120 Memorable Warren Spector Quotes

We selected a few words of wisdom that the creator of System Shock and Deus Ex has to share, ranging from his thoughts on game development to collaboration with Disney

Warren Spector is a legendary game designer who worked on such famous franchises as System Shock and Deus Ex and made a big impact on the development of the immersive sim genre. He is also known to have developed Disney’s Epic Mickey and written The DuckTales comics.

See below what he has to say on various topics, including the games he worked on, working experience, his love for Disney, and more.

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Warren Spector at GDC 2019

Warren Spector's Commandments of Game Design

  1. Always Show the Goal. Players should see their next goal (or encounter an intriguing mystery) before they can achieve (or explain) it.
  2. Problems not Puzzles. It's an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer's mind.
  3. Multiple solutions. There should always be more than one way to get past a game obstacle. Always. Whether preplanned (weak!), or natural, growing out of the interaction of player abilities and simulation (better!) never say the words, “This is where the player does X” about a mission or situation within a mission.
  4. No Forced Failure. Failure isn't fun. Getting knocked unconscious and waking up in a strange place or finding yourself standing over dead bodies while holding a smoking gun can be cool story elements, but situations the player has no chance to react to are bad. Use forced failure sparingly, to drive the story forward but don't overuse this technique!
  5. It's the Characters, Stupid. Roleplaying is about interacting with other characters in a variety of ways (not just combat… not just conversation…). The choice of interaction style should always be the player's, not the designer's.
  6. Players Do; NPCs Watch. It's no fun to watch an NPC do something cool. If it's a cool thing, let the player do it. If it's a boring or mundane thing, don't even let the player think about it - let an NPC do it.
  7. Games Get Harder, Players Get Smarter. Make sure game difficulty escalates as players become more accustomed to the interface and more familiar with the game world. Make sure player rewards make players more powerful as the game goes on and becomes more difficult. Never throw players into a situation their skills and smarts make frustratingly difficult to overcome.
  8. Pat Your Player on the Back. Random rewards drive players onward. Make sure you reward players regularly and frequently, but unpredictably. And make sure the rewards get more impressive as the game goes on and challenges become more difficult.
  9. Think 3D. An effective 3D level cannot be laid out on graph paper. Paper maps may be a good starting point (though even that's under limited circumstances). A 3D game map must take into account things over the player's head and under the player's feet. If there's no need to look up and down - constantly - make a 2D game!
  10. Think Interconnected. Maps in a 3D game world feature massive interconnectivity. Tunnels that go direct from Point A to Point B are bad; loops (horizontal and vertical) and areas with multiple entrance and exit points are good.

On Deus Ex

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The original Deus Ex was developed by Ion Storm and released in 2000

The reality, for me at least, is that the finest recreation of a paper game, played on computer, pales in comparison with the actual, face-to-face experience.

I remember on Deus Ex there was one programmer – Alex Durand, a guy who still works for us – he decided he was going to get through the game without ever using a weapon. I would never think to do that. And that's fine.

I remember having some problems with [the Deus Ex theme] when I first heard it and I was trying to figure out how to tell [Alex Brandon] I wanted changes. But then I noticed that I couldn't get it out of my mind. I was whistling or humming it to myself all the time. So I just kept my mouth shut and let it be. I think it's a highly addictive tune.

On immersive sims

If I play a shooter or a stealth game and I'm not good enough, all I can do is stop playing. In the immersive simulation, if the combat or stealth is too hard, you try something else.

[Immersive sims] not going to disappear. Well, if it does, I'm going to disappear. By choice.

On games in general

For me, the cool thing is doing things that could only be done in gaming.

People perceive games as being for kids, and I think that perception is going to change. Time is going to take care of that. I mean, we've already won. Games have won; it's inevitable.

Honestly, there have been some pretty good Marvel games, but I don't think there's ever been a great one.

I started playing video games, and in 1978 I discovered Dungeons & Dragons and started game-mastering and writing my own adventures and creating my own worlds.

I think plenty of games – from Thief to Zelda – have shown that sneaking around can be fun.

Used games allow more people, specifically younger people, to become game fans because of the lower price point.

My first encounter with video games was pretty conventional. I was travelling with my parents — we used to take long cross country trips in the United States every summer - and we went into a restaurant where there happened to be a Pong machine, and I was... a lot of quarters went into that Pong machine, let's just say.

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A Pong machine at the Computer Game Museum in Berlin

I have got no problem with used games. I've bought plenty of used games.

I will not support any game that doesn't express what I think is worthwhile.

The more people who game, the better for everyone.

