Never judge your player and other game design tips from Warren Spector

Warren Spector recently gave a talk at the DevGamm gaming event in Cascais, Portugal. He talked about “Thoughts I Live By” in his craft of game development, which he has done for more than 40 years.

The 68-year-old game designer has left his mark across gaming with immersive sim games, which give players a wide array of choices.

At Looking Glass Studios, he was involved in the creation of titles like Ultima Underworld, Ultima Underworld II, System Shock, Thief: The Dark Project and Deus Ex (while at Ion Storm). At his own studio, Junction Point Studios, Spector created Epic Mickey for Disney Interactive. He is currently the creative director at OtherSide Entertainment.

He grew up wanting to be a film critic and played lots of board games like the Avalon Hill games, Ogre and he became friends with sci-fi writers who were Dungeons & Dragons fans. He also became a computer game nut.

Spector has strong opinions when it comes to game design. He’s not a fan of games on rails or narratives where the outcomes must strictly follow a single storyline. Rather, he is a fan of emergent gameplay, where a player has an objective and has many different ways to achieve that objective. The player must live with the consequences of those choices. We talked about his tips for emerging game designers. That included ‘Never judge your player.’

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Warren Spector spoke at the DevGamm event in Cascais, Portugal.

GamesBeat: How did your talk go?

Warren Spector: You know, it’s funny. People ask me how things went, and I never know. I’m into measurable success. So what I always say, because it’s true, is, you know, I had fun. It was enjoyable. It was interesting though, because it’s a talk I’ve never given before. And it was completely different in structure. Usually, I like to have a little narrative, you know? And one slide leads naturally into the next. And this time, around my studios, I post posters that describe who we are and what we do, and why we do it and how we do it. And so each slide was a different poster. So it was like, here’s what this means, here’s what this means, here’s what this means. You know, and people seemed to like it. It was an interesting experiment.

GamesBeat: What did you call it?

Spector: It was called Thoughts I Live By because I wanted it to be an example of how you can communicate with a team and partners, exactly what you’re about. And I didn’t want people to think, okay, I’ve got to adopt Warren’s standards or Warren’s ideas. It’s about finding your philosophy. Finding what’s important to you. Because it helps in hiring. Do you buy into this? Yes or no? Hey, potential funding partner. Do you want this game? Yes or no? Hey, potential employee, do you want to work here? Because I don’t want to have to fight people. I’ve had plenty of people say, why don’t you just make a shooter? Or why don’t you just make a platformer? I don’t want to have to fight that fight. So these posters actually make that point.

GamesBeat: And what were some of the game design philosophies there?

Spector: Things like, ‘Never judge your player.’ In my games, players get to decide how to deal with challenges and problems. You’re not allowed to say the word ‘puzzle’ in my studio. That implies a designer came up with something that has one solution. And the job of the player is to solve the puzzle. My whole philosophy is you see a challenge. And using your tools and the world’s depth and the objects in the world that are deeply simulated [can be used to] solve the problem in the real world. There’s never just one way. So there’s always another way. That’s another one of the posters. Maybe the most important ones are health, family, and work, in that order.

If you’re not taking care of your health, you can’t take care of your family. If you’re not taking care of your family, who cares about work? We don’t live in the world I grew up in where people sleep under their desks and drive home at three in the morning and have no idea how they got there. Don’t do laundry for two weeks. You know, we don’t live in that world, and we shouldn’t live in that world. And there are 45 posters. And well, what I do is I try to pick the ones most relevant to the time or the project. And people still complain, but too bad. They’re going to see those posters.

Warren Spector at the Dice Summit in 2016.

GamesBeat: And then when did you start that? Like, was that many years ago?

Spector: Well, I used to write manifestos. I wrote a 12-page manifesto that no one would read. Apparently game developers don’t like reading. And I gradually whittled it down into two words. Playstyle Matters. How you decide to play makes a difference. And you create. Every player is a storyteller. That’s another one of the posters. The goal in my games is not to exercise skills so much as it is to create a unique experience. So I wrote manifestos. The poster idea came to me when I was teaching it at the University of Texas. I built a game development program there. And I started posting individual things there. And then it was very rudimentary. And when I started my studio OtherSide Entertainment in Austin, Texas, that was when I really said I’ve got to keep this in front of people, top of mind. So that was seven. Oh my God, it was seven years ago.

