Develop 09: When A Creative Director Attacks!

By Kieron Gillen on July 21st, 2009 at 7:26 pm.

God, I wish I took some photos at Develop. That'd probably have been clever.
Paul Barnett’s special Paul Barnett show (subtitled “Or what I learned this year with EA!”) was characteristically scatter shot. Like a blunderbuss filled with nails, fragments of old CRASH cover-tapes and radioactive filings. The title’s somewhat deceptive, being less what he’s learned recently, and more a format for a general meditation on creativity and videogames. “Meditation” is a word, I suspect, Barnett would bristle at. As far as theorists go, he’s resolutely anti-theory. If you have to draw a through line via all his observations, it’d be that. Show fear and suspicion at those who claim to be able to put a neat graph over art.

He’d bristle at art too. One of his opening points is that he’s not in the business of art – but in business. He makes commercial games. That’s the point of them. Which isn’t to say that they can’t be artful in and of themselves – but if you don’t sell, there’s no fucking point.

And… okay, I’m going to step away from trying to re-create his argument. Scanning down my page of notes it reads Explosive muppets. Bridge-children, CAT-Scan, Chair Nazis, Red Paint 42 shades…well, you get the point. Point being, that by suddenly changing tack every few minutes, he’s tangentially inching towards a larger truth. Barnett is big on Truth and low on Facts. He believes that a creative director’s job is very much to follow that things which are undeniable yet also false. He uses a lot of optical illusions, hailing the illusion over the trick. He shows pictures of his office – with as many clipping stuck to the wall as a true Teenage obsessive – which includes his own paintings. He can’t paint, but one of them is made of 42 shades of red paint. It’s a standard enough abstract piece. Of course, Barnett is colour-blind, so it just looks flat to him. Truth and facts.

One riff particularly caught my fancy, especially after our Gaming Made Me. Barnett explored what it was like in the eighties in the UK, both with obvious pride (“Wizzball was more important to me than Joy Division”). While the observation that British developers had to push the machines harder than US developers due to the latter having better hardware (a Commodore 64 with a disc-drive would be viewed as alien technology to the UK) is commonplace enough, what I hadn’t picked up on was the actual intellectual richness of the scene. Barnett does the rough maths on US games. calculating 8000 games were available in the eighties over there. Which is a lot. Conversely, over the the UK, another 17,000 games were available. The disparity was primarily due to the relative dominance of consoles there and the dominance of cheap home computers (Spectrums, etc) over here. More people could make games. More people made games. More games were played.

That means there were far more games to rip off. Which is absolutely key for a Creative Director. Old ideas become New Ideas when no fuck’s played them, and there’s a mass off half-implemented stuff in those 17,000 which US designers simply won’t have had exposure to. Barnett seems to posit history almost as a toolbox, with us being able to take whatever we wish from it. It’s not about originality or unoriginality. It’s about using whatever’s interesting right now. He also views the 90s as a graveyard, where the number of games available fell due to the global rise of consoles, and the 00s as a crazed renaissance, as via the webgame revolution there’s now 50,000+ games available as a click.

But equally key to his view of a Creative Director is to not let that past chain your thinking. You are defined by your culture. You cannot help it. Those games which were your first crushes will always resonate with you, but you need to be able to see past your Nostalgia. Or, in a phrase, Elite was shit.(And shouting that at the door through which the Braben/Jones conversation was happening got one of the larger laughs). Other people’s passions are just as worthy as your own. If you’re working with a team,you can’t look down on them. Or in a phrase: “It’s not their fault that their first Final Fantasy was IX”.

The latter stuff strikes me as both a little obvious, but also true and worth re-stating as I suspect we have a tendency to overlook it. Flipping around to the consumer-of-game side, looking down on what the kids are playing is the sort of old-man-ism which always grates with me a little. I found myself back on TTLG recently. While there’s a lot of lovely people there, I did find myself saddened. Back a decade, when Looking Glass were at their creative apex, this was a home of gaming’s futurists. Now, it’s primarily a home of reactionaries. Preventing yourself turning from the former into the latter is worth actively pursuing.

, .

45 Comments »

  1. Tei says:

    If you play the best of the best games, you will get some ideas.
    But If you play *all* games, thats a lot of pacman and galaga clones.
    Also what future designers will learn from Tabula Rasa?
    Nothing, because is in the limbo.
    Things to ponder…

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    I love you Tei.

    KG

  3. yutt says:

    I disagree that designers can’t learn anything from Tabula Rasa, limbo or no. In fact, I’d say designers can probably learn as much or more from the most epic failures of design as they can from the successes.

