WarrenSpector

Warren Spector is the creative force behind iconic computer games like "Deus Ex."

PHOTO COURTESY OF MOODY COLLEGE OF COMMUNICATIONS

Warren Spector loves it when people ask him to speak at conferences. He has a thing or two to say about how to make a video game.

“I love talking about games,” said Spector, one of the most revered creative forces in the industry. “I’ve been trying to spread a particular gospel for a while for developers, ensuring they work on more personally developing projects.”

Lucky for the creative force behind legendary games like Deus Ex, Spector was the keynote speaker at M-Dev, a brand new gaming industry conference in Madison hosted at the Alliant Energy Center on Friday. It was an opportunity for Spector to preach his gospel, including his industry-famous list of questions that all video game makers need to ask themselves before they undertake a new project.

Those include: Can I explain my idea in two to three sentences? Is this an idea that’s well-suited to be a game (as opposed to a book, a movie, or a painting)? Has anyone made a game like this before? Is this game doing anything new?

And, perhaps most interesting: Am I trying to say something with this game?

“Of course, it’s OK to make a silly little game that has no meaning,” said Spector. “But there’s an ideology behind pretty much anything. I think you’re fooling yourself if you don’t think you’re making some kind of statement.”

Just look at a game like Epic Mickey, said Spector. He directed that 2010 game, which recast Disney's iconic Mickey Mouse as a mischievous and emboldened adventurer, exploring a fantastical world while wielding a magical paintbrush as a weapon. On the surface, said Spector, it was a game about a goofy cartoon character. However, there was more too it than that.

“This game about Mickey Mouse was about, how important are family and friends to you? What does it feel like to be forgotten and alone?” said Spector. 

The bottom line is, Spector wants developers to avoid “laziness” in the games they make. The medium is still new, he said, with a lot of potential for innovation.

It’s the reason he created Deus Ex, a computer game that has repeatedly been hailed the best of all time by the popular consumer magazine PC Gamer. The game emphasized player choice and creativity in a way that had never been done before, and that Spector had felt was long missing from games.

Spector’s lessons on game-making align with the mission of M-Dev, an event organized by the relatively new Wisconsin Games Alliance. The point of the event is to create an educational space for developers in the young and burgeoning hub of game development. It’s also an attempt to brand the city, and larger region, as an active hub in the gaming world.

Spector is no stranger to Madison. He formerly worked at TSR, the Lake Geneva game publisher responsible for the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, and would visit the city from time to time. He said he sees some parallels between Madison and Austin, his hometown, which has become a model city for aspiring gaming hubs around the country.

“We have a great university and a state capital. We have a thriving music scene, we have a thriving writing scene,” he said. “All of those things are true about Austin, and all those things are true about Madison.”

“Frankly, the biggest problem Wisconsin has is winter,” added Spector. “I couldn’t tolerate the winters there, personally.”

Spector is currently overseeing the creation of System Shock 3, a highly anticipated sequel to a series of sci-fi horror games from the 1990s.

Erik Lorenzsonn is the Capital Times' tech and culture reporter. He joined the team in 2016, after having served as an online editor for Wisconsin Public Radio and having written for publications like The Progressive Magazine and The Poughkeepsie Journal.