AGC: Lunch with Warren Spector


Mongolian BBQ, in downtown Austin, is a horrible place to eat. I say this sincerely.

It’s one of those theme restaurants where they make you get way too involved in the preparation of your own food, to the point where you start wondering why the hell you’re even paying them.

It starts off well and good, at first I thought it was just a salad bar, and that we’d soon be seated and looking at menus, but our dear colleague Allen Varney (who was acting as our Sherpa guide during the expedition) soon set me to rights.

“The trick,” says Allen, “is to pile-on the vegetables to the point where it would appear ridiculous.” He then proceeded to construct a gigantic monument to stir-fry vegetables, the likes of which I’d never seen.

Having read Varney’s stuff, and knowing that he usually knows what he’s talking about, I took him at his word and piled on the veggies. My own tower (constructed mainly of mushrooms, broccoli and green onions), was more like a mountain than Varney’s precise-looking tower arrangement, but I was happy to discover that I’d reached the end of the veggie section, amassed an enormous pile of the stuff, and hadn’t yet dropped a morsel.

That’s when I discovered the meat.

The good Mongolians at Mongolian BBQ, it would seem, cook the food for you – you just have to prepare it. So the trick is to layer on enough veggies so that when the food is cooked, they don’t all disappear. But you have to add meat, too, otherwise … well, it wouldn’t be BBQ, would it?

So it’s only after I manage to carefully layer shards of frozen beef onto Mt. Veggie Top — and immediately before I discover that we also have to mix our own sauce — that I remember why we’re all here: Warren Spector has taken a day off from working on his mysterious new game and invited Allen, Alex Macris, Julianne Greer and me to lunch.

Warren and The Escapist go back a ways, and even when he’s incredibly busy (as he is on this day), he’s good enough to return our emails at least. (Unlike some people I could mention, but won’t.) He shyly jokes about how he hi-jacked our magazine for four weeks in a row earlier this year, with a four-part article on the business of game development. I assure him that it was before my time, and that I hold no grudges even though I thought the piece(s) was fabulous.

And that’s when he blows my mind.

“Really?” He says. “Because I’ve got another little article I’m working on that I thought you might like. If you want it.”

“If you want it.”

And he means it. Warren Spector is offering me a chance at an article he’s written, and is seriously entertaining the possibility that I might not “want it.”

Let’s back up a bit.

Warren is one of those guys whose list of game credits probably contains at least a dozen games you’ve not only played, but loved. His career started at Steve Jackson Games, for example, the people who made such classics as Car Wars and the G.U.R.P.S. role-playing system. Then he went on to TSR, where he worked on the 2nd Edition D&D ruleset. (His memories of this project are not altogether pleasant.) If none of this is ringing a bell, try Origin Systems, where he worked on the Ultima series, Wing Commander, Crusader: No Remorse and Sysyem Shock (among others). Getting a picture?

But the list doesn’t stop there, nor is the preceding by any means a complete tally.

Warren also designed the fan-favorite Theif series, first at Looking Glass, later at Ion Storm Austin. But the game for which he is perhaps best known these days is Deus Ex, the FPS-RPG hybrid which took the world by storm back in 2000.

And yet, with all of these credits under his belt, after all of the accolades, and stunning achievements; under all of that, Warren is just a really nice guy. He likes what he does, enjoys talking to people about it, and is concerned about whether or not I’d be interested in an article he’s written.

“Um .. yes,” I manage. “Send it on over and we’ll take a look at the schedule.”

He nods, and then adds more meat to his plate.

We chat only briefly as we take our places in line at the “bar” and hand our piles of soon-to-be-food over to the gentle-looking Mongolians with machetes. One gets the sense from Warren that he’s been around so many fawning acolytes and anxious, admiring journalists that he no longer notices. Not that he thinks he’s above the attention, just that he doesn’t care. Or has been forced not to care, lest he go mad.

I’m struck, while talking to him, by how he carries himself and how calm the man appears to be, in spite of the fact that he’s on a break-neck schedule producing his new as-yet unnamed game for his new company, Junction Point Studios, and the fact that he’s literally surrounded by reporters.

The Mongolians pile our fixin’s on a gigantic, circular grill, then proceed to hack at it with their machetes. Warren wonders how they manage to keep track of which food belongs to whom, as we watch the men dance around their grill, hacking and flipping, as if practicing some long-lost Mongolian food dance. He then spots some pattern, some organizational cue card, which has eluded me, and nods his head as the pieces all fall into place. He doesn’t share his insight with me. I wonder if he’ll be adding a circular grill, or a boss with machetes to his next game.

As we take our seats around the table, the conversation naturally ambles toward gaming. But not videogaming – tabletop gaming. Warren and Allen Varney, both SJG veterans, are also role-players, as are Alex, Julianne and I. Alex regales the table with tales from our current campaign, set in the land of Conan, using the game rules designed by TSR in 1985. He tells a story about the character called Massimo, the thief, who is a bit flamboyant and refers to himself in the third person. Later, when the conversation has moved on to Warren’s latest project, and the fears of his company that he’ll say too much and risk over-exposure, Alex flips his hand in the air, in the manner of Massimo, and replies “Warren Specter cannot be overexposed.” Warren laughs. He suggests that the day he begins referring to himself in the third person will be the day he’s through with the industry. And in spite of how many times I’ve heard such claims of humility from stars in the industry, from Warren Spector, I believe it.

A recurring theme of our conversation is that what Warren wants most is to be able to talk about his game. Good or bad, he just wants to give it to us and let us decide. He says the project is moving forward, and that it could be the best thing he’s done yet. He then compares it to other games he’s done recently, suggesting that this next game could be a kind of logical progression of his design philosophy, but that he can’t say any more.

I ask him if that’s the curse of the industry these days, if because of the inability of a few, rash developers who’ve run their mouths and said way too much, that the rest are now ham-strung, unable to wax enthusiastically as much as they’d like. I’m of course hoping that he’ll spill some dirt on my favorite topic of conversation, John Romero, who hired Warren to create Ion Storm Austin.

Warren hesitates to agree, perhaps for fear of walking into my carefully-placed trap. He suggests instead, in his casually self-deprecating manner, that his name could just as easily be on that list.

In spite of all of his successes, you get the feeling from Warren that he feels he still has something to prove; that his best games are still yet to come, and that he can’t wait to make them. He’s also quick to admit his failures – perhaps too quick. I got a puzzled look from him when I suggested that I’d actually enjoyed playing Thief: Deadly Shadows, but when he decided that I was actually being honest, and not kissing his ass, I could see it in his eyes that he was relieved. In spite of the fact that I’m just a magazine editor, and his junior by a number of years, the fact that I liked his game – one of his least favorites – meant something to him. And one has to assume that he feels the same way about all of us.

I’d met Warren once before, also in Austin, when I was in town producing an on-location video for TechTV. Deus Ex had just come out. We interviewed him about it. I mentioned this to Warren as we were walking the half-block or so from the Austin Convention Center to the restaurant, but he didn’t seem to recall the interview. Or me, for that matter.

“You remember Deus Ex,” said Alex. “That was that cyber-punk-ish game you designed with the multiple endings.”

Warren looked like he’d been slapped, then started laughing. The ice had been broken, and we proceeded to make fools of ourselves paying people for the privilege of making our own terrible Chinese food. It’s the kind of experience you cherish, and maybe this time Warren will remember me. Or at least remember to send me that article.

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