By Kieron Gillen on September 1st, 2008 at 4:33 pm.
We finally find the willpower to return to the task. For those who are latecomers to the series, earlier this year Mythic’s Creative Director Paul Barnett and I met up in a London bar and set a dictaphone rolling. Three hours later, we stop. We’re serialising it in handy topic-based chunks. This time: Paul talks about what his favourite MMOs are. They’re not, strictly speaking, MMOs.
Three notes, for those who are following this ridiculously epic serialisation of pub-chat:
1) This interview happened considerably earlier in the year, before the release of games like GTA4.
2) Last time I wrote up a section, it kind of blew up into a cheery internet link-a-thon game taking Paul’s comments on why he went to LIFT rather than GDC and tabloidising them into “Why GDC is shit”. While a good chunk of my peers acted responsibly, many of them really didn’t. Do try harder, because by acting otherwise, you’re training developers to not say anything other than what’s on the Marketing shout-sheet. Oh – in the case of the ones who just quoted a couple of lines and didn’t link to pretend a context, do try at all.
3) The second bottle of something boozey arrives half way through this bit of transcript, so you can presume we’re going downhill quickly from here on in.
KG: Anyway – where were we?
Barnett: I was recently asked what my favourite MMOs were. Which is a preposterous thing – it’s like after [first] watching Toy Story and saying “So – what’s your favourite computer generated long movie? Eh – what is it, eh?”. That’d be… Toy Story. Because that’s all there is. “What about all these obscure Hungarian things which didn’t make any money? Can’t you show off how clever you are?” No I can’t, really.
I wrote down a list of what I thought was really, really good.
Barnett: Bubble Bobble is one of my favourite MMOs. Which doesn’t sound like it when you first hear it. But Bubble Bobble is all about Co-operative play, one of the bedrocks of MMOs. It’s got lots of lovely hidden features. It’s girl friendly – and boy friendly. It’s got repeatability. And it’s got a cutsie factor which is somehow macho.
KG: They’re dragons.
Barnett: And they can breathe fire at certain points, as well as eating cakes. And umbrellas. And bubbles! They blow bubbles. Anyway – people go “That’s a bit cheap, as you haven’t really picked an MMO”. And I go – but I have picked an MMO. It’s massively multiplayer in so much as it’s two people – or, if it’s an arcade machine, lots of people coming up one after another. What I was getting at is the joy and interest of the design of Bubble Bobble – not necessarily whether it was played with a subscription model or whatever. And that lead me back to Civ1…
Barnett: I think Civ1 is the best civilization ever – and that’s only an opinion, which is a jaded, bitter opinion from someone wrapped up in the need for nostalgia. But it’s in there for a reason. It’s there because Civ1 looked crap and had lots of really weird things in it – it had Elvis in it, for God’s sake – and clearly cheated. We know it cheated. We know it used to create things off in the black map and send them in to bother you. But it didn’t matter. There was something joyous about it – in having to live with that initial tech, it did lots of really really cool things which I really like. And I don’t like any of the other Civs. They’re much less joyous. I think they’re better built. I think they’re slicker. I think they have better graphics with lots of interesting things. A few of them took a few weird design choices – I think the turn-based strategy square thing a few of them dabbled with was a bit lunatic.
But I don’t care. I like the first one. As a concept, the first one was the strongest one – and now I don’t know if it’s because it’s the first one I saw, and I’m bitter and jaded as everyone else, or whether there was something in it which I really responded to. I’d take that with [A pinch of salt]. These are my Desert Island Discs.
KG: So that’s Civ and Bubble Bobble. What’s next?
Barnett: Star Wars Lego. I love Star Wars lego. I love Star Wars Lego for lots of reasons. First reason: I would never have bankrolled it. I can just imagine the meeting. I’d have the money. Someone would come and knock on my door and say “We want to do a game. We want to buy the Lego licence”. That’s nonsense. The Lego licence doesn’t sell. It doesn’t really work as a computer game. You’re an idiot. So there’s a big cross. What’s the second thing you want to do? “We also want to get the Star Wars licence”. Oh – you want to pay for two licences! That’s insane. And the Star Wars licence?
