“It’s weird,” says Warren Spector, reclining in his chair, “but your life devolves into specific moments.”
Warren Spector has a beard speckled with grey. Compared to most game developers we tend to meet and greet, he’s old. He has made choices in life and those choices have had consequences. That’s important, I think, and I know Warren Spector agrees.
Spector defines himself as a serial obsessive. He's gone from film critic, to Dungeons and Dragons hobbyist, to video game designer extraordinaire. Now he's attempting to redefine Mickey Mouse, the most recognisable pop culture icon of 20th century, and he's doing it on his own terms. Warren Spector has made bold decisions in his life, but they've paid off.
Sid Meier once described games as a series of interesting choices. Maybe they can be — Warren Spector has lived his professional life trying to create games that live up to that simple, profound definition.
But it all started with the roll of a dice.
Roll of the Dice
“It’s very sad,” says Spector. “The last time I played Dungeons and Dragons was in 1989. January of 1989. I was up in Lake Geneva working at TSR, where we were building a new game.
“Literally, and this is the gospel truth, I looked down at my hands. I had a 20-sided dice in one hand, and I had percentile dice in the other. I thought to myself, ‘which one am I going to use this time?’ Because you can get completely different games from that choice."
Then and there Warren Spector decided that he didn’t want to make that choice anymore.
“I thought, if that’s the biggest decision I have to make in my life, I gotta find something else to do.”
In 1990 Warren Spector found something else — creating video games at ORIGIN Systems. He left Dungeons and Dragons behind, but integrated a small piece of his former hobby into his design style.
“Dungeons and Dragons is all about friends sitting around together telling a story,” says Warren.
“A game master in Dungeons and Dragons creates a skeleton, creates a framework, but doesn't flesh out all the details. The players have to provide the 'I did this' part. I've spent the last 30 years trying to recreate that feeling.
“So when I got to Origin and started working with Richard Garriot on Ultima VI, it was just so refreshing, because he saw the same thing I did — or maybe I saw the same thing did — he saw the need to capture that idea of people telling stories together.”
Tell Stories Together
Together, Warren Spector and Richard Garriott would tell the story of Ultima VI: The False Profit, holing up in Garriot’s house to eke out the core of the game — and the core of Ultima VI was puzzles.
“Back then it was so primitive,” says Warren. “We sat at his house for two weeks and planned out every single quest, and every character and every location. The rule that he handed down to me was this: we're going to provide two puzzles for every part of the game.”
Two puzzles. One dice in each hand. But then, another life changing moment — a subversion — one that Warren Spector remembers vividly.
"There was this one spot," recalls Warren. "In all of Ultima VI, there were two ways to solve each puzzle, except this one spot. There was a portcullis. You're one side and the portcullis is on the other side. You're supposed to flip the level using a Telekenesis spell.
"I remember looking at the guy playing. His name was Marc Schaefgen, he was a tester. I spoke to him about this recently — he didn't even realise that he had changed the course of my personal history! He had a character in his party named Sherri the mouse and she was small. He sent her underneath the bottom of the portcullis, then he told her to stand next to the lever and flip it.
"This really was the moment. That guy saw a problem, came up with a plan to solve it, and it worked. He did something no-one in the world had ever done before. The creators of the game didn't know if it was possible."
That was the moment Warren Spector decided to try and recreate that moment, for the rest of his professional life.
Why The Long Face
Stop me if you've heard this one before. Warren Spector walks into a bar. He meets two undergrads. The undergrads say things that reaffirm his belief in what he does for a living.
"I gave a talk in New York City," remembers Warren, "which is where I grew up, so I felt really comfortable. I did something I don’t usually do — I went out for a drink with a group of people in the audience. I went out with them and I was sitting there nursing a drink when a guy, who was pretty tipsy came up to me and said, ‘how could you make that right wing piece of junk Deus Ex? How could you do that?’
"And before I could answer him another guy walked up and said, ‘right wing junk? It was left wing propaganda. The whole thing.’" Warren quickly made his excuses and left these two drunkards to their idealogical warfare, but the incident had an impact of him.
"Each of them played the game but it had given them completely different experiences," says Warren. "They saw different things, they did different things, they heard different things. Different people liked them and different people hated them. They were able to construct their own world through their play choices. Why would I ever do anything else with my life but allow that to happen?
"This is the only medium in the history of human kind that lets users be creative like that. If you watch a movie and go take a toilet break, you know that movie is unfolding in the exact same way every time whether you are there or not. The words of a book don’t rearrange themselves just because you put the book down.
"In 100 per cent of media other than video games — every single one of them in the history of planet earth —You have to sit there and listen to someone or something say, ‘this is what I think’. The only choice you get to make is do you agree or do you disagree.
"In Disney Epic Mickey, if you know what I think about the importance of family and friends, I’ve failed. But that game, that silly little game about a mouse and a rabbit, asks how important family and friends are to you. And it doesn’t matter what I think!"
A Series Of Choices
It doesn't necessarily matter what Warren Spector thinks, but Warren Spector the designer matters, his video games matter. He is one of the oldest designers still actively working in this industry. His body of work, the legacy he'll leave behind when he leaves video games, is a question that Warren is concerned with.
"As pathetic as it sounds, I think about this a lot. The word legacy started being important to me about 5 years ago, and it’s not about padding my record, it’s about leaving something behind.
"It’s about feeling like you made a difference. I could give a damn if I make a lot of money for somebody, Richard Garriot’s net worth is like 100 times mine. I don’t drive a Ferrari. But I hope people look back and say that I made a difference."
For someone so committed to the consequences of choice in game design, it makes perfect sense. Warren Spector's one wish, and the legacy he'd like to leave behind is simple: the choices he made, and the overwhelming hope that video games have changed for the better because he made them.