Our next Trading Card Spotlight features Tony Barnes who currently is displayed on card number 3366, from the Superstars of 2020 Collection. Tony has been producing games since 1984, doing everything from art, design, programing and music. He has been instrumental in building ever popular franchise games such as Madden Football, Strider, Star Trek and more. He has worked for leading publishers in the industry like Electronic Arts and Rockstar Games, among others., In 2020 Tony started his own company called Retro Ninja. These will have games that are designed like a modern-day game but have that classic feel to it.
What is your favorite game you have worked on in your career?
Well, so far; that would probably be Strider. When I first played Strider in the arcades, I thought it was an amazing game! The music, the constantly changing venue, the large character that cut through enemies in one slice! It was magical for a teenaged Tony Barnes. I have a “Game Dev Bucket List” and number 3 on the list was, “Make a Strider-like game”. When the opportunity came to actually make “Strider”, I jump on it! I took the bull by the horns and despite interference from the publisher and execs at Double Helix, I think the game turned out great. It’s still one of my favorites.
Do you remember when you created your first video game or arcade and what do you remember about the experience?
I remember, I was 12 years old and they had put Apple II’s in Bay Area schools. At that time, teachers didn’t really know how to integrate the computers into their curriculum, so they just kind of let us do whatever. I was spending most of my time trying to be an animator, but moving pixels was so much faster than stop-motion, so I jumped on the computer.
My first game was essentially an endless runner. You were an ASCII spaceship scrolling through a randomly generated ASCII tunnel. You used the arrow keys to move back and forth and try to stay inside the tunnel. It was exhilarating, not only because I saw something in my head on the screen, but because other kids in the class were enjoying it.
What are your opinions about today’s generation of video games? How do you compare them to older, classic games?
I think today’s generation of video games are largely amazing. There’s such a diverse number of genres, aesthetics and play mechanics. People think today’s games are homogenized, because they only see the loudest games being advertised and they’re quick to put everything into little boxes. But if we don’t romanticize the past and look at it with the same cynical eye, we do current games, we’d say; “there’s only 3 genres! Maze games, shooters and platforms! The industry is creatively bankrupt!”
Modern games are generally really pretty and have a lot of the rough edges smoothed over, making games more accessible. Classic games really focused on mechanics over aesthetics, because you had to.
But don’t get me wrong, I love all games… well, not ALL games… but I love “gaming”, in general, so I think some modern games are way better than classic games and I think many modern games could take a refresher course on what makes a classic a “classic”.
Did you ever think when you were younger you would be on a video game trading card?
Never in a million years. Hell, when I first started, I never thought I’d be making games professionally for 35 years! I was just a kid that loved to play games and loved even more to make them. Franchises? Awards? Getting to work with George Lucas on a Star Wars game? A trading card?!? Never in a million years!
Of the games you have produced, which one was the most challenging and why?
Hmm… that’s a toughie, because out of the 50 or so games I’ve shipped, they’ve almost all been their own little (or big) challenges. Maybe Star Wars Ep3: Revenge of the Sith? It was tough, because I’m a HUGE Star Wars fan. I mean, I’m one of those people who’s seen New Hope well over a thousand times! There was a lot of pressure from every direction and the production wasn’t exactly the smoothest. LucasArts was in turmoil at that time and we were supposed to be co-developing. But they brought in a new suit and he laid off all of their staff and told us he just wanted a shallow game with spectacle and lightsabers, because that’s what would sell. So, we had to retool a lot of the engine for spectacle, enemy numbers, rail-cameras and less robust combat, than we had planned. In addition, the movie was a moving target, constantly changing or getting us materials long after we needed them.
I commend our staff at The Collective and the refugees from LucasArts, because we got that game out in 1 year and it’s pretty fun.
What does it take to be a video game developer, and what advice would you give a person today who would like to get into the industry?
It takes a LOT of hard work, to be a game developer. Making a game is a lot more than just having an idea; it’s having the passion to create that idea from nothing, it’s having the stamina to push through the MANY tough times while making that game, it’s being open to feedback while holding to your vision.
Anyone wanting to get in, should start small. There’s nothing better and more educational than finishing. Going through the entire process will teach you more than watching a tutorial video or talking with your friends about some “magnum opus”. Start with something like Space Invaders or Pac-man. You’d be surprised how complex those games actually are. Also, executing one of those games will show you just how simple a lot of modern games really are.
