Why Warren Spector is taking a vacation and going back to school

Warren Spector is a name known well by dedicated PC gamers. The man helped make innovative games like System Shock, Deus Ex and Thief. More recently, Warren Spector worked with Disney Interactive on Disney's Epic Mickey games. With Disney shuttering his Junction Point Studios, Spector is taking a vacation for the first time in his life.

But he’s keeping busy with speaking engagements and going back to school, designing a game development program for the University of Texas Austin. Now free of public relations restrictions, Spector opens up to us about game development and his own future in this exclusive interview.

Game On: You’ve partnered with Blizzard’s Paul Sams to create the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy at the University of Texas. What’s it going to be like to teach the next generation of game makers?

Spector: For 30 years I’ve been arguing for the need to take a more structured approach to training the next generation of developers; it’s important to teach them what makes games work. Now, it’s much easier to convince people that games education has a place in the colleges and the universities in the country.

How will your Denius-Sams Gaming Academy differentiate itself?

We want to take the best candidates and put them through a rigorous boot camp approach to actually making games. It’s not about games as art—although I believe that—and it’s not about games made by four people who sit in a room and talk.

The University of Texas at Austin College of Communications, future home of the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy.

Games are an industrial art and the way Disney and Electronic Arts and all the other places I’ve worked at actually work is not the way most universities teach game development. We want to take those 20 people and actually prepare them very specifically for a career in creative or production leadership.

What opportunities are there for graduating game developers today?

Games offer a terrific career opportunity for people who have the passion and dedication and don’t mind the hard work. The major players are laying people off right and left now; even my studio just got shut down recently. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities in game development.

There are still thousands of people working at major publishers and every time a studio shuts down a thousand flowers bloom. You see a group go the indie route, which is now a much more viable space to be in than it was five years ago. Others go the mobile route, which is more viable and it didn’t even exist five years ago. So there are still plenty of job opportunities.

What advice would you give to someone who wants a career in games?

First of all, make games. If you’re not making games on your own, the odds are very slim you’re going to be able to do it professionally. No one’s going to give you a chance unless you have a portfolio of some kind.

For artists and programmers, that’s relatively straightforward. I always love it when a programmer comes to me and claims to have reverse-engineered the tech in Deus Ex. Grab Unreal Engine or the Source Engine or Unity and actually start building stuff. You may discover that you don’t have the knack for it. You may discover you don’t like it. God knows no one wants me touching a game editor anymore, that’s for sure.  You have to make sure you love it and you have skill. If you’re a designer, build stuff, write some design docs, write up a world description.

Having spent so much time with Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, do you see those characters working in the Disney Infinity platform?

I have nothing to do with Mickey and Oswald anymore, so if anybody does anything with them—and obviously I hope they do—it will likely be on the Infinity platform, though again I’m not really sure about that.

Mickey Mouse and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit co-starred in Spector's last game, Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two.

I think the idea of creating a platform is a great one and I love the way Infinity is using toys and more traditional game styles together. The success of Skylanders speaks to that.  Who better than Disney to use that kind of approach, given the characters and the IP they have to exploit? The only danger I see is if it turns into everything has to be squeezed into the platform. I think you can go too far with the idea of a platform, but I’m not remotely close enough to Infinity to have any thoughts on what their approach is.

How long of a break do you feel you’re going to take before you get back into game development?

I told my wife I was going to take as much time off as it took for me to experience what normal people describe as “bored.” I’m ready to find out what the hell that feels like. I’ve been burning the candle at both ends for, holy cow, thirty years.

My wife will tell you we’ve never had a vacation that didn’t involve some work. It says on my LinkedIn page I’ll talk to anybody and so if someone puts the perfect thing in front of me then I might come back a little sooner. But I’m not going to rush back in. I’m going to burn to do something or I’m not going to do anything.

The sad thing for me is I really want to take off until at least the fall. I don’t know why, but I have October in my head. But some folks are throwing some pretty interesting opportunities at me, so I might have to get up off the couch and head back to work sooner than I expected.

What excites you about game development today?

When I came in it was like we didn’t know what the hell we were doing. We didn’t have any idea how to do user controls or cameras or first-person-perspective games. They were primitive. We had no clue, so we were making it up as we went along.

Wing Commander 2 for the PC was a first-person starfighter simulator with a surprisingly tense narrative.

Chris Roberts when he proposed Wing Commander—the first cinematic game that combined drama with a fully texture-mapped space combat game—a lot of people thought he was nuts because no one had ever seen anything like that. And here we are today in the mobile world, the tablet world, where it’s like, how do you make a first-person-perspective game with controls that actually work? How do we do anything on this device? How do we tell a story to an audience that expects to play in five-minute chunks while they’re waiting for a cup of coffee?

I don’t know, so in that sense it’s kind of the Wild West again. A lot of people are going to fail, but a lot of people are going to be creating yet another new medium and that’s hugely exciting.

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