GamesBeat: Now from just what I remember from the past, it was all about emergent gameplay. You wanted to present that challenge and then have the players solve it in any way that they wanted, or come up with ingenious ways to do it that you maybe never expected. And so it’s not at all on rails. It’s a play space.

Spector: Yeah. That’s the only kind of game I want to make. And the only kind of game I will make. I’ve said for years. This is a well-practiced line. I make the games I want to make the way I want to make them. If you don’t want that, let’s part ways now and stay friends. You’re not going to change me. So I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and the summary of what I’ve been trying to do is recapture the feeling of playing Dungeons of Dragons that I got in 1978, the first time I played. It’s about players telling stories together. With my team and as the Dungeon Masters, we create the situations. But it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with them.

GamesBeat: So where do you think that worked out the best?

Spector: In terms of individual games, I mean, there’s been a progression. I’ve been making the same game over and over again for 40 years. I mean, let’s face it, the content changes. But that underlying philosophy is there. And it’s been there since Paul Neurath, my partner at OtherSide, came to Origin and showed us the tech demo that became Ultima Underworld. I looked at that and said, ‘This is the tool.’ I can use this. The world just changed. So Underworld is the grandfather of it all. The most successful, I think, people would probably say Deus Ex. That’s certainly what I am going to be known for. If anything, I suspect that’s going to be it. And since then, here’s my frustration.

I’ve always felt that, you know, the immersive simulation, which is the genre that, Paul and I have worked in and Arkane does now, probably better than I do, which is annoying. We’ve been making that kind of game that you just described. Players solving problems the way they want in a deeply simulated world that’s systemic, not scripted. I could give you a whole lecture about that. But the frustration for me is I’ve always thought that was the most mainstream mass-market approach to game play you could possibly imagine. If shooting is too tough, try sneaking. If sneaking is too tough, try talking. If talking is too tough, try something else.

If I’m playing a shooter and I’m not good enough, which I’m not, my option is to stop. And so I’ve always thought immersive sims were it. The sales have not borne that out. But I said to myself, when Disney came around with Mickey Mouse as my star, I could reach a mainstream audience with these ideas. And so Epic Mickey, it was an immersive sim, right? And gamers didn’t get it. I got so many emails and Twitter messages about sell out, sell out. But the philosophy was there if they had just taken the time to look for it. So I’m pretty proud of Epic Mickey too.

Epic Mickey 2

GamesBeat: So you’re very focused on this particular kind of game, but it does seem like a lot of games have incorporated both kinds of ways. Like scripted and unscripted. And I remember even like Uncharted with, you know, like Amy Hennig’s path was all very on rails in some ways. But then they’ll throw a hub in there or something and you can choose among five different missions right now, or whatever. Right. And go about them in any order. So there’s some emergence in there that can be built into some of these scripted stories.

Spector: Yeah. Games that offer real choices to players. They’re typically about how are you going to kill this thing. There are bad guys shooting at you from behind cover, what gun do you use? Where do you hide?

GamesBeat: Telltale too.

Spector: Well, tell me that’s an interesting thing, man. You’re jumping me all over the place. I want to talk about all of this. No, I was having a conversation just last night. But some of my favorite games are Heavy Rain and Detroit — the David Cage games, the Telltale Games, as experiences. I love those games. I would never make one. I don’t mean to disparage them in any way. Again, I love them, but they’re basically five movie scripts jammed together. There’s the appearance of player agency, but not the reality of it. And the key way you can tell is this. Will the player ever surprise themselves? Will the player ever surprise the developer?

And in Telltale and in David Cage’s work — I think David Cage is one of the two best writers we have in the business. But Amy Hennig is right up there, maybe one of the top three. But they know literally everything that is possible. And in my games and in the arcade games and in other immersive sims, or immersive sim adjacent games, we don’t know everything that’s going to happen. A year after we shipped Deus Ex, I was watching a tester demonstrate it for a bunch of executives. Why executives needed a demonstration of a game that won a bunch of Game of the Year awards a year after it shipped. We’ll leave that aside. That’s another story.

