Warren Spector

Photo Credit: Pu Ying Huang | Daily Texan Staff

The Denius-Sams Gaming Academy, UT’s first post-baccalaureate game development program, began accepting applications last week.

The gaming academy is a 12-month program intended for students who have completed a bachelor’s or master’s degree and have substantial experience in game design. The 20 students selected will receive tuition waivers and $10,000 stipends.

The program is a collaborative effort between the Moody College of Communication, the department of computer science and the College of Fine Arts, and offers students the opportunity to supplement their degrees with certificates.

Students can expect an advanced curriculum based on game development and leadership within a game design team. The skill set acquired during the program will allow students to feel the impact of their work on the real world, program director Warren Spector said.

According to Spector, the program will allow students to create and design a video game, as well as interact extensively with faculty and consult a development council of local and outside experts.

“We’ve really put together a hell of a group,” Spector said.

The academy’s application period closes April 15, 2014.

UT has partnered with leaders in the video game industry to start a graduate-level video game academy that will open in the fall of 2014 at the University.

The Denius-Sams Gaming Academy is being developed and led by industry veteran Warren Spector and Paul Sams, the chief operating officer of Blizzard Entertainment. Unlike other gaming institutions around the world, the UT program will offer a focus on leadership as opposed to just programming and design, Spector said.

“This is not like other programs. We’re trying to position it a little differently. What’s been lacking is a focus on creative and business leadership. There really aren’t any places that teach you how to be a game director or a producer.”  Spector said. “That understanding of art and commerce is something that I don’t think that a lot programs do very well. It is in the tension between those that great games are made.”

With Austin being one of the country’s largest contributors to the video game industry and home to several game studios, Spector said industry leaders have long felt the University needed to have a gaming program. With game development programs appearing at institutions around the world, Spector said the University wanted to build a graduate-level academy that would benefit from the input of industry leaders. After funding was secured from the Cain Foundation and the Sams family, the academy became a reality.

“We wanted to make sure that what we offered would be different. Our focus is on the collective skills that you need,” said Mike Wilson, director of the College of Communication Office of Development. “It’s a very unique program. It’s one that we think fills a void.”

After a highly competitive admissions process, the academy will accept 20 individuals each year who already possess skills in video game design and production and may already have experience in the industry. The University will pay for their tuition and give them a $10,000 stipend. They will participate in a 12-month program where they will learn to take a concept from the drawing board to the market. 

The program will be centered in the Radio-Television-Film Department in the College of Communication. However the College of Fine Arts and the Department of Computer Science will also significantly contribute to the program.

“It is going to be a cross-discipline effort,” Spector said. “Video games represent the most collaborative medium and the one that takes advantage of more disciplines than any other.”

Spector, who received his masters from UT and has worked as a producer on several video game series in his career, said he believes the program will offer students a chance get ahead in the industry faster.

“I am assuming that people are going to come in with exceptional skills and a desire to take the next step,” Spector said. “There is a dues paying period that you have to go through [in the industry]. What this program is going to do is to take people who aspire to leadership positions and shorten their dues paying period.”

The academy is not UT’s first venture into video games. There is currently an undergraduate program offered at the University called the Game Development Program.

The academy will soon begin a national search for a program director. Spector will continue to serve as a co-chair on the board of advisors and plans on teaching some classes at the academy.

Follow Jacob Kerr on Twitter @jacobrkerr.

In a Nintendo press bus, with Donkey Kong’s and Mario’s faces painted on the sides, Warren Spector waits patiently. You may have had him as a professor for a radio-television-film class, and if you were on campus in the 1980s, you may have read his articles in The Daily Texan. But now, he designs video games.

His childlike exuberance and signature sweater vest are unmistakable, but now he sits a long way from the dungeons of “Ultima Underworld” and the futuristic cityscapes of “Deus Ex,” the 2000 release that Gamasutra.com recently labeled as the second best game of the decade. Now, Spector’s new studio, Junction Point, isn’t only driving Austin game development forward but also the future of Disney’s most iconic character, Mickey Mouse.

