Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
View All     RSS
October 31, 2014
arrowPress Releases
October 31, 2014
PR Newswire
View All

If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:

Mythic's Barnett: The Top 11 Lessons From  Warhammer Online
Mythic's Barnett: The Top 11 Lessons From Warhammer Online Exclusive
August 1, 2008 | By Simon Parkin, Staff

August 1, 2008 | By Simon Parkin, Staff
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Paul Barnett, creative director at Mythic Entertainment, is currently deep in the development trenches working on Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning.

He showed up at the Develop conference in Brighton, England to deliver a talk entitled "Lessons Learned from the Frontline of Warhammer Online," which, as one might expect, consists of a number of concise recommendations to other game developers, based on his team's own experiences.

Lesson 1: Stick To Your Core Idea

Barnett cautioned against letting so many team members chip in ideas that it leads to feature creep. "Everyone on the team from designers to coders will try to expand upon it and before you know where you are you no longer have your core idea anymore," he said.

He pointed to Counter-Strike as a good example of a game that stuck to its core ideas without pretensions. There are "no tech trees, no increasing stats, no going to the moon," he pointed out. "Trust your core idea."

Lesson 2: Build Your Band

"Not brand, band," Barnett confirmed. "You will find people who will lie to you and tell you we’re the movie industry. This is a lie, other than the fact neither of us can schedule and that some people are paid too much and some too little. We are more like the music industry."

He compared a video game development team to a band - each has a core team of creative people surrounded by a larger team of people to help get the product done. As an example, he brought up The Beatles and their legendary recording Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which featured hundreds of instrumentalists and a dozen engineers, but was essentially the creative work of the four core band members.

"Session coders and artists can be put around that core team," he said, "but protect the band, because they are the ones who will make that game."

Lesson 3: Great Games Are 80% What They're Meant To Do

Barnett characterized a great game as being comprised 80 percent of what they are "meant" to do, and 20 percent "the madness that will lead you to glory or lead you to your ruin."

Put another way, 80 percent of an MMO should be things gamers already expect an MMO to have, and 20 percent of it should be "crazy."

Lesson 4: Teach Old Tricks To New Dogs

"Game diplomas are no good," declared Barnett. "What you need to do is put them in a shed, get them to write numbers into a spreadsheet for three years and then throw everything they’ve done in the bin. In front of them. This is how you learn."

Lesson 5: Use The License

If your game is based on a license, Barnett said, use it - ensure you are adhering to it as well as making it grow. "This is difficult because using a license means you have to talk to a licensee," he admitted. "Engaging with the licensee is very hard," in some cases because they are dead, in the case of J.R.R. Tolkien, or in others because "they're precious," in the case of J.K. Rowling.

Still, despite the difficulties, he continued, understanding the license is crucial. "Get it right and it can make everything sing," he said, pointing to Lego Star Wars as a prime example.

Lesson 6: Play The Games That Are Relevant

There are two camps when it comes to the issue of how familiar designers should be with everything that is being released. The first believes, as Barnett puts it, "If you make computer games you should play all of them obsessively." The second rebuts, "Bollocks to that. I know best."

Barnett falls into the second camp. "There comes a point where you get it," he said. "Only play the games that are relevant, the ones that are going to teach you things that are going to help."

Surprisingly, he noted that he does not play other MMOs, including the ubiquitous World of Warcraft. "[MMOs] are cancerous and will change the way you think," he warned. "People on the team come with a design idea - they are corrupted in their thinking by WoW, corrupted to such a degree that they don’t even realize it, not capable of thinking sideways because they knew the answer, and it worked, and it made a lot of money for another game. Why would you do something different?"

He answered his own question: "WoW is a work of flawed genius. This means that when you dismantle [it], you can never be too sure if you got the genius or the flaw." World Of Warcraft is to MMOs what The Beatles are to music, Barnett said - WoW made prior MMOs irrelevant. But you can’t be The Beatles. If you try, he quipped, you will "...end up as the Monkees."

"I can’t tell what is flaw and what is genius in WoW, so I don’t want to get sucked into copying things in case I get the wrong one," the amusing Barnett continued. "'No one’s going to play our game unless it also had elephants!' No. Don’t be swayed. And stop playing World Of Warcraft."

Lesson 7: Love Your Partners

It is important to establish good relationships with your development partners, be they publishers or technology providers or anyone else.

"Always be nice to them because they are there to help," Barnett said. "Find the right partner, work hard with them and be kind to them."