But he was in a place I’d been a lot of times, and there were three problems to solve there. And so I’m going, okay, three problems. He can solve one of them here. And to make a long story short, he set things up in such a way and positioned himself in such a way that with one shot of the pistol, the weakest weapon in the game. He solved all three problems. I guarantee no one on the planet had ever done that before. I didn’t know it was possible. He was rewarded because he thought about the problems and solved them with one shot.

Warren Spector was the lead on Epic Mickey

GamesBeat: That reminds me of your [One Block] game idea.

Spector: Oh, I’ve always been afraid to do it. There are two things I really want to do that I haven’t done yet. One is an interactive musical. I’ve got ideas about it. I’m a Broadway and movie musical freak. I love that stuff. And I have some ideas about how to do it that aren’t just beat matching. That’s one thing. The other one is what I’ve been calling the One Block role-playing game. I haven’t talked much about it and I don’t really know how to do it. Which is one of the reasons why I want to do it. But no one will fund it. I mean, it’s just too crazy. But in that game, what I want to do, if nothing else, is put a gun on the mantelpiece in a room, in a building or a hotel with one bullet in it.

And if the player picks it up and fires that one shot that they’ve got. It’s the biggest moment in their life because that’s what it would be in the real world. You pick up a gun in the real world and you point it at someone and you shoot it, your life has changed forever. And I would love players to experience that and have to be smarter about things. I mean, I don’t believe games cause behavior. I think games are interesting. Learning tools. There’s a whole other talk about that we could have too. But I’m sick of guns in games. I think it’s in bad taste. And I hate the fact that what we do a lot of the time is say, ‘Hey, player, good job killing all those things.’ Pat on the back.

GamesBeat: Trivializing death.

Spector: Yeah. And we don’t often offer alternatives. And so I think about moving forward. I’m going to be the no weapons guy. I don’t want to remove player agency. I don’t want to reduce the opportunities for players to do things, but I think weapons are not necessary.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

GamesBeat: Is it almost more because there’s so many other things you can do, as opposed to, I’ve had enough of the violence?

Spector: Well, I personally had enough of the violence. My personal feelings are not a reason to make a business decision. Except I’m lucky enough that I get to make that business decision. But the problem is most — I don’t think I’m overstating — most games you do things because the game tells you to and doesn’t offer you any opportunities beyond that. So in a shooter, what are you going to do if you’re not shooting? In a stealth game, what are you going to do if you’re not sneaking? And if you’re in a choose your own adventure game, like David Cage and the Telltale Games, and even Amy, who I love desperately, what are you going to do? But follow the branch of the tree that they offer you? So if there are no other options, you’re going to do what you’re told. And in my games, I hope you’re never in a position where you have to do what I tell you to because I will never tell you what to do.

A civilian airliner crash site in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III.
A civilian airliner crash site in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III.

GamesBeat: Yeah. I play Call of Duty every year. They had an interesting approach in this year’s game where they tried to do more of the emergent gameplay with open maps where, you know, you had maybe three objectives. And you could do it in any order as you wish. And there’d just be a swarm of enemies. So you could start out doing stealth. But it’s the mistake they make if they don’t give you a silencer at the beginning. And so the very, very first shot you take, then in comes the swarm. And you have to find a way to survive that swarm of people coming after you.

Spector: See, here’s the thing. I’m not going to talk about individual games. I don’t do that because I don’t want to lose friends.

GamesBeat: Well, I do want to get to what the interesting point I think was this time, and that was, and it was more like credit for this observation goes to Gamespot and their review. And they felt like the best thing about Call of Duty’s single-player campaigns was the intensity of it, the story storytelling, the moment-by-moment tension that gets built up. It just gets built up, and then all of a sudden all hell breaks loose. And they couldn’t do that in this particular kind of approach because, and the odd thing was, they put this very compelling cinematic [into the beginning of the open world scene]. Your friend gets killed. And then they go into this open world thing, and at the end of it, there’s another cinematic that shows, oh, I’m mourning my friend. Right.

