Since its creation in 2005, Warren Spector's Junction Point Studios has been quiet. Stories existed, whose details remained stubbornly elusive. It was working with Valve on something that'll be released through Steam. It was working on a massively multiplayer fantasy game... actually, no, now a single-player fantasy game, no now... well, you get the idea.
The first definite news came in July and it was a total surprise. Disney Interactive had acquired Junction Point Studios. This was, to say the least, unexpected. Warren Spector was known for adult-rated videogames. Disney weren't. Fascinating times ahead.
We had a chance to meet up on a recent trip to London. And while he was frustratingly unable to talk about his current project we picked his brains on the current state of gaming, BioShock, Deus Ex 3 and his expectations on people's reaction when his new game is finally released...
Eurogamer: Care to speculate what the hardcore gaming response will be?
Warren Spector: I don't have to speculate. I know what it's going to be. And I can't wait. Oh my God. It's going to be like the world came to an end. Absolutely. I'm going to be vilified. I'm going to be accused of selling out, yet again. It's going to be glorious. Just glorious.
Eurogamer: Net debate is always something to see.
Warren Spector: You see, there's always going to be people that you just can't reach. You can't worry about that. The anonymity of the forums brings out the extremes of people. And some people, you're never going to get. And some people, you can talk to. I want to talk to them. Things are not always what they seem.
Eurogamer: What do you mean by that?
Warren Spector: People are often so much a product of their time they don't know where things came from and what makes and made things in the past. There's a whole cool education and re-imagining thing you can do with properties... and, in fairness, a Disney may not be for everyone. And I'm okay with that. The bottom line is I've made something like eighteen games now, in some capacity. I've been producer, designer, director in eighteen big games, forgetting about mission packs. And I have no problems in saying I'm 52 years old. I'm one of the oldest people still actively engaged in game development in the world right now. There's probably 20 of us in my age bracket.
And I still love the medium, but there's a couple of factors. Firstly, my attitudes about life, the universe and everything have changed. And so I want to make games that more reflect my interests, and not so much the interests of an 18-year-old in a frat house who likes to frag. And there's also... well, game development requires an intense amount of energy. It requires a level of focus and dedication and belief and confidence and time. What it means, in an ideal world, I may work on five more games in my entire life. More likely probably three given how long they take.
Eurogamer: Talking about those past games, have you been in communication with anyone at Eidos Montreal about Deus Ex 3 yet?
Warren Spector: I haven't talked to people at Eidos Montreal, but I've talked to people inside Eidos about the Deus Ex 3 project. And... you know? It's hard for me to not be a part of it. I can't be, because of my employment situation. But their intentions are good. We'll just have to see. I'm concerned only because... for Invisible War, for all its successes and all the risks it took, it just proved how delicate the Deus Ex game style is. And so people who haven't worked on it... they'll bring something new to it, which is good, but will they understand what made it work? I don't know.
Eurogamer: It's not an easy job, no matter how you cut it.
Warren Spector: It is very hard. I don't envy them that job. But... I feel kind of weird, because in a sense it's still my baby. But you have to look forward. You've got to look forward. There certainly are enough challenges in my near future to keep me busy. And I'll try and stay focused on that, and not so much on what other people are doing. But they better not screw up JC Denton [laughs]. I'm looking forward to playing it. I'm trying to be Zen about it. It's another studio making games like "that". Whatever "that" is - the BioShock, Fable, Mass Effect, Thief, Deus Ex, Ultima sort of thing.
Eurogamer: You can kind of plot a timeline going forward with those sort of games. When you play one, you know there's not going to be anything similar, for a year minimum. So each one you pray they make a good job of it, as if enough of those games fail, they may get made anymore. Bioshock's success has got to be heartening - they found away to make it sell.
Warren Spector: The thing which just kills me is how hard it is. It was kind of a running joke at Ion Storm. I would bring in people from outside that Origin/Looking Glass circle, and they'd come in and I'd warn them - you don't understand what's about to happen to you. You don't understand how much harder what we do is to anything you've ever worked on. You don't understand how your experience - and though it's valuable, or we wouldn't be talking - is not as valuable as you think. And they'd all give me a knowing look. And a year later, pretty much to the day, they'd come back and go... you were right. So when a new bunch of guys get hold of something and try and make those games with player choice with real consequences and a storyline which isn't black and white, good and evil... I hope they know what they're doing. As it's way harder than anything.
