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Deus Ex director Warren Spector has harsh words for virtual reality and more

Spector says he’d rather quit than dumb down his games

Warren Spector

Today at the Game Developers Conference, industry heavyweight Warren Spector hosted a post mortem on the making of Deus Ex, arguably his most beloved game. While Spector’s talk featured a lot of insights into the lengthy development process for Deus Ex and what he did right and wrong, he also offered some thoughts on current game development trends, often in response to audience questions.

Speaking about the impetus behind Deus Ex’s development, Spector kept returning to the idea that too many games of the time were too simple — that they didn’t force players to think. His best anecdote related to this came from when Ion Storm, the studio where he developed Deus Ex, opened the game up for testing.

Deus Ex is a game that mixes stealth, first-person shooter and dialogue-heavy adventure gameplay, and Spector expected players to find one playing style they liked and stick with it. Instead, he discovered that many players, when faced with a real choice, would become intimidated. Their solution was often to save the game, try one approach, reload, try another and repeat until they had tried every option and could choose the one they liked best.

Players felt like they had to experience everything, Spector said. He marveled that it seemed as though they had never been faced with actual choice in a game before. Many other developers and industry figures reacted similarly.

“Don’t ask me how many times I was told to ‘just make a shooter,’” Spector said.

Later, in response to an audience member during the Q&A portion of the talk, Spector expanded on his disdain for a lot of the gaming industry at the time.

“My secret goal with Deus Ex was to shame other developers,” said Spector. Many told him that a genre-blending game like this couldn’t be done, and he intended to prove them wrong.

Spector felt gratified after the game was released, and the response from other developers changed. He said that many friends in the industry told him Deus Ex changed the way they thought about games, and some said they even rebooted projects they were currently working on after playing it.

Dishonored is the series that best captures the spirit of Deus Ex now,” Spector replied in response to a question about which games were carrying forward the title’s legacy. “Half the guys who worked on Dishonored were on my old team. I can’t wait for Prey, because those are all my old guys.”

Ion Storm/Square Enix

One audience member asked Spector if he would ever release the source code for Deus Ex, stating that he wanted to take that source code and make a virtual reality version of the game.

“I recommend therapy,” Spector said in response to the request, eliciting laughter from the crowd. He went on to say that the source code would not be released in the foreseeable future, and that he didn’t think long-form movement through worlds is “the best answer for VR.”

“Then again, I survived the last time VR was going to save us,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, I said it.”

Earlier in the talk, Spector listed a series of questions he asks himself before every game he makes, culminating in the question, “Do you have something to say?” An audience member brought this up again during the Q&A, asking how that might apply to the wide variety of less hardcore games being created, including non-narrative experiences.

Spector conceded that there may be some games wherein “having something to say” is less important, but went on to say that they aren’t the type of games that interest him.

“If I have to dumb down a game to sell 20 million copies, I’m not going to make games anymore,” he said.

Though critical of other developers and trends in the industry, Spector also owned up to his own failures and oversights throughout the panel. In a discussion of what went wrong during Deus Ex’s development, Spector pointed to a team structure where he had hired two lead designers and given both of them individual design teams — a decision that led to clashing ideals and eventually some people leaving the company.

He also noted that many of his goals for Deus Ex were too big to be realistic. He praised the game’s lead designer, Harvey Smith, for eventually convincing him to cut back on some of his visions, which included a mission where the player would liberate 2,000 people in a concentration camp, and another where a full-on war between two governments would take place in the streets of Austin, Texas.

Warren Spector currently serves as studio director at OtherSide Entertainment, where he’s helping on the development of System Shock 3, a reboot of one of his earlier successes. You can read our interview with Spector about that new project and job from last year.

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