With “Epic Mickey’s” Wii-exclusive Nov. 30 release date drawing near, The Daily Texan talked with Spector about Disney’s unexpected proposal, what all his games have in common and why his latest won’t disappoint fans of Mickey Mouse or “Deus Ex.”

The Daily Texan: Was it ever a struggle to pitch your creative vision to Disney?
Warren Spector: The reality is Disney came to me. I didn’t go to them and say, “Give me Mickey Mouse!” They asked me if I wanted to do a Mickey Mouse game. They actually had a core concept that they pitched to me. It was so funny. They asked if it would be okay if we pitch you our ideas of what a Mickey game might be. Are you kidding me?
The idea of Wastleand, a world full of forgotten, rejected concepts — that came from Disney. Bring back Oswald the Rabbit, Disney’s first cartoon star — that came from Disney. Even the Phantom Blot kidnapping Mickey and dragging him into this world, which is how our game starts — that came from Disney. I thought they were genius.

DT: Will the greater world of Disney make an appearance in the game?
WS: The game is set in a world called Wasteland, which is a place where 80 years of Disney creative efforts, rejected and discarded Disney stuff, goes. So, of course you’ll see a lot of stuff from Disney’s history. A lot of stuff you may recognize but a little bit different. A lot of stuff you may never [have] heard of but you’ll learn about [while] playing the game.
It was kind of weird. It was the first time I went to a team and said, “Don’t make stuff up.”

DT: You’re known for making deep, challenging games. What’s the difficulty level going to be like in “Epic Mickey?”
WS: If you want a challenging platformer experience, you can have that. If you are a less skilled, platformer player, like me, you can just paint a path. If you do that, the game will feel a bit more like a “Zelda” game or an action-adventure.
The difficulty of the game and how the game actually feels is largely in your hands. Thanks to the power of paint and thinner you can really decide how crazy the platforming challenges are. You can decide whether you are going to defeat enemies in combat, make them your friends or avoid them entirely.

DT: In “Epic Mickey,” you have these Steamboat Willy levels where the game becomes a 2-D platformer. When did the idea for those come about?
WS: The idea of using 2-D platforming sections came pretty early, actually. There were two reasons. One was, purely selfish. I always wanted to do a platform game and no one was crazy enough to let me do it. I figured I could sneak it in this way — I probably shouldn’t have said that out loud, should I? The other reason was that I wanted to give players the opportunity to jump into films, to really feel they are in a cartoon. In those sections, we turned off the player’s paint and thinner abilities, so that we could make the game look exactly like those cartoons.
Were there any ideas you had from before you got the Mickey license that worked themselves into the game?
A lot of games, they talk about interactivity, but really it’s like you are on a movie set. If you look behind the flats, you’ll see there is nothing but dry wood and masking tape. We wanted to try to make a game that had a more dynamic world and that idea certainly carried over.

DT: What will there be to please fans of your past games?
WS: I’ve been on a personal mission since I go into the electronic games business in 1989. Every game I’ve worked on — and this will be my 20th — has been about player expression. About you getting to decide how to solve problems and you showing how clever and creative you are, as opposed to me and my designers. I think “Deus Ex” and “Ultima” fans will find plenty to like here.
Mickey Mouse is such an internationally recognized character at this point.

DT: Do you have any doubts about how the game will be received in Europe and Asia?
WS: Not “doubts.” That’s not the right word. You always have this excitement. “Oh, how are people going to enjoy it? Are they going to get it? Are they going to like what we did? Are they going to compare us to Mario which is this dedicated platformer game or Zelda, a dedicated puzzle and exploration game, or are they going to get that we let you decide what to do?” If they get that, we win.

