How Warren Spector got back to making his latest game

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It was a shock to the system in 2020 when OtherSide Entertainment, the video game studio founded by industry visionaries Paul Neurath and Warren Spector, laid off employees and stopped working on System Shock 3.

That game had a big base of fans who were eager for the latest installment in the series, but the project came to an end. But Spector and Neurath bounced back from that, and last week they announced that Spector is working on a new game and the studio had hired Jeff Goodsill as a new general manager.

I caught up with Spector — the developer behind games like System Shock, Deus Ex, and Epic Mickey — to talk about his latest views on the craft of game development. He said only that he is working on an immersive simulation based on a completely new intellectual property developed by OtherSide.

Spector isn’t saying much about that game yet, but he said he was excited to be involved in a new project at the independent game studio. Based in Concord, Mass., with staff in Austin, Texas and throughout the United States, OtherSide builds immersive experiences in which the player has the power to affect the world and narrative through gameplay choices. The studio is hiring for a variety of roles across the United States.

Spector talked about the revival that has come to games with the influx of new venture capital in the industry, his dedication to emergent gameplay, working during the pandemic, how young people can make their way in gaming, and his views on the metaverse and nonfungible tokens (NFTs).

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Warren Spector has been making games for decades.

GamesBeat: Can you fill in some of the blanks on how things have been going for you in the last few years with OtherSide? It seemed like work on System Shock 3 came to an end for you. I don’t know if that’s the right way to characterize it.

Warren Spector: We released a statement last year. There’s not much more to say at this point. Tencent is taking the franchise forward. It’ll be up to them to say what they want to say. There’s not much clarification I can give you.

GamesBeat: How long had you worked on that previously?

Spector: We worked on it in 2018 and 2019. That was it.

GamesBeat: How large had the studio gotten for that project?

Spector: I think we maxed out at 17.

GamesBeat: Was there a period of recovering from that, then? I think you had to downsize.

Spector: Yes, we did. There was certainly a period of personal recovery. I’m not sure how to say it. I take this personally, you know? Game development is not just a job to me. It took me a while to get my creative juices flowing again. And then COVID hit. The world got crazy.

GamesBeat: What seems good about the environment right now–we seem to be in a day when veteran game developers can get access to capital again and start new things now.

Spector: We certainly can get meetings. There’s a lot of money floating around right now. You’ve noticed it. Lots of other analysts have noticed it. There are certainly opportunities. And I can’t wait to talk more about this.

GamesBeat: How did you start this revival, being able to do a new game or another game?

Spector: It’s what Paul and I love to do. Individually and together, we’ve created a lot of franchises that have had long lives. People still talk about Underworld. They still talk about System Shock. It blows my mind that 22 years after we shipped Deus Ex, people are still talking about it and playing it. For all the mixed response to the Epic Mickey games from gamers–gamers, I don’t think they got it. But a more mainstream audience did. Years later I still get fan letters. Or fan emails now. People who tell me they’ve played the game 10 times.

The response to Epic Mickey was incredible. I would get fan letters and email from people who said the game helped them get through chemotherapy. I once got a letter from someone who said that his daughter is autistic and doesn’t engage with the world, but she engaged with the game, and he insisted that he tell me how important the game was to her. There was a kid in a wheelchair who showed up at a trade show and asked if he could use the game as part of his physical therapy. I got an email from his dad later saying that his doctor said it would be great for him. People are still talking about the game. That’s what Paul and I have done, and that’s what we want to do again.

Like I said, this is not just a way to pay my mortgage. It’s a career. I’ve always thought that games were important. I remember back at Origin, I used to look around and I’d see what Richard Garriott and Chris Roberts were doing, Paul and Doug Church and the team working on Underworld and System Shock. I’d think we were going to change the world. We didn’t do that personally, but video games have changed the world. We won. There’s still plenty more to explore. It’s not hard to keep going.

OtherSide Entertainment has teams in Austin, Texas, and Concord, Massachusetts.

GamesBeat: Did you have despairing moments where you thought maybe it might be better to disband the studio? At what point did you turn from that kind of thinking to doing something again?

Spector: I never thought that it would be good to disband any team. It happens in this business, maybe more frequently than one would hope. But no. I had a good team. We ran into some circumstances. Tencent is now taking the franchise forward. It’s good for everybody, honestly.

GamesBeat: Can you say whether what you’re doing now is original, a brand new game for you, or anything like that?

