How Warren Spector Created a Genre, and Set Games Free

How Warren Spector Created a Genre, and Set Games Free

Glixel

The Godfather of the immersive sim genre explains how he helped create a world where players can author their own experiences

The Godfather of the immersive sim genre explains how he helped create a world where players can author their own experiences

One of the hottest games at the moment is Prey. Two of the most ambitious big budget titles released last year were Dishonored 2 and Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. What do they have in common? They wouldn't exist without Warren Spector.

In 1990s games like System Shock, Spector helped pioneer a genre in which each individual player is able to pursue their own personal playstyle and use the flexible rules of the world to solve puzzles and complete objectives – a genre that's been dubbed the "immersive sim." Spector himself uses that term, though he's not very happy with it. "I've been trying to find a better way to describe the game style, because ‘immersive sim' sounds kind of highfalutin and pretentious," he says.

The genre was initially not that popular. Early immersive sims had a small cadre of devoted fans, but they were never big hits. Even Spector's highly acclaimed cyberpunk masterpiece, Deus Ex, did middling business in 2000. But nowadays, immersive sims like the Bioshock franchise – a spiritual successor to System Shock – are some of the biggest blockbusters around, and the influence of the genre can be felt in RPG franchises like The Witcher and Fallout and Elder Scrolls, in action games like S.T.A.L.K.E.R and Hitman and Far Cry, and in so-called walking sims like Gone Home.

But while immersive sims were conquering the game world, Spector was out of the video game industry. He spent several years in academia, setting up the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas in his hometown of Austin. And before that, he had spent the better part of a decade working on unreleased projects and the Epic Mickey platformers. I ask him what it was like to witness the ascendance of immersive sims in his absence: Is he jealous? Does he feel left out?

"So many people expect me to be angry or something," he says with a laugh. "My feeling is, there are many ways to measure success. Sales numbers, review scores, awards ... all that stuff is fine. But another measure of success is influence – has what you've done changed things? System Shock and all those games made a difference, and that's way more important to me than whether I made a lot of money for somebody."

Now he's looking to change things again. Spector announced last year that he was leaving academia, and joining an old colleague Paul Neurath at OtherSide Entertainment to work on System Shock 3. As he embarks on creating a new immersive sim at age 61, I asked him to talk a bit about the history of the genre that he helped birth.

Before the interview proceeds any further, Spector pauses to insist that he doesn't want to be seen as some sort of an auteur who is solely responsible for the content of his games. He worked on classic immersive sims alongside industry luminaries like Neurath, Ken Levine (Bioshock), Harvey Smith (Dishonored), Doug Church (Tomb Raider: Legend) and Ricardo Bare (Prey.) "If you can't make a great game with people of that caliber on your team, you're hopeless," he says. "I'm not a programmer, I'm not an artist, I'm not the best designer. I'm good at finding people smarter than me and getting out of the way."

Spector has been playing a lot of Prey lately, and says that he just emailed his former colleague Ricardo Bare, the lead designer on that game, to compliment him on it. "I'm so thrilled that Prey came out, and I'm so thrilled to see more immersive sims these days," he says.

So what exactly is an immersive sim? Spector lays out his definition. "It means that instead of feeling like you're just manipulating a digital puppet, you feel like you're immersing yourself in another world," he says. "It's not scripted – we're using rules and physics and AI to remove the barriers to belief, so that players are not constantly being reminded that they're playing a game."

In an immersive sim, physical objects behave the way you would expect them to behave in the real world. You can interact with people in a variety of ways, and you can expect them to respond the way they would in the real world. And there's never just one solution to a problem – there are many different ways to achieve goals and objectives. "What that does is it allows players to solve problems the way they want to, as opposed to just trying to read the mind of the designer, and figure out the one thing that he or she wants you to do," says Spector.

Spector played (and created) a lot of tabletop RPGs in his youth. That experience might be the key to his design approach. During a Dungeons & Dragons play session, the DM that's running the game has to be able to respond to whatever the players chose to do, no matter how unexpected or outlandish. What if instead of attacking the ogre with a spell or a weapon, the players want to try and seduce it? A good DM doesn't say no – they check everyone's Charisma stats and (literally) roll with it.

