Electronic Arts (not you, EA) will always have a special place in our hearts. This week’s interviewee (i’m glad to say) is now also a solid friend of the show and is always up for a chat in our Facebook group. Tony Barnes has worked on legendary titles such as the Strike games (with Mike Posehn), Medal of Honor and also the Strider remake (2014). Desert Strike celebrated its 28th anniversary last week so now we can all feel very old. Sorry…
How did you first get the opportunity to enter the video game industry and do you remember the first ever game you worked on?
I started making video games, when I was 12, in the 6th grade, circa 1983. They brought Apple computers into schools, in the Bay Area and I took to them, like a fish to water. My first games where simple Space Invaders clones, Pac-Man clones, things along those lines. I was SUPER POOR, so I would write my programs on graph paper and binder paper, then take them to the library (where the Apple computers were) or a friend’s house (who lived 3 miles away), who had an Atari. By 1985, my mother had saved up enough to get me a used Atari 1200XL. I LOVED that machine! I worked on games, ALL the time. I got proficient at making action games. The games had to be simple, fast and self-contained, because I couldn’t afford a disc drive, until I had sold a couple and got a tape drive. In 1987, my full-time game dev career was solidified by Antic Publishing, with me making several Atari and Amiga games and applications for them.
When I first laid eyes on Desert Strike I was blown away by how original and open the game was. How did you get the opportunity to work on this game and how excited were you from the offset?
Back in the old days, the community was much smaller, with many of us knowing each other, often through BBS’s, crack groups, etc. I had met Greg Thomas and the whole crew at Visual Concepts (all 5 of them) and we were all very good friends. I had twin boys in 1990 and needed something “stable” to provide for the family. In 91, Greg contacted me and said, “EA is looking for someone who can code, design, and do some (pixel) art,” so I jumped at the chance! As a kid growing up in the 80’s, especially in the Bay Area, it was always a dream to work for Electronic Arts!
What was it like working with Mike Posehn and can you briefly describe the process of making Desert Strike?
Mike mainly kept to himself, up in Granite Bay. I picture him sipping tea, while on a porch of an up-scale cabin, overlooking a lake (lol). Mike did the code, while John Manley and I worked on the content. Back in those days, there were no cute editors and tools to work with, John and I would sit and come up with scenario ideas, then we’d do ALL of the work on paper, FIRST. We found paper the fastest and easiest way to try out ideas, before going in and hand-coding (yes, hand-coding) all the placement everything and every enemy’s “AI”. Later on Urban we got an editor and that was a blessing and a curse. The editor changed the output, making the game feel “non-Strike-like”, so we ended up redoing a good 70% of it in the last couple of months of development.
How close were the finished versions of Desert, Jungle and Urban Strike to your initial idea of the games? Are there any things you would have liked to see in there that didn’t make the cut?
Art is never “finished”, it’s just relinquished or something like that… I don’t think any game I’ve ever made, has been 100% what I initially thought it would be or wanted, that’s just the nature of it. As far as the Strike games, they’re pretty close… most of my best games are close. Many of the things that didn’t make the cut or we wanted changed, we ended up doing in the unreleased; Super Strike CD, for the Sega CD/Mega CD. Like, smoothing out the difficulty on some levels or refining others. Unfortunately, the Sega CD market died before we finished, so Super Strike never saw the light of day.
How do you reflect back on the success of Desert Strike and why do you feel the Strike series of games are still so fondly remembered?
As painful as the development had been (crunching for months on end, which meant sleeping under my desk, working till 2am then waking up at 7am, not going home for weeks on end, damaging relationships with my children), I still look on a lot of the development fondly. There were some good times sitting there, hand-crafting all of those places and encounters with my partner in crime, John Manley. John and I laid out every single pixel you rescue and combat. Those are very personal games. I think that has a lot to do with it; the hand-crafting, the way we laid them out. There’s thought and a soul there that isn’t always prevalent in other “shmups”. We used to call it, “the thinking-man’s shooter”. The fact that it’s not just dodging bullets and picking up power-ups (BTW, I LOVE shmups). The fact that you can approach problems from different angles, sort of play your way. It’s good to empower players to problem solve the way they’d like to.
As you mentioned earlier, you were also a key person in the creation of Urban and Jungle Strike. How did you aim to evolve these games, whilst keeping the original essence intact?
