“The biggest thing you’ve never heard of.”
Hey Tony! It’s been a long time.
Can you tell me your current title and what company you work for?
“Tony Barnes, Design Director, Amazon / Double Helix Games.”
Can you name some titles you’ve worked on in the past?
“Well, there’s a good 30 years there to choose from, but we’ll go with the highlights; Madden 94, Medal of Honor 2010, Legacy of Kain, The Strike Series (Desert, Jungle, Urban, Nuclear), Buffy (OG Xbox) and most recently Strider 2014.”
30 years? That’s a really long time. You are currently a Design Director, can you give me some insight into what a Design Director does day to day?
“Well, without getting into specifics of my day-to-day at Amazon (that’s hush-hush, for now), in the past, as Design Director, I’ve lead the entire team design-wise, held the vision for the game and in many cases, rolled up my sleeves and provided actual levels, art, cinematic direction, music direction, etc.”
How many projects do you direct at a time? I assume at director level you have to juggle multiple projects.
“It’s not really that kind of role. Not ‘Director of Design’, but ‘Design Director’. I’m hyper-focused on one project at a time, just engrossed in every aspect of the entire project.”
What is your favorite part about your job?
“I really enjoy seeing the product come to life. For me, there’s a point where it all clicks in my head and I can see every aspect of the game. That’s usually early on in the project and so there isn’t an actual ‘game’ for people to react to. So, the team has to trust what I’m saying up until the point that it actually happens on the screen. I get warm & fuzzy when people see what I see.”
30 years ago, there were no game schools to speak of. No colleges that had formal game development programs. How did you learn your craft? Did you go to college? Are you self taught?
“I started in 6th grade. They dumped a bunch of Apple II’s in schools and the teachers didn’t know what to do with them, so anyone with apptitude basically ran the class. I wanted to be an animator (stop-motion, etc), so I jumped at the chance to move things without hours of camera work. Back in those days, there were barely books to teach you and no internet. So, you just jumped in and broke other people’s games; reverse engineering them. I started with BASIC on the Apple and Atari/C64, then quickly moved into assembly language, because I wanted to make games as cool as the ones I was playing. Back in those days, you did everything; art, programming, design, QA, promotion, everything. You were lucky if your friends and family played it before you unleashed things on the world.”
Where did you grow up?
“I grew up in the mecca of game development, San Francisco, in the 80’s. I often wonder if I would’ve had a game career, had I grew up somewhere else. Luckily for me, I grew up somewhere that enabled me to fulfil my destiny, as a game maker.”
Tell me how you got your first game job?
“I grew up with magazines for info on games. Compute, Analog, Antic, were the world to me. After making a lot of little games for my friends or user groups, I decided to submit a couple to Antic Publishing. They were located in SF and had magazines, game distribution/publishing, etc. I put a couple of games I had made on a disc and literally walked it into their offices in downtown SF. They eventually sent me an acceptance letter to sign. I sign away all my lovely rights and they published my game; Escape from Hell. I had made that game in one night and was only 15. I needed my mother to cash the check I got from the game. Lol. After that, they brought me on board to make games for them, as well as sole tech support for a programming language they published.”
“The best Designers take in all ideas and are able to sift through them, to see what fits the overall vision.”
I would pay good money to play Escape from Hell. Does it exist anywhere?
“You can play it and shouldn’t have to pay. It’s out there, in emulator land, along with a bunch of my other Atari 8-bit games; Escape from Hell, Doomed, Shutdown. They are cute little platformers. Pretty clunky, by today’s standard. One day, I’ll probably remake them.
Self taught programmer, well, I guess it’s better to say “game creator” because in those days, programmers were designers as well. You had to understand coding to make games, but now you are designer. Did you ever consider moving into programming instead?
“There was a point where I thought about going fully into programming (circa ‘91), but at that time, larger teams (say more than 5 people) were forming. The roles were becoming defined and the programmers weren’t the top of the food-chain. Programmers are integral and hold a lot of power, but they didn’t control the creative. I wanted to control the stories, the mechanics, the tuning of the experience, not just the systems that enable the Designers. So, I chose to go down the Designer path, right about the time The Strike Series started.”
What is your most proud professional accomplishment? I bet it’s hard to choose just one.
“[Thinks]… true… each one of these things are your babies… even the ugly ones. [Laughs] But you know, it’s a toss-up between Jungle Strike and Strider 2014, for me.”
“With Jungle Strike, it’s the fact that so much of myself is in that game. Desert is the standard, but Jungle ran with that and blew it up. Everything is bigger, better, tighter. I even did pixel work in that one.”
“Strider also has a lot of myself in there, but the big thing that makes me most proud of Strider is the fact that I wrote a bucket list for myself back in 1996. It contains everything I want to do with my career, before I kick and #3 on the list is; “Make a Strider-like game”. The opportunity to actually have a dream come true and it actually BE Strider, not a “Strider-like” was amazing. I’m also happy that I was able to give back to the Strider fans, on that one.”
Strider is such a beloved franchise. I know that trying to please the fans is hard. Nostalgia is a fickle mistress. What were some guiding principles in the bringing the franchise back to players?
“Bringing that one back was not only tough, for fans, but all the stakeholders (money people). It was important to be true to the franchise… the ENTIRE franchise. Not just one of the games, but incorporate all that was Strider, while making it feel like one modern package.”
