Matt's Reflections on GDC 2009 and W00t!

Matt Barton's picture

I wanted to take a few moments to reflect on "Matt & Bill's Excellent Adventure" in San Francisco. We've obviously got a great deal of work to do coming up in gathering footage and deciding how best to integrate the interviews--but for now, just a few fun things.

One nice thing was getting to know Bill better. We've only met once before, and that was for a tragically brief visit to his house in New Jersey. Now we definitely know each other much better, having spent a week in close proximity (see hotel room pics for an idea). Bill is very nice and great at staying on task, but also knows how to relax and have fun. Of course, everything we did was related to work, so even when we were playing games we were also busy trying to document it with photos and video. It was also fun seeing Bill's reactions to our interview subjects; we often felt differently about what had gone over well and what hadn't. John Romero really gave Bill a thorough quizzing during dinner about hundreds of obscure Apple II games--yet Romero couldn't seem to stump our Bill except when it came to the names of developers. Bill is great at remembering details about the game itself, but the names often eluded him and Romero loved that. :) As for me, I realized how woefully ignorant I am when it comes to the Apple II! I'm not good with names either, so that might be something we should work on. :)

Tom and Mike, the studio head and our director of photography respectively!

Mike (our director of photography) was also very friendly and fun to hang out with, and went with us to lunch and dinner on a number of occasions. He's done so many fascinating things and had great stories to tell about his previous projects--some of which put him in considerable personal danger (being shot at, etc.) I also liked Tom, the studio head from Lux. Tom reminds me of a mix of George Lucas and Stan Lee, with great insights balanced with realism. I take his advice very seriously and will try to work closely with him to make Woot! as good as possible from a cinematic perspective.

Probably the most fun we had was playing games at the Metreon and the antique arcade. The latter was really extraordinary and an amazing discovery. Bill and I got in several rounds of vintage games--and even broke two machines! :) I guess the highlight of the whole trip was getting to hang out so much with John Romero, who is a truly remarkable gamer, developer, and history buff. His personality is a lot like id's games--fast, frantic, and unpredictable--in other words, fun! It was pretty cool to be casually talking to him about Maxwell Manor and then be interrupted by four or five starry eyed teens who wanted his autograph.

Tim, the friendly clerk of Hotel Palomar.

I won't name names, but I was a bit disappointed by some of the "legends" we interviewed, and Bill was correct in his prediction that some of the best interviews would come from lesser known people. I was stymied by several celebrated developers who admitted they never played games or only played ones they worked on. I didn't much care for that, since I think it's key to at least be familiar with what's going on in the industry and have some respect for the truly great games. A few had fascinating stories but didn't show much passion for the topic. In most cases, the actual person was very different than the idea I had of him (or her) in my mind. Someone with very humorous games might be downright gloomy, whereas folks with gritty or "serious" games could be funny and charming. A few were extremely passionate about gaming and adored their work, and I think you'll see that in the documentary. Another trend I noticed was that the early pioneers were most exciting about coding feats, whereas the younger guys were more interested in gameplay. It was a very enlightening experience.

We asked everyone about their first game and their favorite games, and, boy, did we get a range of responses. Some were modern games (Fall Out 3, Halo 3, Dark Forces), whereas others went for classics (Planetfall) and more obscure (Tank). Many had played Computer Space, which surprised me since I thought it was quite rare. I could tell that many of them didn't get many opportunities to talk about older games, so it was great for them (and even better for us!)

My book signing gave me a chance to meet the publisher and editor (Kevin Jackson-Mead) of A.K. Peters. Jeff Howard of Quests showed up and told me about his work (as well as complimenting mine profusely!) Nice guy, and I intend to check out his book and perhaps review it here soon.

We also got to meet the Focal Press staff and had breakfast. Very nice people--and they said our book was selling great. They really had Vintage Games displayed prominently, which pleased me. Later on we met with Joohn of Apress, another great and savvy guy. There's a lot going on that I should probably not get into yet, but let's just say there are all kind of things in the pipeline and possibilities opening up everywhere. The future looks great!



Chris Kennedy
Chris Kennedy's picture
Joined: 08/31/2008
Pausing for reflection

Hey Matt -

It's been fun to read the updates on how things were going for you two guys during GDC. I am sure I speak for all of us here when I say that we are anxiously awaiting the finished product.

I haven't really read much about John Romero. I suppose my first known experience with his software was Wolfenstein 3-D. But then, there are probably a few games of his that I have played and just didn't know he created them. I have never owned an Apple 2, but I have always given it a nod in regard to gaming. I wish I could have been present during the quiz. I probably would have learned a lot more about Apple 2 in addition to what I remember from the school days as well as an occasional trip to a friend's house.

