Cory Barlog on God of War II (and much more)

"Our combat guys told me about the Kim Possible game. They just said that it's a really good game. And they were right! It's a very well designed game. And the other thing is that we were also saying that the Barbie GBA game was a really good game--Secret Agent Barbie: Royal Jewels Mission. Eric, the other guy, was saying it was awesome. He was like, 'Seriously, I know you're laughing at me, but it's a pretty good game. They've got some cool ideas in there.'"

So spoke God of War II director Cory Barlog, as we sat in the after hours food court of San Francisco's Metreon last night. Barlog and his team had recently finished up the anticipated sequel at SCE Studios Santa Monica, and the game was set to launch in a few hours. Addressing a crowd of journalists and developers, Barlog had just let slip that rumble will come to PS3, and had essentially confirmed that the inevitable God of War III on PS3 would feature 1080p graphics and the newly added rumble functionality. Naturally, the designer wanted to talk about about Secret Agent Barbie.

"Then it turns out one of the girls who was a designer on God of War I--Ashley, she also did level design on God of War II--actually worked on that Barbie game, she actually designed some of the stuff that they were bringing up and saying is really cool. She designed the little litstick rappel thing, and the compact secret gadgets and stuff, it was wild. So it was kind of funny that it's this very small world."

Throughout the evening, Barlog was constantly talking about his team. A few hours earlier, following a brief God of War II documentary screening, the director called up some dozen team members to the stage and introduced each by name and role on the project. He had a personal anecdote to tell about each one. Many had worked alongside Barlog at Backyard Wrestling franchise developer Paradox Development--later Midway Studios Los Angeles--and it was clear Barlog did not consider that period the highlight of his career.

"You know what, is that everybody working on this game pretty much all worked on games that weren't that successful. Prior to God of War, we'd all been making fairly subpar games. We just all clicked and came together. It's very wild. I love those guys. Clearly it's one of the best teams I've ever worked with, because I got a lot of the guys I used to work with and said, 'You need to come over here and do this.' We created this super-team. I hope we continue to make many, many games."

I asked Barlog if there were specific factors that converged as the team was being assembled. Something must have come together, as--despite the rather inauspicious beginnings he described--the team in question was responsible for one of the most well received games of the last several years, with a promising sequel just being released. The scenario he described in reply was almost one of trial by fire.

"I think it was the passion," he answered. "Each one of these guys was frustrated with the jobs they were at, making games that weren't so good--but they loved what they did. They would stay until 3 A.M. to make something really good, when somebody had already said it's good enough. They said it's not. That's been the mantra of everybody on this team. I'll even say something is done, it's good, and I'll see the guy stay until 3 or 4 in the morning because he wasn't happy with that one aspect. That kind of attention to detail, that kind of pride in your work is not seen in a lot of places."

Original God of War director David Jaffe, who has become a famously outspoken game industry figure since the release of the game in 2005, stepped away from the role for the game's sequel in order to develop other ideas. Since then, he has ended up fostering Calling All Cars!, an upcoming downloadable game for PlayStation 3. In Jaffe's absence, lead animator Barlog became director. He had never worked in a directorial capacity on any game, much less one so highly anticipated as God of War II.

"It was unbelievable," he said about the transition. "The producer, who's now the director of the studio--she oversees everything--came to me in the beginning of December 2004, right before God of War I was going to come out, and she said, 'Hey, Dave's thinking he's probably not going to want to continue on doing this. He wants to move on and do some other stuff, and we've been kicking around some names of people who could potentially step in and direct the game, and your name keeps coming up.' I kind of laughed, and looked around to see if there were any cameras, 'cause I thought it was part of the documentary and they were making fun of me or something like that."

It soon became clear that the offer was serious.

"So that's when I started playing it really cool. I was like, 'Let me get back to you. Give me 24 hours. I'll stew on that. I like the proposition.' Then inside I'm thinking, 'Oh my God, this is awesome.'"

After a week of stalling fuelled by indecision, Barlog accepted.

"I thought to myself, 'Can I do this?' Then finally I thought, 'Yeah, I can!' I didn't know what I was getting myself into--at all," he said. "If I had known what I had gotten myself into, I probably would have questioned it even harder, and not have ended up doing it--but I'm so glad I was an idiot, and didn't know what I was getting into because it has been amazing."

Still, there must have been some reason an animator with no prior design credits would have been chosen to head up such an incredibly important project. I asked Barlog whether he had worked closely with Jaffe on the first game in any capacity beyond his job description, and he painted a picture of a game that seemed surprisingly unfocused early on.