In a sense, immersive sims try to bring that sort of freedom to video games. "I've spent the last 33 years trying to recapture the feeling of when I first played D&D in 1978," says Spector. "And many of the people who I've worked with either played them or still play them to this day. A tabletop RPG is a remarkable thing. It turns everybody into a storyteller. There's no medium other than games that can make everybody an author. That's been my mission, to give everybody that feeling."

After working on tabletop RPGs for Steve Jackson Games for a stint in the 1980s, Spector joined Origin Systems, and worked alongside fellow D&D enthusiast Richard Garriott on the influential Ultima computer game series. "Garriott pioneered that sort of immersive space," says Spector. "The Ultima games sent you to a fantastical kind of place that you couldn't see any other way." He spent two weeks locked in a room with Garriott hammering out a story and design document for 1990's Ultima VI: The False Prophet, which Spector considers to be the first immersive sim.

The game's narrative had a surprisingly sophisticated twist that people still talk about today. (The player gradually learns that the evil gargoyle horde they've been contending with is … not actually evil.) But what really set it apart were its systems. "You can buy a sack of grain from a local farmer, take the grain to a mill and grind it into flour, then sell the flour to a baker – or sneak into his bakery at night to bake your own bread using his oven," writes Jimmy Maher in a lengthy appreciation of the game at Digital Antiquarian. "Even by the standards of today, the living world inside Ultima VI is a remarkable achievement – not to mention a godsend to those of us bored with killing monsters; you can be very successful in Ultima VI whilst doing very little killing at all."

"There was a moment when we were working on Ultima VI that I'll never forget," says Spector. "I was watching testers play this area where your path is blocked by a portcullis, and you had to flip a lever to raise the portcullis and advance. The tester didn't have the telekinesis spell that you needed in order to flip the lever, and I thought he was doomed. But one of the members of his party was a talking mouse, and since the portcullis was a simulation, the mouse could actually wriggle through it and flip the lever. And I just fell on the floor. No one else in the world had ever done that! You weren't supposed to be able to do that! And I thought to myself, ‘That, that is what I'm doing for a living from now on. I'm going to make things like that happen.' That's the immersive sim right there – all because of an accident."

Spector says that the next step in the development of the immersive sim was the 1992 Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a trailblazing title developed by Paul Neurath and a team at Blue Sky Productions. It's an open-ended RPG that lets players explore a dungeon at their own pace, in a nonlinear fashion. And it all plays out from a first person perspective, which was a revelation at the time. "I remember when Paul showed me the original tech demo, and it was the first real-time, 3D, textured, first-person thing I'd seen. I said to myself, ‘The world just changed.' Instead of steering around a little 64-pixel puppet, you're seeing the game world as if through your own eyes."

The game came out a few months before Wolfenstein 3D, and a certain subset of RPG addicts view it as the Road Not Taken by the game industry. The frantic first person shooter combat of Wolfenstein inspired a million imitators. But Ultima Underworld's brand of freeform first person dungeon exploration? Not so much. Spector would work as a producer on an acclaimed sequel, the 1993 Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds. But immersive sims remained niche as Doom clones grabbed ever bigger chunks of the game release calendar.

Blue Sky Productions became Looking Glass Studios in 1992, and Spector served as producer on the next immersive sim milestone, the 1994 title System Shock. It was like Ultima Underworld in space, with an evil sentient AI and a horde of homicidal robots and cyborgs. "System Shock built in physics, and had much richer toolset and ruleset," says Spector. "For most players, that's what ended up being the genesis of the whole immersive sim thing." (Read Glixel's piece about the influence of the game here.)

Spector began conceptualizing a dream project – the most immersive version of an immersive sim yet. "I came up with this idea called Troubleshooter, about Jake Shooter, an ex-CIA guy turned hard boiled detective," he says. "The idea was what I called a ‘real world role-playing game.' I was sick of fantasy and science fiction at that point."

He couldn't sell Origin on the concept, and pursued other titles. Spector eventually left Origin to work at Looking Glass, and he was there for the early phases of the development of the 1998 Thief, an immersive sim that, along with the release of Konami's Metal Gear Solid that year, helped establish the stealth genre. Spector was about to commit to creating an RPG version of the real time strategy game Command & Conquer when John Romero of Ion Storm approached him with an offer he couldn't refuse. "John said I could make the game of my dreams, with no creative interference and the biggest marketing budget I'd ever had," he says. "John lived up to every promise."