On the small scale, Ico, I think, actually delivered a small new thing: holding a character's hand and really feeling like your job is to rescue this person, and establishing a personal connection.

Half-Life is the finest implementation of a game on rails anybody has ever done.

I have never been able to understand why players expect games to fill up 15 to 100 hours of their lives. No other medium is like that... a single game is roughly equivalent to an entire season of television.

In papergaming, players can look at a character sheet of their own creation and see all of their skills, right there, in black and white.

When discussing the history of games and its readings:

I think we’re still very much in the early days of games criticism. We live in a world of reviews, purely functional and aimed at enthusiasts, and, at the same time, in a world of hardcore, academic, no-one-but-academics-can-understand-or-care work.

On game development

As of now, Warren Spector and OtherSide Entertainment studio are developing System Shock 3

I've said many times that my entire career as a game developer has been about trying to recreate the feeling I got the first time I played Dungeons & Dragons.

When you're dealing with a new platform, the real trick is just getting the game running.

I want my little corner of the world where I get to make games where you're not trying to win or lose; you're not trying to get a higher score — you are having unbelievable amounts of fun as you learn about yourself and the world. That's what games can do!

Every game has to teach you how to walk, run, talk, use.

Once we can do Pixar-quality graphics rendered in real time with interactivity, I could see games costing $200 million to make, and all of a sudden you have to sell a lot of games just to break even, so I'm a little worried someone's going to do that.

We set up a situation and let you interact with it and see the consequences of your choice. That's what gaming does.

If anything, game development is even more of a team effort than making a movie, so for individuals to get credit for making a game is absolutely insane.

It's about players making choices as they play, and then dealing with the consequences of those choices. It's about you telling your story, not me telling mine. It's about you.

I often get painted as the guy who's trying to tell other people what to make and what to like, and that's really not my goal, but I believe so passionately that games can be more than a lot of people think they can.

If you're not passionate about your work – whether your work is directing a game, publishing a game, selling a game, testing a game, proofreading text, whatever – how can you expect players to be passionate about your work?

I'm sure a lot of the hardcore folks are going to be up in arms and I'm really looking forward to getting into that discussion with them. I don't believe I'm compromising on my gameplay ideals at all. [But] any artist who doesn't want his or her work in front of the largest audience possible is nuts.

I've got a PowerPoint deck that I use for internal presentations, and there's a slide on it that asks, 'What percentage of your game is combat versus exploration versus puzzle solving versus platforming,' and I refuse to answer that question.

The heart of the gameplay is still about choice and consequence, which is what I've been doing since the '80s.

While speaking about Spector's class at University of Texas:

We talk a lot about what a leader is, how leadership is distinct from management because they're not the same thing, though they're often confused. That's kind of the starting point: How do you conceptualize a game and get it going and create that vision, and then how do you lead a team to create the final product?

When I think about games, I think about each game as a vehicle for asking your players to think about something specific. But, more than that, you want players thinking in a very specific way. By that I mean that I think of games as 'the questioning medium.'

I think the power of the platforms is outstripping the size of the audience. We can't charge $150 for a game. And when the best-selling game of all time has sold only 20 million copies at $60, do the math!

Gamers both demand and deserve novelty. They need something new. As a game developer, one of my rules is there will be at least one thing in every game that I worked on that no one on the planet has seen before.

Game designers want to create puzzles that stump players, and the joy for players is to figure out how to solve the puzzle. But in our games, it's not about that. It's about creating problem spaces and then letting players solve the problem the way they want.

Ultimately, all I wanted was for players to feel like they were in the real world. I wanted them to be able to apply real world common sense to the problems confronting them, and I thought recreating real world locations would encourage that kind of thinking. There's also just a real power, a real thrill, when you fire up a game and see a place you've been or want to go, and then get to do all the stuff you WANT to do there but know you'll get arrested if you try! If that isn't the stuff of fantasy – far more than exploring some goofy dwarven mine or alien spaceship – I don't know what is!

Creating a really believable world is just insanely hard.

Anyone who says they want to make a game that becomes a cult classic is kinda screwy, right? I mean, you want to reach the largest audience you can.

Gamers are everywhere, coming in all ages and genders, and developers have grown up, too.

It's not how clever and creative I am. It's how clever and creative you are, you know? It's about me getting off the stage and letting the player [become] the actor.

I don't even make multiplayer games much, so dealing with multiple characters is something new for me — or, rather, something I've had to recall from my days as a roleplaying adventure designer where the party was everything!

The concept of emergent gameplay is really exciting. That's when players are really crafting their own experience. So if you're clever and creative, you can do things that even developers of the game didn't know were possible.

