GDC 2009: 'Warhammer Online's' Paul Barnett Talks Creative Direction In Games


Posted March 30, 2009 - By Abbie Heppe

GDC 2009: 'Warhammer Online's' Paul Barnett Talks Creative Direction In Games

When a GDC session kicks off with the speaker announcing, "I don’t like GDC" and expressing his frustration at being contractually obligated even to do the session along with a PowerPoint slide of a gun to his head, you know it’s bound to be good. Similar to the living embodiment of a schizophrenic brain to the point where my notes read something like "Beatles, Lester Bangs, optical illusions, E.T.," creative director on Warhammer, Paul Barnett presented a delightfully scattered, but incredibly inspiring rant on creative direction in games which I will now try (and most likely, fail) to bring justice to in print.

Where do Creem, the Smiths and Joy Division fit into creative game design? Well, he makes a good point that from discs and CDs and now downloadable content, music and video games have shared many platforms for dispersion to the masses. But better than that, he points out that "things are new and exciting when you discover them." When England was in a golden age of depressing music, Paul discovered his own golden age with the Commodore 64 and computer games. "Your history is only of interest to you" Paul says, "but your culture defines you and England was fueled by a lack of resources." From the popularity of pirating and sharing games in grade school, Barnett says he played about 7,600 games at a young age. That’s a lot of games, but I’ll believe him because he kept a list. He then blames consoles and the love of hardware (it’s true!) for the demise of that golden age and the death of accessibility to designing your own game, something that Wii Ware, XNA and Flash games have now made possible again sparking a second Golden Age of games.

He says that we need to "teach young dogs old tricks" and illustrates that with one of my now favorite lines "Tetris doesn’t need to be 3D and it doesn’t get better by adding 'boom' onto it." And before EA PR dragged him off the stage…no, that didn’t happen, but it would have been spectacular…he discussed how fun is encoded into our DNA, and "to believe technology makes game design better is madness”. It’s not meant to be overthought and analyzed to the extent that it has been. There are books, seriously. That might be one of the best points, ever, and I’ve waxed a bit nostalgic for the time I spent playing Stratego and backgammon with my father as a child. When games like Minesweeper and Golden Axe get modern overhauls, are they better? No! Is the new game with the hottest graphics better than Desktop Tower Defense? Not always. Barnett is right, fun is fun and that can get lost in our best attempts to overthink or repackage it.

GDC 2009: 'Warhammer Online's' Paul Barnett Talks Creative Direction In Games

In Paul’s mind, there are two types of people: the creative and the business minded. And it’s a mistake for one to cross into the realm of the other, although a symbiotic relationship is necessary to make everything work. On top of that, there are, in a particularly nerdy, but excellent analogy of Captain Kirks and Captain Picards (sorry, Janeway). Captain Kirks are the instant action and quick decision types, while the Picards consult those around them and take the time to reach critical decisions. From his tone, I think he respects the Picard type greatly. But it’s important to figure out what kind of person you are and be aware of it, especially in the creative world.

So, I still have a note pad that’s yelling "Oasis, Windy Miller, Margaret Thatcher, vegetables (they’re good for you) and soda can tabs" at me, but I think the heart of Barnett’s rant is here. Games don’t have to be complicated, the medium is open to everyone again and that’s beautiful, just don’t try to make games into science. They’re much more closely wedded to philosophy.  For someone who didn't even want to participate, Barnett knocked it out the park…and might be getting an annoyed phone call or twenty from the session organizers of GDC -- which he shouldn’t --because there's nothing more refreshing and compelling than honesty.

GDC 2009: 'Warhammer Online's' Paul Barnett Talks Creative Direction In Games


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