"When I came in, he was looking for somebody to take over the animation so he wouldn't have to worry about it. The animation wasn't there; the combat wasn't there," Barlog explained. "The game--when you hit the button, random things would happen. That was the idea, that [Kratos] was so full of rage that when you hit the Square button, random moves would happen. You couldn't do combos, it was just random. They didn't have a combo counter, they didn't have anything."

Barlog was offered the lead animator job, but he didn't jump in full steam. In reality, he had signed onto the project expecting a relative vacation, and was reluctant to accept too much responsibility. Though he thought the game might turn out relatively well, he didn't see huge amounts of potential in what he had been shown.

"But then, once I got really into it and started animating Kratos, I said, 'No, this game could be amazing. This game could be great.' Then I just threw myself into it like crazy," he described. Barlog started becoming involved in every aspect of development, offering opinions and engrossing himself in the work of his colleagues.

"Maybe some people got frustrated with that, but overall it was for the contribution of making the game great," he admitted. "Day one, I was thinking, 'Whatever, I'm on vacation.' Then I stayed all night and animated, and on day two I became this huge proponent of the game."

Barlog began to converse on a regular basis with Jaffe, bouncing ideas back and forth and perhaps unintentionally positing himself as a key member of the design team. "I started talking philosophy with Dave early on," he said, "and I think he dug that. I think he was into my ideas and thought, 'This guy has a good head for this.' When the time came for the transition, he was 100% behind me."

When I observed that even from Barlog's own recollection of the events, his ascension to director would have seemed like a given, he remained modest. "Yeah, I guess," he replied. "But still, I asked, 'Are you kidding?'"

Turn the page for Cory Barlog's thoughts on the PS2 hardware, David Jaffe, and developing for Sony.

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PlayStation 2 is generally acknowledged to be the least powerful of the three home consoles of its generation, but it has also been by an enormous margin the most successful. Along with that success has come continual pushing of the technical envelope to the point where developers are now crafting games on the system that would have seemed graphically far out of its league a few years back. God of War was lauded for, among other things, being one such a title, and the sequel pushes the six year old machine even harder. Was there anything specific that afforded the team that kind of efficiency?

"Foolishness was most of it," said Barlog frankly, adding that the team would simply think of something to implement, and decide to do it. "Occasionally, the art director would come to me and say, 'Dude. We can't do this. This is way too big.' Somehow I would convince him--drug him, give him a beer--that this would be possible. He'd walk away saying, 'Did I just agree to do that again? I told him I wasn't going to do it.' But to his credit, he found solutions to problems we thought were unsolvable, where on God of War I we thought, 'This is it. This is the best it gets.'"

As an example of a particularly demanding scene to implement, Barlog described a level comprised of the Titan Atlus, which the player traverses physically and with whom the player then converses. "Stig, the art director, stepped up and did that level. He made it possible. It's that tenacity of saying, 'Well, be damned to everyone who said we can't do it. We can.' I think they like the challenge."

He suggested that his own history on the project may have given him a less tangible benefit in taking the game farther than its predecessor. "Having come up from the team, I worked side by side with these guys and I sort of have a strong relationship with them," he said. "We push each other. I'm able to probably get some things that maybe Dave wasn't able to get, simply because I have a stronger rapport with them and they're maybe willing to go a little bit further."

Still, despite how frequently he and his team are cited as delivering the last big push for Sony's second game console, Barlog is reluctant to consider God of War II the last great PlayStation 2 game. "I don't want to say 'This is the best it gets' at this end of this one, because you know somebody's going to come up with something that's going to make you go, 'Oh my God, where did this come from?'" he said. Not that he would turn down that kind of legacy: "Don't get me wrong. I would love to be the last great PS2 game. I would love it."

Barlog stated, frankly, that it can be intimidating working on a platform like the PlayStation 2, while most of the attention in the gaming world is focused on the three console manufacturers' new machines.

"It's scary, man. We're trying to take on the Goliath right now as far as garnering attention," he pointed out. "But, when I really step back and think about it, we're in the gaming industry and good games speak for themselves. It doesn't matter what you make it for. You could make a good game for the Vectrex, for God's sake. That's all that matters. It doesn't matter what the platform is; it doesn't matter what the hardware wars are. Make a cool game, and you're going to get attention."

Speaking of down and dirty development, Barlog did not completely abandon his former role of animator, though many of his days were booked solid with design meetings.

"I actually did animate a few characters," he said. "I animated the rock creature, the rock Minotaur that Kratos jumps all over. We were going to have to cut that, so I said, 'Screw it. I'll do it.'"