Games are unique among all media, among all art forms. We are not novels. We are not movies. We aren't television. We shouldn't try to be like that. We can do things that no other medium in human history has ever been able to do. We have to focus our energy on those things, the things that make us unique.

I have never been assigned a game, I have never made a game I didn't want to make. I've never done anything just to make somebody some money.

I make M-rated games for adults, you know, with guys wearing sunglasses at night and trench coats.

Seriously, I don't know if people would really tell you this. But in my dream world, the people who work for you would say, 'Wow, I didn't know I could do that until I started working with that guy.'

Third-person camera is way harder than I even imagined it could be. It is the hardest problem in video game development. Everybody gets it wrong. It's just a question of how close to right do you get it.

Games are not about being told things. If you want to tell people things, write a book or make a movie. Games are dialogues – and dialogue requires both parties to take the floor once in a while.

For most developers, that kind of situation — a player figuring out how to do something that the designer didn't intend — to most developers, that's a bug. For me, that's a celebration.

From a gameplay standpoint, I've said for years that hero, fiction, and tone have nothing to do with the idea that choices have consequences. And that's really what I'm interested in. I care about you showing how clever and creative you are.

I think there's always room for more innovation and new things.

The fact is most computer roleplaying games that offer a zillion highly specialized skills end up with nine-tenths of a zillion skills that every player quickly realizes aren't worth the experience points to buy.

The only morality I'm interested in is the morality between your ears, between each player's ears, because that's the interesting thing to me.

I've made plenty of violent games in my life. I play violent games. They don't affect people in the way that a lot of people think they do. They just don't. It's demonstrably true that they don't, and anybody who thinks they do is just not thinking.

On how Spector's past game work shapes his feedback and direction on new projects (i.e. Underworld Ascendant):

Other people may not see this, but every game I've worked on is like the same game. They're all like steps on an evolutionary path, and you just try and do it better and better. What you're trying to do better is empowering players to tell their own story.

Good stories are constructed, not found.

If we're going to reach a broader audience, we have to stop thinking about that audience strictly in terms of teenage boys or even teenage girls. We need to think about things that are relevant to normal humans and not just the geeks we used to be.

I've always said — I've been making games for twenty years, and from the first day I got in this business, I've been saying, 'All I have to do is sell one more copy than I have to, to get somebody to fund my next one.’

I kind of get a next-gen game machine, but competing for the home entertainment business? We'll see how that goes.

The reason our games generate so much revenue is because we're stupid enough to charge $60 for a box or $50 for a download or something. You need used games because most people can't afford those prices.

I've got friends who are literally working alone on indie games that have no prospect of profit or commercial success. I've got guys working on iPhone games.

The only thing I insist that everybody do is there has to be a basketball court in every game I do, and — with one exception, I let them get away with it once - you can actually shoot a ball through the basket in every game I've made.

Basketball court in the first Deus Ex

I have never made a game that wasn't explicitly about empowering players to tell their own story.

The magic of our media is that we're the first medium in human history that lets noncreative people or creative people be the authors of their own tales.

I don't know about you, but I'm both confused and humbled by the current complexity of our industry and the state of our medium. I've said repeatedly over the last two or three years that the coolest thing happening in gaming is that everything is happening in gaming.

I have no interest in guys who wear armor and swing big swords.

On the past experience and future plans

Let me tell you, writing comics is as hard as anything I've ever done — for me, at least. I'm now officially in awe of guys who can crank out multiple books a month and maintain a high level of quality. Comics are completely different than any other medium I've dabbled in.

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Spector was a writer of Boom! Studios' DuckTales series

Before I got into electronic games, I was making table-top games.

I was lucky enough to go to an all-boys prep school in upstate New York that had a film program, so we had access to 16mm Bolex cameras, Nagra sound recorders, Arriflex cameras. We even had an Oxberry animation stand!

Ideas are nothing. They're irrelevant. If you think your idea is so important, you're doomed. The reality is if you don't like one idea, I've got 299 more. If I tell you my idea, and you can execute better against that idea than I can — great; I get to play a terrific game.

I was amazed at how the life of a freelancer differed from running a remote studio for another company. I thought I knew what I was doing in 2004 when I left Eidos because I had run Ion Storm Austin, which was my own independent studio. I had run a business unit inside Origin, but being part of a startup is crazy.

I would love to take Ultima Underworld and literally update the graphics.

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Developed in 1992, Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss is considered to be the pioneer of the immersive sim genre

My wife, Caroline Spector, and I pitched some comic ideas to various publishers back in the '80s, but nothing ever came of it.

I have been the last space marine between earth and an alien invasion. I really just don't need to go there anymore.