Matt - One thing you wrote that really struck me upside the head was the fact that some of the celebrated developers never played games or only played the ones they worked on. How on earth does that work? Wouldn't you figure that someone would at least have some sort of background in the field or at least practice what they do? I suppose I don't really code outside of work, however I do see software evolve and try to incorporate new ideas where I can. In addition to that, I do have a bit of personal pride in the software I write. If there is something wrong with it, then I feel embarrassed. I am not a part of the entertainment industry, but how you can you deliver passion for what you do if you aren't entrenched in it? And on that note, how much *better* might some of these games been had the creators experienced other games firsthand and used these experiences when creating their games? I read something about them not playing games and am forced to ask, "Do they simply see these things as a paycheck?" I believe that videogames, like movies, music, and other entertainment mediums, are capable of having a "soul" in a materialistic sense. It goes beyond just a piece of software - it creates memories in those that play the game. Memories of nostalgia and fun be it during individual gaming sessions or those shared with friends. The combined efforts of the creators of these games are pieced together to create a product. If you are a creator, take some pride in what you do. Creating a game allows you to express yourself and your ideas in a way many others cannot. Consider yourselves lucky you are in the industry, recognize that there are others busting their butts to try to get there, and use the opportunity you have been blessed with to do your best.

Perhaps I have it all wrong. Perhaps these people simply do their best, create masterpieces, and move on. Maybe they are just THAT good. But then it comes back to me and my thoughts - something can always be better than it is. It is for this reason that people constantly try to improve upon existing ideas and create new ones. I am not really a fan of George Lucas in his recent practices regarding film-making. Why keep making changes to your old films? The original versions were fine in the eyes of those entertained by them. Sure you could clean up a few of the effects and fix some matte lines, but why all the extra stuff? Lucas has said something along the lines that all movies are unfinished or projects abandoned because of time and/or money among other things. While I may not agree with the changes he makes, I now have a slightly new perspective about it having read about these game creators that would seem to not care one bit about the industry they are or were involved in. I realize I am jumping to conclusions about the developers, but I suppose I would prefer they have a bit more Lucas in them when it comes to their stuff. Hard to believe I would take the Lucas philosophy here, but these developers seem way too detached from where I would hope their passions lie.

I only ask that they put forth that effort for perfection in the beginning. Don't rely on the release now, patch later philosophy now available to video game consoles. Become a part of your industry, understand it, and bring the passion when it comes to utilizing your creativity.

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
CkRtech wrote:

I read something about them not playing games and am forced to ask, "Do they simply see these things as a paycheck?"

I believe the answer to that in several cases is an emphatic "YES," ckrtech! I'm with you; it seems bizarre, but it's there nonetheless. I don't want to name any names, but there was one legend in particular that seemed to have little to no personal regard for any of his work; it was strictly business. He was on the opposite end of the scale from Romero, who is just as much a gamer as he is a developer.

One of them explained that it was comparable to doing any kind of work--you don't want to do it all day and then go home and do it in your spare time. Take my dad, for instance--has to be an electrician at work, so the last thing he ever wants to do on his days off is monkey around with wiring or electrical components. Still, I agree that anyone who really wants to do the best job possible has to be more invested in it than just wanting a paycheck. You had to have a burning ambition to be the very best that you can be, whether that is coding a custom interface for a bank or designing levels for a FPS. Truth be told, I don't see how you could do either one if you didn't take a personal delight in the work and making people happy using your product.

I guess technically speaking I'm a paid author, but that doesn't mean that I hate writing except when I'm working on a paid project. Hell, if that were the case I wouldn't have written this, even. :)

Mark Vergeer
Mark Vergeer's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
A gamer's approach to videogames IS different

For 'US' it is a hobby, fond (childhood)memories, but for a lot of the old celebrities it was nothing more than a paying job. It is disheartening but true. Thank god for people like Romero - he is a guy who could easily hang out in these types of forums/websites if he wanted to.

I am a psychiatrist and in my free time I don't mind at all reading about things - I don't want to see patients though ;-)
I guess because psychiatry/psychology is also a hobby of mine. But it is good to balance out work with other things - otherwise you'll end up being very lopsided when it comes to your activities.

Xbox 360: Lactobacillus P | Wii: 8151 3435 8469 3138
Armchair arcade Editor | Pixellator |

Matt Barton
Matt Barton's picture
Joined: 01/16/2006
Job vs. Hobby

I agree, Mark. My grandpa is a retired machinist and has talked off and on about buying a small lathe so he can do some stuff just for fun. However, he's yet to do it. I had a great uncle who did end up with a lathe, though to my knowledge he never did anything with it. When I visited my grandpa at work, I thought it all looked like a lot of fun, but of course I didn't have to come back day after day, week after week, year after year.

I guess some jobs just lend themselves more to fun as hobbies as well, whereas others are strictly work vs. play. Of course, ideally we'd all have jobs that we enjoyed to the point where it didn't seem like work.

andrew's picture
Joined: 09/07/2008

Seems like you had fun. :) I should have got in contact to chat, it'd have been nice to meet some historical videogame authors. :D



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