We always wanted to evolve each Strike game, but maintain the ability to play any of the previous games again. You look at what’s the core and maintain that, then think of things to add… actually… thinking about it… a lot of games make the mistake of not truly evaluating what the CORE is first, they just jump into, “woohoo! Sequel blank check! Wouldn’t it be cool if..!!!” So, yeah, we maintained the core of the game, then thought about 1 or 2 things to “add”. You know, the big back-of-the-box feature that gives reviewers and the marketing people something to get giddy about. We made sure those “new” elements and mechanics fit the core and the narrative we came up with. Again, because John (Manley) and I hand-laid out every encounter, we could maintain continuity, that soul, while evolving the game.
Do you think there is room for a reboot of the Strike series of games?
I do, but to be honest, I’m weary of what may come, although I’m interested in seeing what people try. I know I’ve heard lots of talk and even seen some WIP “reboots”, but ultimately they “weren’t Strike”. They didn’t play or feel like Strike. Strike has a certain feel, a certain rhythm. A lot of people I’ve seen have thought, “well, slap a chopper in a game, put some explosions and BAM! Profits B Ours!” But that’s not it. One of the reasons Strike stood out was because it was “the thinking man’s shooter”. It had a certain openness, as well as resource management, that many other shooters don’t have. So, yes… I DO think there’s room for a reboot, but it’s going to take someone who actually understands that those games weren’t just popular because there was a chopper and a top-down view. (I think that’s a fair point – Ed)
What was it like working at Electronic Arts and what are your views on the company today?
Okay, so remember; a poor kid, in San Francisco, in the 80’s, avid video game player. So, I was RAISED on Broderbund, Synapse, LucasArts and of course Electronic Arts. They were the greatest! Most of the best games came from them and they had a great persona, putting developers first. I always wanted to work for them, so getting to work for them in the 90s was a dream come true. You know, a lot of people just don’t realize how much EA’s done for the business. Everyone is really quick to jump on the EA H8 bandwagon. I’m not saying they’re 100% great and haven’t put out some meh product. But people talking about they should be shut down or wishing everything they’ve ever done should be erased from history, well sorry, but that’s fucking stupid. I watched the internet RIP APART Battlefront II. They ripped it apart before it even came out. They ripped it apart without even playing it! There are some really talented people who worked on that. Some doing some of the sacrifices that us game developers do. But people don’t seem to care about the actual PEOPLE who worked on the game (the game’s good BTW), they just see a faceless target to jump on the bandwagon and tear apart. THAT mentality bothers me more than any bad exec decision, over-scoped design poorly executed or “loot box”. I’m a HUGE advocate for game developers (as well as actual gamer fans).
So, to answer your question, EA was my AAA-school. Some good people, some great games. I do wish EA was more off an advocate for the developer. I really think it would help EVERYONE, in the long-run.
You worked on an unreleased Stargate game with the legendary BJ West. Can you reflect back on this games development and explain why it never got released?
Yes, indeed, I was fortunate enough to work with the legendary BJ West! He was one of 3 artists on the Stargate SG-1 game we were making, back in 97/98. That was an “interesting” project. Back in 1997, we were making a game where you could go into single-player missions, find randomized gear and then use it in multiplayer or even enter contests, where you’d ante-up gear you had found. It kind of was Destiny, but with a Stargate flavor. I think the game never got released because MGM (our publisher) decided to get out of the publishing biz, plain and simple. They dropped us and anything that wasn’t ready to ship, got passed around like a hot potato, regardless of potential and eventually killed. I’ll admit, the game was over-scoped, especially for the size of the crew we had (around 14 people, if I remember correctly), but I was taking steps to reel it in, when MGM dropped the bomb… DAYS before we were to show at E3 1998.
You have also worked on Star Trek, Buffy and X-Files games. Which of these three games was your personal favourite and how much freedom d you get when working on TV and movie based games?
Hmm… which one is my favorite? That’s actually a tough question. X-Files isn’t, sorry… I was actually working on the design for that, when I was told, “after you finish the design for X-Files, you have to go onto Buffy and shepherd it.” I wasn’t terribly happy with that, since I had my head in “Resident Evil meets X-Files” mode, plus I didn’t want to come in on someone else’s game (Buffy). So, the X-Files game out there DEFINITELY follows my design… I can feel it and you can sit with my GDD and it’s basically a walk-through, but it ISN’T what we would’ve done at The Collective. I feel for the guys who got a design dumped on them and forced to execute it. That’s never fun. Anyway, between Buffy and Star Trek DS9, I’ll go with… Buffy. It has a great mix of combat, adventuring and is very true to the license. The same could be said for DS9, but Buffy (the game) has had more influence on other games.
