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Postcards from E3: Warren Spector
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spector_speech.jpgProducer/designer Warren Spector's career at Origin, Looking Glass and Ion Storm has produced some of PC gaming's best-loved titles, in addition to some of GDC's memorable developer rants. We caught up with Spector on the show floor to ask after his current independent studio, Junction Point, and his thoughts on E3.

You’ve been somewhat off the radar since leaving Ion Storm – what have you been keeping yourself busy with since then?

Well, I left Ion Storm two years ago – actually, it was at this show that I decided I was done…

Was it something about E3?

No, no [laughs]. Just coincidence. I had a little non-compete thing I had to deal with, but got a deal to do an interesting, original multiplatform title that I still hope to do someday, but the deal went away – the usual amazing start-up stuff. So I went looking for what could come next after that, and hooked up with Valve. Gabe Newell and I have been talking for – how long has Valve been in existence… about nine years, I guess – about finding a way to work together, and this seemed like the time.

I left Ion Storm with the idea to do something online and episodic – not multiplayer per se, but Steam is the perfect thing, and the idea of doing a Source-engined, Steam-powered project I can learn a lot from. So that’s what we’re doing. That’s the thing we can talk about in vague terms, and there’s some other stuff that’s off limits.

Valve have been offering support to several projects recently that go beyond using Source to make traditional shooters.

Absolutely – those guys are all about changing things. They’re not just a disruptive technology, they’re a disruptive company, and I want that. I’m all about trying to change things, even if I get crushed in the attempt. They tend to change things and not get crushed, which is really cool.

When you founded Junction Point, your intention was to develop a fantasy RPG – did that concept fall by the wayside?

Yeah, it was interesting – like I said, I left with the intention of doing episodic direct distribution, and I would tell publishers – this was probably my mistake – ‘I don’t even care about the content, I want to try this idea, this new way of reaching players, of developing games, of how developers can interact with the marketplace'. Ideas are the easy part in this business, they’re really not that hard to come up with, and so I had a list of about twenty things and said: ‘I will do any of these – which ones do you like?’ And frankly there are probably five or ten of them that before I hang up my development shingle and retire I’ll do someday.

So that was kind of where I started, but I realised I was tilting at windmills and wasn’t going to get to do this yet, and would have to leave it to someone like Valve to blaze the trail. I started looking for a more traditional developer-publisher kind of deal, and went back and dusted off a gameworld that my wife and I – she’s a writer – created 15 years ago. We created a fantasy world for DC Comics, which never really got off the ground… that’s a long story. Anyway, I’ve always wanted to set a game there, but the technology wasn’t around to do it. It required some really amazing hardware and design advances, and it seemed like the time was right. We worked on that for a while, did a prototype, a bunch of video stuff to impress people and a lot of design documentation, and I did get a deal for that, but sadly the deal went away. [Leans forward to recorder] Through no fault of my own or my team.

Has Junction Point survived these teething troubles intact?

We’re at about 18 people now. The bar has been set pretty high on quality of gameplay and graphics by Valve, so we’d staffed up to work on this big, epic original fantasy game – and I didn’t want to lose all those guys. They’re people I’d been working with in most cases for 5, 10 years.

About your ‘Wackyland and Balloonland’ concept that you alluded to in a job posting on the Junction Point site…

[Laughs] There’s not much I can say about that one either, but the thing is I want to do a cartoon game really bad – well, really good. People don’t realise that I did my Masters thesis on Warner Brothers cartoons, you know – I used to teach animation classes, I’ve been a Disney stockholder since I was 19. I’m a cartoon freak, I’ve met a bunch of the old WB directors, and did Toon, the cartoon [pen-and-paper] RPG… And I’ve been trying to get somebody to let me do a cartoon game for the entire time I’ve been in the videogame business. But somehow I’ve gotten typecast in that serious, ‘guy who wears sunglasses at night with two guns and a trenchcoat’ school. But even before that, people expected something really serious…

Is it a Looking Glass thing?

