Warren Spector has spent the last few few years in academia, teaching game design. Now the man whose credits include Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld and the original System Shock is starting work on System Shock 3 for OtherSide Entertainment.
He still has a few months left of his tenure at the University of Texas in Austin but he's already working part-time on designing the new game. "It's just me in a room, typing a lot," he told me today, during an interview at DICE. "This is my second day on the job so it's a little early to be saying what I'm going to be doing, but I have a concept doc that I wrote up over the last couple of weeks. That's all that exists right now."
"I know the world of System Shock pretty well."
Spector's most recent work in the game industry was on the Epic Mickey franchise at Junction Point Studios, which he co-founded in 2004 and which parent company Disney Interactive shut down in January 2013. Prior to starting Junction Point, Spector led the Austin, Texas, branch of the studio Ion Storm from September 1997 to November 2004, working on the Deus Ex and Thief franchises.
In December, OtherSide Entertainment confirmed that System Shock 3 was in development. It's the first game in the much-admired series of first-person action RPGs since Looking Glass released System Shock 2 for Windows PC back in 1999. Spector was producer of the original System Shock in 1994. Its emphasis on story and player freedom made it one of the most influential games of the 1990s.
During our interview he made the point that System Shock 3 is in its most early days of development, but he talked about some of the ways he'll be bringing the game to life in the next few weeks and months of its development. Here's what he has planned.
Replay the original System Shock games
His first job is to spend some time with the games that are inspiring System Shock 3.
"I haven't played them in years. I hope it's not weird. I hope I've forgotten it all so it feels new. I think I know the world of System Shock pretty well, but the details are gone. I don't remember every nook and cranny. I need to relive the experience of being at Citadel Station.
"System Shock 2, I didn't have anything to do with. It was a separate team so that one I really need to play because I wasn't immersed in it for so long. I want to get the details back so I know what the fans want and I know what I can do to appeal to non-fans as well."
Have a good, long think
Staring out of windows and going for long walks is a big part of early game development.
"I want to answer some of the questions that we didn't answer in System Shock and System Shock 2. I'm thinking about those questions that went unanswered. I'm thinking about what the game is really about.
"If a game is just about what is happening on the surface, like killing everything that moves or moving blocks around, that's boring and a waste of time. Games can have powerful themes and subtext. They can be about more. I am working on what the game is really about."
Recall some important lessons
The teams that worked on those classic games back in the 1990s had some strong ideas about game design, which still hold true today.
"At Origin and Looking Glass that whole idea of players solving their own problems and telling their own stories took root. It was about players playing the way they want to as opposed to the way designers force them to. That philosophy was in those early games but it was nascent.
"Over the last 20 years we know a lot more about allowing players to create their own unique experiences so recreating the experience of playing System Shock would frankly be a waste of time and I have no interest so what we have to do is bring System Shock into the 21st Century using everything we've learned over the past 20 years."
Round up the old gang
OtherSide Entertainment isn't the biggest company in the game industry. Resources are likely to be finite, while expectations will be high. Spector wants to build a new team, based on some of his old contacts.
"If you look at the credits for my last project, Epic Mickey 2, there were 800 people who worked on the game … I don't want to do that again. There are some clever ways to build a small internal team and partner with the right people. Out of the people I worked with on Epic Mickey 2 there are a handful that I trust with my life and I will be reaching out to them and I hope we can get AAA quality without a AAA sized team.
"I'm certainly going to put the word out and see if I can find people who worked on the original games because there aren't a lot of people in the game business who understand the idea of player empowerment in the way that's important to me. There aren't a lot of people who understand the concept of shared authorship. I need to reach out to people who understand those things. I don't want to spend the next year teaching people those things."
Catch up with new ideas
Teaching young students has also reminded Spector how quickly the game industry changes.
"It was energizing being around all those young folks who were just getting started. They taught me as much as I taught them. They are going out into a world that is very different from the one I left and they convinced me that I needed to get back in the world of development so I can learn the things that they know.
"I hope I taught them something about creative leadership but it's important that I understand something about games as a service and data driven design and all that stuff that's second nature to them."
Write, write, write
Ultimately, it all has to be put down on paper, for a plan to emerge.
"I have a process I go through with every game, a series of questions I ask myself. I've gone through that process and I have good answers for all those questions. There's a template that I fill out that describes the game in more detail, but it's very high level.
"The next step is to take all those ideas ... design for me is like sculpting. You whittle away all the things that don't look like the game you want to make. It's not an additive process like painting. You take things away. I am in the process of building myself an enormous lump of clay, and then we'll start whittling."
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