Double Buffered

A Programmer’s View of Game Design, Development, and Culture

Mythic’s Paul Barnett Has Interesting Ideas

Posted by Ben Zeigler on August 3, 2008

Paul Barnett, Creative Directory at Mythic Entertainment (Dark Age of Camelot, Warhammer Online) recently gave a talk at the Develop conference entitled “The Top 11 Lessons from Warhammer Online”. Gamasutra has a summary of it, and as I was not present for the actual talk, my thoughts are just on the writeup. Most of the 11 are fairly non-controversial statements that are good practical lessons for anyone making an MMO. However, some of his comments on playing competitor’s games, the importance of strong ideas over good ideas, and the importance of motivation over ability warrant some discussion.

Barnett clearly comes down on the “Single Auteur” side with regards to development methodology. His discussion of building the concept of a central “Band” with supporting non-members is a valuable idea, and one that makes a lot of sense for the industry. However, then he goes further and says that strong ideas are more important than good ideas:

“The problem with good ideas is that there are too many of them – can’t be measured. Good ideas aren’t hard to come up with. Strong ideas are unstoppable because they’re strong. A strong idea can be a good idea but a good idea isn’t always a strong idea.”

Implicit in this quote is the idea that it’s better for a game to have strong ideas that aren’t good than have good ideas that aren’t strong. I don’t think this is really true, and both ways are asking for failure. If key team members have strong but bad ideas, it can VERY strongly drive a project into the ground, and this is where bombs come from. Things only bomb if there is strong anticipation, and that anticipation is brought by strong ideas. Good but not strong ideas, on the other hand, tend to end up as mediocre, mostly successful games, unless someone with a stronger but worse idea comes around and pulls the project off track. The correct way, of course, is to have ideas that are both good AND strong. The fact that Barnett puts so much emphasis on strong ideas indicates an ideological bent to their game development process.

The rest of the article seems to validate that. Lesson 11 makes it clear that Barnett much prefers to hire/fire based on morale and motivation, instead of ability. “Three-star ability with five-star drive is how you want it. The other way around leads you to hell.” He claims that all “heretics” need to be “burned” publicly, for the strength of the project, and that true believers are wonderful people. To me this strikes me as a very black vs. white viewpoint. The vast majority of game developers have a moderate amount of enthusiasm (those studio players he was talking about), and their level of motivation and dedication really only matters for scheduling purposes. So, who are these Heretics? They are the developers with very strong, but not good (or at least from Barnett’s perspective) ideas. When you emphasize strength of ideas over correctness of those ideas, what you end up with is a bizarre power struggle where everyone is either for you or against you. This does not sound like a fun development environment to me.

The last point that strikes me as weird is his complete dismissal of World of Warcraft. He makes the argument that because World of Warcraft is not a perfect game (duh, even they admit it), there is nothing useful to learn from it. He says that trying to copy it is like trying to copy the Beatles, which he says ends up creating the Monkees. Ignoring the fact that the Monkees made lots of money and were somewhat successful creatively, his point is reasonable. However, he then says he avoids playing WoW entirely, to avoid it’s corrupting, cancerous taint. This is completely ridiculous. If game designers can’t objectively analyze WoW and break it down into it’s relevant design and implementation ideas, they’re just going to try and solve all of the problems that WoW has already solved. It’s the GOAL of a game designer to take in influences from all sources, combine them together, and make something creative. Do you know who else “copied” the Beatles? Every other rock band that came after them, because they all took different elements from their music without copying them wholesale. Not playing WoW is exactly the same as musicians consciously not listening to the Beatles to avoid their “taint”. And if musicians hadn’t listened to the Beatles, Rock music would have quickly died, instead of progressing forward.

Overall, it seems fitting to me that Mythic has the Warhammer license. Their development process seems (based on this transcript only) to share much in common with idealogical wars between powerful forces. I think they might need some more Orks for comic relief, though.

UPDATE: Barnett has posted a response on his myspace page (possibly registration required). I find it interesting that he says “Burn the Heretics” means that he doesn’t allow people to stand in the shadows and hurl insults, and wants complaints out in the open. That is not at all what I would interpret Burn the Heretics to mean. He does say that he used Heretics specifically because he’s been thinking about the Warhammer universe alot, so he was consciously drawing that parallel 🙂

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4 Responses to “Mythic’s Paul Barnett Has Interesting Ideas”

  1. alagador said

    You might wish to check http://blog.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendID=78047629&blogID=420605542

    Cheers

  2. JZig said

    Thanks! I’ll add an update to the post pointing that out, it’s good to hear from the actual person involved.

  3. Sulka Haro said

    I did a bit of blogging on the WoW denial as well, having had first hand discussion about this with Paul in Develop: http://www.sulka.net/index.php?itemid=421

  4. Tesh said

    “If game designers can’t objectively analyze WoW and break it down into it’s relevant design and implementation ideas, they’re just going to try and solve all of the problems that WoW has already solved.”

    It seems to me that such research is the game designer’s job. If they can’t objectively figure out why another game works (or doesn’t), I don’t trust them to figure out how their own designs work. Design is as much science as art, and being able to think critically and objectively is key in making design work.

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