Warren Spector is a legend among developers. He's also the guy who was responsible for the original Deus Ex, Thief and System Shock games - and now Disney Epic Mickey. We caught up with the man himself last month, to chat about his career, his approach to design, and why he believes that gamers have never had it so good.
Q: I first saw Epic Mickey at the London reveal event, but that was a long time ago now. How do you feel the game has developed since then?
Warren Spector: It's certainly made some leaps and strides since London! I'm really happy with the way the game is going. I've always said that the most exciting parts of development are the initial concept stage, where you're trying to figure out what the heck you're doing, and then the final phases when the game is complete and playable and absolutely no fun. And then you spend as much time as you can, working ridiculously hard, making that game fun - taking the skeleton and turning it into something beautiful. We're solidly in that tuning phase at the end, so I'm at a point where I'm having a great time. We're playtesting a lot, getting people in to work with the game and play it, tuning it and then getting more people in to see it. It's a great part of the game.
Q: At the risk of getting a bit abstract, what do you think it is that makes this game fun? What's the special sauce this time?
WS: Well, the nice thing is that the special sauce isn't one thing - there's some ketchup, some mayonnaise, and some spices and everything. The fact that we're bringing in all those old characters is going to attract a lot of Disney fans. Almost everything in the game... even the trash cans were inspired by real Disney trash cans! That's going to appeal to a certain part of the audience. Kids can get in there and start spraying thinner around, erasing things, and it's really funny. Someone else can sit around and say, "I want to read all the dialogue, learn about the history of all these characters, turn every enemy into my friend, and I'm going to find the weirdest, cleverest solution I can find for every problem". There are a bunch of ways to approach the game, which is kind of the heart of what I like to do in games. I don't make games where there's a blue door, now go find the blue key so you can kill the blue monster. I don't care how you open the door, I care that you get to the other side of the door! Figure out your own way, that's fun for you. Every player gets to find their own fun, that's the special sauce.
Q: You wanted to be a film critic for a while, didn't you?
WS: I was a film critic, and I was working on my doctorate. I got my Bachelors' degree in film, I got my masters degree in film and I dropped out of a PhD programme, where I was teaching film courses at the university of Texas, to make games.
Q: Oh, right!
WS: Yeah. My mother stopped crying last week.
Q: I'm sure she must be very happy now...
WS: She is now. She wasn't for a while!
Q: People tend to talk about films as if one person makes them - "a Stanley Kubrick film", for example - despite the fact that it's clearly a collaborative process. How do you think that works in terms of games?
WS: You know, it works about as well in games as it does in films. We could spend an hour discussing that... An hour? We could spend years discussing that! It is a collaborative process. I always have to remind everybody that none of the games I've worked on have sprung, fully-formed, from my brow - like they magically just appear, that I make them all myself. What you do, as in any collaboration, you work through talented people to get what you want on the screen. And what you do is you hire people who are better at their thing than you are, and you let them go. What I try to do is that I build a creative box, and I say "This is what we're going to do". John Ford didn't need to put 747s in Monument Valley to make great Westerns - it probably would have been stupid if he had, right? That's the stupidest constraint I can think of, but that is a creative constraint - and everything within creative constraints. So, what I try to do is build that box that defines the creative constraints of a game, and just say, "That's our goal. Let's talk about how we're going to accomplish these goals, and then all those details - you guys get to fill them in". I haven't written a line of code, I haven't written a line of dialogue for this game - though I have in some of my past games. I haven't placed a single object on a single map. What the heck do I do for a living? All I do is hire creative people, try to give them direction, then I get out of their way - because they'll do a better job than me.
Q: Do you miss the hands-on stuff?
WS: Yeah I do. Honestly, of course I do. But there are different kinds of pleasures and I can make different kinds of games with a big team and a lot of money. I'm pretty happy where I am, too, and it means that I get my hands on more games than if I were really hands-on and did it myself. For me, the auteur theory... it's almost more like, either I conceive of something that fits into a particular category that people see as a Warren Spector game, or I find someone who embodies something that could fit into my personal creative thoughts. I support them and try to mentor them and help them to be better and all that stuff. I've done 19 games. Some of them I directed myself, some of them I conceived myself, some of them someone came to me with an idea that fitted in to my conception of what games should be and I supported them through the development of it. The key thing is that I have a very clear picture in my head of what games can and should be, and I will not be involved in any way - as creator, as director, as producer, as publisher as supporter or whatever - of any game that doesn't fit into that. So there are a lot of games that could be defined as Warren Spector games that frankly were made by other people.
Q: Out of the 19 games, is there any one that you're proudest of?
WS: Which of my babies do I love the most?