Lesson 8: You Need Strong Ideas

"We don't need good ideas, we need strong ideas," Barnett said, stressing the importance of making a distinction between the two:

"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."

Lesson 9: One Idea Is All You Need

It is important not to get carried away with the idea that players need huge lists of options, Barnett said. "People like the illusion of choice," he explained. "They like a long menu at a restaurant despite the fact they will always order from the same three things."

He used Sid Meier's Civilization series as an example of a game suffering from a glut of options over the course of several entries.

"Designers are obsessed with adding in ideas," he said. "Civilization 1 [was] strong as anything, and then progresses into cuckoo-land complexity before finally returning to its roots with Civilization] Revolution."

Lesson 10: Quality Takes Precedence Over Quantity

A team must earn money to power code, art and design, Barnett pointed out, which makes the subscription model of MMOs important. But for it to hold, every idea must be valuable. "Some ideas are more fun to explain than they are to do," he cautioned.

"Quantity comes down to guarantee quality," he said. "Cut things to maintain quality." Indeed, Warhammer Online saw several classes and cities culled in July, with the team citing quality concerns as making the move necessary.

Lesson 11: There Are Believers And There Are Heretics

"When making games, they cost billions, take years, and use hundreds of people," Barnett observed. "[We] haven’t got time for people who have no morale or don’t think we’re going to succeed, and mess around in palace intrigue. Heretics must be burned publicly. It doesn’t matter how talented they are. If they’re a heretic, they go, because cancer spreads."

On the other hand, concluded Barnett at the end of an entertaining talk, "believers are wonderful people. I hire less talented believers over talented heretics every time. Three-star ability with five-star drive is how you want it. The other way around leads you to hell."

Related Jobs

Activision Publishing
Activision Publishing — Santa Monica, California, United States

Tools Programmer-Central Team
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States

VFX Artist-Vicarious Visions
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Level Designer
Magic Leap, Inc.
Magic Leap, Inc. — Wellington, New Zealand

Lead Game Designer


John Mawhorter
profile image
All this said and he's still making a WoW clone.

Oliver Snyders
profile image
Excellent. I like the 'throw everything into the bin in front of them' lesson in "Old Dogs, New Tricks".

I agreed with everything said here. "Play the games that are relevant", however, is a little contentious as every game ever made can teach you something - what to do and what not to do.

The problem, as pointed out, comes in when your blinders are put on and you're convinced that that is the only way to do it. Questioning every decision is a good way around this and keeping your mind open to the fact that, while a certain implementation may be good, there is most probably a better way to do it or some way you can take a good implementation and improve upon it. You 'just' need to be able to identify where decisions have been made as opposed to taking it for granted that something is the way it is 'just because'.

"Why did they used a first-person view?". "How does the jumping mechanic work in this platformer? Why?". "Why do they have health, armour *and* magic protection?". Etc. It makes playing games feel like work, but I'm sure professional developers are used to that...

profile image
"Game diplomas are no good," This is the f@# facts and the main problem at EA and EALA! I truly believe that all devs should spend 1 year in QA before if they are jr before making a game. I've been on one too many games where Jr akin to couch designers show up on a team and wreak havoc. Mostly because they think that sys/mechs operate a certain way in games. So the production ends up becoming a science fair.

Lesson 8: exactly, its the reason games are not art, too many chefs in the kitchen.

Lesson 11: I'd find out why super talented people on the team are disgruntled first. On the other hand having anyone on the team that drags their feet, ala passive aggressives should be cut immediately. Those are the worst! Better to have someone in my opinion that complains but does twice as much great work than someone who is lazy, a nice person, comes in late, doesn't hit their milestones, but hey nice humanbeing ala EA style. Hire top talent that produce top results, even if they are a little salty.

Aaron Casillas
profile image
Great points! I couldn't agree with someone more!

Having "Creative sessions" with everyone in the room is a disaster waiting to happen. Its all about your core ideas.

WOW does have its flaws, specifically their itemization design and visual codification language. They admit it, yet designs are still following suit! Like admitting the Earth is round but because we've practiced that its flat will stick to that idea and so will everyone else.

Yup game diplomas, sigh....more theory papers on pong.

As a business decision, I'm wondering why not WarH 40k? So as to pre-empt StarCraft MMO?

Alex Beckers
profile image
He's working on a top-tier AAA MMO and he doesn't play other MMOs? Would someone explain to me how this is a good idea?

