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Barnett On: Why I Don't Go To GDC

A few months ago Mythic's Creative Director Paul Barnett and myself went into a London bar, set a tape rolling and got mildly smashed. Only now do I dare return to these hours of tape to transcribe a series of topic-by-topic interviews. We pick up where we left off last time, with Paul about to explain why he went to Futurism-festival LIFT rather than this industry's mecca, the Game Developer's Conference. And it's much more fun than him hating San Francisco.

Paul Barnett: So... why did I go to LIFT not GDC?

Kieron Gillen: Tell me.

Barnett: So – I've just come back from LIFT. Which is ran by a friend of mine called Laurent [Haug], who has this idea that we need to have a social conference in Europe. It's very, very European. It's all Swedish and French and crazy... I don't know what nationality Laurent is. Imagine this bit is edited and the correct nationality of Laurent was put in.

KG: “Somewhere in Europe”

Barnett: Some kind of Europe Scando-wegian. [He's Swiss – Boringly Factual Ed] Him and a couple friends got together and ran a conference. It's right on the cusp between Hippy Nonsense meets interesting teetering on commercial. They asked me to come along. I watched some of the videos which they had online, which are all amateur shot – put together with a lot of energy and excitement, but they really needed a film crew. This year they had that – Swiss TV went and did it. I agreed to talk on it. It actually conflicted with GDC, so there was a choice – do I go to GDC, or do I go to this crazy European thing which no-one is interested in?

KG: Dilemma.

It's Paul Barnett!

Barnett: The answer is actually really for me – I never go to GDC. But I was asked point blank why, as it seemed this year they were quite happy to take me to GDC. Mythic wanted me to go there. And I effectively said “Well, I don't like GDC”. Which turned out to be the wrong thing to say. Apparently I've now learned that if you're in the games industry, and someone says “GDC” what you're supposed to do is say lots and lots of lovely things about how wonderful they are.

I went for it from the other point of view - I'm not going to GDC because it's combative, it's a peacock display and it's full of people who do what I do or want to do what I do or are doing what I do and don't want me to do it anymore. It's not open-minded. It's very narrow-minded. We're all talking about the same thing. We've all sharpened our knives for years at it, so we get into... well, not a fight, but it's always about the same things. We talk about design, mechanics, philosophy of design. All I was going to hear about was: WoW and the Activision merger. Whether Spore is going to be any good. How do I get into the games industry? Would you like a job? You're going to be fired. Why don't you start a label? I can get you a lot of money? There's no money available in the market. What we need to do is form an independent development company. What we need to do is unionise. Is microtransactions really the way? What do you think of INSERT WHATEVER IDEA WAS.

While that's interesting, it's not interesting enough. It confuses me. I have to start to explain things I find blindingly obvious. I have to listen to people who say things which I find ultimately stupid. And I have to pay attention to people I don't want to pay attention to. So I thought instead I'd go to LIFT. The same things apply – but at least no-one will be talking about games. They'll be talking about nutter stuff.

You talk about free-thinking and free association? There was a woman doing expressive dance throughout the conference. She would dance on stage. She'd dance through the crowd. She'd dance in the restaurant. I have no idea what she was doing – all I know is that a lot of people took photographs.

KG: I'd imagine it was very expressive.

Barnett: It was! There was a man who brought this videocamera. Have you seen those photo mosaics?

KG: Yeah.

Barnett: Well, this guy had a live videofeed which does photo-mosaics. I've never seen anything like it. You have to project it onto an enormous screen but it really was very, very interesting. Unfortunately it broke about 8 minutes after the show started, so for the rest of the time it was just stuck with one image which didn't move. So it looked to all the world like an enormous, really bad photomosaic. So he was there, which his one idea which wasn't actually functional.

KG: So not so unlike the games industry...

Barnett: It was amazing. You went into this room... imagine if you will. You go into this room where the conference is. There's these comfy chairs. I mean, really comfy chairs. And they rotate. And they lean back. There's a power-point. There's a hard-wire and wireless internet connection. There's headphones so you can listen to all the presentations in different translations, the language you want. And there's microphones so you can ask questions. It's like being at the UN. It's just the most crazy thing I'd ever seen. And then it was full of people talking weirdly. One bloke was talking about how we needed to build power-stations in orbit.

