WARREN SPECTOR – Veteran Game Designer

June 24, 2006 — Leave a comment

David Perry Comments: Warren Spector is commonly listed in the “Designer Game God’s” List. You see his name in there with people like Shigeru Miyamoto, Will Wright, Peter Molyneux etc. As a list goes, it’s pretty great company! So when you meet Warren and see just how passionate he is about games, and especially game design, you realize why he’s made it onto that list. On top of that, he’s also a really nice guy, so it’s no surprise that people want to work with him on projects, as you can GUARANTEE it will be something big, epic and creative.
Despite having his own projects and company to run, he ALWAYS dedicates time back to the industry to help in any way he can. Doing this interview is a great example, or the fact that he supports the Game Developers Conference so well.
He’s a veteran going back to the days of designing pen and paper games, and in his interview, we get to hear what the mind behind such classic games as Ultima Underworld, System Shock, and Deus Ex has to say about a career in the Video Game Industry.
Sit back and enjoy…

What did your mother want you to do as a career? Surely, it couldn’t have been to make professional video games!?

I honestly think my mother would have been happy with any career choice I made – as long as it was a legitimate career, with a solid future. Needless to say, “game development” and “solid future” didn’t go together very well back in 1983, when I got into this crazy business! I think she expected me to be a lawyer or a college professor and she cried for years when I transferred from a journalism program at Northwestern University into the Radio-TV-Film department! She settled down when I said I was going to be an RTF prof, came crashing down when I gave that up to make games and settled down again when making games ended up being as high profile as it ended up being! My mom’s been on quite the roller coaster ride. Sorry, mom!

What would you say to my mother, to get her off my back and let me make professional video games as a career?

There really wasn’t anything I could say to MY mom to get her off my back. What it took was two things, both out of my control, really. First, a cousin of mine went into a software store (this was back in, like, 1990) and asked the sales guy what game he should buy for a teenage boy’s birthday present. The guy pointed out a game I’d worked on. My name was on the back of the box and everything. About half an hour later, I went from being the black sheep of my family to being a role model! Second, there came a point where game developers actually started getting paid pretty well. Just the knowledge that I was getting paid more than my dad ever did was a big selling point.

Tell us about your start in the industry. What was your life like when you were younger and hungrier?

Gosh, I don’t know where to start… I was a total geek growing up. Not athletic, always reading, total film fanatic. I had a movie-a-day, seven-day-a-week movie habit through most of high school and all of college. And THEN I picked up D&D in 1978. Most people went from board games to D&D but I took the opposite approach. Roleplaying led to board games for me. I played a LOT of games and saw a LOT of movies. It was a totally slacker lifestyle (and I loved it!). Anyway, in 1983, I’d been in grad school for $%^$%%^ years. I was teaching a bunch of courses but, to make a long story short, got a call from a gaming buddy who worked at a small board game company, Steve Jackson Games, asking if I was interested in a minimum wage job as an assistant editor. Hm. Get a non-tenure track position teaching film history at Podunk State University of Southern West Virginia or make games? (Cue Ma Spector crying). I took the job. From there, I went to TSR in 1987 and, when it seemed obvious that the paper game business had, let’s be generous, peaked, I jumped to the computer game business, joining Origin as an associate producer. That was in 1989. The rest is history. Or something like it.

It’s pretty tough (almost damn impossible) to get hired without industry experience on a resume. Should I lie? It’s the standard Catch-22, need a job to get experience, need experience to get a job. Imagine you are me, caught in the 22 — what the heck would you do?

I don’t know that it’s as hard to get into games as it used to be. The industry’s bigger than it’s ever been and, in Austin alone, I know of three studios that are looking to add between 25 and 100 people to their rosters in the coming year. Teams are getting bigger, so there are more openings than ever. How do you get one of those openings if you don’t have a resume yet? Well, there are the time-tested approaches: Get a QA position somewhere or work on a mod for an existing game. Most companies take on entry level people as testers – you need a love of games, an analytical mindset and strong communication skills, but experience isn’t necessary. And you get to interact with dev teams and show ’em what you’ve got. The mod community is kind of our minor league. If you can work on a mod team and ship something – something good – you’re in pretty good shape. Beyond those two old-school approaches to breaking in, there are colleges and universities around the world offering development courses and degrees. The education route isn’t a slam dunk, but it’s getting there. Check out the IGDA website (http://www.igda.org/academia/) for a look at the games education scene.

People that never went to college in the video games business swear blind that colleges aren’t needed to get a job. Are they for real? Should I burn my books now?

College isn’t needed, it’s true. I’m an over-educated, used-to-be professional student and it took me a while to get past the belief that everyone should go to college, but a couple years in this business and you start to realize it just ain’t so. Some of the most successful people I know in the biz dropped out of college or never went at all. Of course, they’re also some of the smartest, most creative, most talented, most driven people I know! If you don’t have ALL of those qualities, college might not be a bad idea for you! And now that there are colleges offering game studies degrees, the education route makes more sense than it used to, even if you know with total certainty your future lies in gaming.

How did you get your big break? Did you claw your way out of the testers’ pit? Did you sleep your way to the top? Did you sleep at all?

I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I had a gaming buddy who got a job at Steve Jackson Games and recommended me for a job there. When I was at TSR, an ex-Steve Jackson Games co-worker who’d gone to work at Origin recommended me for a job THERE. My route into gaming was unique and definitely not a model for anyone else! To your question about sleep, I got into this business when I was younger and didn’t need sleep, and when the business was small enough that sleep was only for the weak – or for people who weren’t committed enough to survive and thrive. None of us WANTED to sleep – we were having too much fun changing the world.