WS: I'm really proud of Deus Ex. I really am. I think better than anything else I've worked on so far it expresses everything I think is important about games. At least until Mickey ships! I'm exceptionally proud of the fact that it has a life beyond me. To be apart of the creation of something that exists outside of you, and will continue without you, it's like having a kid. So that's probably the number 1.
Q: I hear you've been to see the presentation here... [at gamescom]
WS: Yeah, I've talked to the team and seen all the public stuff.
Q: What do you think of it so far?
WS: I think it's phenomenal, I think the team really nailed it. The Devil is in the details, and with a game like that - or with a game like this, frankly, with Disney Epic Mickey - you can get a sense of local choice and local consequences, but where those games really come to life is in the global choice and the global consequences. What you're doing early in the game, and how it affects what happens later in the game. I don't have any sense of that [yet] with Deus Ex. I have a very good sense of it with this, and I think there's still a leap that people are going to make with Disney Epic Mickey that they haven't had a chance to make yet.
Q: I've heard you say that you always wanted to make this game on the Wii. What is it that you like about the Wii as a platform?
WS: Well, I've always wanted to do a Nintendo game. I'm a fanboy, I'm a gamer [laughs] so I've always said for years that the Zelda games are my favourite games. I can't make them - I don't think like that - but I love playing them. And I love the Mario games. I've always wanted to make a Nintendo game and I've never had the chance, so having the opportunity was kind of cool. And then when you think about Mickey Mouse... Okay, I'm going to name some characters over here [gestures]: Mario, Link, Kirby, Donkey Kong. And now I'm going to name some characters over here: Master Chief, Grand Theft Auto Thug, JC Denton... Mickey Mouse?! One of these things is not like the others, right? In terms of the character, and in terms of what I'm trying to do with the character, which is to get him, and the idea that play style matters, to a broader audience, the Wii is the place to go. The Wii has the broadest audience, it has an audience that's open to the kind of gameplay hierarchy that I wanted to try. And the gestural control, let's not forget that. The only game in town, when we started, was the Wii.
Q: It feels to me that it took developers a long time to work out how to use the Wii's controls to make proper games, rather than just shoe-horning motion controls into something. Now we have other console-makers exploring similar technology, but it seems that the Wii may be finally coming of age. Do you agree?
WS: Yeah, I think if you look at what Nintendo is showing right now, the strength of games is great. That's another thing that really appeals to me about Nintendo - it's a gamer's game company. The CEO, Mr Owada, was in development. They're all about gameplay. If you're a designer and you go, "Wow, shaders! Realistic graphics! That's what games are all about!" Games are about gameplay, and Nintendo has always gotten that. Even on their handhelds.
Q: I know you've played the 3DS because you were ahead of me in the queue at E3! What do you think of it?
WS: Well, I've been pretty vocal about the fact that I love the 3DS. I've described it to anybody who'll listen as the coolest thing I've ever seen at an E3 show in any category of thing - hardware, software, you name it! I just think it's amazing!
Q: So do you think it's fairly safe to say that we'll see something from you on that platform?
WS: Who knows? I can't say at this point.
Q: But you'd like to?
WS: Oh, I'd love to work on the 3DS. Absolutely, yes.
Q: How do you feel about the current state of gaming? Do you think we're in a good place?
WS: I think we're in a great place. Actually, I think that this is kind of a Golden Age. I can make a Wii-exclusive game featuring Mickey Mouse. Someone else can make an all-original $100m MMO. I've got friends who are literally working alone on indie games that have no prospect of profit or commercial success. I've got guys working on iPhone games. There are so many ways to reach an audience now, and so many platforms. There's downloadable stuff, Facebook games. Anybody who can't find a way to fit into the game business, who wants to be in the game business now, or anybody who can think of a games style for which there is no market... I mean wow, you're way more creative than I am! When the coolest thing about your business is that everything is happening right now, you're in pretty good shape. The thing is - by the way, I'm not saying this - but even if you think every game on Facebook is no good, hey, the stuff on the Wii is great. And if you think the stuff on the Wii is bad, go to the Independent Game Festival and look at all the stuff that's happening there. And if you think all that's bad, go to the app store and buy stuff there. It's insane. There's something for everyone, which means there's something for every developer to do that's meaningful for them, that will ignite their passion.
Q: Do you regard things like Farmville to be proper games?
WS: I don't quite get them, either as a player or a developer, so I'm not the guy to make one - and thank God there are millions of people out there playing them. Again, that's the whole point - there's something for everyone, which is kind of cool. Gaming is in a very special place right now and we should be revelling in it, enjoying the parts that we love and letting other people enjoy the parts that they love. The more people who game, the better for everyone.
Epic Mickey is due for release exclusively on the Wii this winter.