GDC 2009: Warhammer's Barnett pounds out game theory

Mythic Entertainment creative director says design should come from one's experiences, not snake-oil books on how to make fun.

Paul Barnett is a man with an opinion. And, unfortunately for show organizers of the 2009 Game Developers Conference, his opinion is that the annual game maker confab isn't all it's cracked up to be. Such is the way that Mythic Entertainment's senior creative director began his session at this year's conference, telling gathered attendees that he was only participating in the show to satisfy the demands of his corporate overlords, better known as Electronic Arts.

Paul Barnett

Somewhat unsurprisingly, Barnett's talk didn't have much to do with the announced session topic of "Dazed and Confused in the MMO World," which was advertised as "how the Mythic team managed to take a beloved intellectual properly--Warhammer Fantasy--and convert it into an MMO." Instead, through a barrage of seeming non sequiturs, Barnett offered tips to aspiring creative directors, before settling on the topic of how the gaming industry, by way of new technologies such as the iPhone, has begun to resemble the rebellious days of punk rock, and no one saw it coming.

In the spirit of his rambunctious session, Barnett began the talk by answering his ringing cell phone, telling whoever was on the other line that he was busy. Referencing his opening rant, Barnett then offered a "vital lesson" to creative directors, saying that it didn't matter that he didn't want to be here, but it was the right thing for his studio.

He then went into detail about his creative mind-set, noting the collage-coated green walls of his office and his early influences growing up in England. The point he seemed to be making, and which became clearer later on in the presentation, was that creativity is the product of a person's environment.

Growing up in England at the time, his environment was defined by the relative lack of things, he said. This led him, he continued, to engage in a good deal of game piracy growing up, as he and those he knew copied cassette games for the Commodore 64 and then passed them around. He has played 7,600 games by his last count (and to be clear, he keeps a running record of the games he has played).

Barnett transitioned this point by saying that there are basically two types of people, as defined by Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto. There are creative people who don't know how to make any money and no one will back their efforts, he said, and there are business people who know how to make money but don't have a creative bone in their body. It's a problem, he continued, when a creative person is in charge of a company, just as it's a bad idea when the business-minded are tasked with creativity. Both situations, he said, are doomed.

This idea dovetailed into one of the key points of his session. Game design theory is very complicated, he said, because people are overthinking the problem. "Theories in design are as timeless as the fashion of hats," he said. The theories, he continued, are a means to sell a product and are nothing more than a series of catchphrases that get traction and are then sold to people. "This is because we don't like chaos, we don't like uncertainty," he said. "So we look for earnest people with intelligent systems to sell. Prophets that can fortify our faith. It's caustic, and it's dangerous."

Drawing from his earlier point about what shaped his creative spirit, Barnett said, "Design is found from history, it has an attachment to philosophy, more than science or math. These people who think they have an equation are dark and dangerous. They make it sound like there is a formula for fun. Fun is genetic."

"We need to teach young dogs old tricks," he said. "Encourage people to think. There is no theory to fun. You will not find the fun matrix."

Luckily, he went on, game design has entered a "golden age," due to the rise of alternative forms of distribution such as the iPhone, Xbox Live, WiiWare, Flash games, and any number of other delivery mechanisms that don't necessarily rely on high-tech hardware. Instead of being built by massive developers and publishers, these games are built by small teams who can deliver solid, fun gameplay. "Big corporations are in the wrong place, making the wrong products," he said.

"Some things just matter, some things show up and are never going away ever again," he said in relation to the rise of these new forms of game distribution. "It's like punk," he concluded. "You can all do it."

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Discussion

27 comments
burn6
burn6

i had the collector's edition too but the i'm not satisfied with the game, the artbook was great though.

Sins-of-Mosin
Sins-of-Mosin

They would've had more success had they made a 40K MMO instead of the fantasy which the MMO field is just full of.

solidsnake2050
solidsnake2050

I like this developer, he is funny and seems to know what people like. One question though; is he still working on WAR? If he is I like him even more. I have just started playing it and I think the game is very fun and well made for an MMO still in its first year. I have played WoW for years and WAR is a nice change of pace. However I don't think they should compete as they seem to be made for two very opposing groups; pvpers and pvers,

krazilec
krazilec

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

krazilec
krazilec

@Cpt_Pugwash: I really enjoyed Dead Space, along with the animation movie. But man, FIFA and NFS...they butchered them. My last FIFA game was 2000, and I got 2009 as a bonus on my PS3, and it really sucks. Also I played NFS from the first one, and now it's not about the thrill of the speed, or the skills of the driver. It's about drifting and how colorfull my Gaymobile is. And Mirror's Edge is really original *bow*

FearMeLess
FearMeLess

@ chaosStar Thats funny last i heard WAR was top 3 NPD, so your assumption fails noob

JLuke360
JLuke360

If Barnett ever starts up his own restaurant, I would totally eat in it. Then again, it wouldn't necessarily be his since the government people are the ones who own everything. We should all just rebel and start up a new banking system based on a currency of bacon. Of course, we would have to find new means of cloning bacon in order to sustain a lofty economy.

sammoth
sammoth

aura_enchanted Punk isn't even around anymore. I know your not talking about new age punk or Emo Punk. Because that is NOT Punk.

Nightrain50
Nightrain50

Thanks to the trial, I'm buying Warhammer Online, hopefully it'll bring more people in, the game deserves to be doing better.

RockySquirrel
RockySquirrel

Actually he should be kicking himself in the ass for letting Mythic butcher Dark Age of Camelot to the point that it lost the magic and appeal it had in its early years.

ChaosStar
ChaosStar

I'd probably be off point and angsty if my game I created was dying, too. I mean, no offense, but WAR has gone from 750,000 subs to 285,000 as of EA's last press release. That must be really stressful for him.