And all this stuff in the middle has nothing to do with either of those moments. Except you have to go and fulfill certain objectives. Like, you’re playing through a Warzone map or something, collecting resources. And so they did note that all of those moments of tension that build up in the single-player campaign, were on rails. They’re just missing now. And you don’t, you know, feel any real emotion as you’re going about this map.

Deus Ex was the one big hit that came out of Ion Storm.
Deus Ex was the one big hit that came out of Ion Storm.

Spector: Yes. Well, that’s a really interesting observation actually. There’s one particular game structure, narrative structure, which is very common, which is story, fight. Story, fight. And that works largely because it may seem open between those cinematics. But the reality is the designer knows. We know every step you take, every shot you fire every time you’re spotted by a guard or whatever. And because we know every single thing that every single player is going to do, you can create amazing emotional moments. I mean generate real feelings. And like, my games are interesting intellectual exercises. I don’t feel like I’ve ever created an emotional moment. Like a lot of games. Amy does all the time in her games. They’re just different approaches.

GamesBeat: And easier when there’s like, only one way out of the map.

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

Spector: Well, that’s an interesting point too. Because no, nobody has ever commented on this. I can’t believe nobody’s noticed that every game I’ve worked on has been completely linear. I mean, there’s no branching of the narrative. There’s no player control over this story. I control the story and the context and why what you’re doing is important. And the players own the minute to minute. But the way my games are structured, they’re a string of sandboxes. They’re not open worlds, they’re little sandboxes. And I know the entry point. And I know the exit point. And in the middle, do whatever you want. It’s not just going wherever you want. It’s not just picking one of these missions. How do you get through that door? And it’s not, the door is not important. It’s what’s on the other side.

I don’t care how you get through the door. And then the other thing that I think differentiates the games that I work on from other people’s games is, this is going to get tweaky, and this is, but in most games, there are only what I call the primary effect. So you pull a virtual trigger, you hit somebody, you damage them. That’s it in my games.

You fire a gun and it blows up a barrel. The barrel blows up the wooden door, the noise of it attracts more guards, you have to fight more stuff. So it’s like firing the gun primarily, you know, hitting the exploding barrel. Secondary effect, the door that you need to get through is open. Tertiary effect, the noise attracts guards. And on top of that, I mean, you can sneak around and avoid the whole, the whole encounter. So you can find other ways to solve the problem.

GamesBeat: So very Thief-like, I guess.

Spector: Well, for sure. I mean, any immersive sim that’s true to its name is going to express that primary, secondary, and tertiary effects idea. And that’s something that again, I’m not going to talk about specific games. I don’t want to lose friends and I don’t want to praise things and have other people be upset that I didn’t praise them. But that is a strong player experience differentiator from other games. I’ll stop there.

GamesBeat: I do wonder some of these franchises where you started them and then moved on, was there ever like, any interest you had in what would you have done if you stayed on Deus Ex and were able to do the next one?

Spector: I’m not real, real good at sequels. Once you’ve done it, you know, moving on is the right answer. But it would be very cool to go back to the day of the Deus Ex universe. I actually planned out a trilogy. And thank God I didn’t get to do the third game in that series because it would’ve been terrible in retrospect. A bad idea. But you know, one of the things I try to do is I don’t think there’s much point in trying to convince people to be interested in something. I try to find things that people are already interested in, and then build narratives, and worlds around that. And Deus Ex was a great example of that.

And so it would be interesting to go, to go back to it now and find what are people interested in today. And then build a Deus Ex game around that. That would be interesting. The sad thing is Deus Ex, you could remake it now, and it would, it’s got the gray death of virus. It’s got DNA manipulation. It’s got the dangers of AI. It’s got terrorism as a major force in the world. I mean, you could play that game today and everything is still relevant, which is terrifying.

Adam Jensen is the hero of Deus EX: Mankind Divided.

GamesBeat: I really enjoyed, in the sequel land here, but I really enjoyed the Deus Ex: Mankind Divided game, parts of how they executed that whole, you know discrimination between natural humans and augmented humans.

