July 7, 2008

Little Jimmy in Iowa

I recently went back home to Ohio to see my cousin graduate from High School. The trip was a quick 4-day stay full of family and friends that felt long over due, there’s just something about Ohio in the summer.

Anyhow, there was this graduation party for my cousin and her boyfriend where they told me one of their friends was really excited that I was coming because he loved the God of War series. Now I am not one for attention of any sort so I was feeling a little awkward about the whole encounter, luckily there was this amazing graduation cake there which I had 5 to 12 pieces of to ease my mind. Then out of nowhere my cousin taps me on the shoulder and says, “there he is, be ready”. The kid wanders around for a good hour before coming over to say “hey, don’t want to take too much of your time but I love the games and thank you”. I am like hey thanks, no problem, glad you liked them etc… and he starts to walk away.

Suddenly I get this flash back to a late night on God of War where Dave, Derek, and I are working on some battle tuning and Dave gets all pissed shouting “Little Jimmy in Iowa will fucking hate this”. It’s late mind you and everyone is on edge and we are like what in the hell is he going on about now. After a few minutes we get it and remember what it is like to be playing a game that feels like it was made just for you, the little guy out there bored and looking to be entertained. Dave wanted God of War to fulfill the promise of being made just for you, not for designers who think they are cool and clever, but a game made for that monster hiding inside all of us. So that became a motto for the team and one that you will still hear at Santa Monica Studios. No doubt David Jaffe has instilled this idea into the people at Eat Sleep Play for his upcoming projects. Hell, I made sure to pass it along to the Ready at Dawn team when I started working with them on Chains of Olympus. I am sure Derek Daniels has passed it on to the many teams he comes in contact with over at Activision. Even our good friend David Sirlin has adopted the phrase in a few blog comment posts and other media. It’s that good and everyone can get behind it and run with it, think of it as Babel Fish for ideas that will resonate with the masses!

Side story – example: I remember when Dave first showed me all the things that were unlocked when you finished the game for the first time, I was like AWESOME, I love that so much is unlocked at once… he goes “Really, not too much” to which I reply no way! A few days later some decisions were made about this and that with regards to the unlocking which significantly decreased what was unlocked that bummed me out. Well, when Dave saw this he threw a fit (rightfully so in this case) and said “If this is not fixed we will not get that AWESOME face lighting up that Eric had when Little Jimmy in Iowa finishes the game for the first time”. Of course it was fixed and the tradition of unlocking lots on first finish was echoed in all other GoW titles.

Sometimes a simple motto is all the team needs to drive the soul of the game home no matter if it is a puzzle, boss fight, or the reward for finishing the game. I believe “Little Jimmy in Iowa” became a decision-making filter for the intangible and incompressible parts of the vision so the game felt cohesive and consistent.

Back to my meeting at the graduation party, as the kid was walking away, I go damn this is living breathing “Little Jimmy in Iowa” or in this case “Not so Little Josh in Ohio”. I stop Josh and say hey what are you going to school for to which he replies Computers or something. We start chatting about how he might be able to get into games and what to take in college. At the end I was smiling knowing that we hit the mark with our motto and it made me very proud to be a game designer. So this one is for you Josh, take care and hope to see you at the table designing games one day for “Little Jimmy in Iowa”!

p.s. “Little Jimmy in Iowa” used in conversation by Derek Daniels

Mr. Barlog: Haha - of course you didn't get everything that you wanted (and for the record neither did El Jeffe) it was an exaggeration to get a point across. Your job (or anyone doing your job) is to push the team to get the most out of them and to do what is best for the game. Your job's #1 priority should always be about the game (aka little jimmy in Iowa). The producer's job should be able to figure out how to get that done without killing the team.

p.p.s. Just think it could have been you Missouri, you’re in the middle too.


omar kendall said...

I actually had a little jimmy quasi-moment just recently, but not a positive one. Stephanie's nephews were in town a couple of weeks ago (they're young - maybe 10 and 6), and they know I make games. They were like, "hey, you worked on Gun right? Can you help us with this one part?"

My first thought was wow, these kids play Gun? That game is not for kids! My subsequent thoughts were about which part in Gun they might be stuck on. The last boss sprung to mind, as he is probably one of the worst designed bosses in the history of the world. Of course, there are some other downright tricky parts to that game, including a pretty wonky sneaking mission about 75% of the way in.

So which part did the kids need help on? "How do you win the horse race? We keep playing it and playing it, but we always lose." Horse race? I couldn't even think of a horse race in Gun. Then it hit me - these kids were talking about the 3rd mission in the entire game. You race a guy as part of the horse riding tutorial at the beginning of the freaking game, and these kids (well, hopefully their father) had never gotten past it in all the years they'd had the game. Kind of a bummer.

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