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.

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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
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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