Warren Spector of Ion Storm (Part One)
Deus Ex designer interviewed
Even if you haven't heard of Warren Spector, the chances are that you have played one of the many games he has worked on over the years - Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Ultima VI, System Shock, Ultima Underworld, and even the original Wing Commander. And today he is at Ion Storm's Austin studio putting the finishing touches to Deus Ex, a stunning first person RPG based on the Unreal engine.
In the first installment of our two part interview with Warren, we talked to him about his long career in the gaming industry, during which he has worked at Steve Jackson Games, TSR, Origin and Looking Glass...
Let's start at the beginning...
"Back in 1983 I was teaching film and television courses at the University of Texas while I pursued my doctorate. For a variety of not very interesting reasons, the powers that be at UT decided to give my classes to another grad student, and I had no idea how I was going to pay my rent and all while I finished my degree."
"Then, out of the blue, a guy I'd worked with at the student newspaper called and said he'd gotten a job with Steve Jackson Games and they were looking for an Assistant Editor. He knew I was a game geek in my spare time and asked if I'd be interested. I jumped at it."
After a few years cutting his teeth with Steve Jackson though, Warren left to join one of the biggest role-playing game companies in the world - TSR. But before long he realised that all was not well in the world of RPGs...
"I had worked on a bunch of paper game stuff at SJG and TSR - TOON, GURPS, AD&D, Marvel Superheroes stuff... But one day I realized I was in a business that had, well, let's be generous and just say I thought it had plateaued, both from a business standpoint and a creative one."
It was time for Warren to move on again...
"I was playing these new-fangled computer games and loving them. Here was the future, clearly, but how to make the leap?"
"Again, fate took a hand. Denis Loubet, who had been an artist at Steve Jackson Games, called and told me he'd been hired at ORIGIN and they were looking for an Associate Producer. He asked if I'd be interested. I got interviewed and got the job. Took a paycut too, which, in retrospect, is kind of amazing!"
His leap of faith proved to well-placed though. The computer games industry was (and still is) growing rapidly, whereas the pencil and paper RPG companies were having a hard time of it. Even TSR fell eventually, bought out by trading card company Wizards of the Coast.
Meanwhile Warren was now working with some of the top names in the computer games industry, and learning from them all the time... "I started out soaking up every bit of information I could from Richard Garriott (with whom I worked on Ultima VI), and from Chris Roberts (with whom I worked on Wing Commander 1). That was an education, let me tell you!"
"After that, I began producing games myself, collaborating with some intensely talented people - Jeff George (Bad Blood and Martian Dreams), Bill Armintrout (Ultima VII, Part 2: Serpent Isle), and Bill Baldwin (Wings of Glory)."
"I also got the chance to work with the guys at Blue Sky Productions on Ultima Underworld. That was where I first met Doug Church, lead programmer and project director on Underworld, Underworld 2, and System Shock."
"Collaborating with Doug on those titles was probably the high point of my time at ORIGIN. He's a special and underappreciated guy in this business."
"ORIGIN was the Best Place in the World for much of the time I was there", Warren told us. But all good things come to an end...
"There came a time when they (or Electronic Arts, really) seemed not very interested in the kinds of games I wanted to make - first-person immersive simulation stuff."
"So when Paul Neurath and Looking Glass said, "We've done a bunch of games for you, why don't you come and work for us now?" I figured it was a good bet. At least I knew I wouldn't have to fight for support - the Looking Glass guys are the best in the world at the kind of games that get my shorts in a knot..."
"So I signed on with Looking Glass, worked briefly on Thief: The Dark Project (though my impact on that title was, at best, minimal), and a massively multiplayer project called Junction Point that, regretably, never got off the ground."
Unfortunately at this point things started to go pear-shaped. "I guess if I'd been willing to move to Boston, I might still be with Looking Glass. But I had convinced them to start an Austin office, which was probably a bad idea all around."
The Austin office proved to be something of a disaster for Looking Glass. "Eventually, we shut the Austin office down, which left me looking for work. That's when ION entered the picture..."
Over the years Warren has worked on a lot of classic games. We asked him which were his favourites, and whether any of the games he has worked on make him shudder in horror when he looks back at them today...
"Well, thanks for the kind words. If anything I've been involved with is a 'classic', it's because I've been lucky enough to work with some really smart, intensely talented, highly motivated people."
"As for which is my favorite? Couldn't say. I learned more working on Ultima VI than I have on any other project so, from that perspective, it could be called my favorite."
"Underworld probably changed my life, for more reasons than we have time to go into here, and I feel like we changed the world just a little bit with that title so, from that perspective, it might be my favorite."
"System Shock and Wings of Glory probably come closest to achieving what I consider to be the computer game ideal - they make me feel more like I'm Someplace Else than any other games I've been involved in - so maybe they are my favorites. Who knows?"
"As for games that make me shudder in horror? Yeah, there are a couple that still give me nightmares, but I'm going to keep my mouth shut about those!"
Next week we continue our interview with Warren Spector, talking with him about his arrival at Ion Storm, and of course Deus Ex.
What inspired the game? What makes it so special? What is the augmentation system, and what does it add to the game? And as Deus Ex nears completion, what can we expect next from Warren and his team at Ion Storm's Austin office?
We'll also be bringing you several new screenshots of the game in action, so be sure and come back next week for the second part of our interview with Warren Spector!