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GDC: Mythic's Barnett On Golden Ages, Digital Distribution

Talking at GDC about the MMO world, Mythic Entertainment senior creative director Paul Barnett shares inspiration from the "golden ages" and discusses the rise of digital distribution platforms.

Eric Caoili

March 26, 2009

5 Min Read

Delivering an engaging Game Developers Conference presentation on being "Dazed and Confused in the MMO World," Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning senior creative director Paul Barnett actually talked very little about MMOs, instead focusing on taking inspiration from our "golden ages" and praising the rise of digital distribution platforms like the iPhone and WiiWare. Despite initial technical difficulties with his Powerpoint presentation, once his setup was straightened out, Barnett quickly grabbed the attention of attendees with a rapid-fire series of copyrighted photos of guns, vegetables, Donald Trump, and British bands, pointing out improbable connections between the images and the responsibilities of a creative director. He outlined the four faces of a creative director -- Insanity, with a creative director bringing people together around a vision; game design guru, one who understands "systems, data, chess pieces, and all that sort of stuff; mad scientist, who tends ot be experimental, yelling out, "We should have more elephants!"; and Bond supervillain, "out there to cause trouble for everybody." Quirkology and E.T. As an interactive bit for his presentation, Barnett then asked attendees to draw a capital Q on their forehead with their index finger, referring to Dr. Richard Wiseman's studies in "quirkology." "If you have a Q that you can read [with its curl pointing towards your right eye], then generally, you're an internal thinker," he explained. "You're taking data and putting it in your head so it makes sense to you." Those who drew a Q with the curl pointing towards the left eye, however, "take the data around [them, and they're] always chewing it up to see how it interacts with people." "I'm not sure if that's true," he admitted, "but I think it's cute." Barnett moved on to Steven Spielberg's E.T., describing the 1982 film as a "formative experience" on his brain. He pointed to a scene in which one of the characters "magically" opened a can of soda without any effort, noting that few people in Britain understood that phenomenon, as the country's cans primarily used a different style of pull tabs. It wasn't until years later when this soda can magic from the U.S. was explained to him. He related the anecdote to creative directors, reminding attendees, "Things are new and exciting when you discover them, regardless of whether they're old and boring to other people." He suggested that designers looking to come up with new ideas remember that they can find exciting ideas in "an awful lot of good stuff that we all know as we grow up." Golden Ages "I have my own personal golden age," said WAR's senior creative director. "I believe everyone has their same golden age, and I believe it's formative and important." He shared that his golden age was shaped by playing over 7,000 games as he grew up, a feat made possible by passing around tapes containing hundreds of pirated games in school. Others have their own childhood fixations that count as their golden age, such as comic books and the Chicago Bulls. "What does that mean for you and me? There is a period in your life where you can become obsessed, where you're not worried abou paying bills. You can learn to become obsessed with something." "My golden years are bracketed by the Empire Strikes Back and Say Anything," Barnett explained. "Your culture, where you grew up, what you saw, actually starts defining how you think and how you're creative. It showed me that actual creativity, in Britain in particularly, was fueled by a lack of resources." He continues, "We are obsessed with pouring resources into things, when actually, wonder and joy came from being robbed of money and time." "Your history is only really relevant to you," he added, warning creative directors who might put too much stock in their formative years. "It's a curiosity to other people. They don't really care. That's a tough thing for a creative director to handle." Design Theory "Design theory is very complicated, not because design is complicated, but because people are overthinking the problem," Barnett hypothesized. "I'm a little concerned that people keep writing books [about] 'theory of design'... They keep trying to tell me that they've figured it all out." "Theories of design are as timeless as the fashion in hats. the theories of design are not genetic," he argued. "They're not genes or DNA. They're means. they're phrases and buzz words that get traction and start getting sold to people. Business consultants have been doing this for years. They've been selling this sort of crap for years." He expounded, "Design is found not from knowledge, and it's not found in history; it's found from experience. It's found by sharing views, rather than by trying to share dogma. If it has an attachment to anything, it has an attachment to philosophy [rather] than science and math." A Wondrous, Wondrous Miracle Barnett lamented that in gamers' obsession with hardware, something important has been lost with game designers in recent years, presenting a slide of Sony's PlayStation 2. "What happened was robbing people of keyboards. What happened was the loss of homebrew games. Games suddenly required huge teams, a long time to percolate." "For the longest time, we've been gripped by this love of hardware, he said. "It didn't really matter what the games were; hardware was king. We lost our love affair with making thinks wondrous." The creative director added, though, that there's hope yet. "A miracle has happened, it really has. And it's a wondrous, wondrous miracle. When no one was looking ... we got free of these chains." "We have the iPhone. We have mobile phones. We have WiiWare. We have Flash games. We have Java. We have XBLA. For the first time ever, two people in a bedroom can change their lives doing nothing more than just using design." "Audiosurf, World of Goo, Braid -- all these things have become possible," he explained. "And it's because when no one was looking and against all the odds, we found another golden age." He then lauded the return of simpler games made possible by new digital distribution platforms. "There's no uncanny valley in chess. Tetris does not need to be 3D." Said Barnett, "Games can once again shake up the world. "

About the Author(s)

Eric Caoili


Eric Caoili currently serves as a news editor for Gamasutra, and has helmed numerous other UBM Techweb Game Network sites all now long-dead, including GameSetWatch. He is also co-editor for beloved handheld gaming blog Tiny Cartridge, and has contributed to Joystiq, Winamp, GamePro, and 4 Color Rebellion.

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