The lights are on
(article originally appeared in GI #198)Warren Spector’s projects over the years span some of the most critically acclaimed franchises in gaming history. The breadth of genres and styles in which he has worked demonstrate a remarkable facility for adapting new ideas. This month, Game Informer showcases the latest project from Warren Spector and his new studio Junction Point – Disney Epic Mickey. The game represents both a new direction and a culmination of ideas from a long career in the gaming industry. Here, then, is the story of a visionary career from the man who lived it.
The Early Origin YearsWarren Spector studied film in college, but ended up spending much of the ‘80s in tabletop RPGs. By 1990, the constraints of those rulesets helped drive Spector to a new career. The video game world almost lost one of its greatest stars when Spector briefly considered taking a job with Disney as an “imagineer”, helping to craft rides for their theme parks. However, the job offer at Origin Games came in first, and Spector joined the company beside such industry luminaries as Richard Garriot (Ultima) and Chris Roberts (Wing Commander).“I’ve been making video games for 20 years now. I’ve spent that entire time trying to break down that barrier and get back to that freedom and joy of players actually controlling the story in a tabletop, face-to-face game.” - On tabletop RPGs and video games“In computer games I just saw the opportunity to tell stories in a brand new way. All of the tools and techniques that you learn as a film production guy or as a film critic, they sort of translate over to this new medium pretty well. At least I thought they did. At the end of the day as a paper game guy and a movie guy, I think I had to unlearn more than I actually brought to electronic games, but I’m still telling stories 30 years later.” - On his move into video games
“With Wing Commander it was one of those things where the clarity and power of Chris’ vision was so overwhelming. You could see what he wanted it to be and what it could be. I had all that film background. I knew I could help make those cinematics better. It kind of exercised a different part of who I am.” - On Chris Roberts and Wing Commander“In terms of learning, influence, and professional growth, working with Richard Garriott on Ultima 6 was incredible. I spent two weeks at Richard’s house planning out Ultima 6 and that was a master’s degree. It was unbelievable. I learned so much from him in those two weeks it was scary.” - On Richard Garriot and UltimaThrough the Looking GlassWhile still tied to work at Origin, Spector also participated in projects with legendary, now defunct Looking Glass Studios. There, he worked with Doug Church during the creation of System Shock and spent time producing Thief: The Dark Project, one of the original stealth games, among other titles.“The big leap for System Shock was the realization that we don’t need all of that behind-the-scenes, die-rolling-traditional-RPG-stats stuff. It’s you in this world. Nothing reminded you it was a game. That was at the time a revolutionary idea, and still is now – that it’s you, not some goofy little puppet that you’re driving around.” - On System Shock“We worked together on Underworld, Underworld 2, System Shock, and Thief. Good lord, the guy is the unsung hero of video games and needs to get more credit than he does. Anyway, my job was to work with him to make sure we were making the game that we should be making, to make sure that creatively it was on the right track, to help him out with creative input when he needed it, to make sure that the game was being executed at the highest level.” - On Doug Church and Looking Glass Studios[PageBreak]The Great ExperimentBy 1997, Spector joined a cadre of game industry heavyweights, including Doom creator John Romero, at Ion Storm. By the time Spector joined the burgeoning community of developers, a Dallas office was already up and running. Spector founded an Austin branch, which turned out to have great success, particularly through its release of the groundbreaking Deus Ex.“You know, it sounds like such a good idea to let the inmates run the insane asylums, and it really isn’t. You really do need adult supervision to do something like this. Ion had no adult supervision. There were incredibly talented people. John Romero, his heart is so in the right place and he loves games so much, but running a company may not be playing to his strengths. Tom Hall, same thing. None of us should have been running companies at that point in our lives, I guess. That was the big problem. We all felt like we were talented, creative guys with big ideas, and if the big bad publishers would just get out of the way we can do amazing things. It just doesn’t work out that way. Real creativity happens within constraints, not without constraints.” - On Ion Storm“Deus Ex is still the [career] highpoint for me, personally. One of the things about making games, at least for me, is you start out with a vision of what something can be and you close your eyes and you imagine this thing. A couple of years later, you open your eyes and the thing you created could be wonderful, but it’s not like the thing you imagined originally. Deus Ex is the one and only time I ever opened my eyes after three years and said ‘holy cow, this is what I imagined.’” - On his favorite project“I think the big innovation of Deus Ex was it was the first game where play style mattered. Other games had offered some branch points and some choices, but I believe - whether it’s true or not - I believe we were the first game to offer choice with consequence. The choices really mattered. If you went and killed everything that moves in the game, you had a different experience than the player that killed nobody.” - On the innovation of Deus ExA Junction PointWarren Spector left Ion Storm in 2004 to found his own development house, which he called Junction Point Studios, after a never-released MMO he had worked on years earlier. The studio was purchased in 2007 by Disney Interactive. Rumors of his next big project have circulated for years. His longtime interest in film, storytelling, and classic cartoons offers a major hint of what’s to come. “It’s a place where a bunch of genres come together, and Junction Point is a place where a lot of things can come together and you can go anywhere. You can come to this point, this Junction Point, and decide ‘do I want to go left, right, up, or down?’ You get to decide the path you take. That expresses what I think is important about the games we’re going to make here.” - On the name Junction Point“I wrote my master’s thesis on Warner Brothers cartoons and on how cartoon characters develop over time, so I’m a cartoon fanatic and always have been. There’s this wild, anarchic, experimental spirit in classic cartoons. The Warner Brothers stuff, the early Disney stuff, the Fleischer stuff, the Popeye cartoons, the Betty Boops, all of those guys it’s like they were smoking crack or something. The stuff they were doing was crazy, and modern, and experimental, and telling audiences all about how movies work. Lifting the veil and exposing all the sprocket holes, and gears, and magic behind how a movie works. I was really intrigued by that. I’ve always loved cartoons. I always will, I hope.” - On cartoons, while hinting at his future project“This is so freaky, but there have been a couple of people that have written master theses about the games I’ve worked on. There was one I read, and it pointed out that three things have appeared in all of my games. There’s always a basketball court; that one is on purpose, by the way. The second thing is there is always an altered state of reality. The last thing that this academic pointed out to me was that every game I’ve worked on has in some way been about a family relationship. It doesn’t necessarily mean a literal nuclear family, but it’s always about the close bonds that we form with each other and how they break up. Maybe I’ve just been in an extended therapy session for the last 26 years.” - On the ties that bind his games together
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