Spector: Human Revolution was the one that did it for me. I got to the end of it. I did a lot of screaming because they did some things that I wouldn’t have done. But when I got to the end, I sat back and said, you know, I just had a Deus Ex experience. That’s pretty cool. It felt like Deus Ex, it sounded like Deus Ex. I felt mostly empowered by the designers instead of coerced by them. So, you know, they did a good job.


GamesBeat: And I do wonder, I guess, what are some of the things that made you think it’s time to like, retire, move on, you know, do other things?

Spector: Well, interestingly, people hate it when I say this. But I am as interested in making people now as I am in making games. I’ve worked on a lot of games. I’ve done everything that doesn’t involve coding or art. And I’ve made some games that I mean, I’ve been proud of every game I’ve worked on. I’ve never been assigned a game. I’ve always made the games I want to make the way I want to make them. I’ve been incredibly lucky. But I haven’t done it all. The game I’m working on now, I can’t talk about it yet. But I will tell you, I’ve been thinking for a long time. What’s the next step for immersive sims?

And the obvious answer to that is multiplayer. And for me, I really want to do an outdoor setting. How can we simulate an outdoor setting and an environment at the level of depth necessary to provide players with the freedom that we want to give? So no one’s done that before. A multiplayer outdoor environmental simulation. So there’s still a challenge to be overcome from a development, a design standpoint. And as I said earlier, I’ve got those two other games that maybe I’ll make. I don’t know. We’ll see.

GamesBeat: Even after 40 years, there’s just no retirement?

Spector: Well, obviously I’ve thought about it. There are books to write. And there’s consulting to do. I have definitely thought about it, but as long as there’s something new to learn and you’re working with a great team, there’s joy. There’s brainstorming with my team. No one has any reason to believe this, but the team I’m working with now has the potential to be one of the great teams I’ve worked with. And I’ve worked with some great teams. So they challenge me all the time. They’re ahead of me all the time. They’re constantly improving the ideas that I come up with. And so there’s, as long as there’s that joy and I don’t have to worry about HR and benefits and payroll you know, I’m good to go. So, we’ll see. And again, there, there are people to make.

I always try to find out what your goal is. Not where you are going to be in five or 10 years, but what do you want to be when you grow up? What do you want to be? I’m egomaniacal enough to think I can help them get there. Look at Harvey Smith, running Arkane in Austin. I could not be prouder of that guy. I pulled him out of QA. And I don’t know if I taught him anything. It may be that I taught him nothing. But we had a great working relationship. He’s responsible for a lot of my success. But seeing someone have that career trajectory. I want to do that again, and again and again, you know? So retirement, you know? I’ve thought about it. But as long as I can find that joy in air quotes again, make other people, I’m going to keep doing it.

AI and UGC concerns

GamesBeat: So I have practical concerns around my daughter who’s graduated from USC.

Spector: That’s not allowed. You’re not allowed to be that old.

GamesBeat: And then she’s a 3D animator, and she’s about to try to find work in gaming and AI comes along now.

Spector: Yeah. AI.

GamesBeat: Yikes. I don’t know what you think about that.

Spector: That might drive me to retirement. If the human touch becomes secondary, that’s not good. I mean, you know, the world changes in video games every, every couple of years. And now, like, there’s so much to learn. I mean, games as a service, live OPs. I mean, you know, multiplayer, for me, that’s all new territory. So my team is teaching me about that stuff. So there are, there are new challenges, new things to learn. AI, I mean, it could drive me outta this.

GamesBeat: Yeah. I mean, the hope is that it makes us more efficient, but it eliminates some of the thousand person teams in the industry, but.

Spector: I had 800 people on my last team. I’ll never do that again. That’s for sure.

GamesBeat: And then on the other end of it, enabling UGC.