He worked late through a weekend to get the monster in, but his time spent in a design role had caught up to him. "I hadn't animated in seven or eight months. I was out of the game. That is not like riding a bike," he laughed. "It definitely showed. It looked all right, but I had to have some actual animators--the real guys--come back in and clean it up a little bit. It looked pretty bad. I was definitely disappointed in what I had done, but it was fun. The team was pretty into it. The animators thought it was awesome that [I] rolled up [my] sleeves and stepped in when it needed to get done."

Despite his career history and his occasional moonlighting as a "real" animator on God of War II, Barlog plans to keep his career focused on the design side of development going forward.

"It's a great role," he said. "I'm a storyteller by heart. I love to tell stories. Being in a position where I can tell a story, and craft the entire game the way I want it to be told--I'm set. The only other thing higher than this for me is to go direct some movies. I'd go do that, but beyond that I'd stay in this job. It's brilliant."

The previous--and first--man to hold Barlog's position on the God of War series, David Jaffe, remains firmly associated with the games in the public eye, with many unaware that Jaffe has passed on his director position within the franchise. Barlog gave his thoughts on the man, who seems, at least as much as is possible in the video game industry, to have become larger than life.

"That guy is a character, man. He's his own...thing. His own man, with the crazy talking thing he does," Barlog laughed. "And that's awesome; it's his personality. He and I are totally different. I talk sometimes as well. Maybe not as frequently as he does."

What about dealing with the rather sizeable legacy left with God of War?

"I don't think I've stepped out of Jaffe's shadow yet," Barlog reflected. "People still say, 'God of War II, man! It looks awesome, Jaffe. Jaffe, You did a great job.' They're like, 'Jaffe, have my children!' I'm still in that shadow, and I don't think I'll be out of it for a while."

And is that okay with him?

"It's fine," he answered. "To me, it's the work that speaks. It's a little bit of a bummer sometimes for somebody to say, 'Jaffe, great job on the game.' I say, 'Hey, the team made the game.' I work on writing the game and all that stuff, but they're the ones who make it. They're the ones who bleed for this, they're the ones whose passion pushes them into the wee hours of the morning, into the brink of divorce--into the neglect of their children, for God's sake."

Once again, as he had already done several times, Barlog brought the topic of conversation back to the team. Speaking more on the development process, he was sure to note that Sony management gives developers a high degree of freedom to speak their minds--which explains a lot about Jaffe's habits ("He says 'fuck' a lot," pointed out Barlog). Might this mentality imply a broader type of freedom extending to overall development decisions? Since the PlayStation era, Sony's first party lineup has been noticeably improving, with the company's studios seeming to truly come into their own during the PlayStation 2 years. In late 2005, first party dev houses were reorganized as SCE Worldwide Studios in order to better orchestrate development. I asked Barlog to speak on his experiences working as an internal Sony developer.

"I've worked for so many companies where producers and executives are coming in and telling you how to make this game and how to design it, or how to animate something," he recalled. "Those people are boardroom people. That's cool, it's what they do, but I don't go to the boardroom and tell them how to write a deal, and I don't think they should be running in and telling developers how to make a game on a play by play basis.

"These guys don't mess around with that. They say, 'We're going to support you 100% on how to make this game.' They unequivocally back that. That's why God of War is what it is. It was a massive risk--a massive risk--but they believed in what Jaffe was pushing. It was an IP that was unproven, in a genre that doesn't necessarily always sell that great. We were spending a lot of money, but it could have been a colossal flop. Then with the second one, it's really big, and they're putting a guy in charge who has never done this before. They're all about risk. They love walking on the edge, but it pays off. Even under the fire we're taking right now--it's so fashionable to hate Sony."

Speaking of that fire, is it indicative of strategic errors or is it just an issue of perception? Barlog pointed to the well received announcements of PlayStation 3 Home and Media Molecule's LittleBigPlanet (PS3) during last week's Game Developers Conference as evidence that the wind is already changing.

"It's just the beginning. It's the console war. Everybody needs a bad guy," he sighed. "[Sony is] forward thinking. They're thinking about their hardware as being long lasting, not just fashionable for the first six months. It's powerful, so it's difficult. Look at the PS2, the PS1. We're gamers. The people who work at this company are gamers. We know what we're doing. It'll pass."

Going back to those unsung developers toiling away on underappreciated games such as, say, Barbie Horse Adventures, Barlog has some advice: keep at it. "Little do they know, it's become a cult classic, so they should have been excited to work on it," he said. "If I ever meet anybody who's on that team, I am going to be so stoked. Oh my God. They are going to sign my chest. Then I would never shower forever, so maybe I'll just do a t-shirt. Or a tattoo. Oh my God. That would be so awesome. That would be the best old school cred you could ever have, to have the lead designer of Barbie Horse Adventures tattooed on your arm."