"Making PC's Most Complex Games" Roundtable Discussion

PC Gamer caught up with industry veterans Warren Spector, Harvey Smith, Ricardo Bare, Tom Francis, and Steve Gaynor - the designers of iconic titles such as Deus Ex, Dishonored, BioShock, System Shock 2, and Ultima Underworld - for a lengthy roundtable discussion about "making PC's most complex games" at this year's GDC. There are a number of topics covered, with many of the designers bringing up key moments in the aforementioned titles and how certain gameplay options left a lasting impression on them, so it's well worth taking in if you want to compare notes from your own experiences. There's an audio version if you prefer, but I'll leave you with a quote from the transcribed version:
Tom: It's funny how once you're immersed in these games, learning the rules and then using those rules becomes entirely what your brain is occupied with and you don't really care if it's realistic or makes sense. When you asked for anecdotes from playing immersive sims, the one that sprang to mind is one in Deus Ex where I had started to hack into a terminal that could open Gunther's cell on Liberty Island. As I hacked it I was looking through the camera that shows the view of the room I was in, I could see myself hacking the terminal, and a guard ran in. And guards aren't allowed to shoot you when you're using computers in Deus Ex.

[Warren puts his head in his hands and shakes it, moaning softly]

Tom: So I could see he's pointing his gun to my head, but can't fire, because I'm busy! I had to figure out, I was playing on Realistic where you just die in one shot from those guys at close range. I can't leave the terminal now because I'll die instantly, so I had to figure out a way, with just the tools I have now, to try to block this guy from shooting me. The turret couldn't shoot him. But I figured out if I open Gunther's door it'll nudge him a little bit around the corner so he no longer has line of site, so I can leave the computer and attack him.

Warren: I'm so proud.

Tom: And there was never a thought in my head that this was any way unrealistic or strange. I just thought, this is amazing!

Warren: I have two anecdotes. One, on Ultima VI, which is kind of where I realized that all this improvisational stuff could really be magical. It was unplanned, kind of a bug. There was one puzzle where the Avatar and his party came up on one side of a portcullis and there was a lever on the other side of the portcullis that you had to flip to raise the portcullis and keep on making progress. I watched one of our testers, a guy named Mark Schaefgen, playing in that area. And he didn't have the telekinesis spell, which was the way to get past that portcullis. I was sitting there rubbing my hands together going 'oh ho ho, he's screwed, he can't do it.'

He had a character in his party named Sherry the Mouse. You can probably see where this is going. The portcullis was 'simulated,' and here the air quotes are around simulated, simulated enough that there was a gap at the bottom that was too small for a human to get through, but not too small for Sherry. He sent Sherry the Mouse under the portcullis, over to the lever, she flipped the lever, and then the rest of the party went through. And I fell on the floor. At that moment I just said to myself, 'this is what games should do. We should start planning this, not having it happen as a bug.' That was where I realized this was really powerful.

The Deus Ex story that kills me, though. A year after we shipped, I was out in San Francisco at the Eidos offices, and our publisher-side QA lead, a guy named Charles Angel, was playing the game, demoing it for some executives. Now why Eidos executives needed a demo of a game that had shipped a year earlier that had won like 35 game of the year awards I will never understand. But they did. I'll probably never work again for having said that, but anyway.

I was watching him on Liberty Island, and there was a spot where a guard was standing on one side of a doorway, there were two or three guards on patrol on the other side of the doorway, and there were laser triggers covering the doorway. And so what he did was, he secretly was sneaking around, moving explosive barrels around and stuff. I was watching him, and I kind of knew what he was setting up. He crept back and got out the pistol, which was the weakest weapon in the game, and with one shot he took out the guard that was guarding the door, took out the laser triggers, and because he had waited for the right exact moment, took out the two guards on the other side of the door. With one shot. And I fell on the floor again. Because I'm completely certain that no human on the face of the earth had tried that before. No one on the team... Harvey, if you knew that was going to work, I'll buy you lunch next time I see you.

Harvey: No, of course, we didn't set those things up explicitly, that's just one of the pleasures, you know. Warren and I both had this experience, and we have it now with Prey and Dishonored games, going down and watching the QA testers play is just magical because they chain things together, they use powers in unexpected ways, and then often they require a little support. Because to Steve Gaynor's example, nowadays the production values have gone up so you might need animation support and things like that.

But yeah, it's amazing, and to get back to the critical side of this conversation from the love side so much, it gets back to one of the inherent problems with what we do. Which is, I've played Prey a lot and commented a lot, but I've started, instead of playing across many different builds and powers, I'm in one big contiguous playthrough now that I know the game super well. That always contextualizes your experience at the end of the project. It's magical.

There are several steps like that. The other is taking an Xbox home and playing on your own rig or whatever. The environment even changes it for you. In any case, getting back to the critical part, we have a game that if you play twice, or three times or four times, and you become a virtuoso with the systems and understanding the narrative and the world, little epiphanies are popping off in your head all the time and you're having these improvisational experiences. In Prey I'm not only doing that game mechanically but I'm doing that narratively and emotionally. I won't spoil anything but I gave an example to Ricardo yesterday related to what one of the monsters mutters, and how it connects back to a human in the world, who has a real history in the world.