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."