When Paul Barnett speaks, people listen. Arguably the most captivating public speaker in the games industry, the Mythic (wait, BioWare-Mythic) creative director has a scatter-gun approach to presentations that is as relentless as it is informative. So it was at the recent Develop conference in Brighton, where the man best known for his work on MMORPG Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning delivered an energetic session titled "When a Creative Director Attacks! or What I Learned this Year with EA!" No sooner had he stepped off the stage, we'd cornered him, tape recorder in hand, for an interview. WARNING! Paul wasn't allowed to talk about BioWare, Mythic or Warhammer ("I just do what I'm told!"). But he was allowed to talk about his job. So we did, despite the fact that he was very, very tired.
VideoGamer.com: Your presentation was about your first year as a creative director at EA. What expectations did you have going into the job that have been completely smashed?
Paul Barnett: That EA is determined to engage the creative process of computer games, is one of the luminating, joyous things that I learnt.
VideoGamer.com: You weren't expecting that?
PB: It's not that. EA's history is one of making sports games. Sports games have a very rigid set of rules, therefore you don't really need to come up with crazy design, you just need to design within rigid rules. It's gone through years of having producers who were sort of designers. Then it went into a concept of having what's all about project management. That's how you make great games. You make sure the project is managed. What it's come to the realisation of is actually these disruptive technologies, disruptive software, you're better off empowering creatives, you just need to make the creatives understand they have to build legitimacy. We're not going to bankroll huge works of folly. We want to bankroll intelligently creative bits of commercial awareness. That's been really interesting. The amount of really good people in EA is astonishing. And wonderful and refreshing. On all the courses and all the people I've met, just lots of really great people. They're all much smarter than me. They all have more knowledge and wisdom than I have and they're all very gracious about sharing it. It's been great.
VideoGamer.com: If that's something you weren't expecting, what did you go into the job thinking that has been completely reinforced by your first year?
PB: That when EA decides to do something it commits hard and heavy and doesn't mess around. I've been flown all around, met with people from all over the world who have been gathered in one place, no expense has been spared in allowing us to talk to people, engage with people, to see technology and to be treated properly and professionally. When EA commits to something, it doesn't commit half-heartedly. So that was really good. That was also one of the tests. If they're really serious surely they'll treat us [Mythic] the way they treat all their other special children. And they have!
VideoGamer.com: What might gamers have experienced that they won't be aware of that's a direct result of your role and what you do?
PB: Well creativity comes from every single person on a project, from a QA person all the way up to the GM. When you're a designer, it's all about you, it's all about growing you. When you're a creative director, it's all about encouraging and growing other people. It's about understanding that there's a big wealth of resource that you can harness, you just need to encourage it. You're more of an enthuser. Creative direction isn't about designing. Creative direction is about exactly what its title is, giving directions of creativity. It's about as much talking to the texture artists, and the people who do the rigging, and the people who do the patcher, and the installer and the box art. It's about having an enthusiastic positive vision for the game and communicating it to people. Otherwise they suffer the risk of falling into alienation, working on something so remotely and disjointed that they don't understand what it is. It's looking for easy wins from people who are very clever who already work on the project. It's about looking for iterative improvements and trying to encourage people to do them. It's all about the vision, that's usually a lead designer. Mine is more of an enthusing enabling role.
VideoGamer.com: Do you miss getting your hands dirty at the coal face level?
PB: That sort of suggests that the job I'm doing now isn't at the coal face. It's a very hard job, and I meet a lot of creative directors who are a lot better than I am, and it's just astonishing. And so there's an awful lot of skilling up and humility and lesson learning I need to do. There's an awful lot of drawing in information from other places - it's very tiring and draining. So I don't sit around going, oh, now I have nothing to do. I'm sitting in my bath of feathers, what shall I do now? I actually go, bloody hell, I'm working harder than I've ever worked, and I'm more tasked than I've ever been tasked, and it's even harder to keep a focus and be able to make a positive contribution. It's not a coal face, it's more like a granite face!
VideoGamer.com: Towards the end of your presentation you talked about new opportunities with the iPhone...
PB: It's the Sex Pistols.
VideoGamer.com: Yeah. I guess that's not something you'll get to experience in your role. Is there an element of you that thinks, I'd love to be doing that, almost coming full circle?
PB: No. That would be like saying, wouldn't it be great to go back in time and go and make Spectrum games. It's not my time. I'm quite sated with the journey I'm making, and the challenges I face and the expansive thinking I have to do. And I contribute extensively to projects that are doing those sort of things already. So I'm able to look at it and contribute to it. I don't go, oh if only I could go and work in my bedroom for no money hoping I could make a fart application for the iPhone. It doesn't actually cross my mind.
VideoGamer.com: Is there an element of rose-tinted goggles with that bedroom coding?
PB: That's what I was talking about with the golden period. The problem with the golden period is it belongs to you, it's very important and it makes you feel very warm. But your golden period is just yours. It doesn't belong to anyone else and there's nothing wrong with anyone else's. GoldenEye is terrible, but it's great. Elite's terrible, but it's great. I grew up with Elite, I think it's wonderful, but it's terrible. I think the Spectrum is a work of genius, and it's terrible. You just have to have a self-awareness that the things you love, you don't necessarily love them because they're great, you love them because of what they are. Something can be influential, without being outstanding. And that's a difficult lesson to learn. Spectrum games are influential to me, but they're not outstanding. That's just the way it is.
VideoGamer.com: And when you've got a big team working on a big game everyone is bringing their own personal golden age...
PB: Their own golden age, their own culture, their own history, and they consider it very very important.
VideoGamer.com: Does that feed through into what they're creating?
PB: Yeah. People are like plasticine. They have the impression of what was pushed against them, and their natural inclination is to go towards that. Very few people have got enough about them to be confident in stepping into areas that they can't recognise. The very essence of creativity is taking old, well-known ideas, dismantling them and putting them together in new and interesting ways. But that's very very hard, and very very dangerous. So you're very very careful how you do it.
VideoGamer.com: On a personal level, you've been working on MMO games for a while now. Is there something else you'd personally fancy trying your hand at, or are MMO games where you'll continue to work in?
PB: The concept of there being MMOs is probably dead. There are just games. There's online games, and very soon there will just be games. They will all be online anyway. I don't think there's an MMO any more. I think there's online games and there's online revenue, and they're sort of going to combine.
Paul Barnett is currently overseeing Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, which you can get a ten day free trial of here.