DT: How has the Wii as a platform influenced the game’s design?
WS: The Wii as a platform pretty much determined everything. When we made the decision we were going to be a Wii exclusive in Jan. 2008, Disney gave us a gift. They basically allowed us to start from scratch. The beauty of working on a single platform is that you can design for that platform without compromise. What we were able to do was to look at the Wii, look at what it offered us, look at what it allowed us to do that no other platform would allow us to do and then take that and turn it up to 11.

DT: How long has Junction Point been a studio?
WS: I left Ion Storm in spring 2004; I had a noncompete. We incorporated in early 2005. I left Ion Storm because I wanted to do digitally distributed episodic content. I got crushed. That’s the bottom-line. I needed a lot of money and everyone said, “Oh, this is a great idea. We love this, but you are five years too early.” But, I’m thrilled to be where I am.
It seems you hired a lot of your Ion Storm team back. Why was this important?
Well, there are people I’ve been working with a very long time. We work together because we like each other, I guess, and we share a design sensibility and we share some goals. There are a lot of people now making games — I call them “games of choice and consequence” — but the way I [and the people around me] like to do them is a little different. I try to steer clear of good/evil, right/wrong judgments and just let people play. People who get that, that we are not judging, they are pretty rare. So, I’ve been lucky.

DT: This is your first third-person perspective game. What problems did that bring up?
WS: It’s funny. I have to wonder how the heck did Disney think I was the right guy to do this — other than being the biggest Disney geek on the planet. I never did a third person game, never did a game that had platforming elements of any kind, never done an action-adventure game. The average player of my games topped 30 about 10 years ago, so I make games for older guys and, I mean, largely guys. And, all of a sudden, I’m making a game about Mickey Mouse. It’s crazy. But that’s part of why I wanted to do it. I’m not sure why they let me do it.
I tell you, I have a lot more respect guys who do platformer games and third person, action-adventure games. The camera, oh my god! The camera is just insane. I do first person games so I never had to deal with that. I now think that third person camera is the hardest problem in game development.

DT: One of my favorite things about the UT Video Game Archive is the giant tome that is the design book for “Deus Ex” that you donated — what was the preproduction process like for “Epic Mickey”?
WS: Pretty incredible, actually. We went through several phases. We wrote up about 300 pages of design documentation. Then when we actually got around to working on the game, we made the decision to be a Wii exclusive, so a lot of that stuff went away and we had to start over from scratch.
The most fun and exciting part was actually collaborating with folks at Disney, getting into the archives, talking to people in feature animation at Pixar, consumer products people and anyone else we could talk to. It was pretty remarkable.

DT: Why Pixar?
WS: When you are talking about a Disney game, I think you have to start with quality animation so talking to people from feature animation is important.
You had a master class on game design at UT in 2006. Any hope you’ll do something like that again?
I’d love to do another master class or just teach classes in general. I was working on my Ph.D. at UT, in fact, when I left to start making games. I was teaching RTF314. One day I got a call from the chairman of the radio-television-film department saying, “Spector, we have to take your class away. You are only allowed nine semesters of support as a doctorial candidate and you have 13.” I love teaching. It’s just a question of much time it takes. I’m a game development guy now. If I ever get the time, you bet I’m teaching and I hope it’s at UT. 

Editor’s note: This is the second in a five-part series that focuses on Austin’s video game industry: the history, the creators, the fans and the culture that surrounds it.

Collected within the UT video game archive and housed in the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History are numerous internal design documents and concept artworks for many of the greatest games that were and some that would never be. Like so much about the history of video games, from Japan to Austin, the development processes and conditions under which video games are conceived remain shrouded in mystery.

Austin’s game industry dates back to the early ‘80s, when game designer Richard Garriott was shipping disks in Ziploc bags from his bedroom and game producer Warren Spector was studying film at UT. These two men would go on to build Origin Systems, Austin’s first game studio, but they can hardly take credit for where the industry has gone since those days.