    The lines between theory and implementation, amazing idea and enjoyable experience, Half-Life 2 and DOOM 3, can only be discovered by analyzing all of the relevant data.

    There are probably at least a dozen terrific ideas in even some of the most mediocre games. They just need someone to champion and perfect them.

  4. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yutt: Point being, they won’t be able to go back and look at it, and rely entirely on their memories of it – or, if they never played, the actual stuff which people talked about the game in public channels. Which tends to miss key truths you gain by experience.

    I agree that terrible games often feature things well worth stealing. There’s normally a few attempts at a game-idea until someone pulls it off.

    (e.g. The array of games akin to Shogun: Total War until Creative Assembly made it work.)

    KG

  5. CrashT says:

    Barnett seems to be very effective at being noticable and memorable, yet I often struggle to remember the content of a lot of what he says.

    I can remember the anecdotes and metaphors but rarely what any of them were about.

  6. Joshua says:

    In fact, I’d say designers can probably learn as much or more from the most epic failures of design as they can from the successes.

    Yep. For example, Warhammer Online would provide tons of lessons in how not to design and develop and market and post-release support an MMO.

    Did Barnett spend any of his time seconds talking about why and how his game hemorrhaged 60%-75% of its playerbase within 3 months?

  7. Gieron Krillen says:

    Thats what it was, 17k Jet Set Willy clones and that rubberized doorstop. Somebody needs to tell them it wasn’t cool :)

  8. yutt says:

    Speaking of Pacman and Galaga clones, that reminds me of Landon Dyer’s story of how he was hired by Atari. He created a Centipede clone (Myriapede), which the author of the original Atari Centipede said was a better game.

    http://www.dadhacker.com/blog/?p=987

    I feel clones often serve as testbeds and sources for new ideas. Much of the best game design is far more iterative than revolutionary. Today’s “clone” is tomorrow’s “genre”.

  9. iainl says:

    Mind you, Elite really, truly isn’t shit.

    I see what he’s getting at, and I think it’s almost exactly what Braben and Jones were talking about next door – as not shit as Elite was, you wouldn’t want to rip off its ability to utterly baffle people for the first few hours, nor its knack of having such an incredibly vast playing area, in which largely the same stuff happens as anywhere else on the map. Making docking one of the toughest things in the game, and then making it practically the second thing the player has to do is a touch cruel, too.

  10. Nalano says:

    ’cause without PvP or an endgame there was nothing to do?

  11. Kadayi says:

    I generally think the you learn more from the near misses than the out and out hits. An out and out hit merely leads to emulation, where as a near miss tends to lead to speculation.

    Farcry 2 has probably seem more discussion than most games recently, due to the fact that it appears to offer up so much, but then spectacularly nosedives into repetition. Yet no one denies that underneath it, there existed the potential for a truly compelling open world game. Albeit I’ve never finished Farcry 2, and if I’m honest I’m unlikely ever to I must admit I’m fascinated to see what the developers do, because I’m certain they are more than aware of the criticisms that have been levelled at the game, and it should be interesting to see how they respond with their next title.

  12. Clovus says:

    @KG: Didn’t Lords of the Realm II make the “Total War” style of game work, like 4 years before Shogun? The first Total War game I played was Rome. I immediately thought, “Oh cool! LotR2 in Rome!”

  13. Tei says:

    yutt, that article you linked is great. thanks.

    (I don’t want to use a hour to find the best words to reply mr.kieron comment. So I will only writte this: RPS is maybe the only meaningfull gamer site on the internet. And as indicative, Slashdot and Kotaku report news that start here. Please continue the hard work you guys show here. And maybe for others to get inspiration. )

  14. Dethgar says:

    This guy is without a doubt one of the most annoying people I’ve ever seen. He flaps on and on about nothing at all, strays 50 directions from the topic, and then gives some non-sense anecdote that we’re supposed to take as a piece of euphoric wisdom.

  15. Legionary says:

    @Dethgar: Hey that’s not fair, leave Kieron alone! ;)

  16. SlappyBag says:

    Wish I got into the talks this year, I’ll be saving up for next year.

  17. Nick says:

    @Clovus I think you’ll find Lords of the Realm did it before Lords of the Realm 2 =P

  18. Seth says:

    Coincidentally, I have spent several hours over the last few days drowning in Elite-flavoured nostalgia with the open-source update Oolite. I’d like to see Paul Barnett do something a millionth as interesting with his 32kb (or whatever the original file size was).

  19. Robin says:

    The bit about how well ‘played’ most developers are struck a chord. There are genres that need a lifetime’s background knowledge and experience for a developer to have a chance of breaking into. Fighting games for instance.

