Following yesterday's unedifying spectacle, we return for another round of Warren Spector's thoughts on game development. Obviously we jest. It's all about edification. If I had a biro for every time I've been edified by Gabe Newell and Warren Spector over the last month, I'd be able to doodle my way through every editorial meeting for the next 50 years even when none of them worked. Seriously. It's edification city and these two are a coalition administration, lowering my imagination taxes one headcrab or convincing shadow at a time. All of which horrendous metaphorical gibberish should suffice for an introduction. And read part one of the interview if you haven't already.
Eurogamer: One of the things I like as a player is to find out more of the back story by being thorough. By poking around in dark corners and finding old notes that give clues away, and things pinned to notice boards, or chests to break in to. Games like Silent Hill, Metroid Prime and Resident Evil have always favoured this approach, but then you get games like Oblivion where there are more books and more items of text to read than most gamers could ever have time or energy to read, and games like Half-Life 1 or 2 which have few secrets to uncover. Do you feel text can still play an important role in providing a deeper narrative or is it more about listening in on NPC conversations these days?
Warren Spector: I don't think it'll surprise anyone that I like text in games but I recognise that a lot of players don't. The fundamental experience of videogames is, and should be, seeing, listening and doing, but there's certainly a place for a certain amount of optional text.
The key for me is to give as many players as possible as many ways to get into your game as you can. If players want to ignore text, they should be able to. Heck, if players want to be able to bypass combat, let 'em.
Eurogamer: As visuals improve more and more, it only seems to show up how dumb the AI is of the NPC, and how inappropriate their actions are. Valve has gone a small way towards giving players better NPC experiences by making the facial animation and lip synching very convincing. But there's still a catalogue of disbelief shattering occasions where you can make the game look stupid, like the way characters don't get out of your way in a convincing way, or take ridiculous amounts of damage and have unlimited ammo and the like. Will believable co-op AI be beyond developers in this generation, or is it a goal for the long-term?
Warren Spector: First, let's give huge props to Valve - its efforts toward creating better, more believable virtual actors are pretty incredible.
Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, it's important to consider the function of AI in a game - it isn't to kill players or help players or anything more (or less) than to challenge the player sufficiently in support of whatever game experience you're trying to create. In a shooter, the role of AI isn't to kill the player but to leave the player breathless and shaky, with one hit point left and one bullet left in his or her gun. In a game about real human interaction (without guns) the role of AI would be radically different.
To your specific points (characters getting out of your way and having believable ammo loadouts), those are all either design decisions - we can do better - or technical problems we can certainly solve.
Sadly, once we move beyond that, I think we're a ways off from "real human interaction". For my money, it's time we started tackling the non-combat AI problem in as serious a way as we tackle rendering engines and physics simulations. But it's going to be a while before we figure out how to talk to an NPC in any believable way or how to craft a sufficiently reactive character that we believe in them and care about their fate. Valve's approach seems promising but kind of hinges on non-interactive scenes in which NPCs emote for the player. And Bioware may be onto something with what it is doing in Mass Effect. But, honestly, we're still crawling like infants when it comes to human characters and that isn't likely to change any time soon.
Eurogamer: Essentially, games which offer player choice still must have a linear thrust to them to hold them together. There still has to be some sort of overarching goal. But how do you give the illusion of freedom without simply confusing the player?
Warren Spector: Stop asking questions that can only be answered at book length! Not fair! The short (very short) answer is that you do have to be satisfied with an illusion. Then you have to provide a clear, simple visual/aural language that cues players to the available options and the likely behaviour of the world and NPCs when you select one option over another. Finally, you have to provide clear and immediate feedback on the results of each choice the player makes.
Oh, and you have to (at least I think you have to) slow things down enough that players can pause, consider the situation, make a plan and execute that plan. If everything's moving at breakneck speed (like most games these days) you better not expect players to be making many choices - at least not choices that have any serious consequences! The amount of data players can process and act on seems to be inversely proportional to the rate at which that data is being thrown at them. One of the Valve guys recently told me you can't expect a player in combat to register more than a word or two - a sharp command. Anything more than that just gets tuned out. Totally true.