The title was Deus Ex. It's set in a dark near-future world that's sort of like ours, except all of the bizarre conspiracy theories about UFOs and black helicopters and the Illuminati are true. Players assume the role of JC Denton, a UN anti-terrorist operative. They are given an unprecedented level of freedom in how they can augment their bodies and develop their special skills. One player might choose to be a skilled lockpick and hacker, another might choose to be a deadeye marksman with an arsenal of specially customized weaponry, another might choose to be an incredibly strong brawler, another might choose to be a near-invisible stealth expert. Each specialization allows players to create their own unique paths through levels, and their own unique methods of achieving objectives. You could play through without killing anyone; you could play through by killing everyone.

There was nothing quite like Deus Ex at the time. It gave many, many players the kind of magical this-shouldn't-work-but-it-does moments that Spector experienced on Ultima VI. It showed just how wide the "possibility space" could be in a game.

Spector stayed at Ion Storm for a few more years, working on a Deus Ex sequel in 2003 and overseeing the development of a Thief game in 2004. He never released another immersive sim after that. I spoke to him in 2015, when the video game industry was buzzing about crowdfunded projects from his former colleagues at Origin – Chris Roberts' Star Citizen promised to be the apotheosis of the Wing Commander franchise, and Richard Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar set out to be the ultimate Ultima-style experience. I asked Spector if he had any interest in going that route, and Kickstarting a spiritual successor to one of the classic 1990s franchises he helped create.

Absolutely not, he insisted. "It's bad enough being beholden to a single publisher," he told me. "I can't imagine being beholden to 50,000 backers."

Spector stands by that today. "Crowdfunding still seems like a nightmare to me," he says. But even at that time, when he was fully invested in building an instruction program at a university, he was hearing the siren call of game development. "I started feeling like, wow, I've gotta make something," he says. "There are elements of teaching that I loved, but there's an itch that it didn't scratch."

"I learned so much from my students," he adds. "But the big lesson I learned is that game development changes so rapidly. Digital distribution, MOBAs, Twitch – the world my students were graduating into was completely different from the world I left. Here I was thinking I know how to make games, and the world moved on."

Around that time, Paul Nuerath had formed a studio, OtherSide Entertainment. The name was a play on Looking Glass, and the studio set out to reboot franchises like Underworld and System Shock. "He asked if I would join him, and that just seemed like too good an opportunity to pass up," says Spector. "To return to the world of System Shock without having to go to the trouble of building a company and incorporating and figuring out equity and stuff. I mean, before I signed on, Paul had already worked his magic and enlisted Terri Brosius, who voices the evil AI Shodan in the System Shock games. It was impossible to resist."

The development of System Shock 3 is currently taking place in Spector's home. Or rather, in one of his homes. He has three houses on the same block in North Austin – one house that he lives in, one that he keeps his film and animation memorabilia in, and one that's essentially a library that houses his tens of thousands of books. That library house is System Shock 3's makeshift office for the time being. "Right now, there are just four of us working on the game, and ultimately it'll probably be about 20, including contractors," he says "That's roughly the same size as on the original game. System Shock's team was in the mid-twenties, if I remember correctly. Deus Ex was 34 people including testers."

To his mind, that's the perfect team size. He doesn't want to do a blockbuster project with a blockbuster budget and blockbuster manpower. "On Epic Mickey, the team got to be so big – like 200 in the studio, and hundreds more externally," he says. "I don't ever want to do that again. I want to interview everyone, I want to know everyone's names, and I want them to know the guy they're working for."

System Shock 3 is still at the concept stage, and Spector can't talk about the content. "But I can tell you that there's one thing in there that is pretty crazy, that's never been done before," he says. "I didn't even come up with it. Usually I'm the one who comes up with the impossible new thing that eventually makes everyone on the team hate me. I don't know if it's gonna work or not, but I think you've gotta scare yourself sometimes."

I ask if this blue sky brainstorming phase is his favorite part of the development process. He says he doesn't have a favorite part. Well, maybe he does. "There's nothing like the day you ship a game," says Spector. "Every game is different, every team is different. But the satisfaction of finishing a game's development is the most amazing sensation, and it never gets old."