Spector: Oh, yeah. It’s all original. I started thinking about it around the time COVID hit. Picture me sitting alone in a room with my empty hard drive coming up with cool stuff. It sounds like a dream, but it’s not. I have a lot of ideas. I always tell people ideas are easy. I legitimately have hundreds of game concepts, from one-sentence form to 20-page form, on my hard drive. I went through a bunch of ideas and developed them to the point where I said, “Nah, this isn’t the one.” But ultimately I hit on one that’s the one.

It’s all original. Nobody’s ever seen anything like it. My wife described it yesterday as my magnum opus. We’ll see. I don’t know about that. But I have a great leads team in place. Everybody says that, and you don’t have to believe me, but this is one of the best teams I’ve worked with.

GamesBeat: How long have you been actively working on it now?

Spector: I went through a pretty long phase of just developing this one or that one. I guess it’s been not quite a year. But again, remember, that was me sitting alone. It almost doesn’t count. Paul and I take this seriously. When it comes to creating something new, you want to do something special. Making games is–I call it “grindingly hard.” If you’re not at least trying to do something great–you’re going to fail most of the time, and I get that. But if you’re not trying, it’s soul-crushing. There’s no point.

I’m a relentless advocate for a particular kind of game, for immersive simulations. I’m going to do that for the rest of my life, or at least the rest of my career. If I can’t do that I guess I’ll stop making games. But in many ways it’s what I’ve been thinking about for quite a while as the next step in immersive sims. If we pull it off, people are not going to be ready for what’s going to hit them.

GamesBeat: Is it consistent with some of the themes you’ve advocated for before, like emergent gameplay over scripted storytelling?

Spector: Oh, absolutely. I have no interest–at my studios, you’re not allowed to say the word “puzzle.” We don’t make puzzles. As soon as you say the words “the player must” or “the player has to” I stop listening. It turns into blah-blah-blah. Games have always been about players showing how clever and creative they are. We remind ourselves constantly that they’re as smart as we are, and in many ways smarter. The bottom line is, we’re the only medium in human history that’s been able to engage players as partners in storytelling. That’s what I’m going to do as long as people will keep paying me to do it.

OtherSide EntertainmentOtherSide Entertainment

GamesBeat: The image that you showed of this whale dressed up, is that meant to be from the game, or is that more an image of the studio?

Spector: That’s an image that represents an aspect of what the game is about. It’s going to be a pretty deep game. There’s going to be a lot of variety in what you can do and what we ask you to do. That whale is part of that smorgasbord of game levels.

GamesBeat: It looks like underwater gameplay is going to be part of this.

Spector: You could assume that if you wanted. I can neither confirm nor deny.

GamesBeat: As far as the mix between Concord and Austin, is that where you’re living, between you and Paul?

Spector: Right. Paul lives in the northeast, in New England, and I live in Texas. Neither one of us is willing to move. Paul tried really hard to get me to move up to Cambridge, and I couldn’t. You’d have to blast me out of this town with tons of TNT.

If there’s a silver lining to COVID, and you have to look hard to find that, it’s that we have learned that we can make games with remote teams. We’re one company. There’s a Dungeons and Dragons game being done up there with Wizards of the Coast. They’re learning an awful lot and filling up a hard drive with engine and extensions to the engine. We’re learning right along with them. We’re not starting with an empty hard drive. It’s pretty cool.

The great thing about remote work–it used to be that I had to build the best team I could that lives in my hometown. Now I can just build the best team. The level of talent on my game team right now is astonishing. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Warren Bennis. He’s a leadership expert. He’s written a bunch of books, one of which is called Organizing Genius. I love it. I make everybody on my team read it. It’s about creating what he calls a great group. He talks about the Lockheed Skunk Works, Disney when they were working on Sleeping Beauty, and Xerox PARC. Why those places, why those teams were able to do such amazing things.

Most people aren’t lucky enough to work with a great group ever. I’ve been lucky enough to do it a few times. This is shaping up to be another one. I continue to be the luckiest guy in game development.

GamesBeat: I don’t think you mentioned how you’re financing this one. Did you get any investment that makes this possible?

Spector: I probably shouldn’t talk about that.

GamesBeat: But you don’t sound like you’re worried about money right now.

Spector: No, I’m not worried about money right now.