Eurogamer: How do you cope with the risk that the player is going down a less enjoyable path? If no two player experiences are the same, then how can you properly assess that they're not having a less fun experience than someone else? This come back to Gabe's point where they're effectively ensuring players all have the same high quality experience and don't end up missing out on all the cool stuff there is to see.
Warren Spector: The obvious answer is that you don't want to ship a game that has "less enjoyable paths". In the real world, that ideal is unattainable but you just test and test and test (and tweak and tweak and tweak) to minimise the likelihood of that happening.
When we were working on Deus Ex, I used to have nightmares that players wouldn't "get" what we were trying to do - that they'd judge our combat against Half-Life's, and find us wanting, judge our stealth against Thief's, and find us wanting, judge our character development and role-playing elements against whatever Bioware was shipping when we shipped, and find us wanting. But I knew (or felt) that, if players "got" that you could play however they wanted, at any point in the game, they'd forgive us our shortcomings.
I mean, it gets down to what your goals are. If you're a surgeon, you want a scalpel; if you're stranded on a desert island, you probably want a swiss army knife. DX was the swiss army knife to Half-Life's scalpel. I was, and am, comfortable with that.
As far as "missing out on cool stuff" goes, I'll return to my earlier argument - if every player sees every bit of "cool stuff" you might as well make a movie. If what you're after is unique player experience, my way's the right choice.
Eurogamer: Collaborative online experiences are something that are increasingly creeping into games (console, especially on 360 for instance), and - for me - are much more fun than simply blowing each other up around yet another enclosed environment. How does this trend impact upon your designs, and do you see yourself making more shared experiences in future?
Warren Spector: Man, I wish I liked MMOs and online gaming more than I do. I guess I'm an antisocial guy and prefer the single-player experience. But, accepting that I'm an anomaly, there's clearly a growing audience of people who want to work together, virtually, to accomplish game goals.
I wish I could say this was shaping my thinking about games but, really, I'm not yet clear how to apply co-op gaming to my own work. I've wrestled with small-group co-op possibilities for years and still haven't figured out how to make them work. Oh, in the context of a very simple, visceral, physical conflict, it's easy to see how two or four or 42 people might co-operate to kill The Bad Guy. But once you start messing around with more sophisticated storylines, the co-op problem becomes much harder.
Frankly, if I keep flailing around trying to answer this question we'll be here all day and probably not get any closer to an answer. So I'll just stop here and admit defeat. Someday someone I'm working with will prove way smarter than me and nail the co-op storytelling problem(s) and then I'll be able to sleep at night again...
Eurogamer: Input devices are continually evolving, and now more than ever with the Wii and the PS3's motion sensitive controllers, and the DS with its touch screen and so on. Do you take any of these into account when you design games, or are you content to stick to more conventional systems?
Warren Spector: Well, given that Junction Point isn't working on stuff designed to run on any of those platforms yet, I can't speak from direct experience. Having said that, it seems self-evident that you have to take into account what your controller is capable of any time you begin thinking about a game idea.
I've been stunned at how effective the touch screen on the DS is, and how effectively many games have used it. When I got my hands on a Wii, I was struck by how perfect it is for some things - and how terrible it is for some other things. If designers don't design games around that controller, I think they're are in for some trouble - players, too. But, clearly, there are lots of people putting a lot of brainpower behind exploiting the unique qualities of each system's controller and creating very cool, unique games as a result.
Eurogamer: For the record, what's your take on the whole keyboard and mouse versus joypad debate? Don't you think Microsoft is missing a trick by not letting players control games with keyboard and mouse if they so choose?
Warren Spector: I could argue either side of this debate! On the one hand, the capabilities of a keyboard and mouse are pretty incredible. If you want instant response, fine control, all that stuff, you really want a keyboard and mouse. On the other hand, there's something almost soothing about picking up a controller - I mean, without ever cracking a manual, you kind of already know how a controller's going to work. Move a joystick around, experiment with some buttons, and you're playing. A mouse and keyboard can be a lot more intimidating. As long as you really factor in your control device as you're conceiving your game, or at least as you're testing and tuning, you can make anything work.
Eurogamer: Now you've had a few years console development experience, what would you say you've learned, and how will this manifest itself in future projects? Hardcore fans appeared to feel you'd been forced to dumb down your ideas a little with Invisible War and Deadly Shadows. Is this an inevitable by-product of trying to appeal to a more mass market audience, or are the successes of Shadow of the Colossus and Oblivion proof that purity of vision can still top the charts?
