Q&A: Sony Santa Monica's wayward son returns to a changed AAA landscape
After six years away
, God of War
animation director Cory Barlog is back at Sony Santa Monica, returning to a much-changed landscape.
Here, the candid and effervescent Barlog -- who directed God of War II
before departing midway through the series' third installment -- reflects on what he's learned, how creative priorities in triple-A have shifted, and the ways he looks forward to experimenting in a new console generation.
At the time you left Sony Santa Monica, being part of an important studio was pretty much the only way to be a successful game developer. These days, it's just one option. Did you ever consider launching your own studio with a small team, or working independently?
I worked with a bunch of great people in the six years away from Santa Monica Studios. While most of the time I was an independent consultant, I did sign on to be a full-time employee when I was creative director of Lucas for a short stint, and a [creative director] at Crystal Dynamics
for a short stint.
I was considering starting a studio, but I never really found a production/business person I wanted to start a studio with; at least, not one that wasn't already part of a studio. Without that person, someone you trust implicitly, you're pretty much dead in the water if you donít have a head for business -- which I certainly do not. I like to make stuff; I fall asleep during the ROI and P&L discussions filled with their dizzying pie charts and Excel spreadsheets.
Perhaps one day I'll branch off to make a small studio, and make some of the crazy ideas I've been scrawling in my notebook during the rare moments of lucidity. I already have a studio name picked out -- or the name of my first game, I'm not sure. It's from a mistranslation of a sign in some park in China. They meant to say "New grass is growing" but it ended up, in English, "Tiny Grass is Dreaming." After reading those few words, I wrote like 20 pages of an idea; I love how random the creative process is. Perhaps, one day, you'll all be playing Tiny Grass is Dreaming
on your PS6es.
What's your perspective on the other industry changes that have happened in the few years since? We write a lot about indies, Steam, mobile, etc., and the diversification of the market outside the traditional console dev space. As you've remained in the triple-A space all the while, what are your thoughts?
I love the changes we've made in the business. We are growing, maturing, making better games and putting kids in beanie caps and skinny jeans in front of the mic to talk about their games where you play a piece of poo searching for meaning in life that falls in love with a toaster.
The triple-A space has changed dramatically, of course, and the willingness to take risks and "go big" on an idea has scaled down, but not so much that you canít make a big game. We just have to be smarter and more informed in our decision making processes. There is still a considerable amount of gut instinct and creative exploration in the process, if there is even a frakkin' "process" to something so ephemeral, but with great budgets come great responsibilities.
Interestingly, the responsibility to the player remains the same no matter what your budget is.
We have gone way more "connected" and Twitter-fied than I would really want, but that's the ebb and flow of the world, I suppose. When I play a game, I donít really want to message one friend while video chatting with another as I balance my phone on my knee to update my Facebook status saying "woot woot, I puzzled some drizzies." But, apparently, people freaking love that crap now. Actually Puzzle and Dragons
is awesome. I am such a contradiction, huh?
So we, as creators, must evolve to find meaningful spaces to create within this new framework. I have to work really hard to keep up with things but I fail miserably; there is just too much content. Knowing that, people still say they want a game to be 30+ hours long. I think they've cracked the secrets of time travel, or something.
What's changed about your approach to your work between 2007 and now? What's the biggest thing that will be different this time at Santa Monica versus your experiences the last time you were part of the team?
I have learned so much in the last six years wandering the earth. I have learned patience in all aspects of development, and storytelling is the key to reaching the audience. I feel that if I had stayed and continued on making games here, I'd be a very different director and writer. Better? Hard to say, but my instinct is that I would not be. But who knows, that is just crazy prognostication.
I really canít, with any certainty, comment on the qualitative aspect. But the essence of writing is experience Ė- experience with the craft as well as in life. In that regard, I've experienced more life in the last six years than I ever would have staying here.
We understand you can't talk specifically about what you're working on, but I'm wondering if you can share insight on a direction you'd like to go in with your work, or something in general you hope to try with this project?
I want to make something that feels instantly familiar yet completely different; something that feels like home on an alien planet with a nitrogen atmosphere. As lame and 'PR' as this sounds, the landscape of console gaming is at a pretty freaking awesome point right now. The next generation is going be a chance to really stretch our legs from a design and creative thinking perspective.
That's not to say that we will all be making games about love-struck poo, but I really believe people are hungry for games and experiences that offer them something more than just "shoot the guy the head." At the very least, this new generation will be a motivator for us, as creators, to greatly increase context and reason to all of our creative decisions.
Or we'll just play pieces of poo shooting people in the head. Iím sorry; I think having a child flips some switch in your brain that makes you far more comfortable working the word "poo" into conversation than ever before. Iíve no choice but to simply go with it. So must you.
You love films -- do you think the cinema-influenced approach to "epic"-scale game design is still as relevant as it was years ago?
For some, yes, I think movies are a viable guidepost for realizing the vision of their game. But, for me at least, that is not really the way all games need to be made. I've started to rethink how film influences me in the way I want to make a game. I love movies, and if someone gave me a ton of money, time and resources and told me to go make a movie Ė I would make the shit out of that movie and cast Lorenzo Llamas as a time traveling alien who has to win over the heart of Marge Helgenberger while solving crimes -- CSI: Renegade!
Lately though, I have found that the game space seems to offer the most enticing opportunities for telling compelling stories in ways just not possible in film. When you take away the constraints that filmmakers have -- the need to cut together a linear sequence of camera shots in order to tell the narrative -- and you just focus on the heart of the narrative message you're trying to convey, an amazing world of possibilities opens up.
One, I think, that is not readily available in the film space. In the game world you can experience any given moment in a sequence that's in so many ways different from other perspectives and viewpoints. Now that seemingly infinite number of options is not, in and of itself, the reason for this. It is more that the creation -- the game -- becomes more of a living "thing" versus a single fixed statement. Game directors still have a point of view and a vision, but the experience, because it is interactive, can continue to evolve. I frakking love this.
Finally, what's the most interesting or important thing you learned in your time working on other projects?
Nothing is for certain. When I was at Sony there was a tremendous amount of resources put towards realizing a singular vision. Outside of Sony this is possible, but the road is far more muddy and filled with obstruction and incendiary devices and people. Working first-party lets you focus a larger portion of your attention on making the game amazing versus fighting silly political battles with people who feel they want a larger creative hand in your project. It is not all bad, of course, but there is something to be said about just being able to focus on the work.
Since I am greedy and absolutely horrible at following directions, I am going to tell you about a second, equally important, thing I learned while on walkabout: Finding the heart of the idea, the emotional engine that drives your story, is the most important thing. Once you have that, the rest can be built around it with relative confidence. If you start with "I want to have the best physics explosions ever," the end result may not be an emotionally engaging experience. At least no emotions beyond - "Frak YEAH!"
Okay, I promise I wonít say "frak" again.