Does he look forward to making all the same mistakes that other MMOs have made?

Dain Jacobs
profile image
Your an idiot, WoW cloned Warhammer

Jan Gonzalez
profile image
I agree, Alex. This would be a great article, if only it wasn't for the ironic statement:

Promoting to "only play the games that are relevant" followed by "Surprisingly, he noted that he does not play other MMOs, including the ubiquitous World of Warcraft" is not surprising at all, it is contradictory.

Aaron Murray
profile image
Lesson 11 is so true.

profile image
I wonder what it feels like to live everyday by willingly buying into my own hype.

Tim Robinson
profile image
His crack about the difference between the Beatles and the Monkees underlies a fundamental arrogance and misunderstanding here. I know it was meant to be a joke, but it's still the same sort of ignorance bred from refusing to play WoW. Most of these other points are pretty solid, though.

scott march
profile image
Lesson 11

Lesson 11

Lesson 11

Lesson 11

Lesson 11 - Great comment

profile image
All his points are good in theory, but either don't seem to be applied to WOH, or blindly ignore the consequences. For example, "Burn the heretics" typically leaves you with a legion of Yes Men... good luck making great games with them.

Sebastian Bender
profile image
"Burn the heretics" is so true, since they kill everyone else's morale in no-time. Yet this doesn't mean you throw every critic out of your team. Actually it's obligatory to have critics in your team, even in your "band" since they help you to stick with core ideas and the "one idea". Of course I'm speaking of constructive critisism here.

I also understand him not playing WoW. There is so much information about the flaws and genius in this game that you do not have to experience it yourself. In fact, Paul is right: since WoW really did some things right you get caught by these ideas. Thus you no longer are able to think of other solutions to a certain problem unbiased.

BTW: WoW is not original in its core-mechanics. WoW is a clone itself, having adopted from a wide range of previously released MMORPGs.

John Mawhorter
profile image
WoW clones and perfects Everquest, so when I say he's making a WoW clone I mean this type of model. Blizzard did steal from Warhammer and Warhammer 40K when creating Warcraft and Starcraft, but the game design precedent here is clear. Also if he wasn't making a WoW clone he doesn't have to play WoW (though its worth looking at just for polish/certain social features that are well done), but since he is he might as well know what to copy and what to improve on.

Tom Newman
profile image
That quote about the Monkees was great. That was the best analogy I've heard in a long time!

David Sahlin
profile image
Games Workshop should learned their lesson from Blizzard, and stuck with Climax. Sorry, Mythic, but I'm going to play your WoW clone. And I still carry evidence of my past employment of GW in my wallet.

profile image
You wow clone whiners need to go back to hanging out with all the other kids at IGN.

It is ironic to claim that everyone is copying WoW when

1: WoW copied the Warhammer IP, they even reference it in their game as a tribute. (If you don't know where, I guess you need to go play your precious WoW some more).

3: WoW copied everything before it, none of their content is their own.

Go play your EQ clone and enjoy.

Robert Deya
profile image
I hate myself for continuing the WoW debate but I've got to throw in my two cents.

1. He may not look at WoW at all but he is lying to himself if he believes the rest of his team has not.

2. Blizzard is a genius at figuring out the basics and then polishing it over and over. Nothing wrong with that, its part of the creative process. Reinventing the wheel is futile, move on to something new or improve it.

I admire Mythic for their amazing attempt to create a revolution in MMORPG's. From the moment Ultima came out people started assuming things and taking them for granted. Its time to get back to the fun parts of playing those type of games. Group dynamic, ambition, gratification, recognition, immersion, etc. I hope they succeed.

I Already
profile image
My comment was too long to fit in this box, so here's a short version (rest on the blog -
siasm-and-fire-on-ability/ )

Lesson 11: In any fast-growing or evolving business, the skills and experiences that were directly relevant today will be at best indirectly relevant in 6 months time - and vice versa. Someone who was only “a moderately good fit” for the role now may well be “the perfect fit” for what that role has morphed into 6 months down the road.

Those changes aren’t predictable - if they were, you’d do it the other way from the start - and every business has them, but the difference with startups, and any company undergoing major growth, is that they are much more frequent / probable. Hiring on enthusiasm *can* work in a normal company, but it’s much more likely to bear fruit in one undergoing rapid change, or where the product is undergoing rapid change.

Which makes it (probably) also highly applicable to any development studio who’s making a new AAA computer game. The damn product is changing *all the time*.

