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Default RPG Codex - Warren Spector Interview

October 24th, 2013, 04:06
RPG Codex's Infinitron & Crooked Bee interviewed Warren Spector about Ultima, Origin, and CRPG Design.

Chroniclers of the history of computer roleplaying games sometimes speak of a period in the mid-1990s when the genre suffered a decline – critically, commercially, and in terms of the sheer numbers of games released. See for instance this article by Rowan Kaiser, or Wikipedia. It's probably not a coincidence that it was around that same time that you moved from Origin to Looking Glass, the latter having been focused on a genre of games that investors and publishers considered more "contemporary". As somebody who was very much at the heart of the industry during that time, can you tell us more about these events? After a Golden Age spanning from the 1980s all the way up to around 1993, how could an entire genre collapse so suddenly, across so many different companies?

There's no doubt RPG's were out of favor by the mid-90s. No doubt at all. People didn't seem to want fantasy stories or post-apocalypse stories anymore. They certainly didn't want isometric, 100 hour fantasy or post-apocalypse stories, that's for sure! I couldn't say why it happened, but it did. Everyone was jumping on the CD craze – it was all cinematic games and high-end graphics puzzle games… That was a tough time for me – I mean, picture yourself sitting in a meeting with a bunch of execs, trying to convince them to do all sorts of cool games and being told, "Warren, you're not allowed to say the word 'story' any more." Talk about a slap in the face, a bucket of cold water, a dose of reality.

If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn't care much about graphics. Even high end RPGs were pretty plain jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans. That can work when you're spending hundreds of thousands of dollars – even a few million – but when games start costing many millions, you just can't make them for a relatively small audience of fans.

Remember, when I started, "going gold" didn't mean "shipping a game" – it meant you sold 100,000 copies. And when you did that, you went and bought yourself a Ferrari. By the mid-90s, 100,000 copies was a dismal failure. We had to reach out beyond the 100,000 core fans. And none of us did a very good job of that, at the time. Luckily, we figured it out – or started to – later
Read the link for the entire interview as it contains many interesting questions and answers. It's also to long to fit more than one question to preview.

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October 24th, 2013, 04:06
They are really getting good at setting up these interviews.
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October 24th, 2013, 04:18
If you ask me, the reason it all happened was that we assumed our audience wanted 100 hours of play and didn't care much about graphics. Even high end RPGs were pretty plain jane next to things like Myst and even our own Wing Commander series. I think we fell behind our audience in terms of the sophistication they expected and we catered too much to the hardcore fans.
So true. Refreshing to hear it put this way by a dev.


There's one thing the continued success of high profile RPG's like The Witcher and the Elder Scrolls series, but also the MMO craze show: people want fantasy worlds. They want RPG mechanics. But they want these things to come in a package with high end graphics or something else that makes them feel like they're not behind the technology curve. Making less costly games for the hardcore audience is fine and that's why I love crowdfunding, but it would be so refreshing to see a real deep, classical RPG with AAA production values that makes these games more accessible, or at least acceptable, to the mainstream again.

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October 24th, 2013, 06:37
Myst! So over-rated.

I remember clearly quitting out of Myst to play Heroes of Might and Magic 3.

Anyone remember Neverhood? Was like a plasticine stop motion kinda affair? Well, I remember quitting out of that to play HOMAM3 too
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October 24th, 2013, 10:32
Originally Posted by SirJames View Post
Myst! So over-rated.

I remember clearly quitting out of Myst to play Heroes of Might and Magic 3.

Anyone remember Neverhood? Was like a plasticine stop motion kinda affair? Well, I remember quitting out of that to play HOMAM3 too
I remember playing HMM3 until I could´nt use my right hand and had to install another mouse for my left hand…

OnT.
Good interview.
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October 24th, 2013, 10:55
"they certainly didn't want 100 hour fantasy games"

Nonsense. BG2 sold several million copies, for instance. For the most part the industry were unable to make games of that complexity and were seeking a formula they could churn out more easily and with untalented development teams, hence the focus on glitzy doomalikes that continues to this day.
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October 24th, 2013, 11:24
Originally Posted by Roq View Post
"they certainly didn't want 100 hour fantasy games"

Nonsense. BG2 sold several million copies, for instance. For the most part the industry were unable to make games of that complexity and were seeking a formula they could churn out more easily and with untalented development teams, hence the focus on glitzy doomalikes that continues to this day.
I think what he means is simply games with a lot of content and potentially deep systems but little other qualities that make games attractive. And BG2 had the great fortune to draw on a lot of hype mostly due to the fact that it had a critically acclaimed prequel.

I know it's kewl and edgy to claim that 1) everything is a cash grab or 2) most gamers are peasants, but that doesn't seem to explain the downfall of deep CRPG's. I'm pretty sure BG2 could have sold quite a few more copies if it hadn't been running on the recycled Infinity Engine. People who aren't primarily number crunchers won't buy a game that's primarily about number crunching - unless there's some sugar to make things less bitter. And that's exactly where most deep RPG's since the mid-90's were lacking.