KG: Cheap, I hear.
Barnett: It’s hardly cheap. And George can get a bit protective – quite right, he owns it. And isn’t every Star Wars game rubbish? Oh – and I discovered that there’s a new answer to that. Well – there’s three answers now. The first answer used to be – isn’t Star Wars (apart from the original arcade game) rubbish. Then it used to be isn’t Star Wars (apart from that Tie-fighter game) rubbish. And now it’s isn’t Star Wars (apart from Star Wars Lego) rubbish.
Barnett: That’s not a Star Wars game! I had this debate with someone when Bioware were acquired – of whether KOTOR was a Star Wars game. And I don’t think it is, because it’s sort of like going… “We’re going to pay for the history of WW2.” Right – and where exactly are you going to set the game? “Burma” What? “Yeah – and in 1843”. What? “And it’s not going to feature Adolf Hitler or the nazis or tanks or airbourne divisions… but it is going to be about basically the same people fighting a war with completely different technology in a completely different setting. Right?” And how do you want to do that? “We want to buy the rights to WW2”. Erm… let’s go through this again. You want WW2? “Yes, absolutely!” And then you want to make a fighting game set in the 1800s. “Yes!” What they did was build a great game. Be under no illusion – it’s a great game. But what it isn’t is a Star Wars game.
Anyway – back to Lego Star Wars. So I wouldn’t have given the Lego license. I wouldn’t have given them the Star Wars licence. And I certainly wouldn’t have given them licenses of Lego and Star Wars together. And on top of that, they said – they want to do the new movies. WHAT?!?! The new movies? Clearly that’s madness. And they went: “No – we want to do the new movies, with Lego and Star Wars”. And I’d have gone no. Absolutely not.
And what I love about Lego Star wars isn’t just that it defeats my I wouldn’t bank roll it – not that I have any money – but what they produced defied my ability to design.
KG: In what sort of way?
Barnett: The drop-in/drop-out play is sublime. So sublime that it passed my genius test. I went, “Yeah, that’s the way I would have done it”, lying to myself, as I’d have never done it like that. Their concept of aiming it at the two markets – dad and his seven year old boy. Genius. I’d like to say that I’d have thought of that, but I didn’t. And their way of wrapping it up – the cinematics of the new movies in Lego is the best and most interesting those movies have ever looked. They were actually good when I watched them like that.
Dropping in and out with my boy? I was playing the first one as Qui-gon Jinn – as obviously he’s best – and my boy was young Obi-Wan Kenobi and playing it we got to the bit where we were fighting Darth Maul. And Darth Maul killed me. And my boy said “DAD! HE WILL PAY FOR THAT!”. And he charged in and smashed Darth maul to pieces: “You’re not going to kill my dad!” It was absolutely tremendous. A bit later on we played the original trilogy – as SW is backwards so it just confuses everybody – and whenever we play, I’m constantly using the same lines on my boy: “I am your father, Luke”. Every time. And… it’s so wonderful and so joyous.
No camera control? I don’t care. Collectors mentality? I don’t mind. The ability to play as the wrong characters in the wrong episode? I rejoice. Their ability to hold their ground on the character types having different powers? Brilliant. They basically went this one can’t do this, this one can’t do that and this one can’t do that. You want to throw those detonator bombs? Be a bounty-hunter. There’s no ifs, buts and ands.
KG: What didn’t you like then?
Barnett: There’s only one thing I went “Hmm: with hindsight, I wouldn’t have done that”. And it’s not even their fault. It’s that the first one’s too good. They gave away far too much of their hand. You play it, and when you’re playing it to unlock levels, characters and special abilities… and you hit a tipping point where the effort to earn a million studs changes from twenty minutes of hard effort to 0.3 seconds of arsing around. And at that point, the remainder of the game is unlocked in under 40 minutes when the rest was unlocked in four hours. I have the complete trilogy and you can have a x728 multiplier without too much effort where hitting four things earns you a million studs. And apart from that one thing – which I’m not going to take away from them, that’s just something in hindsight I love it. There should be unlockable content online.
