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Warren Spector on game development

Part 1: On formats, models, and differing design philosophies.
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.

Obviously next-gen games look nice, but we're 'doomed' if we simply increase poly counts, says Spector.
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...

Spector: It's not a 'waste' to spend time developing content some players won't see.
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.

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About the Author

Kristan Reed avatar

Kristan Reed


Kristan is a former editor of Eurogamer, dad, Stone Roses bore and Norwich City supporter who sometimes mutters optimistically about Team Silent getting back together.


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