which smooths things out -- or maybe I was just plain wrong."

Yet he admitted that thanks to the current economic downturn, "things have changed."

"Lots of companies are in trouble, and many of my friends have been laid off," Spector revealed. "So it in bad taste to be happy about how the industry is doing?"

But, he suggests: "I am still optimistic in the way I wasn't three years ago and haven't been in a really long time. We are still in a sort of renaissance, and we really can be the medium of the 21st century."

Knocked Down, Will Get Up Again

"Taking the long view, this current downturn will pass," Spector continued. "There are new audiences to find, new businesses will thrive. I know this may sound strange to you, but I was never really convinced that games were going to survive -- I was always sure that one day we'd become a niche product like comics. But I no longer believe that's possible, not until some medium comes along that no one in this room can even imagine."

"I may be known to hate MMOs," the Deux Ex co-creator laughed, "but compared to other mediums they're some of the best entertainment value you can get. Even a sixty dollar game usually offers more value than a sixty dollar date..."

Though Spector feels that creativity and innovation are healthy in the industry even in the current downturn, he still warned that it was something that still needed to be argued for.

"The reality is that in tough times, most people get conservative," he said. "We need a renewed 'pioneer spirit'."

How Pioneer Spirit Works In Games

Previous generations of developers were scientists, Warren said, noting early designers such as Ralph Baer. Next came the explorers -- early creatives such as Shigeru Miyamoto and Richard Garriott -- and then the settlers, developers such as Blizzard and Rockstar.

Considering himself part of the "settlers" group of developers from his time at Looking Glass, Spector said that this new, post-settling "pioneer" generation were the continuation of a story similar to that of the new world.

"If Richard Garriott is the person who discovered New York, then I'm like the first mayor of the city, the person who made it a place people wanted to live. The pioneers are the people leaving these settled areas to find the new frontiers."

"The most interesting thing to me,is that these guys in reinterpreting genres are not so much reinventing as turning things around completely," he continued, reasoning that this was a result of this new category of developers often being university educated and that many of them were women --"Thank god," he praised.

Considering a list of recent standout titles like Flow, Braid, Portal and Everyday Shooter, Spector said, "I don't know how anybody can look at the list on that screen and not feel positive about our future."

And this kind of creativity is infectious: "The amazing thing is that this isn't just independents who have this fever, the big companies do too," he said, referencing titles including LittleBigPlanet and Rock Band.

"Am I the only one to be excited to see EA create five new IPs this year? Rock on, EA!" he pronounced, to a chorus of applause.

The Road To Greatness Is Long

With all of this good news, Spector's call to a renewed pioneer spirit could have seemed untimely, but he argued that "we're not done yet."

"We're barely anywhere figuring out this medium. We don't just create commodities; we build communities and we create cultures. Sadly, to me, the cultures we have largely created are 'nerd' cultures."

Not trying to be offensive, Spector claimed a "card-carrying, D&D playing nerd heritage" but demanded an industry that offers more than just "adrenaline-fueled fantasies."

"How many games are you going to work on in your career?" he asked the audience. "If you're lucky you'll be a key creative force on some of them, so what are you going to offer the gamers that play your game? Hopefully something more than 'I killed another alien today.'"

With this in mind, Spector began to reel of a list of areas where gaming remained deficient. These ranged from a need to put players more in control of stories, through better virtual characters ("usually the only interesting character is the one holding the controller!"), and the feeling that most conversation systems had barely moved on from the "Name, Job, Bye" system used in the early Ultima titles.

Spector urged: "We need to create better tools to offer more than just the fantasy of pulling a trigger."

In addition, developers needed to think of their game spaces as worlds rather than simply sets. "We create movie sets because it's easier for us, not because it's better for the player. If we claim we're about interactivity, let's prove it." However, he was quick to note that this did not mean all games had to be sandboxes.

The Team's The Thing

Of course, game developers need ways to foster this kind of innovation, and in Spector's mind, working with a like-minded team was key.

He recalled: "The day before we went beta on System Shock, all of a sudden the (in-game) security cameras were tracking the player as they walked around. I screamed at the team 'how can you add something like that this late in the game?' but as I went into my office, I was ecstatic. You want your team to do things like that, to take chances and work hard on making the game the best it can be within a defined vision."

To ensure this, Spector recommended small teams ("You don't need much structure, communication is easier") that designers be open to change ("you have to believe in your goals, but you can't be married to a particular way of achieving those goals") and to learn to "fail often, but fail quickly."

"Having the time to focus and fix what is wrong is important. I used to call alpha stage 'the game is finished but it sucks,' and that is so wrong."

Concluding, Spector reiterated his points one last time: "Publishers, don't get conservative. If you're an independent developer, swing for the fences -- I see too many independents whose works look like portfolio pieces -- and if you work for an established developer, be an agent for change.... We can never satisfied with the status quo."

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