Tell us about the first time you felt star-struck when meeting a leading game developer (and no, we won’t tell Mr. Miyamoto your real name). Do you even realize that some people will get butterflies in their stomach when first meeting you?

I don’t know that I was star-struck, exactly, when I first met Richard Garriott, but I certainly knew I was in the presence of someone really special. I remember meeting Brian Fargo, from Interplay, at the first GDC I attended and thinking, “Wow, this is too cool.” I was a big fan of Interplay’s stuff. And, at that same GDC, I remember going to a lecture given by Joe Ybarra, at that time, a big-time EA producer, and thinking “I will never know as much about games as this guy.” I got to know Joe, years later, which was pretty cool. As far as Mr. Miyamoto goes, I’ve never met the guy, partly by chance and partly by choice – I suspect if I ever met him I’d just drool and stammer like an idiot.

Without using terms like “indentured servant” or “voluntary servitude,” please describe your ideal protege.

The word “protege” is so condescending it’s hard for me to use it in relation to myself and another human being. I’d like to think that I’ve helped a bunch of people along in their careers over the years. But all those folks (who I won’t embarrass by naming them) worked hard and walked through a lot of doors as a result of their hard work, but I hope I maybe opened those doors for ’em. Anyway, you want anyone you work with to be smart, articulate, and inquisitive, as well as hard-working. I get into trouble a lot times because I love people who are truly argumentative – I don’t believe you get greatness from consensus; greatness requires conflict. I have no use for people who aren’t passionate about things. If you’re not willing to fight for an idea, if you don’t stand for something, we’re not likely to work well together. (Of course, if you stand for something I think is boneheaded, that won’t work either!).

Let’s say I was interviewing with you tomorrow. Short of showing up drunk and naked, what could I say or do to completely ruin my shot? And what could I do to totally win your heart?

The quickest way to be shown the door is to exhibit even a hint of contempt for games. I don’t want to work with people who see games as a stepping stone to Hollywood, or who think games are just for kids. I have no interest in working with people who are satisfied with games as they are. I have no interest in people whose entire experience of life and culture is game-playing, comic books and D&D. Show me that you love games and see yourself playing them as you grow and change. Show me that you have a vision of what games can and should be to continue to evolve as a medium. And on a more functional level, show me that you’re familiar with the games my studio makes and that you actively want to make THAT kind of game. This business is too all-consuming to work on stuff you don’t love.

Let’s look several years into the future for a moment. Should I even bother learning today’s skills? Surely they’ll have completely changed by the time I get out of college? What kinds of jobs are absolutely ‘rock-solid’, and will undoubtedly still be around 5-10 years from now? And what new jobs do you think might exist that nobody has quite pinned down just yet?

I’m like the world’s worst prognosticator. I don’t know what games are going to be like in ten years and, even now, thinking about how to structure development teams and processes for “next gen” titles is giving me ulcers. The key is, I think, to make sure you’re constantly learning and expanding your skill set. You have to keep up, embrace life-long-learning. If I have a beef with games education as it currently exists it’s that a lot of schools focus on button-pushing – on how to use a specific tool to accomplish a specific current need. We need more of a focus on concepts and less on tools, I think.

How much stock do you put in the emerging game design programs at universities? Does it matter more to you that an interviewee knows the history of and theory behind The Third-Person Action MMO/Puzzle Platformer Hybrid, or is all about the demo he/she shows up with?

I’ve already talked about games education in answer to earlier questions and I hope it’s clear that I’m a big believer. But, just as film studies programs graduate about a gazillion people every year who never make movies, game studies programs aren’t a golden ticket guaranteeing a job. A game degree doesn’t hurt, but you’ll still need a demo… you’ll still need strong communication skills… and so on. I do think that as the industry expands and we get better at teaching game development, games education will play a larger role in preparing future Game Developers. Right now, you have to acknowledge that you’re a pioneer – and a lot of pioneers die before the wilderness gets civilized!

OK, just imagine three companies make me an offer (a guy has gotta dream!). They’re all kinda low-end jobs, and I need to move 3,000 miles to take any of them. How do I pick the right team? What would you look for?

Pick the company whose games you love and burn to make. And make sure there’s a great team-fit. You’re gonna live with the team (or, at least, spend more time with them than you probably want to!) so you better really like the team you’re on. If you really are a newbie, ask yourself if one of the companies has a mentoring program or, at least, someone you can learn from (someone who’s committed to teaching you). But, mostly, it’s team-fit and project that should be driving your decision.

Finally, there are a TON of game development colleges around the world now. Imagine you had to start again, and have all the choices I have — how would you pick? And how would you convince your mother to get out her checkbook?

As far as picking a program goes, if your goal is to get a job, I’d ask about grad placement rates – where have grads gotten jobs and what sorts of jobs have they gotten? I’d ask who’s teaching the courses and what experience they have. I’d make sure the program is project and team-focused rather than lecture focused. You need to learn about working with others to finish a product – find a place that will allow you to do that over and over again. I’d do some investigating with developers and publishers to see if there are preferences for and/or prejudices against specific programs. Of course, people might not want to tell you which programs they particularly like, but there ARE some programs that, when I see them on a resume, get me to sit up and take notice – find out what those programs are… As far as convincing mom to pay, get hold of the most recent salary survey published in Game Developer magazine. That should be ample evidence that there’s a real career here!

Thanks Warren! – So where can you find out more about Warren’s future games?

Just head on over to JUNCTION POINT STUDIOS.

Note: This series of interviews was conducted by one of our dperry.com contributors – Evan Shamoon.

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