GamesBeat: Given that there is this very different environment out there, do you have any counsel for people who are considering raising money? Is this the best time to raise money for games?

Spector: Every time is the best of times and worst of times. That’s where we are now. The best part of it is, there’s a lot of activity, both on the publishing side and the M&A side. Everywhere there can be activity, there is activity. The cool thing about where we are right now, anybody who has an idea can get an engine to make it in. There are so many ways to reach an audience and so many business models. Nobody knows what they’re doing. It’s kind of the wild west. But that means there’s opportunity.

That also means there are thousands of people making games. The fight for attention, not just at the player level, but at the publisher level, the funding level–there’s a lot of competition. You need a way to stand out. Luckily Paul and I have reputations enough that it opens doors. But for a lot of people, that’s just not going to be possible. I’m not sure how I could counsel them.

Warren Spector and Paul Neurath started OtherSide Entertainment

GamesBeat: We saw Gabe Newell’s comment on the metaverse and NFTs now, calling them a lot of insanity. I don’t know if you see those things the same way, or if you have a different perspective.

Spector: Here’s where I’m going to get in trouble. I’m literally going to have people giving me hell about what I’m about to say, but I really don’t think I care. NFTs are ridiculous. I do not understand why anybody would want to climb on that bandwagon. Ownership of virtual goods that can be instantly reproduced in unlimited quantities. Who thinks that’s a good idea? So NFTs, I have no interest.

The metaverse, sure, maybe someday, but honestly it’s going to be long after I’m gone. I’m happy about that. I like living in the real world. I don’t particularly find putting on a headset and interacting virtually with other people, not knowing if my wife is coming up behind me with a baseball bat–that just doesn’t appeal to me. And it’s not like you can look at the current social media landscape and say, “Hey, that’s great!” I haven’t been on social media in two years, almost three years now. I just gave it up. I was tired of people giving me grief, tired of the time it was taking up. It didn’t add anything to my life.

I always told people when I was doing it–it’s like playing Dungeons and Dragons, where the number of followers you have is your level. If you have a lot of followers you’re a winner, or you’re powerful in some way. I just want to make games.

GamesBeat: It’s always interesting to see who’s diving in and who’s not. There’s that contrast between tradition and innovation, I guess, or tradition and the latest new scam?

Spector: I wouldn’t say “scam.” Prediction is a fool’s game. It might be that the metaverse is the future, that VR is the future. Although VR does come along every 10 years to save whatever medium needs saving. I’m a little dubious. Maybe this time it’ll happen. There are still some challenges ahead. If you look at how much money Meta has put into that and how little they’ve gotten out, somebody’s rolling some pretty big dice there. We’ll see. Maybe I’m wrong. I just think we’re a ways away from that being a thing.

AR is a little more interesting to me, but even that–just let me make my games. I don’t even think of that as traditionalist. I think there’s still so much innovation ahead of us just in flat-screen games. We haven’t explored everything the medium can and should do. What I’m doing right now, my team is terrified, as they should be. That’s a good thing. If you’re not scared you’re not working hard enough.

There’s a quote from Salvador Dali. I’m going to get it wrong. But it’s something like, “If you know how to paint your painting beforehand, why bother painting it?” That’s where I am, at least. I can’t speak for other developers. But I want to do things that no one else has ever seen. We’re doing some of that in this new game, that’s for sure. We’ll see if we can pull it off. There are two ways to go in life, in games, in anything. Either you rule the world or you fail gloriously. I’m okay either way.

GamesBeat: As far as team size is concerned, you’ve made games with relatively small teams. I’m sure Epic Mickey must have been the biggest one.

Spector: I had more than 200 people in my studio. If you look at the credits on Epic Mickey 2, I’m not making this up. There were almost 800 names there. I had more producers on that title than I had people on the team for some projects. We had 17 partners around the world working on this thing. The results were great, but you get so far away from the game at that point. There were people at the studio who didn’t know they worked for me. There were plenty of people whose names I didn’t know. That’s terrible.

One reason why Paul and I did this OtherSide thing is because we’ve both done that. We think there’s a better model. At least it’s better for us. We’re building a relatively small internal team, 25 or 30 people, where you can keep the culture alive. You can know everyone’s name. Communication used to be as easy as swiveling in your chair and talking to someone. Not anymore, of course. But having a 25-30 person team conceptualizing a game, doing prototyping, and then partnering with external folks – not just “make us a chair,” but actually having partners, the way we did on the second Mickey game – we think that’s a better way.