“One of the reasons that Warren Spector was passionate about creating the archive is that when he was a graduate film student [at UT] in the early 1980s — at the same time that he worked at Steve Jackson Games — he was confronted with the extreme lack of documentation regarding early film history, and he didn’t want the same thing to happen to the game industry,” said Zach Vowell, an archivist for the collection.

Design documents serve to conveniently plan and dictate how the production process should work but don’t necessarily reveal how things end up happening. From the chaos of a game’s final weeks of development (they call it “crunch time”) to inside jokes among staff, it’s difficult to learn about the studio culture that these creative works are born in without being a part of it.

Perhaps, then, we should start by talking to the current leaders of Austin’s game industry to gain insight into the creative process and what drives developers to Austin.

Raphael Colantonio is the CEO and studio director of Arkane Studios, a developer based in Lyon, France, that opened an Austin branch in 2007. They have worked on PC and console games that draw heavily on the roleplaying aspects Spector once explored. The studio’s first release in 2002, “Arx Fatalis,” was a brilliant homage to Spector’s first major project at Origin in 1992, “Ultima Underworld.” Along with developing its own games, the studio outsources its talent to other developers to complete work such as designing levels for Treyarch’s “Call of Duty: World at War” and 2K Games’ recently released “Bioshock 2.”

Arkane’s games can best be described as being designed for Spector fans by Spector fans, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Colantonio chose to move to the city that was the birthplace of many of Spector’s titles. Colantonio views the community aspect among developers as a contributing factor in choosing to move to Austin.

“We can talk to most [other developers] — we see each other often in bars. It’s not like some cities where people are very protective about what they do,” Colantonio said. “We share more; it’s often that we use other people from other companies to playtest our own games.”

Whereas Colantonio expanded his company from Lyon to Austin, Kain Shin, who worked under Colantonio at Arkane’s Austin studio, took a different route.

“I quit my last job so that I could move to France,” Shin said. “I realized that I missed speaking English and I missed Austin, so I came back. It took me leaving it to realize that.”
While Austin game industry veterans continue to build their legacy, there is a new generation of Austin game designers gaining momentum.

“Richard Garriott and Warren Spector are luminaries but they are not necessarily known to the new generation, this being the generation that graduated after 2005,” Shin said.

One of the leading faces of this generation is Michael Wilford, CEO of Twisted Pixel Games, an Austin-based studio that has worked on a series of exuberant, colorful games for Microsoft’s Xbox Live Arcade service: “The Maw” (2008), “‘Splosion’ Man” (2009) and the upcoming “Comic Jumper.” These games are a throwback to the days of zany mascots and simple, refined game design.

“We all have a similar sense of humor,” Wilford said, describing the nature of the studio and the origin of “Splosion’ Man.” “We were all sitting around, talking about what kind of game we wanted to make, and we loved the idea of seeing big panes of glass shattering in games and big, huge explosions. We were like, ‘What if we made a whole game just based around shattering glass and explosions?’ We just kept piling on to this crazy idea.”

After Wilford left his job in Chicago, he moved to Indiana along with company co-founders Josh Bear and Frank Wilson to form a game company out of Bear’s mother’s house.
After completion of “The Maw,” they decided to move out of Bear’s mother’s place and start somewhere new.

“We were having problems finding experienced game-development talent in the Midwest, so we started looking around. We considered Seattle, Raleigh and a whole bunch of other places, but Austin just blew them all away. Low cost of living, low cost of business, the weather, the quality of life — just everything we need is here,” Wilford said. “We’ve been here for a year and a quarter, and none of us are planning on ever leaving.”

Austin studios continue to form and expand, thanks to the support of local government, a talent pool and a rich history. The result: Austin developed games such as “Darksiders” (Vigil Studios), “Metroid Prime Trilogy” (Retro Studios) and “Star Wars: The Old Republic” (Bioware Austin) that have been receiving acclaim and hype in 2010 — making everyone else wonder what’s so special about this city.