Warren Spector: I know some folks thought Invisible War and Deadly Shadows were "dumbed down for console". And, yes, we did make a conscious attempt to reach out to a larger audience. (Increasing development costs'll do that to you!) However, both teams still set some mighty lofty goals - goals that had nothing to do with making the games accessible to a larger audience. I'm willing to acknowledge that both games fell short of their goals if some of the critics will acknowledge how many risks the teams took and how hard the challenges were that they tried to tackle.
But to answer your question, I don't think it's in any way - any way - necessary to dumb a game down for console or to reach a huge audience.
You just need to execute exceptionally well on a clear, compelling concept.
Gamers aren't stupid and they're not kids (not most of 'em, anyway). You can make serious, adult entertainment, release it on a console and succeed.
Eurogamer: Game sales are falling quite severely in the US by the look of recent NPD reports, and Japan has experienced several years of a shrinking market. What's your take on the reasons for this? Is it largely piracy, the inevitable transitional phase, or are people just getting bored of endless sequels, annual updates, me-too sludge, a lack of innovation and dodgy licensed rubbish? Is it a case of publishers killing the golden goose with its risk averse polices, or is the world of game development just a total can of worms where there's a huge amount of talent dictated to by the whims of marketing, shareholders and unrealistic schedules?
Warren Spector: I'm not going to claim to be an expert on why games sell or don't but it sure looks to me like current sales trends are being driven by a host of factors, not just one.
It seems likely to me that a lot of players are holding off on buying because of the hardware transition, from Xbox to 360 and PS2 to PS3 (and Wii). And I certainly find myself praying someone will come out with a game that I just have to play - such games seem fewer and farther between than at any time in recent memory. Other things? You have to look at the success of World of Warcraft and assume a lot of folks who would be buying a game or two a month simply aren't buying anything anymore - they're all blissfully unaware of the passage of time (and the release of new products) as they go on quest after quest, day after day, month after month... And all the other stuff you mention probably contributes, too.
The game business isn't pretty right now, that's for sure.
Eurogamer: Do you think Microsoft should push its Live Arcade service more? Have you played it much?
Warren Spector: My, god, if Microsoft pushed Live Arcade anymore we'd all be assigned accounts at birth! Honestly, though, I haven't played with it enough to say much more than that. We've kind of been focusing on development around here which doesn't leave time for a lot of things I'd like to be doing. (And my DS eats up a lot of my gaming time...) From what I've seen, it's a cool service. They're pushing it appropriately, I think - don't encourage anything more!
Eurogamer: Here's an easy one: what games have inspired you recently, and why?
Warren Spector: I've been surprised at how much I enjoy and appreciate Call of Duty 2.
I mean, it's kind of the ultimate scripted, no AI, no simulation rollercoaster ride, which is kind of the antithesis of what I usually play and certainly nothing like anything I'd ever make. But I find myself filled with admiration at the emotional charge it packs and how much more it feels like what war must feel like than anything else I've played. There's plenty to be learned from that game.
Other stuff... I recently went back and started replaying F.E.A.R. And find myself strangely reluctant to play it after dark, or when I'm alone in the house. (Okay, I'm a wuss...) Any game that evokes that kind of response is an inspiration.
I'm pretty psyched that Ritual's going episodic with Sin and releasing on Steam. I've been spouting off for a while now about how digital distribution is part of our future and it's nice to see people trying it.
Psychonauts and Guitar Hero are inspirational in that friends of mine are getting to make games they're passionate about, games that are admirably out of the mainstream but still successful. Hard not to be heartened by that.
Eurogamer: What's the most under-rated game you've played recently?
Warren Spector: I can't really think of anything. Sorry. Like I said, most games disappoint me these days rather than impress me.
Eurogamer: And now if you're brave you'll answer this one: which acclaimed games really haven't deserved it?
Warren Spector: Oh, man, look at the not-braveness of me! No way I'm touching that! Nice try, though.
Warren Spector is president of Junction Point Studios, and has worked on lots of games you've played that were brilliant, including Deus Ex and Thief. He also likes Psychonauts, so buy his stuff. Join us again - we're expecting Gabe Newell's indignant email momentarily.