“With ‘retro-revivals’, you need to please fans by giving them things the way they remember them, not necessarily the way they were. You analyze and make sure you retain what’s core, then see where you can spruce things up. For Strider 2014, the core tenant was; fast and fluid. If anything went against that, it was removed, simple as that. A prime example is Hiryu’s signature cypher attack. It goes as fast as you can press the button. There aren’t really any ‘combos’ with his cypher, because Strider Hiryu cuts through everything like butter. Juggles and combos turn him into another character.”
Thinking back on games you’ve worked on in your career, what is one feature you wish you wish you could have saved from being cut?
“There really are so many, to be honest. We could do an entire article on that alone. Every game has them.”
There has to be one that just stings when you think about it.
“OH, LOTS. But, probably in Strider again. We got down to the wire and the save system is probably my biggest regret. There’s only one save slot and no game-plus on Strider 2014 and that makes me a very sad panda.”
That’s painful I’m sure. What skill or trait do you think is most important as a Design Director?
“There are a lot of skills Designers should cultivate, including studying psychology, ergonomics, architecture, etc. But for a Design Director or any Senior/Lead Designer, it’s incredibly important to have perspective and vision. A lot of Designers think they are ‘the fountain of ideas from which all greatness flows’. The best Designers take in all ideas and are able to sift through them, to see what fits the overall vision. Some work, some don’t. Some can be bent to fit. This can be your own ideas or external. Either way, a Design Director or Lead needs to be able to synthesize all of these things and guide the team to bring them to fruition.”
Yeah, it’s not about having all the ideas, but refining them into actionable concepts. You are working in different tools and programs all day. Do you have a favorite tool or plugin you like to use in your workflow? What can’t you live without?
“My weapons of choice are; Word and Excel, of course. I’m a whizz at making pretty docs, although I’ve toned down from 300+ page bibles, to; at-the-ready 1-5 page docs. But the one thing I can’t live without and have been using steady since 2004 is Sketchup. I LOVE it. It’s great for 2D in docs, 3D block-outs… hell, there’s even geo that’s shipped in some of my games, that was directly from Sketchup.”
I love Sketchup. I’ve yet to use it fully in production, but I have used it for mockups and proof of concept. It seems like it is underused, although some might say it’s better just to learn Maya. What do you think?
“I get crap from artists, all the time. ‘Why do you use that toy?’ I retort, ‘Have you used it? Does Maya have [X]?’ They say ‘no’ or show me a cumbersome plug-in. It’s an excellent tool for blocking things out and getting ideas out and into an engine, quickly. Maya is great and I know the tool, but it’s often like using a sledgehammer to drive thumbtacks and discounting anything that makes your life easier is a missed opportunity for many closed-minded people. Viva la Sketchup. [Laughs]”
As a designer, you just want to get to the creative and not be bogged down with process and tools.
“Exactly. You want tools to enhance your creativity and bring it to life, as fast as possible. If Maya does that for you, so be it, but for me, Sketchup gets the job done and does it very well.”
How do you stay relevant? How do you stay up on the latest trends and such? Twitter? Websites?
“I spend an ENORMOUS amount of time aggregating data. I’m all over social media, in tons of sites, on forums. I lurk the hell outta the net. I don’t get out there and talk that much, though, because of the nature of what I’m working on means I have to be careful with my presence. But I’m always there… looking… watching… studying. If there’s a day that I don’t have Twitch, Youtube, NeoGAF, along with 20 other browser tabs, it’s a day the network is down [Smile]”.
Wow, NeoGAF? I haven’t check that in awhile. It is a place for the gamer mind.
“NeoGAF is good for seeing trending topics, sifting through, looking for gems, etc. There are a lot of good sites; like Gamersyde, but their forums are hit and miss. NeoGAF always is moving, so if something stays on the front page, you know it’s hot shit (at least, topic-wise).”
How do you like to spend your free time?
“With what little free time I have, spend it with my family. I have two sets of twins, ones younger and ones much older. The older ones I neglected, because I was all into work earlier in my career, crunching, etc. Now, I’m more adjusted on that work/life balance thing. It’s important to focus on things outside of work, like friends and family. Don’t let work become your only family. I also spend time with my muscle cars. I like horsepower and have a LOT of it. [Smiles]”
Two sets of twins? What kind of odds are on that? I can only imagine how entertaining that is around the Barnes household.
“It’s chaos. But we wouldn’t have it any other way. The older twins are business-adjacent. One is a Linux engineer-sumthingaruther (he’ll kill me for not knowing exactly) and the other does art, music, as well as scripting. I keep saying we should be like one of those family dynasties and just all make games or something.”
What one game influenced you the most?
“There are a few games that really influenced me, but the one I say influenced me the most was a platformer on the Atari/C64 called, Jumpman. The game was brilliant! Fluid controls, every level was new and interesting. It blew me away and still does, 30 years later.
If you had to describe yourself in one sentence, what would you say? What is your tagline?
“The biggest thing you’ve never heard of.”
If people wanted to reach you, how can they find you? Twitter? FB? Instagram?
Thank you, Tony. You dropped some gems in here.
“No problem. Thanks for the opportunity to yack your ear off.”