Spector: Again, you know, there are things that interest me and things that don’t. UGC is, you know, again, I don’t find it that interesting. I may dabble with that a little bit, but when we made Deux Ex, we had a contest to see who could build the best, you know, Deux Ex level, and we gave away a computer and all of that. And we got zero publishable maps because it’s not just about, you know, elevation and interconnectedness. It’s making games that are about simulation and the exploitation of a simulation. You know, a world that is a tool as much as the actual tools you have, it’s very hard. It’s very hard.

A dinosaur from Ark: Survival Ascended.
A dinosaur from Ark: Survival Ascended.

GamesBeat: Although now, you know, things are getting more interesting. Like a rockstar just bought by UGC companies. So I think they want, you know, to stop them from infringing, but they also want to maybe show up with UGC on day one. The next big game. And that’s kind of an interesting way to marshal your resources that I think, you know, where, you know, maybe you, you, you get the players themselves to dish out what the players want, and the developers maybe get to do what they think is best. So if that diverges, then maybe UGC is very helpful.

Spector: So, we’ll see. Again, you know, it’s, what are you interested in? And maybe I’m old school and the funny thing is I’ve resisted multiplayer, and I’ve resisted live OPs approach, you know, the games of a service. And I resisted UGC and one of my designers, a very smart guy, just said, you worked on Dungeons and Dragons, which is about UGC and multiplayer. And a game that’s played forever. And it’s like, it really took me aback. It’s like, wait a minute, I gotta think about this, maybe all these things that I’ve been resisting are exactly what I should be doing. So, you know, without going into detail, maybe that’s something to explore. I don’t know. We’ll find out. Or we won’t, maybe we will, maybe we won’t.

GamesBeat: Right. I talked to the Ark Survival folks recently, they said our developers are really, they’re really focused on Arc too. But we had all of this demand from gamers to update ARC for the PlayStation five. Right. you know, who wanted to do that on the dev team, like nobody wanted to do that. Right. So, what they did was they just let the UGC people go crazy. And now they have a bunch of, you know, content for PlayStation five created by the UGC folks.

Spector: I did not know that, that’s incredible. That’s an interesting idea. Because developers don’t want to do the boring stuff.

GamesBeat: It’s all about the player agency. It’s maybe the extreme part of it. And, you know, which is your idea, right. Player agency. Well, if you can’t solve this problem, maybe you can make the solution to this problem.

Spector: No, that’s an interesting idea. Damn. You’re making me think about stuff too.


GamesBeat: It’s always a complicated world.

Spector: Hey, that’s why, you know, make complicated games and complicate the lives of players, you know, to my detriment sometimes I think. I’m the king of the cult classics.

GamesBeat: But it’s good to know what you want to do.

Spector: Well, and I’ve got a talk I give about success, and everybody has their own success criteria. You know, it might be selling a gazillion copies and making, you know, a ton of money for, usually for somebody else. But you know, it may be offering players the joy of solving a puzzle and proving they’re smarter than you are. I have other success criteria. I mean, I want to see this medium grow, and I’m arrogant enough to think that influencing other developers is an important success criterion. Offering players the opportunity to become storytellers. That’s one of my success criteria. Walking in someone else’s shoes, we can do that. We almost never do. That’s a success criterion. I mean, I could go down the list of what drives me and what has frankly kept me working for 40 years.

GamesBeat: Awesome. What did you get some interesting feedback on that 40 year story?

Spector: It’s been incredibly gratifying. It’s been entirely positive, except for one guy, there’s always one guy. No, it’s, you know, it’s hard to talk about without feeling like I’m patting myself on the back. But there’s been a lot of, I mean, it had 130,000 hits on LinkedIn, you know, where I posted about it. Game Developer told me it’s one of the most read stories they have this year. And the response has been you’re an inspiration to me. I got into the game business because of you. I started my studio because of you. I changed the way I thought about design because of you. And it’s important to remember that I don’t do real work.

It’s the teams that do real work and who make me better when I have a great team, I make a great game. And when I don’t, I don’t. And you can look at my resume and see where I had a great team and where I didn’t. But it’s been overwhelmingly positive. And again, one of my success criteria really is influencing things and moving the medium forward as an art form. And if I were to retire, I could look back with pride and say, ‘Okay. I did something.’

GamesBeat: Awesome. Thank you.

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