Eurogamer: And there's player expectations issue to deal with. It's a problem either way. In fact, even if a game meets player expectation there's a problem - that faults in a game just become "just the way it is". For example, I traditionally hated all the "classic" Final Fantasy games - the cut-scene heavy nonsense was offensive to me. But, clearly, if I said it in a review as I'd be dismissed as a hater and mutilated online.
Warren Spector: And that's why you have a blog! And the sad thing is that, on my blog, I haven't done much game writing, which is kind of weird. Because I can't alienate all my friends and colleagues and potential employers. I find myself oddly constrained.
Eurogamer: Anyone in a creative field can feel constrained like that. It's why I try and keep a personal distance from developers, because I may be insulting them in the future. And I have to.
Warren Spector: It's your job to tell us when we're full of it. I would love to, at some point, to do - not a critique - an essay on BioShock in particular. There's so many things going on in there, and so many things that I question and so many things I admire... it'll be fun to write about that. But, again, I don't think it'll be appropriate to do that in the context of my life and career.
Eurogamer: So, what is interesting about BioShock?
Warren Spector: [Laughs] Let's not go there. If I'm going to talk about that, it'll be on my blog.
Eurogamer: Talking about playing games... Occasionally it seems to me that a lot of big industry figures aren't playing games, at least as much as they used to. Is that a blockage? That maybe people aren't being exposed to enough stuff they probably should be?
Warren Spector: That's certainly a risk. I don't know many people who continue to play games with the same intensity and the same rate as when they were just players. One of the things most people in my circle have found - I can't generalise too far and I may be flattering myself - is that I've gotten pretty good at playing a game for an hour, or two or five, and just knowing when I've learned all I'm going to learn. That's my typical model. I play an hour or two or five of a lot of games, and I don't get much further in them. But when a game comes along that I actually finish... that's a pretty rare and wondrous thing.
Eurogamer: Maybe that's one reason why Portal has done so well. It's three hours...
Warren Spector: A very interesting game. Seven students from DigiPen. Holy cow! With a lot of support from Valve, but... well, this is another way I'm going to be annoying all the hardcore guys, but I don't even want to play - let alone make - a 20-hour game anymore. Heresy! I want every person who plays my game to finish them. Not twenty or forty percent. Every person. There's so much competition for attention and dollars and everything else, if you make a great 6-12 hour game, you've provided great value for money. And you can really focus on making that experience spectacular. Now, we're still, as an industry - especially thanks to price points - we're at a point where you better be at the top end of that range. I don't think you can get away with a six-hour game. Ico was a six-hour game, which didn't do so well... and was an actual genius game. But I think there's a sweet spot in there where people get value for money and actually finish it and can play a bunch of games.
Eurogamer: Priced appropriately, I'm fine with really short games. Valves statistics are fascinating in that way - something like 50 percent of people didn't finish Half-life 2: Episode 1. And that's less than five hours. Scale that up to all games...
Warren Spector: Wow. That Orange Box though - talk about value for money. I was going to say that I can assure you that people will be playing TF2 at my office right now, but that's not the case. They better not be playing TF2 right now. Anyway - it's about creating a satisfying emotional experience. You don't need 40 hours to do that.
Warren Spector: The funny thing about teaching this class though [Warren is teaching a videogames class at the University of Texas, and once a week brings a gaming luminary in to talk in front of the students with for 3 hours]. I had Mike Morhaime, president of Blizzard, come in. I had Gordon Walton, who's been making multiplayer games forever - Sims Online, Star Wars Galaxies and the Austin Studio is doing Bioware's MMO. And Richard Garriott came in and talked about Tabula Rasa. And it just got me all fired up to make a multiplayer game. The Disney guys don't know, but I'm going to probably hit them up at some point, and say... let's do an MMO. C'mon! Let's try it. Let's show these guys how to do it right. Let's see if that happens. I'm kind of jazzed - it's kind of a cool challenge.
Eurogamer: Seeing how other games inspire other developers fascinates me.
Warren Spector: Read my blog, man, read my blog! I'm totally frustration driven. I literally don't start games until something about some other game frustrates me so much I have to destroy it. I have to go on a petulant two-year-old destroy-all-my-toys rampage. I mean... Thief frustrated me so much - as much as I loved it - I had to do Deus Ex. I was frustrated by Ultima VII, which is why I had to make Serpent Isle. I am now dramatically frustrated by another genre... which is driving me wild. [Warren Laughs, hard] We have to remake that genre. We have to show these guys that they are lame - it doesn't matter how many copies they sell! They are lame!