Here's the thing: I left Ion Storm and Eidos in the spring of 2004 frankly because I felt out of place at that company.

I gotta do what I think is right, and if enough people like it, I'm a winner. And if they don't, I'll open a bookstore.

I don't want to make games for 12-year-olds. I have no interest in that. I haven't been 12 in a long time.

We're not going to do a Facebook game aimed at 35-year old women about farming.

The Junction Point journey is over. To all those who've asked, or want to ask, I'm sad but excited for the future.

On movies and cartoons

In cartoons, in movies, time passes differently. There are flashbacks and flashfowards.

I used to teach animation history classes at the University of Texas, and I wrote my master's thesis on cartoons. I just love cartoons.

Ray Harryhausen's Sinbad picture was the first film I remember seeing. I was two years old when it came out, and it changed my life forever. I had nightmares about dragons and stuff for years — and loved it!

I've loved cartoons all along. Most people outgrow that when they hit 10 or 12, I guess, but I never did. I'm not sure why.

On Disney

The basic idea for what became Epic Mickey began at the meeting called Disney Think Tank, after which Disney acquired Junction Point Studios to develop the new title

My greatest joy is seeing parents and kids playing Disney Epic Mickey together, handing the controllers back and forth, helping each other out.

I said to myself as Junction Point embarked on the Epic Mickey journey that, worst case, we'd be 'a footnote in Disney history.' Looking back on it, I think we did far better than that.

Kids, adults, men, women, everybody has a relationship with Mickey Mouse.

Dude, I turn into a six-year-old when I come to Disneyland. It's amazing. My eyes glass over and my blood pressure goes down. I'm just like everybody else. I turn into a big kid when I come here. It's the happiest place on earth, right?

In the electronic game world, I know I have a reputation for doing the cyberpunk thing, and for doing the serious epic fantasy thing, but if you go back to when I was a kid, I've been a Disney fan all my life.

I like Disney stuff. No-one looks at Toy Story and says, 'Oh, that's just for kids.' Why is it that games can only appeal to a certain audience, but movies and books — I mean, how many adults read Harry Potter?

Oswald is an interesting character. Disney lost the rights to him in 1928 to Universal, who was distributing the cartoons and basically handed him over to Walter Lantz.

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Oswald the Lucky Rabbit

Whether it's as the hero of an adventure story, as teacher and friend, as icon on watch, shirt or hat – everyone knows Mickey Mouse.

Everyone at Junction Point has been inspired by the creative folks at Pixar and Disney Feature Animation to make 'entertainment for everyone.

I've done a pretty good job of hitting 18-34-year-old males, and not such a good job of reaching kids. Disney has done a great job of reaching kids, but maybe not the 18-34-year-olds. I figure I can learn a lot from Disney, and maybe, I don't know, they can learn a lot from me.

The Disney archives, it's 84 years of history. The one way in which I feel I'm a kindred spirit with Walt Disney is that neither one of us ever throws anything away. He never threw anything away.

As far as the timing, well, I'd write that off to luck as much as anything – I happened to be out looking for a development deal, and Disney happened to think my team and I might be the right people to make a Mickey Mouse game.

The DuckTales ensemble is clearly critical. There's the core set of characters — Scrooge, Webby, Launchpad, Huey, Dewey and Louie... Plus there's Gyro and Duckworth and Mrs. Beakley and so on. The cast is huge.

On Nintendo

I don't care much about hardware. Nintendo games are some of the best games in the world, and from a more graphical standpoint, the Wii can't do what a PS3 or 360 can do.

The transition from the original Xbox to the Wii wasn't a big deal for my team. The business hadn't changed fundamentally.

The Wii U is pretty cool, and the thing that I'm most intrigued about it is it's the first gaming platform that actually is exploiting the second screen.

I'm a Nintendo geek, so I'm a pretty big Nintendo fan.

On losing access to digital products

I'm a huge fan of e-books, but the more I buy and download, the more I worry that someone could just take them all away from me.

We live in a world of virtual goods where none of us own the 0s and 1s. What are you going to do?

On miscellaneous topics

I'm a big believer in pushing things too far and forcing people to pull you back.

Finney is about the best writer of time travel stories ever, and I adore time travel stories – have to make a time travel game someday!

Whatever adults don't understand, because they didn't grow up with it, is the thing they're going to be afraid of and try to legislate out of existence. It happened with videogames, it happened with television, it happened with pinball parlours and rock and roll.

I want content that is relevant to my life, that is relevant to me, that is set in the real world.

I do not believe in the concept of good and evil in my personal life, in the real world. I just don't believe it. I never try to judge.

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