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You Don’t Have as Much Control in Videogames as You Think

Warren Spector spent 10 years playing Dungeons & Dragons with science fiction author Bruce Sterling, who was a brilliantly improvisational Dungeon Master. The players were free to do whatever they wanted, an experience so powerful that Spector spent decades trying to recreate it on a computer. He got his start working alongside visionary game designers Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts at Origin.

“There was this real sense—it was tangible, you could feel it—that we were going to change the world,” Spector says in Episode 193 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And that is a pretty powerful thing to believe.”

Spector didn’t care for the Dungeons & Dragons computer games, which focused almost exclusively on combat. Instead he was drawn to Garriott’s Ultima series, with its focus on character and story.

“He wasn’t just making what we called ‘Monty Haul’ dungeons,” Spector says, “where you would break down a door, fight the monster in the room, grab the treasure, and then break down the next door and fight the next monster and grab the next treasure. He was really telling stories that were about something.”

In recent years Spector, Garriott, and Roberts all drifted away from game design, wary of the restrictions imposed by an increasingly large and corporate game industry. But the advent of crowdfunding allowed them to return to the field with projects like Underworld Ascendant, Shroud of the Avatar, and Star Citizen. Spector warns that crowdfunding is no panacea, but he says it does present options for game designers.

“We’re seeing variety in games now that we haven’t seen in decades,” he says. “So it’s a pretty exciting time.”

He hopes more game designers will focus on creating characters who can respond intelligently to anything that players say, which is the only way that video games will ever be able to replicate the experience of a tabletop RPG.

“I have confidence that we’ll get there,” he says. “Someone’s going to figure out how to do—not perfect characters—but emotionally compelling characters that can contribute to a player’s story instead of a writer’s story.”

Listen to our complete interview with Warren Spector in Episode 193 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Warren Spector on cyberpunk:

“Guys like William Gibson and a bunch of the other cyberpunk writers would come to town. Austin was a pretty happening place in the cyberpunk science fiction scene at that time, in the late ’70s, early ’80s. So it was a pretty cool time to be here. … There was this real sense that—they certainly felt it, and all of us around certainly felt it, that they were changing the world. They were rebellious and fighting against the orthodoxy of science fiction. I don’t know if they ever put it in these terms, but I certainly thought, ‘Hey, they’re out there to destroy the Asimovs and Heinleins of the world, and show the world of science fiction that there was a new sheriff in town.’ And I think they pretty much succeeded at that.”

Warren Spector on Origin:

“One of the most important lessons I learned from [Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts] when I first started working at Origin was the power of a clear, compelling vision. … They always have a vision, and they are uncompromising in the realization of that vision. … There was some magic to being part of Origin, and one of my minor regrets is—when I was working there, I think I was the 26th person hired by the company, and I really thought I was going to retire from Origin and get a gold watch and all that. And that’s just not the way this business works. … But it was a very special place, there’s no doubt. And the fact that it was a special place helped us create special games.”

Warren Spector on dialogue:

“It’s very easy for us to simulate the pulling of a virtual trigger, and it’s very, very hard for us to simulate a conversation. I defy anybody to show me a conversation system in a game today that isn’t identical to the conversation systems that Richard Garriott was using in the ’80s. The big innovation in conversation systems now is that there’s a timer on your choice on the branching tree. And I just don’t think that’s good enough. But again, if I knew how to solve that problem I would. I’m not disparaging everybody in the game business. What I am saying is, I wish we would spend a little bit less time on combat AI and a little bit more on non-combat AI—on creating characters you can bond with on an emotional level.”

Warren Spector on game design:

“I actually have a mission statement that I’ve carried with me for the last 15 years, from one studio to another, that’s all about player empowerment, and players telling their own story, and sharing authorship with players. I’ve got a 12-page version that no one would read, and an eight-page version that no one would read, and a four-page version that no one would read, and a two-page version that no one would read, and a one-page, and a paragraph. Finally I got so sick and tired of [no one reading it] that I boiled it down to two words: playstyle matters. How the player decides to interact with your game and your game world is the only thing that matters, and the world should notice and respond appropriately to that.”

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