Yeah, Looking Glass and Origin – very serious, very hardcore – and so I did some concept work on a license with a media company that was very cartoony, and boy, we did some great work. It was the most fun I’ve had in a long time, maybe since Deus Ex. The work was phenomenal, and I’ll never be able to show it or talk about it with anybody. But hopefully the project will happen. We were gonna let people live in a cartoon world, and it was going to be wacky.

To you, does the next-generation difference mean using technology to realise ideas?

I always hope that designers and developers will start focusing on ideas and gameplay, and not prettier pictures, but I think for the short-term most of what you’re going to see is prettier pictures. Just look around the show – it used to be that you could look around E3 and decide what was worth paying attention to based on: ‘Oh my god, that looks so much better than anything else, clearly there’s something going on there.’ Now, everything looks so good. I don’t even know what to look at any more, unless it’s at the Nintendo booth, because everything at the Nintendo booth is always worth looking at. It’s weird [laughs].

But I hope, eventually, we start using all that processing power to create more abstract spaces, not just more realistic ones. If all we ever do is use the power of these new platforms to do a more effective brick texture, I will kill myself. There are so many AI challenges we haven’t even started tackling. There are so many gameplay challenges, design challenges… if all we do is better graphics it will really be a shame. And frankly I’m a little worried that we’re going that way, but we’ll see.

Have you had much of a chance to see anything on the floor yet?

Not much – I ran into a guy who works with me now, and he said: ‘Hey, what have you seen?’, and my faintly sarcastic response was that what I know about this show now is that EA does the best trailers. You know, beyond that… I got into the Wii booth and it was so crowded I couldn’t get my hands on a controller. It’s one of the things I miss about working for a publisher – you actually get to see that stuff privately, and now that I’m an independent no-one calls and says ‘Warren, you’ve got to look at this controller!’ [laughs]. So hopefully I’ll get to play with it.

So those are the observations I have so far: everything looks so good to the point where graphics are almost irrelevant, EA does unbelievable trailers – oh, and Spore. I saw Will [Wright] demoing that in the end, and every time it gets more and more cool, and intimidating, and makes me want to quit making games.

As a staunch proponent of firstperson, has the uptake of thirdperson camera in titles on the floor thrown you at all?

I’m committed to this idea of firstperson being just you and the world, but… we can really make characters look so good now, and you can see your character doing such cool things, that even I’ve got to think: ‘Okay, maybe thirdperson is kind of the answer for the foreseeable future.’ More power to the guys at Valve, the Dark Messiah guys, but firstperson… yeah, it’s immersive, but thirdperson is just so damn cool. I’ve sold out.

Who do you think E3 is actually for?

Honestly, at three-thirty I’m going to go watch some skateboarding [at a ramp in Activision’s booth] – I missed Tony [Hawk], but I’ll get to see Bob Burnquist. I’m a skateboard junkie. I can’t do it any more, but I can watch. Anyway: it’s funny, I used to complain all the time to the publishing guys I worked with that it was a PR show. And for that reason, I’d fight to get all my guys out here, because it really is a sales show. If you think you’re going to get the real skinny on anything at this show as a journalist, forget it. That’s going to happen at the studio, or at the publisher’s office, not here.

Does that justify the pre-E3 demo crunch for developers?

It is important, even if it’s 90% sales and 10% PR, you’ve gotta make the sale. And it turns out that it is the pretty pictures that make the sale, it is having the big posters outside, it is showing in a big theatre and having a line around the block. And from a media perspective, this is where we get Entertainment Weekly and Entertainment Tonight actually paying attention to us, so it’s an important show. It’s not the PR event that I used to think it was… so once again, the publishers have proved themselves right, and I was wrong, and I’m a big enough man to admit it.

What do you think Entertainment Weekly takes away from a show like this, though?

Sure, a lot of it is that it’s loud, and ‘Wow, there’s a lot of blood’, and the testosterone is overwhelming. But they take away that we’re a force to be reckoned with, that we really are something special and that they can’t ignore us – that we’re not just ten geeks in a garage, we’re, you know, twenty-five million geeks.

In a really big garage.

In a really big garage, you’re exactly right. Man, I wish I had said that.

Posted at 16:30

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