KG: Okay. Bubble Bobble, Civilization, Lego Star Wars and…
Barnett: Tetris. I really, really like Tetris. People come up to me and say stuff about Design. And you go – actually, graphics are irrelevant. Sound is irrelevant. It’s all going to come down to two things. Which is, control system and then ease of understanding to get to Fun. If you look at all the games that are Great – and I mean GREAT – hardly any of them are technologically astounding. There’s a few – but even the ones that are, are usually just gameplay defining. The one I’d always plug is – and apologies to anyone who plays Ant Attack – is Knightlore on the spectrum. Knightlore on the spectrum is astonishing from a technical point of view. What it actually is, is gameplay expanding. What it did do was show you a new way of gameplay. Wolfenstein was reasonably astonishing, but is gameplay expansive, in terms of showing you what a first-person shooter could be. There are very few games that come out in a genre that’s already defined which use a technological wow!-ness that actually survive games that have nothing but gameplay.
That’s why we struggle to reinvent Elite – because it was gameplay awakening. If you just slap really pretty graphics on it, there’s always something missing from an Elite remix. Because they’re re-making the wrong bit of Elite. Anyway – I like Tetris because it survives everything and shows an intuitive leap instead of design equations.
KG: Tetris, Bubble Bobble, Lego Star Wars, Civilization…
Barnett: And I love Gauntlet. I love Gauntlet because it’s a great MMO. It’s 4 players, 4 players all the time. What a group mechanic! What a selfish mechanic! What an ability to get iterative gaming out of very simple repetitive gameplay systems! What a wonderful attitude for the characters: This guy’s very good at fighting but is crap at magic. This one’s good at magic and crap at fighting. This one’s a bit of an all rounder. And…
KG: This one’s the Elf?
Barnett: This one’s no good at anything, but boy, can he run a lot. And they held their ground – that’s what you are. People talk about balancing characters in MMOs. And you go… it’s not that hard. Yes, all things are not equal… just some things are more equal than others.
KG: It throws me how good Gauntlet was when it came out. I bullied my parents into playing it at Butlins on a family holiday or something. It was like nothing else.
Barnett: The thing about Gauntlet is that it’s ruined every time you take away the subscription model. When you play Gauntlet when it costs you money, it’s an interesting game. When you play Gauntlet and it has a limited amount of credits… it’s an interesting game. When you play Gauntlet and there’s no limit on the credits… it’s really bizarre. It’s a game which only maintains its joy providing there’s a finiteness to it. That’s not necessarily true of many other games. Some other games – like, say, Paradroid is in no way made a lesser game by allowing you repeatable lives. But Gauntlet is literally destroyed. Like unlimited ammo on a tactical shooter.
KG: Or infinite money in Poker?
Barnett: Actually, that’s much stronger than my version. Pretend I said that: It’s like infinite money in poker. And that’s really weird, as it cuts to one of the design philosophies you’re always hearing on MMOs: were they say “death has to mean something”. Designers who come to me regularly with enormously elaborate ways of punishing people for dying. And… I have to try to explain to them that it’s not the same thing. Gauntlet’s drop-coin subscription model isn’t the same as an all-you-can-eat buffet model of an MMO. The death-cycle in Gauntlet is so strong because of the way it’s built. It wouldn’t be as strong in a monthly subscription MMOs. It would hurt a monthly subscription MMO. They’re not the same game, they just happen to have wizards and goblins and sorcerers and elves in them.
KG: Idly, what do you think would happen if you did run an MMO like Gauntlet? As in, when you die, that’s when you pay?
Barnett: Well, your customer service costs would go through the roof, the legal indemnity would cost you billions and you’d probably have to put it off shore in some outback third-world country where no-one can get at you. So probably not a great idea. Er… that leads me to Elite. Now,I love Elite but I’m very opinionated on it. Shocker.
KG: Opinionated you. I didn’t see that coming.
