Earlier this month, we talked to Valve Software about Half-Life 2: Episode One and all manner of things to do with game development. At one stage, Gabe Newell said that Valve wanted to "get people through as much entertainment as possible".
"This is an argument I have with Warren Spector," he said. "He builds a game that you can play through six different times. So that means that people pay for the game, but don't get to play five sixths of the game, which I feel is a mistake."
Not entirely surprisingly, Spector said he'd like the chance to defend himself against his good friend's comments. What follows is a transcript of a lengthy discussion about all things games - delightfully, for a man who admits he's "pretty committed to radio silence" about his own work at Junction Point Studios, he had plenty to say.
Eurogamer: You're working with Valve on a new game to be delivered over Steam - has that game got a name, and are you willing to give away any details as yet? There seems to be some speculation that it could be based on Toon. Any thoughts on that? Care to confirm/deny those reports?
Warren Spector: I'm afraid we're still in "work don't talk" mode here at Junction Point. When the time is right, we'll let you know. As far as the Toon rumours, I'd caution people not to leap to too many conclusions based on very limited data! There's a story behind that but, sadly, I may never be able to tell it!
Eurogamer: How long have you given yourself to make this game? Given that the studio was only founded in November 2004, can we expect something as soon as next year, or are we more likely to see the first fruits in 2008 and beyond?
Warren Spector: One nice thing (among many) of working with Valve is that they're pretty darn committed to quality! I don't believe in "We'll ship it when it's ready" - I mean, you have to stay in business - but we're taking the time to make sure things are as right as they can be. And we're talking with people about other projects, too, so my guess is that you'll see some things from JPS maybe a little sooner than expected and some other things a little further down the road. But, again, I'm pretty committed to radio silence on details these days.
Eurogamer: It's interesting that you've partnered with Valve on this project. What's the reason for breaking away from the traditional developer-publisher model? Will you do the same as Valve and Ritual and release a boxed version anyway?
Warren Spector: Working with Valve is a natural outgrowth of my belief that Steam is a great experiment in direct distribution, and direct distribution is a big part of our future. I left Ion Storm with the goal - well, it was one of my goals, anyway - the goal of testing the digital distribution waters. When Valve offered the opportunity to do that, I jumped at it. But that doesn't mean there won't also be traditional boxed games, in partnership with publishers and traditional retailers from JPS.
Eurogamer: For someone with your track record, creative freedom must be absolutely paramount. Is it fair to assume that this was one of the key reasons behind going for digital distribution?
Warren Spector: Well, thanks for the nice comment about my track record - I think you might be surprised at how little a track record buys you when you're moving from internal publisher development to crazy independent start-up (especially during a platform transition and a time of rising costs).
Anyway, creative freedom is important, but as I said in my design keynote at GDC a few years ago, there's nothing wrong, or inherently less creative in licences and sequels. In fact, among the projects we've discussed with people over the last year and a half are a variety of licensed games, collaborations with creative folks in other media, you name it. I'm open to just about anything that allows us to advance the cause, and the art, of gaming. Anyone who says they can't do creative work in someone else's fictional world just isn't thinking hard enough - or has an ego far bigger than mine!
Eurogamer: But it's not all about creativity is it? Games are hugely expensive to make now, and you must be looking at the best possible return. How much more (in terms of proportion) can a developer make per 'unit' via digital distribution than the typical publisher deal?
Warren Spector: It's certainly NOT all about creativity these days, if it ever was! The cost of games is appalling to me, and I don't see any way around it. As far as profit for developers in a digital distribution vs. boxed retail scenario, I don't know that the new model is sufficiently mature to say.
That's something that'll have to shake out as Steam matures, and as other digital distribution schemes come online in the PC and console markets. One would hope that removing cost of goods and publisher overhead would leave more money for developers but we'll just have to wait and see.
Eurogamer: How 'hands-on' do you tend to get these days? Are you operating on more of a 'design guru' level and making sure that your concepts become integrated effectively, or does it go deeper than that?
Warren Spector: My involvement varies based on a lot of factors. The most notable one is the phase of the project. I really enjoy the early conceptual phases of a project and the tuning and shut down phases at the end. The middle period - the production and execution phases - I'm much more of a "client", I guess you'd say, making sure the project's core goals are being met and not doing a lot of hands-on stuff. But I'm always involved in establishing a project's goals and in making the decisions at the end that can make or break a game's quality, fun factor and so on.
My involvement is also driven by the needs of the team I'm working with. If a team needs me to write dialogue, I can do it. If I need to "direct" (the way a movie director does), I can do it. I'm just at a point in my life and career (a word I never thought I'd apply to myself!) where I try to focus on the stuff I love and leave the other stuff to folks who love that other stuff. That seems most likely to result in great games.
Eurogamer: How do you see the next generation battleground playing out? Is it very much PS3, 360 and PC on one side, Wii on the other, with handhelds and mobile continuing to operate in their own space? Do you see one format 'winning' overall, or will it be much more even this time?
Warren Spector: Nice as it would be for there to be one "winner" so we could work with some standards for a change, I don't see it happening. I think your analysis seems pretty spot on. The next gen console guys, plus PC, will compete with each other while Nintendo grabs all the Nintendo fans. I mean, I don't get the impression Nintendo even cares about what Sony and Microsoft do. They just do their own thing, which is completely cool.