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October 24th, 2013, 12:25
Originally Posted by Roq View Post
Nonsense. BG2 sold several million copies, for instance. For the most part the industry were unable to make games of that complexity and were seeking a formula they could churn out more easily and with untalented development teams, hence the focus on glitzy doomalikes that continues to this day.
To be fair, he did say "mid-90s". Baldur's Gate was released at the tail end of 98'. Perhaps that why a lot of people heralded it as the beginning of a renewed interest in crpgs.
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October 24th, 2013, 12:29
He's not thinking straight or he's got a problem articulating his point in the first segment of that quote.

What people want doesn't really change. People don't stop wanting RPGs and they never did. People haven't stopped wanting Space games either.

What has changed is how many people they wanted or felt they needed to reach. The more people you want to reach - the less you can demand of them in your game.
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October 24th, 2013, 14:46
Man, I loved HoMM 3 but never could beat it. I even got to the point where I was replaying levels where I knew exactly where to go in the shortest amount of steps and still got beat down. I wanted to beat that game badly ….

That was a very nice interview. It felt good to hear about the early games I grew up with and some of the thought processes behind them.

Nowadays I don't particularly want to play a 100+ hour game. I just don't have enough free time. I don't believe I've hit 100 hours in Skyrim but I'm sure I had over that much in Oblivion. I prefer 24+ or so hour games now as that gives me a reasonable chance of finishing them.
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October 24th, 2013, 14:48
Four 24 hour games is about a hundred hours, isn't it?
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October 24th, 2013, 15:56
True but its about being able to finish a game in a reasonable timeframe not the total time in multiple games.
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October 24th, 2013, 16:26
I think RPGs took a hit about the same time folks stopped reading, at least in the US. The late 80's, arguably, was the beginning of the decline of our educational system. Computers and, quickly thereafter, the Internet took the place of books. RPG games were basically choose-your-own-adventure interactive books that required a significant amount of reading. By then the typical gaming-age person had not been exposed to reading to the level prior, and therefore, had less interest.

Why read when you can run around and blow shit up in real-time, first person perspective?
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October 24th, 2013, 17:04
Originally Posted by Toff View Post
True but its about being able to finish a game in a reasonable timeframe not the total time in multiple games.
Hmm, I guess I'm just used to not being able to finish games in one or two sittings these days.

Since savegames are the order of the day, I guess I don't really care about having to spend 100 hours - as long as I'm having fun. In fact, for most RPGs - I prefer it.
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October 24th, 2013, 17:08
A 24 hour game for you may be one or two sittings but it will be at least 12 sittings for me. Even if I had the free time I have zero desire to sit in front of a computer/TV for that long. Now 15 years ago it was a different story.
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October 24th, 2013, 17:13
Originally Posted by Toff View Post
A 24 hour game for you may be one or two sittings but it will be at least 12 sittings for me. Even if I had the free time I have zero desire to sit in front of a computer/TV for that long. Now 15 years ago it was a different story.
Then it makes more sense

I'm not sure I could enjoy gaming at all like that, but I've always been a bit greedy when it comes to my passions.
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October 24th, 2013, 17:51
Originally Posted by JDR13 View Post
To be fair, he did say "mid-90s". Baldur's Gate was released at the tail end of 98'. Perhaps that why a lot of people heralded it as the beginning of a renewed interest in crpgs.
That's correct. By the time of Baldur's Gate, RPGs had managed to overcome the technology gap Warren mentioned. But by then, oldschool designers like him had abandoned the genre and it was up to a new generation of talent - the three B's (Black Isle, BioWare, Bethesda) - to revitalize it.

I'm very interested in the decline of RPGs that took place in the mid-90s. Unlike today's console-induced decline, the reasons behind it are far less understood. Expect this topic to be addressed in future Codex retrospective interviews wherever it makes sense.
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October 24th, 2013, 19:33
Originally Posted by Infinitron View Post
That's correct. By the time of Baldur's Gate, RPGs had managed to overcome the technology gap Warren mentioned. But by then, oldschool designers like him had abandoned the genre and it was up to a new generation of talent - the three B's (Black Isle, BioWare, Bethesda) - to revitalize it.

I'm very interested in the decline of RPGs that took place in the mid-90s. Unlike today's console-induced decline, the reasons behind it are far less understood. Expect this topic to be addressed in future Codex retrospective interviews wherever it makes sense.
Maybe it was the 3 D's: Doom, Diablo, Dune 2 (RTS) that made the game industry think that the more ponderous RPG formats were being superseded. Action speaks louder than words, so they say .
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October 24th, 2013, 19:45
3d games like Doom 1993 Doom II 1994 and Quake 1996 were the best hot games in the mid 90s. Everybody played them with the best gfx card available (Voodoo 1 or Matrox M3D).

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October 24th, 2013, 20:15
Roq, it's interesting that you mention Diablo. Apparently, at least some members of the Diablo team thought they were also helping to bring back RPGs: http://www.gamebanshee.com/news/1123…of-diablo.html
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