Donkeljohn
Donkeljohn

Sounds a lot like his talk at Comicon last year.

Cpt_Pugwash
Cpt_Pugwash

Tbf krazilec, EA aren't the vicious corporate monster they used to be. They're publishing more original IPs such as Dead Space and Mirrors Edge and their existing franchises such as FIFA are showing significant improvement year after year rather than be stagnant reproductions as was previously the case. So it's not really fair to point out EA as a company which doesn't foster creativity or take chances on original ideas.

pwnzord
pwnzord

Empty words from a bitter man who talked a big game but failed himself to find the 'fun' factor for his latest venture. I enjoyed his energy that he had during the development of WAR. I had a great time in the beta, I ordered the collector's edition when it was announced. I even enjoyed the game, sadly few others did and now he spouts his frustration from a pulpit. Big companies don't inherently make bad games, and likewise indie developers don't put out amazing games because they are lacking in the business knowledge, which isn't a truism; not all creative people lack the ability to make and sell their ideas. I would like to know where he thinks that he falls on that either or continuum. WAR is a great game, but it is far from creative. The entire universe is borrowed from a longstanding IP, their job was to integrate it into an MMO. The game played much like DAoC (another MMO I spent many months of play time with) with some updates borrowed from other competing MMO's. "This is because we don't like chaos, we don't like uncertainty," he said. "So we look for earnest people with intelligent systems to sell." A most common quote from a man with nothing more to sell. His rant was tiresome and even with the few sparsed in quotes it was easy to discern is his bitterness regarded his latest work, projecting his anger onto large companies. Once more, I appreciated your energy during the coming months for WAR but if you're so upset about being involved in this system you should hit the road; there are plenty more creative individuals out there who will continue to make creative games part of a large corporation or on their own.

krazilec
krazilec

We need more people like him in the gaming industry. We need a "Sid Vicious" to tell EA and all the corporate prostitutes how we want our games to be. \m/

arc_salvo
arc_salvo

I really liked Paul Barnett when I was in the WAR Beta. He seemed like a fun guy who was really into things, and I liked the video dev logs that he hosted. He had a lot of spirit and creative energy, and he genuinely seemed to be having fun making things that he thought would be fun to the players. I hope he and people like him make more of a splash in the gaming industry. He's right, you can't make a formula for fun, you have to experiment, be creative, and tell it like it is until you figure out what works, and not let the uncreative corporate bigwigs get in the way of the development team's creativity. And I also agree that it's not the big, expensive games that are high-tech that are necessarily the cutting edge of gaming and/or fun.

ShadowXStorm
ShadowXStorm

This guy is the heart and soul of WAR and makes me want to play it even now. I'm glad to see if growing, and hopefully we can reach around 1 million active subscribers to keep it interesting, cause it really is a great game.

Jamusss
Jamusss

And btw he's absolutley right. Big dev studios see the success of WoW or other earlier games and just try to follow that formula expecting these massive results but just like music or art, video games are subject to the same neccessity of change. Developers think if they throw orcs and elves and magic and swords and a bunch of people into a big area and let them hit eachother or monster over the head with digital weapons that people will pay. Just like you can't remake The success of The Beatles. I can get 4 people, i can get a drum set and a guitar and piano or w/e it doesn't mean that I'm gonna come up with the same thing as them or their success. The problem we have now days as opposed to early on when the video game market was much smaller is that we have the business guys pushing the creative guys and everything that coming out is crappy. I've noticed this myself. I'll have a couple good games that i really really enjoy and i just see other games and its just like wth were these guys thinking when they made this. And I realize its not necessarily them its these time, budget variables. People wonder why Blizzard makes such good games. I think personally its not becuase they have the greatest minds in the universe. I mean for christ sake Warcraft and Starcraft are practially identical rip-offs of Warhammer and WH40k.(If anyone would like me to explain i'd be glad.) But its because they spend their time creating a satisfactory product. Lucky for them with all the WoW cash they have the resources to do this. Other Devs aint as lucky......well that was my rant lol

Jamusss
Jamusss

I really wished WAR hadn't tanked either....twas a sad sad day....week...month...w/e it was

JrSlacker
JrSlacker

Personally I find him to be pretty great, it might be me, but I really think EA is holding back on WAR...

nurse_tsunami
nurse_tsunami

Interesting comments, but I agree that even he doesn't necessarily have the perfect solution for the 'fun factor' yet. I was rather disappointed in Warhammer Online. It felt unfinished and empty. I don't know if it was my server, but I rarely ran into other players, and I found the quests boring. I really wanted it to be a competitor to WoW, but it seems doomed to just compete with Conan for the scraps left over.

aura_enchanted
aura_enchanted

the last line is poor writer if everyone is into punk its not rebelious anymore...

Ohaidere
Ohaidere

Interesting rant he had. Kind've makes me want to read the whole transcript.

burn6
burn6

he talks too much IMHO, he likes the attention obviously. but i agree with him, business minded people are moneymongers and cannot deliver a product with great creativity. still as gaming goes, its not all about the aesthetics, like the warhammer online that he was so proud of talking about before the launch, that game suffers from unsatisfactory gameplay. i love the warhammer universe, ever since i played the first dawn of war, and I am bitter about what happened to the warhammer online if they could only improve the gameplay to reduce redundancy and make it balance. that game could have come close to WoW. he should employ the guys who made the formula of guildwars, because that game has never cease to disappoint my PvP experience. but who am i to judge, i just play their game, perhaps if thay partnered with ubisoft they could make their creativity and his vision with Mythic great. they should prioritize the QA in developing this game, Mythic is now being known for bugs just like the Conan mmo. pardon me for the pun, just my two cents.

crazymoose99
crazymoose99

God I love that man. However, I feel he will soon lose his job.