Doing Disney

A conversation with game design legend Warren Spector, who just sold his Junction Point Studios to Disney

Warren Spector is a man who needs little introduction in industry circles. His work on classic series like Ultima Underworld and System Shock is well known, as is his design of the award-winning Deus Ex series. With the Thief series of game, Spector is even considered one of the fathers of the stealth genre.

But it’s that very legacy that made the purchase of his development house by Disney Interactive raise so many eyebrows when it was announced at E3. While Junction Point Studios doesn’t have a game to its name as of yet, one would assume that a publisher best known for fluffy child-oriented fare like Hannah Montana and Spectrobes would shy away from a designer known for his gritty, violent and sometimes terrifying visions.

Spector however thinks the deal makes a lot of sense for a lot of reasons. We sat down with him to hear his side of the deal as well as what it means for his future, including how Disney will and will not effect his position an a leader in the development community.

Why did you decide to throw your lot in with a big company like Disney?

There are some professional ones and there are certainly some personal ones as well. On the professional side, the Disney organization has given Junction Point and me the opportunity to work on an incredibly cool project that I really can’t say anything about. The company’s always been at the forefront of technological innovation and storytelling, and the more I talked to people about Disney Interactive, the more I got the sense that they really embrace the whole Disney heritage. So when you put that together with the kinds of games I like to make—I mean obviously I’m an interactive storytelling sort of guy, to the point where I think I probably annoy people about it, you know? So the professional fit was perfect as near as I could tell. And then on the personal side I’ve just been a Disney geek all my life. I try to keep that hidden so I keep this dark, edgy sort of reputation but I’m a cartoon fanatic and I have been all my life. I worked on a bunch of cartoon games when I was in the tabletop game business: Toon, Steve Jackson Games, and the Bullwinkle and Rocky game at TSR. I wrote my masters thesis on Warner Brothers Cartoons. You know I applied for a job as an Imagineer [an Imagineer is an employee of Walt Disney Imagineering, the creator of many Disney theme park rides. –ed.] before I got into video gaming so from a personal standpoint it’s a great fit there too.

So you’re going to be working on your original IP and also some Disney IP as well. What can you tell us about that?

Well I think over the years we’ll be working with some Disney brands. Again, I love those brands that Disney has, the IP that they’ve created over the last, I mean my gosh, eighty plus years. We’re definitely going to be working on some original stuff at some point too but again it’s really not the time to be talking about the specific projects yet.

You seem to be somebody who’s very much your own man. Are you going to be able to work within the confines of a large organization? Do you feel comfortable with that?

Yeah, you know, the funny thing is I’ve done the…I’ve worked for big publishers, I’ve worked as an independent, I know the ups and downs of both and at this point I think this is a really good time for us to become part of Disney. It’s kind of a crazy time to be an independent if you really look at all the increased costs of next-gen. I’ve got a track record and certainly I’ve got a team of people here who’ve worked on some amazing projects but we were still a start up and it was kind of a dicey sort of time, and so again the opportunity to work specifically with Disney, it was just too good to pass up.

Are you still going to set up at GDC and places like that and give us your no holds barred opinions on the game industry and creativity?

I’d love to see anybody try and stop me. Yeah, you bet. I mean, the industry does a lot of things right but it does a lot of things wrong.

There’s so much potential in gaming that I don’t think we’re even beginning to scratch the surface. I’m kind of compelled to run my mouth off, so yeah I think you can count on me up on the stage talking at GDC for the foreseeable future.

Do you think this is something that Disney Interactive wanted from you as well was your overall vision?

You know, I’d suspect that’s part of it. I get the sense that they are hugely supportive of me speaking at the Games Developers Conference and continuing to make the kinds of games that I’ve always enjoyed making. They’re putting a lot of muscle, a lot of money, and a lot of love into really taking games to a new level, and if you put together the Disney brands and the Disney cross-media cloud and the kind of games that I make, I think it could be a pretty unstoppable force.

You’ve been critical about the fact that the games industry makes a lot of ‘me-too’ projects and a lot of stuff that, as you say, is about as interactive as a rollercoaster. Do you feel that hardware like the Nintendo Wii is changing that? Do you feel that people are getting the message that we have to start doing things differently or are we still churning this stuff out?

I think it’s a little of both. I think the Wii offers some opportunities for creativity—it kind of demands creativity in a way, which is cool. As soon as you have a new controller or a new way of interfacing with the machine, it forces designers to get creative. Beyond that there are little pockets of wonderfulness but I’m still seeing a lot of me-too stuff out there, no doubt about it.

Reading your blog just recently, you were talking about your creativity’s being born of frustration and trying to improve things that drive you nuts, as opposed to a lot of creativity that’s out there that you describe as ‘clean slate’. Can you expand on that?

Yeah, I was playing a game and I had fun playing it, and I realized I would never make a game like it. So I started to think about, “Where did that game come from?” and how did it make me feel—not as a player, because as a player I had a fair amount of fun playing it—but as a creator, what did it make me feel? And it made me feel this intense frustration, like “Oh my gosh, if they’d just done this and this and this or if they just brought this element from this game and combined it with these elements from these other games it would be so much better.”

And I realized that that approach, that playing a game, getting frustrated, wanting to throw my controller at the screen, is really what I personally need to get the creative juices flowing. And I looked back on the games I made, and it was an epiphany. I realized that Thief directly caused Deus Ex, you know? I was just so frustrated as much as I loved the game, that I wasn’t a good enough sneaker and my only option was to stop playing. I had to make a game that allowed you to sneak and fight and talk your way past problems. That is directly where that game came from. Everything I’ve done has been a result of frustration with a particular kind of game that I think could just be so much better. And so again, about the project we’re not going to talk about, I am personally feeling frustrated with a particular category of game right now. Disney offered the opportunity to do some work in that area and to sort of exercise my frustration.

Let’s look back slightly to Deus Ex. I was reading about Eidos bringing out a new game in this franchise, Deus Ex 3. How do you feel about this thing that you put your heart and soul into going off in its own direction?

Of course I’m going to play it, but… I’m a strangely emotional guy in some ways. In some ways I’m just not, in other ways it’s just like I’m sitting here thinking, “Oh my gosh, these are characters and situations and a world that I was so intimately involved with for so much of my life and now someone else is going to play with my baby!” It’s hard, but I’ve talked to a bunch of guys at Eidos and they seem committed to the property, so I’m sure they’ll do a great job. It is hard to sit on the sidelines, but again, I’ve got other irons in the fire now and new worlds to create and conquer, so its all for the best.

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