David Sahlin
profile image
I'm glad I checked up on this. That's supposed to be, "Games Workshop should have learned..." not just "should learned."

They learned me good in skool, I promise.

Meow Cat
profile image
Eeek...Stick to making games and managing THAT. Don't discuss 'how people learn' ever, ever again.

I'm still looking forward to the game but man, an attempt to be cleaver can backfire.

Ben Zeigler
profile image
Wow, after reading that, Mythic sounds like a very interesting and stressful place to work at. It sounds to me like if the rest of the designers hold these views, they're going to spend all of their time trying to re-solve the problems WoW already solved, and not actually get around to doing anything new. They're going to clone WoW out of desperation for coming up with solutions to problems.

If the music world avoided the "taint" of the Beatles like he advises, Rock wouldn't have progressed at all, and we'd all be listening to nothing but Frank Sinatra. It's his job as a game designer to figure out that it's NOT the elephants that people like about WoW.

I rant for 2 more paragraphs at my blog:

Ryan Percival
profile image
The more I hear and read of this man the less positively inclined I am towards his game. Probably not a mature response, hate the man not his game and all, but its the same as bad ads that rub me the wrong way. The product could be fantastic, but my stomach has been turned and I'd rather look elsewhere.

Not all of what he said rubbed me the wrong way, and if I'm honest I do agree with the core sentiment of most of it. Its the way he says it that bugs me. I also heard an interview in a podcast (the name of the podcast escapes me for now) with Michael Zenke and he irritated me there too. Personally I feel WAR would do a lot better if he stepped back and let someone else do the talking. However I think he could run a mean course in game design/production - of course if I graduated from his course I'd suffer his spreadsheet punishment.

On the whole WoW clone front I personally believe the whole arguement was better covered and more interesting when Richard Bartle espoused it in the interview a while back. No one in the know thinks WAR stole their IP from WoW, but the gameplay and mechanics will be that 80% like WoW that Barnett himself quotes... thus the cloning

profile image
I've had an admin job typing numbers into spreadsheets for over three years.

Do you think he would hire me on account of that? I doubt it very much.

profile image
The lessons laid out above are ideal, if you’re more interested in realizing management’s vision than producing great games. A game is not a song – it’s a far more complex creation – and the idea that a handful of directors can effectively develop a AAA title while actively shunning input from their team is frankly, foolish.

To put it simply, nobody is that good. Even a genius management team will miss things and make mistakes, and creating a team which will not or cannot question them leaves no capacity to deal with their consequences. Cutting yourself off from tools – preproduction design, first hand experience, expert employees, or simply feedback from your team – is blatant hubris.

Barnett is a [url=
-pt-1/]self confessed charlatan[/url], who’s primary skill set is self promotion. That has obviously served him well enough personally, but his insight into the subject of modern game development is dubious at best.

kim Lang
profile image
Overall I definitely agree with a lot of what he has to say, but as with other posters above i find his attitude a bit off putting and i'm glad i'm not working with him.

As for point 6 which certainly seems among the most contentious,

It reminds me a bit of all the failed skating games following the Tony Hawk franchise, some of them had genuinely interesting things to add to the genre however many of them failed on a simple point of interface,

Everyone knows X is Ollie and Triangle is Grind, mess with that and you just piss people off.

Don't reinvent the wheel Build a Mag. and to do that you really do need to know how a wheel works in a whole variety of conditions.

Excuse the mixed metaphors.

Patrick Linton
profile image
So from what I can gather from this interview, Barnett does the following;

1. Makes all his new, bright eyed employees work in meaningless jobs for years until their creative spirit is crushed, then throws all their work in the bin to let them know he's the boss. Fantastic for morale, I'm sure, and you'll be left with mindless drones who have no ambition or drive.

2. Ignores any ideas from his own team, because sticking with a bad idea is better than risking a good idea (apparently). Note that you can easily listen to people's ideas without actually using any of them, if nothing else it's good for morale.

3. Fire anyone who isn't a yes man. You can say "no, we're only firing the guys who are always negative!", but what's your staff going to see? You think they're going to risk their job bringing up a legitimate problem with the game? Or maybe they'll just keep their mouths shut and let design faults slip?

And the ironic thing is, Barnett's the CREATIVE director. He seems set on crushing anything vaguely creative about his own work! It's no wonder Warhammer is nothing but a lackluster and bland clone of more popular games.