  20. Larington says:

    Yeah, I guess my main take away from the session was that everyone has a golden-age be it defined by music, games, or whatever and to anyone who doesn’t share your golden age, the stuff you thought was golden isn’t regarded as such by others.
    Which I guess can basically be translated as, whats the point of trying to make a universal game that appeals to no one… I think. My brain seemed to be far more fried at this Develop than the previous two, I’m not even sure why.

  21. Starky says:

    More like respect the past, learn from it, but live in the NOW – all those amazing games we all love from ‘back in the day’ are done.
    Let them go move on, and give your audience what they want not what you think they SHOULD want based on your nostaliga for 15+ year old games.

    Unless you’re specifically targeting one of those niche markets as your target audience.
    Just no complaining when your space sim/turn-based rpg/rogue like only sells 10k copies, then blame it on the dumbing down of audiences.

    Hell if anything audiences have become more sophisticated, it’s just when the people who say “audiences are dumber than they used to be” are not talking about mass market, they’re talking about themselves and their other nerd-power minority who played with personal computers using DOS (or workbench), maybe those young whipper-snappers who’s first taste of peecee gaming was windows 95.

  22. Kieron Gillen says:

    Robin: I’m not sure I agree. You only need the lifetime experience if you’re going to make another fighting game in that lineage. The point being, there are other lineages and approaches to the genre rather than the 1 on 1 derived one.

    KG

  23. Stromko says:

    I second (or is that third) the notion that more can be learned from epic failures than epic successes. Everyone tries to repeat the success, most fail. Some fail spectacularly. If you want success, you need to find out why others are failing.

    For example I’d point out the developers of the Battlefield series. Battlefield 1942 was an amazing fluke, an iteration of Codename Eagle’s multiplayer mode which fostered a fanatical cult following, or at least so I’ve heard.

    Then they and several other developers have tried to churn out a whole mess of sequels and clones, and nothing’s even came close to being as good. Most of them aren’t good games, period. The further they stray from the formula, the better games in that sub-genre tend to be.

    Or, ugh, look at Silent Storm. First game, fantastic, amazing, ahead of its time. Everything else, lame, horrible, unfinished garbage.

    I think we get one-hit wonder studios because they focus too much on repeating the success of their first big game, when they should be trying to figure out why their newer games smell like a sack of rotting donkey asses. Like, ‘Hey EA / D.I.C.E. / whatever, how about having a front-end UI that isn’t crashy and slow as hell’? ‘Hey JoWood / Nival Interactive, how about spending a little time and money on Q&A?’ Actually that goes for you too EA. Shame.

  24. tmp says:

    Has Barnett actually shown he’s got even the most basic clue about the very thing he’s giving these pseudo-lectures on? Like, actually designed anything worth of note?

  25. TeeJay says:

    >>>”Barnett does the rough maths on US games. calculating 8000 games were available in the eighties over there. Which is a lot. Conversely, over the the UK, another 17,000 games were available.”<<<

    Just for "fun"…

    Total number of full reviews in PCGamer Jan.'98 ed. to Xmas.'08 ed. (excluding 're-issued' games) = 2625

  26. Stromko says:

    I thought Warhammer Online was rather good, actually.

    The PvE wasn’t quite as good as World of Warcraft, sure (and the PvE is probably a real disaster now that there aren’t enough newbies to do the lovely PQs), and the PvP while initially great became kind of repetitive due to how constant and accessible it was .. also a lot of the trophies my Dwarven Iron Breaker earned wouldn’t display on my model, which made killing 1,000 wolves to earn a butcher knife rather a let down.

    But yeah aside from all that I thought it was a brilliantly designed game.

  27. TeeJay says:

    @ Kadayi, re. FarCry2

    The best thing the developers could have done (could do now?) is make the game easy to mod. so that users could make a few key changes for themselves (eg tweak respawning times).

    Ironically here is Ubisoft Montreal creative director Clint Hocking getting al theoretical and self-congratuaory about “Improvisational Success Through Design Failure”…

  28. bhlaab says:

    FarCry 2 is depressing because, despite all of it’s redeemable features, it’s completely irredeemable.

  29. T. Slothrop says:

    I feel like I must give voice to something that is considered unquestioned about Far Cry 2; the game’s setting. Every criticism I hear is tempered with the acknowledgement that the world was rendered impressively and thus had potential, but I for one thought the world was bland as shit, generic, plastic with specks of dirt, lifeless, contrived, a spider web of respawning checkpoints between conveniently high mountains. Abandon all hope ye who enter.

