Warren Spector Talks VR, Underworld Ascendant, And The Value Of Designers

Deus Ex. Epic Mickey. Ultima Underworld. System Shock. System Shock 2. Thief: The Dark Project. Ultima 6. Wing Commander. This is the resume of a man whom commands respect, the resume of a man for whom the gaming industry will sit and listen. That man is Warren Spector. He’s coming down to Melbourne next week for PAX Australia, where he’ll be giving the keynote speech and doing a Let’s Play of the original Deus Ex.

I was given the chance to quiz the Ion Storm and Looking Glass developer on a range of topics, and I couldn’t help but start with VR. For someone who helped popularise cyberpunk in the modern age of video games with Deus Ex, Spector is decidedly downbeat on the technology.

Kotaku: Your views on the augmented reality vs virtual reality space are well established, with you describing “even the low hanging-fruit of AR gaming” as “compelling”. Regardless of which technology comes out ahead though, do you think gamers and developers are well placed to deal with some of the problems that VR and AR gaming might present? I’m thinking of instances where Google Glass wearers suddenly found they were accosted in the street by people who didn’t understand the technology, or the potential impact that total immersion might present?

Warren Spector: Well, I don’t think anyone’s going to be wearing VR headsets outdoors any time soon, so the Google Glass problem’s a non-issue! As far as AR goes, we’re still pretty far from having anything commercially viable that will take the tech outdoors, so it’d probably be best to leave answers to questions like this in the hands of experts.

As far as the immersion problems you mention, I think that’s the greatest strength of VR and AR, but also the biggest problem. VR, at least, requires total isolation from your surroundings, something that seems, well, bad. I don’t think the majority of people are so interested in immersion that they’re going to isolate themselves in order to join the VR revolution. And that’s just one of a host of human/psychological problems that have nothing to do with cool content.

I think VR will be huge in certain areas – training, communication, therapy … but for entertainment I think there are still some big non-technical, non-content issues to be addressed. Since I started talking publicly about VR I’ve made a point of talking to people working in the field and what I hear is that people are talking about and working to solve all the issues I’ve raised, which is, obviously, a good thing. I’d like to see VR succeed. And as a developer I have some ideas …

The big thing I’ve been thinking about recently is that VR isn’t just another screen to project games on – it’s a new medium, one that will have its own rules, conventions and techniques. I hope people approach it like that instead of just giving us platform games and shooters. That isn’t going to cut it, in my book.

Kotaku: You’re still the director of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy (DSGA): how is that going? How much has it benefited the graduates so far and what kind of feedback have you received about the academy in general?

Spector: The DSGA is going great. We had a solid first year — learned a lot, worked with some great students who are now out there working in the game business. I’m more convinced than ever that the program is unique and valuable. Our focus on leadership and management skills had a nice side effect we didn’t anticipate – learning those skills, so useful later in your career, makes you a more effective team member early in that career.

I’m confident our [graduates] will enter the workforce more ready to be part of a development team than folks who haven’t been through the program. As far as feedback goes, I’ve heard nothing but praise. There really does seem to be a gap in games education and we’re trying to fill it.

Kotaku: Australia’s federal Minister for Women recently, following the publication of a report into domestic violence attitudes, raised concerns about the potential for video games to contribute to harmful attitudes towards domestic violence. Do you think games and their creators take enough responsibility for their communities and the way themes, including abuse and violence, are portrayed?

Spector: I think the media effects argument is pretty tired, actually. Every new medium gets blamed for all social ills. Happened with movies and television and comic books … rock and roll and pinball … it’s happening to us now. People are always frightened of things they don’t understand – typically things they didn’t grow up with. When everyone’s a gamer (and we’re getting to that point awfully quickly), no one will be worried about games – we’ll all have too much personal experience that games are benign. This too shall pass.

Kotaku: In one interview about Underworld Ascendant you spoke about the ways Looking Glass tried to create simulated environments – with the technology that was available then. If you could go back and remake or update any Looking Glass game, which one would it be?

Spector: I’ve been saying for years that I’d love to see Ultima Underworld updated with new graphics, new sound and a new UI. It’d still be the state of the art in roleplaying. Which is pretty sad, actually, now that I think about it. But I guess one of the reasons I’m psyched about Underworld Ascendant is that there’s a chance to take all the UW ideas and bring them into the modern age.

(Note: Underworld Ascendant’s Kickstarter campaign was successful earlier this year and the developers last week posted the latest prototype of the game, which you can view below.)

Kotaku: You expressed a lot of surprise when Halfbrick – one of Australia’s most successful studios in recent times – fired their remaining designers in a move to take the studio in a different path. While development has evolved significantly in the time you’ve been in the industry, how important do you think designers are in the development process – and what problems do you think Halfbrick could encounter having laid off all their named designers?

Spector: Designers are critical to game development. I mean, I’m not even sure how to address the question. We’re about providing experiences to players. There has to be some human agent behind the experience. I mean, if you’re making a match three game, maybe you don’t need a dozen designers, but you better have at least one programmer or artist with the creative chops to come up with a match three game that isn’t just a clone of another game. And if you’re doing anything more complex than a match three game, of course you need designers. I realize I just said “you need designers because you need designers” but I think the whole question is kind of crazy.

Kotaku: A few games over the last year or two have used smartphones as controllers, rather than smartphones as a second screen. What more do you think could be done with smartphones in terms of gaming, not as a platform on its own but for enhancing games on the platforms we already play – and why have the current attempts not really worked?

Spector: I find the idea of games that exploit second screens intriguing, but I honestly haven’t given it much thought. I’m really interested in making games for a platform that has a billion users, but connecting it to another platform seems less interesting to me than that.

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