If you could live in the X-Files, Star Trek, Buffy or Stargate universe, where would you choose and why?
I’ll go with Star Trek. The other two are just too dangerous and unpredictable to live in.
Medal of Honor was a huge hit. How did you get to work on this particular title and are you a fan of 1st-person shooters?
I had actually been kind of fed up with “AAA” and looked to do something “smaller”, in 2007. Unfortunately, the “economic down-turn” hit and I had just had my 2nd set of twins, so I needed some stability. As fortune would have it, friends at EA were talking to me about a Medal of Honor sequel. They outlined that it was “modern” and made a great pitch for me to come on board, so I did. I liked the energy the team had. They knew they were underdogs and were willing to do what it took to get MOH back into the conversation against COD. I love FPS’s, but I generally like fast-paced run & gun-types, like Quake, Doom (2016) etc… Given the campaign narrative for MOH2010 (Operation: Anaconda) and the competition (COD: Modern Warfare), the game certainly wasn’t going to be a run & gun. It’s more like a Hollywood-ized version of war. But not like COD… not “Baytastic”. More like Black Hawk Down than The Rock.
You worked on the reinterpretation of the classic Strider. How much pressure did you feel when taking on this project and how do you reflect back on this game?
There was IMMENSE pressure, working on that game. Not any more than normal from the publisher or execs. They’re always stressing… about time & money. But I was stressing over the quality and being true to “Strider”. I grew up on Strider and LOVED that game, back in 1989. I have a bucket list and on it was, “Make a Strider-like game”. So, I had around 25 years of built-up Strider fan-boy going on, while working on that one. It wasn’t just for myself, though… I owed it to every fan that waited all those years to run Hiryu through Kazakhstan and fight Meio. I really love that Strider game (Strider 2014). I think it’s one of my best, warts and all. It’s one of the few games I’ve made that I still go back and play, to this day.
If you could bring back any other classic game with a new reinterpretation, which game would you choose and why?
Well, before we (Double Helix) were bought by Amazon, I was pitching remakes to Capcom. Some of them were; Ghouls and Ghosts, Mega Man X and Black Tiger. They were really hot on things like Final Fight and Powerstone. Those are great games, but to stay true to them, you’re focusing on combat alone. I wanted to build upon my mix combat and action/adventure. Those types of games are my sweet spot. Other than those games, I’d really like to take a stab at a Forgotten Worlds or combining Strike with R-Type. Maybe, one day I can get someone to fund one of those.
Out of all the games you have worked on, which one are you most proud of and why?
That’s a toughie. They’re all my babies and I enjoy many of them. I guess it’s probably Strider. Like I said, it was a dream I had for over 2 decades and I’m proud that I was able to not only make my dream come true, but to do justice to the fans. There were A LOT of elements that had to come together and there were constant… attacks … okay, “ideas” that were insisted upon by people who weren’t as much fans and just looking at the trends of the time and bullet-points to cram in. It took A LOT of energy and time to defend against that and to maintain the integrity of the game. It’s one of the many things gamers don’t understand about game development. If you play something you think was great or even good, be sure that there was someone in there advocating, fighting (sometimes at risk to their own career), to make that great game. So, I’m proud that ~ 22 people could come together in 14 months and make Strider 2014 and not “Gears of Strider”.
If you could turn any animation movie into an interactive movie game, which film do you feel would work the best and why?
Hmm… that is an interesting question. I’ve never been asked that. I dunno… Sausage Party? LOL. Just kidding… Actually, I think it would be really cool to take this short called, “Blindspot”, from the Love Death and Robots anthology and expand it into an entire universe and a game (or three). It’s a fun watch and screams MAKE ME! Yeah, I could do that…
If you could share a few drinks with a video game character, who would you choose and why?
I was going through so many in my head and realized, what better character to get drunk with than Conker?!? LOL!
Are you still working in the video game industry, and if so, which projects are you currently working on?
I am ABSOLUTELY still in the biz. I’ve been productive for 35 years now and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. I have a couple of things in the works that I can’t talk about yet, but soon… 😉