It's just one of those things when you first hear it you go “Power stations in outer orbit? That's total madness” and then he goes – No, you don't understand. They produce too much carbon. So what we have to do is put them above the ozone layer. And that way it won't effect us anymore. And then you go – well, there could be something in that, I suppose. And the next thing he's talking about is deploying these light collecting machines which will then beam down onto enormous solar panels – hyper solar panels – and he's up there talking about it. And you can't help but nod agreeably now and again and go – no, he's completely bonkers. It was just full-on. There was a guy who inserted electrochips into his skin...

It's also Paul Barnett!

KG: Was that the guy from the University of Southampton?

Barnett: Yeah, the cyborg. He was recording it all to check out nerve impulses. There was a woman, a Dutch woman, who gave a frightening talk about how we're moving away from nature, so what we need to do is make computers look like tress. She had photographs. That's crazy. And on top of that there's all these curious things – like these anthropologists who worked for Nokia. Nothing more frightening than realising there's groups of anthropologists in a room having bananas thrown to them and hooting and throwing leaves in the air who are coming up with how we should use telephones. I found all of it interesting – crazy, but interesting and stimulating and odd. The reason I liked it because it's the only place to get new thinking. What's interesting about new thinking is that it's only new if you've never seen it before. Once you've seen it before, it's no longer new thinking. And the computer industry is gripped with this. It looks inwardly all the time. So new thinking has a great difficulty getting to us. It's full of different ideas – bonkers ideas I hadn't come across before. I don't know whether I agree with them or not, but at least they got me thinking.

[What I like about LIFT is] It's not about me. I'm basically the outsider. The unknown person there. There isn't any game shows. There isn't any great big labels. EA isn't there. No-one's trying to show you a console. No-one trying to push a computer game down you. Nobody actually gives a monkey's about computer games or computer game entertainment. They're more interested in creating the next type of metal. I picked new ideas up and concepts – again, only new to me, as these people do presentations. And I got to play. I got to stand up and give a talk I'd never be allowed to give to computer people, because basically we're snobby and elitist and we apparently want to hear about new, cutting edge thinking but we don't actually want to be told a piece of thinking may actually catch us off guard.

People ask me what profit is that to the computer industry, I've been talking about the Nintendo Wii. And what's interesting about the Wii is that you pick up and you go – I'm used to how a console works. This is madness. And you use it and... actually, it's quite a lot of fun. But if you go to Japan, the idea of arcade games which do massive physical things is nothing new. Guitar Hero is actually a Japanese arcade game modified to work on a console [GuitarFreaks]. In America, there's these things called Chuck E. Cheese, actually started by one of the grandfathers of the computer game industry. When you go not only do you get very greasy pizzas – nice, but greasy.

But what you actually get is lots of crazy games to play, and they're all physical. They're all things which computer games don't do well. And you end up going – is the Wii revolutionary thinking or is it just taking what the Japanese arcade system already knows, doing what they already like doing and just applying it. And when you apply it, you go... that's obvious. And if it's obvious, it passes my genius test. Anything which makes you smack your head and go “that's obvious – I could have thought about that” is probably genius. Because you didn't think about that. And they did.

KG: You didn't question your assumptions.

It's not Paul Barnett!

Barnett: And that's why I was at LIFT, not GDC. And weirdly, I wasn't the only EA person there. Robin [Hunicke, Designer and Researcher] was there. Robin goes to a lot more conferences than I go to, and she talks about AI and the system solutions and that, which is a different way around it. But it was interesting having the two variants. Sort of systematic equation thinking wrapped up in games, versus mildly incoherent it'sallaboutgambling then and something about the Godfather from a Brit.

At which point conversation segued to list his favourite MMOs. Like Bubble Bobble. We'll pick up with it next week.

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Kieron Gillen


Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.