If you could describe Walter Day in one word, what would that word be and why?
Champion. He’s helps advocate for games, as long as I can remember and has been helping to preserve iconic games and gaming in-general, for a large part of his life.
What is your favorite portable gaming device and why?
I’d say it’s my Nintendo Switch. I actually had sworn off Nintendo, after being burned by multiple consoles from them. You see, when you buy a Nintendo console, you’re really just buying the Mario / Zelda box. No one else ever shows up to meaningfully fill the library, unfortunately. But with the Switch, it’s fantastic! All the games I didn’t get on the WiiU are there, all kinds of great indie games are there and of course great Nintendo 1st-party. And it’s all portable! Actually, my Switch hasn’t been hooked up to the TV for months.
What games today do you play and what are your favorite genres of games?
Nowadays, I play anything that gives me an “old meets new” vibe, which also happen to fall into the genres I like. Destiny, the Darksiders series, Need for Speed, Forza Horizon, anything from Platinum, Housemarque, Joymasher and there’s a Bushiden game that I can’t wait to get my hands on.
Are video games today aimed mainly at children, adolescents or adults?
Here’s something funny… some people call Fortnite “a kids’ game”, in a condescending manner. But Fortnite wasn’t built to be or aimed at “kids”. It just happens to have a younger user-base than say, PUBG, Warzone or Apex. But it’s not like “kids” don’t play the “big boy” games.
Videogames are aimed everyone now. There are adult games that most-certainly shouldn’t be played by children and there’s great “kids” games, too. That’s what’s great about today, there’s something for everyone.
Do you believe some video games are too violent and lead to violence in America today?
Too violent is a relative term and has to do with one’s tolerance. I can remember when the movie Deathwish or Hellraiser were considered “ultra-violent”, almost getting X ratings. Now, they’re played on TV, in the middle of the day. I think, like anything, there are things that may influence certain individuals, but those individuals were going to find their inspiration in anything.
Do you prefer arcade or console gaming and why?
It depends. For the most part, console, because arcades are so few and far between. But I really miss the community and interaction with actual people, at arcades. At arcades, you could play competitive games and not have someone saying vile things to you, because they were actually there! At arcades, you could gather a crowd and hear them. You could FEEL their energy, not just see spam in a chat window. And nothing beats hands-on with an actual pinball machine.
Which company today, in your opinion, makes the best games and why?
That’s a toughie. I think there are a lot of people out there doing good work and there are the “rockstars” (no pun intended) of game dev, whom everyone rallies around, but I dunno… It’s too easy to jump on the “any Sony 1st party” bandwagon, but those games are what I like to call “asset orgies”. You know who I really like? I like Housemarque, because they (used to) make balls-to-the-wall modern retro games. Great old school play-mechanics smoothed out with modern techniques, all wrapped in over-the-top new school visuals.
Do you like it when Hollywood makes a movie from the video game?
Not really… I suppose… I mean, a couple of the Resident Evil movies are entertaining, the Silent Hill thing was okay, the first Mortal Kombat had me juiced coming out of the theater, but it hasn’t aged well. I don’t know… The thing about video games to movies is that most game plots are derivative of movies to begin with. So, you end up with this cannibalistic incredibly derivative thing, because the real “storytelling” in games is what YOU do. It’s not a passive medium and that’s what makes it great.
Who is your favorite video game character of all time and what makes that character special?
I would say, Cayde-6 from Destiny, but you said “of all time”, so I’ll have to go with, X from the Megaman-X series. He’s like the more fleshed out version of Strider Hiryu.
Are you still involved with gaming today, and what role do you play?
Yes, I’m still rather active in the industry, to this day. Up until late last year (2019), I was working for Amazon on some interesting projects, but they weren’t the kind of things I wanted to do at this point in my career. So, in 2020, I started my own company, Retro Ninja. At Retro Ninja, I’m back to being a wearer-of-many-hats, a solo dev if you will. I’m working on games, that are modern but have that classic feel. Games where the mechanics are front and center, because those are the games, I grew up playing, the games I grew up making and the games I’m attracted to playing even now.
Where do you see video gaming in the next 20 years?
I see an increase in the stratification that’s going on right now. I see “AAA” continuing to throw resources at the screen and adding A’s at the end of the “A” moniker, while “indie” will continue to evolve games into hybrid genres and remixed versions of old. Gaming will continue to become more mainstream and ubiquitous throughout our society. It’s very exciting.