Paul Barnett, creative director at Mythic Entertainment for the upcoming Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, gracefully agreed to be interviewed by me via e-mail. I sent him questions, and he replied to them, so the back and forth interactivity of a face-to-face interview is missing, my apologies. But it's an interesting exchange nevertheless, and I'm quite looking forward to playing WAR. Paul is a great guy to listen to, intelligent, and full of enthusiasm for the game.
Tobold: Paul, you are creative director and lead designer for Mythic Entertainment's upcoming Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). Is there any feature in WAR where you'd say, "this is mine, my idea, I thought of this"? Or is your job limited to having an influence on the ideas of other people?
Paul: The first bit is easy as Mark Jacobs is the lead designer. After that you have a raft of dead clever people all dedicated to making a great game. These people are so clever that the need for additional core creativity from me is almost zero. So my job is to act as a true magnetic north for Mark's design. And that's a tricky, because so much of design at the start of a game is concept rather than mechanics.
I guess on reflection there are 3 parts to my job. Firstly, at the start of a project I have to be boundless in energy and enthusiasm for the game. I have to see the connections and concepts from the page rather than from the build of the game. So little code is finished, so few art assets are created and no real game mechanics are in place that I live most of the game in my imagination.
Add to that, good, hard working souls who are pouring energy into a targeted part of the game. These people are committed to a singular task, be it getting a render engine working, creating initial databases or making concept art. They don't have time to look sideways, to drink in all the other areas that are starting to spring forth.
So my second job is to be boundless in talking up the project and warming people to the idea that they are part of something larger. It's much like the alienation concept that Marx talked about. I mean Marx also talked some rubbish but the basic gist that a worker works better when they can see how they are contributing to the end is valid and one that my role is supposed to support.
Lastly, I like to see my role as acting as one who can confirm and give comfort to the ideas our teams come up with. I am not smart enough to have many ideas, but I am just about smart enough to spot a good one.
As for my contribution...
I would say that I added about 1% to the game. And that's a ton, a ton more than I thought I would be able to when we first started. My additions are, on the whole, small and curious. Most ideas sprang from the original design and the way that that design was birthed into the game we have today.
Tobold: At the LIFT08 conference you compared MMORPGs to movies. A century ago movies went from just showing moving pictures that fascinated because of this being a new technology to a medium that tells stories. Are MMORPGs heading the same way? Is WAR telling stories, and how does it do that better than the competition?
Paul: Hmm I think MMO's are hobbies, I don't think that the film point is valid. I used the history of film to put forth that the challenges film has faced where potentially industry breaking and yet film survived. I was attempting, a little ham fistedly, to make the connection that the online space faces industry-changing moments, but unlike film faces them faster and more aggressively. Where as film had five big challenges in fifty years we get about fifty big challenges every five.
On the topic of telling stories, I am with the people who see comics as a medium for telling stories and while you could say comics are like film, I mean they both tell stories they are radically different, a comic can not be made into a film, it just can't. You can take the basic ideas, some of the images and pervert them for film but you can't just transpose a comic to film. If you did you would get a static movie with no sound. That might be great for a comic, its lousy for a movie. So MMO's tell stories, player stories in much the same way as comics and films. It is the same desire driven by a different engine and rules.
As for progress in story telling, I am not sure I understand the question. I have seen some fantastic ideas and concepts from games. But most of the concepts and ideas appear in my head, in my imagination. Those emotions, those feelings are not really a shared experience, nor are they owned by the creator of the art. I find it odd when people want to review a movie, because while some of the review can be technical in nature on the whole it is the emotional understanding of the movie that matters and that is a singular experience and, I would hope, different for everyone. So I don't know if story telling will move on. I do know that while MGS4 is curious, I am not sure it's using the medium of a computer game to tell its story, it strikes me more of a passive wrapping up of an idea. I am not convinced that Bio-shock is telling a story with a computer game either. It's more like using a strong art style to fire your imagination. I got a lot of mileage from Lords of Midnight (a very old Spectrum game with basic graphics); have I ever played a game that told me a better story? No I don't think so, and that's not because of the technological limits. Game play is forever, tech is as deep as plastic.
I am not sure how you judge if we do it better than anyone else. I guess if the measure is monetary success then we are up against it. If it's critical response I guess we are in the lap of the reviewers and if it's a personal experience, I guess almost any game can do a good job of that. I fear your question confuses me, which is not that hard to do. We can play in the kitchen of design of a while but at some point we have to kill it, cook it and eat it.
Tobold: In other MMORPGs gameplay changes dramatically when you reach the level cap, will that be the same in WAR? How do you manage the design conflict of having to cater for those players who'd rather spend a long time in leveling-up mode, and those who want to reach the level cap as quickly as possible?
Paul: Er, you don't. Some people just finish things, heck people like finishing things; it's why jigsaws are popular with analogue people. It's why books have a last page; it's why we go on journeys in our car. I like the idea of the journey being as important as the destination, sometimes more so. But some people just don't see it like that. They want completion as fast as possible. So we just don't worry about them. That type of player is not really a core hobbyist. They just like to complete games, most have played a lot of MMO's, a lot, a heck of a lot. They are not true fanatics of the Warhammer game. It's like saying that a man who has a lot of one-night stands is a romantic. But our game caters for them and gives them a great game, but the real game is found in the journey, found in the people who are looking for a warm, challenging and fun game world. A place gripped with the three core drivers of a good hobby, which are skill, commitment and imagination.
Tobold: You described WAR as being Led Zeppelin to WoW's Beatles, with the difference being RvR, or as you call it, "beating the living snot out of other people". Now there are people, including me, who either don't enjoy PvP much, or who feel they can't compete with pimply 12-year olds ganking other players all day. How are you going to sell WAR to us?
Paul: Not sure it's a sales job. We basically took two types of play. I want to kill other people all the time, forever. That's one type and boy have we got a game for you. And the other type I never want to fight another player I want to build a history and enjoy myself against the environment. You can do those two extremes. And there is a third way, where you play as much or as little of each type as you want.
If a player never wants to fight another player, then they can PVE, wait for the cities to fall and enter those for additional PVE content. Attack the bright wizard college, take on the King of the city, wander in the sewers and dungeons, and so forth. There is a ton of game for the PVE lovers of the world.
And you know what, we have a bunch of people who profess not to love PVP and at some point they will give it a go, quite a lot after dipping in their toe find that its not as bad or horrific as they imagined. So you may find you like it, if not, no worries there is oodles of game for you.
Tobold: Thanks for the interview, Paul. Any final message you want to convey to my readers?
Paul: Sign up for beta, come on in and test it out! Give us feedback and enjoy yourself!