  30. cullnean says:

    i like barnetts word thinks

  31. PC Monster says:

    Elite IS shit. Frontier and First Encounters are a touch better, but still horrible to actually play. But as examples of human coding expressing a platonic ideal there just isn’t anything better, so they have a special place in my heart even today. I’m still waiting for someone to take those ideas and craft the first truly beautiful and fully-expressed gaming experience from them.

  32. Tei says:

    INFORMATITIONAL:

    Now that some people admit “Elite is shit”. Is time for more disclosure.

    Pacman was not that good. The right part of the level 256 is corrupted and is unplayable.

    Tetris is in a sense a failure. Failure to create a good turn-based puzzle game. Real-time was added out of frustration (note: maybe not historically accurate (read: maybe I am lyiing) ).

    M.U.L.E.: graphics, nuff said. Also what about “meta” references like planet IRATA ( Atari backwards).

    Historical Revisionism is fun!

  33. Sinnerman says:

    I re-played Wizkid for a while yesterday. My head was spinning to think that Sensible Software could put that game together that way seemingly with no reason or plan and that it could work so well. Even today.

    This tells me that it is well worth going back to these old games but more importantly that some of the best older British games were made by small groups of people who had an idea then made it work by some secret developer magic. It’s more important to me that Introversion are able to lock themselves away and make their games fun by experimentation than that they knew about Syndicate and Cannon Fodder enough to copy them. It’s more important that they knew about Syndicate and Cannon Fodder so they didn’t make something exactly like these game only worse then say they have made the best game ever.

  34. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Playing too many good games, leads you to follow them blindly into the abyss, playing a bad game, if you make games should lead you to question why it isn’t any good and ultimately arrive somewhere near an answer and a ‘what to avoid’.

    The industry is changing from about us the designer to about them the player over the last decade or so, you hear it from all corners of the industry and i feel it’s as a result of trying to avoid negative traits rather than what we were doing before, implementing positive features.

  35. fleacircus says:

    The line “New Ideas when no fuck’s played them” was interesting to me. Not new, but interesting because it shows the gaming industry once again becoming more like the other media industries.

    Drawing comparisons between game creation and movie making has become increasingly easy. Creativity becomes too risky, established IP is king etc. I’ve got nothing new to add to this argument.

    But why I found that line fascinating was because its something that has actually been happening in the music industry. Bands are cropping up who are extremely heavily influenced by older bands that are just that little bit too old for their target demographic to have heard.

    Its also kind of sad that as the industry matures (at an alarming rate) it takes on these negative traits. Maybe there’s just no other way to do it.

  36. qrter says:

    I’m starting to think Barnett isn’t really half as interesting as RPS seems to think he is.

  37. TeeJay says:

    I find it wierd that games series are moved around between developers. Has his always been the case or is it the result of the mega-publishers buying up vast numbers of independent studios?

    Maybe someone with more in-depth knowledge can correct me but I get the impression that a lot of classic games were created by small teams who produced a strong original idea, but at some point the big corporate interests woke up to how much money there was to be made, went around buying up the rights to everything in sight and started producing ‘sequels’ which were designed as ‘classic game X’ but with better graphics and the corners knocked off.

    Maybe it was actually always like this and I am being over-romantic about a certain period, but surely the ‘consolidation’ of the industry by a handful of large corporations has had some impact on the process of game (‘product’) design?

  38. David says:

    Eh, I guess this talk doesn’t exist on the internet anywhere. I’ve been looking for it for a while either in text, video, or audio form and I can’t find anything.

    Did all the people commenting on it make it out to the conference or is there in fact a place where you can glimpse this wisdom on the internet?

  39. RobF says:

    Yeah, I’d love to give this a watch/listen/read in full, sounds absolutely fascinating and I love the way Barnett looks at the universe of games.

    I dunno, it just seems to be to be the “right” way to look at stuff for the most part.

  40. Kieron Gillen says:

    I don’t think there’s a recorded version. Which is a shame, as it’s a bit of performance and the above is more of a response to a tiny fraction of it.

    KG

  41. Tei says:

    TeeJay .”Maybe it was actually always like this and I am being over-romantic about a certain period, but surely the ‘consolidation’ of the industry by a handful of large corporations has had some impact on the process of game (’product’) design?”

    This is talking like there was a process. Other than software engineering, I doubt most AA or A studios have a process. Or is a process standarized. I could be really wrong, since I am just a random gamer on the internet, I don’t know these things first-hand.

    So to me, HELL YEA!, AAA studios and big publishers is what has push forward a “process” and standarization of roles, and definition of such roles.

    Why is important that roles are defined and standarized?
    Is called “specialization”, and was invented 100.000 years ago at the same time than the farming industry.

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