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God of War creative director Cory Barlog is sitting on top of the world after winning Game of the Year at The Game Awards. After a five-year journey (which was more like seven years for him), his story about a father-son relationship came together as both a gameplay and storytelling masterpiece.
I did a long interview with Barlog, who’s the creative director at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s Santa Monica Studio, about God of War. I asked him a few questions related to his advice for game developers and his view of design trends in the industry.
“Find your own way into your story. Find your own way into your game,” he said.
Here’s an edited excerpt of our interview. This is the first of four parts, with our full interview running on Sunday. Here are links to excerpts on the ending, the making of God of War, the alternate design paths, and Barlog’s advice for developers.
GamesBeat: With the game industry doing so well now, what would you say as far as advice for creators out there, people who are coming up?
Barlog: An agglomeration of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. One, find your own way into your story. Find your own way into your game. Don’t let somebody else tell you what you want. Part of having a vision for something is, even if you’re taking on something that everybody’s familiar with — if you’re saying you’re going to make Assassin’s Creed — don’t let other people tell you what Assassin’s Creed means. Find your interpretation, your vision, your personal connection to it. If you don’t, it’s harder to make a true moment — if it’s not yours, if it’s not personal to you.
Trust yourself. That, to me, is a hard thing. I don’t fully have it yet. Sometimes I fake it, meaning — I’ll push forward on a decision that I don’t necessarily believe in. I know it’s right, but I’m scared that it’s going to end up being the wrong one. It’s felt by everyone on the team. The team doesn’t need to hear you say, “I have the answer.” The team needs to know that you believe in what you’re doing. They need to know that you’re pushing forward toward something. Even when you say, “I don’t know,” you say, “I don’t know, but we’re going to figure this out together.”
Whether you have a small team or a large team, you’ll always have a percentage of people telling you to do the opposite of what you think you should be doing. Then you’ll have a percentage of people telling you to do the opposite of what they’re saying. It’s a constant sea of doubtful voices. You have to navigate through that. The north star for every creative is that truth, that you have to believe in yourself.
GamesBeat: There’s this movement or discussion about how games might not need stories or might not need single-player campaigns. Amy Hennig had her game cancelled and said, “Games like this are terrifying to make,” because you have to get it right. What do think about some of the angst around storytelling and narrative in games.
Barlog: A thing a lot of people lose sight of is that games are more than one type of game. That’s the best part about gaming for me. I’m terrible at rhythm games. I don’t want to rhythm games to go away because I’m bad at them. Nor do I have a huge interest in, say, League of Legends. But I think it’s cool and I don’t want it to go away. There’s a place for that. That’s the best part about gaming.
It’s not just story-driven games or not story-driven games. There was a time when there was an attempt to make it us or them, dead or alive, that kind of thing. But I don’t think that’s the gaming we grew up with. Sometimes it was two players next to each other on the couch. Sometimes you played by yourself. Sometimes you play against other people on the internet. These things are all very good. I’m not a competitive player at all, but I don’t want competitive games to go away, because for some people that’s why they play games, to compete. That’s amazing.
Every creator has to follow what they believe. That’s the message I would love for every single executive to get, to clearly understand, and every single producer out there. Telling somebody to create a multiplayer game, when they’re somebody who creates single-player games, or the opposite — know the strengths of the people you’re working with. Play to those strengths. Don’t expect the fish to fly. That’s an important lesson for everybody to learn.
If I were to jump into a multiplayer game and try to make it, I would fail miserably. I just don’t know that genre. I don’t want to play it. I don’t discount those who do, because I think there’s an amazing group of great multiplayer games. But I don’t necessarily think that any of them are alive or dead. They just play in different pools.
Anybody who believes that Fortnite is not an outlier in the way that GTA is an outlier — they say, “Let’s do multiplayer because Fortnite makes billions.” Yeah, awesome, but it’s an outlier. Every kid coming up today saying they’re going to be Ninja. He’s an outlier. Everybody on YouTube is not Ninja, hence the reason he’s the guy who’s on the cover of ESPN: The Magazine and the Jimmy Fallon show. It’s not every streamer out there that’s doing that.
We get caught up in this concept of chasing the next big thing because we think we’re going to make billions. I’m all for making money. That’s great, because it funds the capability to make more games. That’s the cycle I want to be in. I don’t want this industry to ever go away, and I doubt it will. We’re doing very well. But play to the strengths of your people, to ensure you don’t end up forcing a square peg into a round hole.
GamesBeat: You thanked God of War creator David Jaffe at The Game Awards, which I thought was interesting. Bonnie Ross got the Hall of Fame award from the AIAS for being the shepherd of the Halo franchise. In both cases, the thing you’re getting recognized for is not something you started. The original creators are somewhere else. But you’ve developed a passion for this IP that ultimately has led to great things, maybe unexpectedly so. You’re continuing somebody else’s work, and I wonder how that feels.
Barlog: I was on the project, the first one, right from the beginning. But I never really felt — or I felt, but I didn’t want to ever verbalize, that I was part of the creation of the franchise. It wasn’t until Dave had actually said, “Cory and I are kind of like co-parents of Kratos. We’re the creators of this character.” I thought that was awesome, for him to consider me somebody who’s part of the creation of that huge thing.
Honestly, I would not be here without him. Not only did he create it, but he was the guy who took a chance on putting me in that position. I hadn’t directed anything before. I had a big mouth. I had an opinion on everything when we made the first game. But no proven track record to say, “This guy can handle directing one of these games.” It was definitely a flying leap, for them to say, “All right, you should take this on.”
It feels, for me, weird, in the sense that I’ve changed so much of it. But at its heart, at its roots, it’s still something Dave has created, and it carries forward through here. It’s similar, I imagine — I wrote and laid out God of War 3, and then left. It took me a long time to play that game, because it’s very personal, right? A different person has taken what you’ve done and changed it. That’s very weird. Dave described it as an ex-girlfriend who’s now happily married. In some ways it really is that sense of — Stig did a great job with God of War 3. After I played it I thought, “All right, that’s cool.” But it took a lot, emotionally, for me to play that.
I think he had the opposing end, this idea of somebody taking what he’s done. I would love for him to play it, because I’m the typical kid looking for Dad’s approval. “What does he think of it?” But I think the reality is, both of us, in our own right, we have a stamp on that, to say what this franchise is.
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