The work comes back from our partners and the small internal team reviews, critiques, requests changes, and then ultimately when the work is at the right level of quality, saying the right things to players, then we integrate it internally. That just seems like a more humane, doable model than putting hundreds of people on a project. But again, there are so many ways to make games now. Nobody knows what’s right and wrong. We’ll do what we want to do.

GamesBeat: How often do you find yourself in a position where you have to throw out a bunch of stuff, to restart?

Spector: Oh, constantly.

OtherSide EntertainmentOtherSide Entertainment is no longer working on System Shock 3.

GamesBeat: And when that happens, how do you convey that to the team?

Spector: That’s a tough one. You encounter people all the time in game development, and everywhere in life I’m sure, who don’t want to throw things away. There’s an expression in–I think it was William Goldman, the screenwriter, who said “Kill your darlings.” That’s important advice. If you get so attached to something and go so far down the road with it before you realize it doesn’t work, you’re in a world of trouble. What you do, you fail fast. These are all cliches, but there’s a reason things become cliches. There’s at least an element of truth.

Early on, I always tell my teams that we’ll throw away a lot of stuff. We might go two or three levels deep versioning and prototyping something, and then we’ll decide that this isn’t critical to the game. Or the game evolves in a way such that something you thought would work in the context of the game is no longer relevant. You constantly have to throw stuff away.

It comes down to communication. First of all, it’s not just me saying no. I describe myself as, I like to kick things off and let people better than me do their jobs. They come up with stuff better than I can all the time. But I have one more vote than everybody else on the team combined. If I have to, I can say, “No, we’re not doing this,” or, “Yes, we’re doing this.” But if I ever use that extra vote it means I’ve failed as a communicator. As long as you’re communicating constantly, which gets back to the smaller team stuff, the team knows when something’s working or not.

If they go down the wrong path, like the art style is wrong or whatever, it just means that I haven’t done my job and nudged them back. The other thing I talk about all the time with my teams is that my job is to create what I call the creative box. Those are the constraints within which you’re going to work. But as long as you stay within those constraints, do what you want. I will never tell you to make a pixel blue instead of green. I’ve seen team leads do that. I will never do that. And I’ll be there with you every day talking about what you’re doing. If I see you going outside that creative box, my job is to nudge you back in, not slap you and say, “Idiot!” You say, “No, this is not the direction we talked about going.” That’s worked pretty well. The team usually knows when you need to junk something.

GamesBeat: And I guess the team can persuade you that a different path is better.

Spector: I’m tempted to name all of my team members to you, so you don’t assume that I make these games alone. But I have designers on this team who are so much better as designers than I am. I think I’m pretty good as a conceptual designer, an idea guy. I can contribute to systems design discussions. I’m pretty good at that. I’m really good at being an editor, you might say. Those are my strengths. But the designers on this team, and on past teams, they’re so much better than me.

That’s what you want. Anybody who’s afraid to hire people better than them is going to fail. They’re constantly persuading–half the time they don’t have to persuade. Half the time it’s just, “Oh, yeah, of course that’s better.” On Deus Ex I conceived a skill system that was very different, very simple. I thought it was really elegant. And Harvey Smith came to me and said, “This is bad.” We’d started working on it. He said, “This is bad. How about if we do this instead?” And it was one of those, “Oh, yeah, that’s better” moments. Harvey is a better designer than I am. Now I’m working with a guy named Rick Ernst, and another guy, Michael Maza, who are just better than me. They’re constantly course-correcting me. But it’s always within the confines of that creative box.

It’s kind of goofy, but one thing I do when I’m starting a project, when we’re wrapping up the concept phase–I’ll close my eyes and imagine what the game is going to be at the end of the day. And in every case it turns out not to be the game I expected. Every case. Because team members bring their own perspectives and their own ideas. But the key is, you have to be able to say, “Every detail changed to make this exactly the game I wanted it to be.” That’s true of Deus Ex. It was true of the Epic Mickey games. Chase Jones, a guy I worked with on those games, better designer than me. Working on Underworld and System Shock, Doug Church is a better designer than me.

I always find people better than me. And I always try to credit them. Journalists don’t want to talk about teams. They want shorthand. Not you, but a lot of them want to just say, “Created by…” I will not have the words “Created by…” if I have anything to do with it. This is the most intensely team sport I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been on movie sets. I’ve worked on tabletop games. Nothing compares to this. What we do, it’s grindingly hard, like I said before. You’d better surround yourself with better people.