Barnett: Elite – it’s great. And everyone goes on about it being great. And people keep remaking it, and it’s crap. How can that possibly be? Even the people who made Elite remake it, and it’s crap. And I know they argue it’s to do with bugs and it wasn’t finished, but even if you took Frontier and took every bug out of it then it’ll still be no good. Which is interesting, and you wonder why it is. Why is it fabulous? Well, it’s not fabulous for most of the reasons people think. The Space Trading is almost irrelevant. The difficulty level – everyone forgets how hard Elite was.
KG: The Docking.
Barnett: Grotesquely difficult. And playing the stock market was endlessly boring and trying to buy a docking computer would drive you mad. And the supposed secret missions were nothing of the sort. It was just rubbish. So it’s not that – it’s not space, and it’s not its difficulty level. Now I believe – and I have not proven this – that the reason Elite was marvelous were…
Number one: truly, at the time it came out, there was nothing like it. It was different. And you can’t under-estimate that. The Sims is a great example of something which is tremendously different and capable of being wondrous.
Number two: Elite came out with a fanfare. People don’t remember it, but when it was released, journalists were taken to an underground rollercoaster. And it was shown on big television – which was the equivalent of hiring a cinema. And the Box was enormous which came with a novel and a load of background and load of information about the world which was irrelevant. Like how to understand the bodylanguage of aliens. It came with lots of toys.
[In passing to American readers, the fancy-box full of stuff seemed a lot later coming to UK games than the US. Or, as Walker would put it, you guys got more cloth maps than we did. - KG]
Number three – Which is the one, from a game design point of view, the vital reason – is that Elite played a neat trick. It basically said, you can be a bounty hunter. You can be a smuggler. You can be a merchant. You can be an explorer. You can be a police-man. You can go be a tourist. You can be Han-Solo. You can do all these things… but it uses the same game mechanics for everyone. You never once get to see what you look like. You never once get to see your space-ship… except when it blew up, and you only got to see that in the later versions. So that level of open-ended character expansive play was tremendously exciting, and that’s the bit is what everyone misses.
KG: So where did that go?
Barnett: The closest thing I can find in a modern gaming era to Elite is GTA3. Which is a sort of mixture of Elite and Pac-man. You look at Pac-man and goes… gobbles dots, avoids ghosts, picks up power-pills, eats ghosts and cherries. You look at GTA and it goes – gobbles money, avoids policemen, picks up mega gun, shoots policemen picks up special things in maze. Take that, with Elite, you get GTA3. And that’s being exceedingly mean to GTA3, which I think is exceptional, so I’ll note that on top of that, GTA3 also does something which the Americans are completely confused about: if you want to realise America, what you need is lads from Britain who have only ever watched Miami Vice, Dukes of Hazard and American Movies, and preferably have never been to America. Because the Americana they will realise is an excitable, strangely out of focus bizarre Americana which is wholly fitting. If you actually give it to Americans to realise, they will actually map the city correctly, the police will arrive at the correct response time, they’ll all be carrying the right guns and the amount of prostitutes per square foot will be correct. While the British will go… it’s like this, innit? There’s a big boat. You don’t wear any socks. You get a big machine-gun. There’s lens-flare when you do a jump with your car.
KG: It’s a dream of America?
Barnett: What it is, is a realisation of what America is inside an American’s head. I was talking to some guys who were playing GTA3. They’re Americans. This was like six months ago – and I asked “Why are you playing it?”. The guy turned to me and said: Dude – this is the most American game of all time. And I went: Really? And all four of them around the machine went, “Oh, yeah. Yeah. Really”. What I find astounding is that they had no idea it was built by British guys. None at all. They had no idea of its heritages. When I tried to explain to them that it was Pac-man meets Elite meets Americana they went “I hadn’t thought of it like that – I just like going around and shooting things on the back of my motorbike”. And I just found that really enlightening – which is why GTA is astounding, which is why it’s the modern day Elite, which is why Elite is fantastic.
At which point I’d completely lost track of whether GTA3 or Elite was in his five favourite MMOs, and it was too late to go back, as we were hurtling onto the topic of old, retro games, which we’ll deal with next time…