Eurogamer: Obviously, next gen tech was foremost in your mind when you started your new project(s). What does the new tech allow you to do that you couldn't before, apart from increase the poly count and throw fancy lighting effects around? Arguably, Oblivion is the only next gen game we've seen that doesn't just up the visual opulence of what's gone before it.
Warren Spector: If all we do with the power of next gen hardware is increase our poly counts we're doomed. We have to use that power to create new gameplay experiences - up the simulation level... find new ways to exploit physics... create more interactive worlds than we could dream of before... create virtual actors that can do more than run and shoot.
Eurogamer: There's a certain irony that you're working with Valve when it's clear that Gabe Newell has an almost polar opposite design philosophy to yours. As you know, he firmly believes that gamers should get to experience "as much entertainment as possible", but that making something where players may miss five sixths of the game is a "mistake". He says, "You spend all this time to build stuff most players will never ever see." That's a pretty wholesale rejection of your company's mantra of allowing players to craft their own unique experiences through in-game choices, don't you think? Who's right here?
Warren Spector: Well, I'M right, of course! No, seriously, there's clearly room for a variety of approaches to game design - god, it'd be boring if we all believed the same stuff and made the same kind of game! Fact is, I've been having this argument with Gabe for, oh, let's see... how long have I known him? Nine years? Yeah, all that time. And before that, I used to argue with Richard Garriott and others at Origin about the same damn thing. I'll go to my grave believing I'm right.
But, really, I find the idea that one design philosophy is "right" and another "wrong" (or even that one is better than another) incredibly odd. I mean, is Star Wars better than The Godfather? Is Lord of the Rings better than Goodfellas? Should Stephen Spielberg make nothing but action-adventure movies because they make more money than his more "serious" efforts? Should we elevate Tom Clancy or Dan Brown to the top of the writing heap and stop reading Shakespeare? Does anyone think all music should be aimed at the top of the Billboard charts? I sure don't want to live in a world where everyone sounds like Britney Spears... oh, wait, I already do... Anyway, you get my point...
Eurogamer: Is it really a waste of development time to give player choice, and how do you persuade the player to come back and play things a different way? Rather than miss out on five sixths of the content, tempt them to play the game six times...
Warren Spector: Wow, lots of points to address here - this is going to take some words...
First, and most trivial, I've never said that players should see one-sixth of your content. My "rule" has always been that every player should see about 75 per cent of your content, with another 25 per cent reserved for unique player experience. That's kind of a dopey measure, in a sense, because it implies that the best way to differentiate player experience is to handcraft a lot of paths through a map and a bunch of branching dialogue for NPCs to spout.
There are other ways to get at unique experience that don't require massive amounts of hand-crafted content. But I do believe that generating some content, knowing everyone won't see it, has huge value.
For players, a multipath/multisolution game offers the knowledge that if they're clever they will see and do things no one else has ever seen or done. How can you not want to play a game like that? A year after we shipped Deus Ex, I saw someone solve a particular game problem in a way I'd never seen anyone try before, and I was sitting there with him wondering if his solution would work. I mean, I helped make the game, and I'd played through that part of the game a hundred times and watched probably a thousand playthroughs and I was seeing something I'd never seen before. No game-on-rails or rollercoaster ride can possibly touch that for a thrill!
And check out the forums where people talk about how they solved a particular problem and others respond in amazement that they'd never thought to try that approach. Listen to people debate what one endgame choice said about you as a person, as opposed to what another endgame would have said...
That is so much cooler than listening to people agree how cool it was when they all killed some monster in exactly the same way, or got across some chasm in exactly the same way, or solved some goofy puzzle in exactly the same way.
Beyond that, multipath/multisolution games offer players who aren't great at combat, say, another option (stealth, dialogue, hacking - whatever).
They can keep playing your game instead of throwing a controller or mouse across the room in frustration. I mean, not to pick on Half-Life 2 (which I happen to enjoy immensely), but if I'm not good enough to get past an enemy or a carefully crafted puzzle my only option is to stop playing, and maybe never buy another Half-Life game. In Deus Ex (for another example I enjoy immensely!) if you can't fight your way past a problem, try something else.
Something else will work. (There were no puzzles in DX, so I can't address that - we only had problems, and problems, by their very nature, are open to solution in a variety of ways.) Anyway, giving players ways to keep playing your game seems like a good idea to me. How is that a waste of time and money?
So, to try to wrap this up in something less than book length, I don't believe it's ever a waste of time to give players real choices, rather than fake ones. If all you're doing is putting players on rails and rocketing them through your story, why not just build a roller coaster or make a movie? If the only choice a player gets to make is which weapon to use to kill a bad guy, you've completely wasted that player's time. Roller coaster rides are immense amounts of fun, but really, all they do is provide an adrenalin rush and a moment's distraction from the workaday world. Games can be more. Movies are terrific storytelling devices - I love movies - but movies already exist. I don't need to make them. (Well, I kinda want to produce a movie someday, but that's another matter entirely...) If all you're doing is telling yourstory to players (with the added attraction of getting to pick a gun once in a while), why bother?
If you're not "wasting" development time by allowing players to explore your world, advance the plot their way, test behaviours and see the consequences, I believe you're wasting players' time - and that's a far, far worse sin than wasting some time and dollars on stuff some players might not see.
Check back tomorrow for the second half of our lengthy chat with Warren Spector about all things game development. Well, we don't talk about the best swivel chairs and why all game developers seem to have untidy desks, but we do continue to talk about games that offer more than one path, some of his previous work, and the games he's enjoying at the moment.