GamesBeat: Do you have any encouragement you’d offer to younger people in the industry?

Spector: What I like to say to younger developers–well, a couple of things. One is, if I can talk you out of doing this, or anyone can talk you out of making games, you had no chance of success anyway. Be committed, because this is so hard. I don’t know how the hell I’ve survived as long as I have. I love it. I think it’s important. I think we’re potentially the medium of the 21st century. I’m committed to it.

Find other people. Don’t try to be a loner. Find other people who buy into what you buy into. Like I said earlier, I describe myself as a relentless advocate for immersive simulations and emergent gameplay, allowing players to express their creativity through play, and answering questions. That’s the other thing. Games ask questions. Other media answer them. Letting players answer the questions through play, and then argue with each other, I love that. I absolutely love that.

So don’t be dissuaded. Make sure you’re committed. You have to love this. I tell them, don’t ignore the humanities. If you interview with me and say–I’m going to overstate this to make my point. But if you say, “All I do is play games,” you have no chance of getting a job. I need people who bring varied viewpoints, who love movies and read books and paint and make music. Who have well-rounded lives. Communication is critically important. If you can’t express yourself in writing and in speech, you’re doomed. It’s a team sport.

The other thing–when I talked about finding other people that believe what you believe, someone involved in a project has to have a strong vision. The word “vision” is thrown around maybe too much, but it’s maybe the most important word. You have to be able to rally people around something specific. You have to give them a target. You can’t hit a target without a target to hit. Everybody needs to be on the same page.

I’ve worked on some projects, which I will not name, where team members wanted to make a different kind of game. Why don’t we just make a side-scroller? Why don’t we just make a puzzle game? Why don’t we make a straight shooter? You have to say no. That’s not what we’re about. If you want to do that, you need to go find some other place to work. And I’ve lost good people over that, because I’m going to make–I wish we had a better term for it, but I’m going to make immersive sims and that’s it. The content will change. The visual style will change. The tone will change. But that underlying philosophy will be consistent.

I like to talk, okay? So I talk a lot about this, internally and externally. I also have a mission statement. I wrote it up–wow, a long time ago now. It’s changed almost not at all, which maybe is a reflection on the fact that I’m too hidebound. Who knows? But people have to read that mission statement and buy into it. They have to buy into the two-word summary of it, which is “Playstyle matters.” How each player plays should affect the outcome, and no two players should have the same experience by the end of the game. Unique experience is what games are about.

I also have these inspirational poster things. It’s so obnoxious. I post them all around my office, except I don’t have an office to post them in anymore. But I’ll send them to you, the mission statement and the posters. You can ignore them or rip them up or publish them forever.

But the other thing I tell young developers, and I’ll stop after this, is that it’s their job to destroy me. It’s their job to make the world forget that I ever existed. If they’re not doing that, they’re just repeating the past. Why are you wasting my time? Why are you wasting players’ time? Why are you wasting your own time? Destroy me. Do it nicely and respectfully, but destroy me.

GamesBeat: Is it intimidating to be an indie now, in light of how much M&A goes on in the industry right now? How do you soldier on when things like Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard are happening?

Spector: It’s pretty crazy right now. Mostly I try to focus on making my game. I have an obligation to myself to do what I love and think is important. I have an obligation to my team to guide them to the accomplishment of our vision. I try hard not to think about other things. If it happens for OtherSide, it happens. There’s enough crazy activity that who knows? It might happen. If it doesn’t, we’re a good solid business right now. We’re making games we believe in. The D&D game is going well. You’d have to ask them to know for sure, but I think Wizards is happy with what we’re doing. Right now the way to deal with it is to keep your head down and make a game. Make the best game you can.

GamesBeat: Any other topics you’d like to cover today?

Spector: I always urge people to make sure the team gets some love. This is not me making games alone. I need to keep getting that word out. Rick Ernst, Michael Maza, Joel McGinnis, Kip Carbone, Michael Fitch–I could go on. The teams make the games.

I haven’t done real work in probably 30 years. You don’t want me building a level anymore. You don’t want me planning out a series of missions on a branching tree. Well, we don’t want branching trees at all, but that’s another story. It’s all about the team, the people better than you, not one guy creating something out of whole cloth.

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