Grand Theft Adaptation

Grand Theft Adaptation
Licensing: Live With It

Allen Varney | 16 Aug 2005 08:02
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Some find this situation abominable. Not Spector. At the March 2003 Game Developers Conference in San Jose, CA, in his design keynote speech "Sequels & Adaptations: Design Innovation in a Risk-Averse World," Spector took a pragmatic approach. Without addressing whether it was desirable to make licensed games, he argued that if developers can secure nothing but licensed projects, they should embrace the job and challenge themselves. Citing advantages a license gives, such as free marketing, fan buy-in, and "cool sandboxes to play in," Spector advised developers to "find ways to innovate within [the] boundaries of player expectation and publisher need. Games are not driven by fiction, character or context. Games are driven by gameplay."

Spector's GDC keynote received strongly mixed reviews: "Half the audience reviled me for weeks after," he says. "Half the audience hailed me as a hero. I figure that constituted a total success. I believe every word I said up on that stage, and [I] hoped to hell my beliefs would get people hopping mad and thinking."

He got Greg Costikyan, anyway. A longtime industry gadfly and proponent of alternative ways to make and sell games - and Spector's old prep-school buddy at the Horace Mann School in New York City - Costikyan posted a lengthy rebuttal on his blog. "[There's] nothing wrong with sequels and licensed products - in moderation. The problem [...] is that they're beginning to overwhelm original work. Here we are, like Balboa, shocked with wild surmise as we face a vast unknown Pacific of enormous creative possibility - and all we can do is licensed drivel?"

Blogless himself, Spector responded on Costikyan's home turf: "I hold up my own career as an example of the ability to do original work in someone else's sandbox." He observed that, apart from System Shock and Deus Ex, "every computer/videogame I've worked on has been a sequel or derivative. On every one of them, I had to negotiate to find my own creative space and on every one of them, I feel I succeeded."

Spector said, "I firmly believe that, if developer and licensor (and publisher) get on the same page about what people expect - a dialogue that clearly has to be driven primarily by the licensor, I admit - you can still do creative work in someone else's universe."

Ironically, when he wrote this, Spector had never done an actual licensed computer game.

Two years later, he still hasn't. But he might.

Open to Possibilities
Two years on, licensing dominates gaming even more heavily. At the Free Play independent games conference in Melbourne last month, Costikyan addressed developers in a rabble-rousing keynote speech called "Death to the Games Industry (Long Live Games)": "We've explored only a tiny portion of the possible in games. [There are] doubtless dozens of commercially feasible styles not yet discovered. Innovative novels [are] published every year, and that's a medium 300 years old." But unless the industry changes "we're all going to be doing nothing but making nicer road textures and better-lit car models for games with the same gameplay as *Pole Position* for all eternity."

At Junction Point Studio, Spector is hiring his team for an unannounced fantasy game. It's his own concept, not licensed. But he'd definitely consider a license; in fact, he looks downright wistful.

Still, all he says aloud is, "Sure, I'm interested. The right license gives you a good shot at reaching an audience that already wants -- and may already have paid for something like -- what you're trying to give them."

Is this just the musing of a startup boss looking for more funding?

Possibly. And why not? Unlike many developers, Spector can make pretty much the game he wants. Over the years, working with many designers at Origin, Looking Glass, and ION Storm, Spector has chosen a gameplay style -- defined it, really -- that is (as he said at the GDC) not driven by fiction, character or context. His games are affected no more by a license, or lack of it, than by the color of their CD's jewel case.

After he designed and produced *Deus Ex* in 2000, gaming magazines and web sites started calling Spector "legendary." He rolls his eyes at the term, but he does cop to a different and perhaps more important label: "I'm a brand."

A Warren Spector-brand game is a story-driven roleplaying game in a highly interactive setting with a large solution space. His "immersive sims" are not about deducing the designer's defined solutions to puzzles, but about creating rich environments where each player can try different tactics to achieve a defined goal. Every player charts a unique path through the game, and situations are carefully balanced to reward different play styles equally. It's all about "sharing authorship of the gameplay experience with our collaborators - our players."

This sort of approach works as well in a borrowed world as in an original. "A cool universe or a marketable character [are] almost irrelevant to the gameplay experience I think players want and deserve."

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