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Develop Live: Meet Our Speakers – Sam Barlow

We speak to the man behind indie hit Her Story ahead of his opening keynote at our October 7th conference

Sam Barlow burst onto the independent scene with his hugely popular and highly unique crime title Her Story – and next month he’ll be sharing more about the game’s development at Develop Live.

Develop Live is the only conference of its type curated and organised by the team behind Develop magazine. 

This year’s event will be rather special, taking place at the world-famous Pinewood Studios and exploring the crossover between games development and film production. Speakers include acclaimed writer Rhianna Pratchett, Her Story creator Sam Barlow, TV director Delyth Thomas, Creative Assembly, and more.

VIP ticket holders will even get an exclusive tour of Pinewood Studios during the conference on October 7th.

For full details and to book your ticket, head to www.develop-live.com.

In the run-up to the conference, we’ll be interviewing each of our speakers, giving you a preview of their talk and delving into their games experience.

Next in this series of interviews is Sam Barlow, best known as the indie developer behind the critically acclaimed Her Story.

Who are you and what do you do?
I’m Sam Barlow. I’m a video game director and writer, based on the South Coast.

What are you working on right now?
I recently released my first independent game, the crime fiction title Her Story (pictured below). So I’m supporting that, getting the word out about the game and speaking with all sorts of people in order to reach different audiences. Next year I’ll start work on the next project, so the earliest ideas for that are percolating through in the background…

What can Develop Live attendees expect from your talk?
They’ll get an insight into the development of Her Story, understand how the game emerged from a lot of up front thinking and research, its emphasis on writing and performance — and how the game that resulted speaks to the importance of using players’ imaginations to drive the experience.

Which of the other Develop Live sessions are you looking forward to?
I’m excited to hear Will Porter talk about Alien: Isolation – interested to hear how their methodologies matched what we did on the Silent Hill series. And it’s always a pleasure to hear Rhianna Pratchett talking, so will be in the front row for that one.

What was the first video game or product you ever worked on in the games industry?
In the industry itself, it was Serious Sam: The Next Encounter – a console spin-off of the popular, cartoony arcade shooter series. I was hired into the art department, but very quickly transitioned over to design because I wouldn’t shut up. The game was pretty good, but it was my first experience of having to sit on my hands and bite my tongue whilst the marketing department named the game.

However, before that I put out the non-commercial text game Aisle, which is still something people download and talk about today — it’s an early experiment in non-linear, sculptural story telling, and shares a lot of DNA with Her Story.

What was the first video game you ever played, and did you enjoy it?
It must have been something in school. I was in a tiny primary school that was somehow part of a pilot scheme for computers in schools. So we had a solitary BBC Micro that we used almost entirely for games — educational games. There was a text game about escaping being stranded on an island; I remember things like Granny’s Garden, all those classic games. We would only get to play on certain days, and slots were shared out amongst the kids so you’d spend a lot of time thinking about the games away from the computer, planning what you were going to do next when your turn came around again.

What was the most recent video game you played, and did you enjoy it?
The last game I played was Duskers, which is in Early Access. It’s a great take on a concept close to my heart – it’s a game where you control drones exploring abandoned spaceships; you order them around with text commands and they relay data back through this grainy schematic kind of view. That level of distance, and the abstraction of it really gives your imagination room to work.

What’s your favourite game of all time, and why?
Probably Infocom’s A Mind Forever Voyaging (box art pictured below)  a science fiction text adventure that was super ambitious. Definitely in terms of its influence on me and how it felt to play at the time. It was an early ‘open world’ game and a pre-cursor to the ‘walking simulator’. You play an AI exploring simulations of this one city, extrapolating how the future is going to look based on predictions. Your job is just to wander around, ‘recording’ everyday life to report back to the scientists who made you. So you’d have to go eat a meal in a restaurant, or buy a newspaper and sit and read it in a park. As you do this, the scientists roll the simulation forward and you see how the city changes over time. Its lack of traditional restrictions and puzzles and the way the gameplay emphasised exploration and observation was a mind-blowing at the time, and still holds up.

How many hours a week do you spend playing video games?
It varies. Some weeks none, and then I’ll get some free time and an interesting title will come up and I’ll sit and play it to the end — I’m a big fan of games that can be finished in a single sitting.

What area of the industry do you think needs more investment?
People need to invest more time in up front thinking, put more emphasis on deep thinking that creates new ideas, new stories that we can explore interactively. The way the business is structured, games get greenlit in an embryonic state and then it’s full steam ahead — a lot gets figured out on the fly and fixed along the way. It limits the depth of the experiences and inhibits more authored experiences. I think an approach where there’s more up front thinking, and a way where we can fund this — like the story-development market in movies — would lead to a better quality and greater breadth of games.

What do you enjoy about the video games industry today?
Things continue to move so fast. The way the digital market works now has enabled things that would have inconceivable less than five years ago. Mobile and handheld, smart TVs… we’re on the brink of inviting in a huge new audience of people to play games. I hope that new audience will bring a fresh perspective that changes the games themselves. 

What disappoints you about the industry today?
The blockbusters suck up so much of the energy and effort in the industry that it distorts things. We should be investing in ‘prestige projects’ that show the world the kinds of authentic, important stories that video games can explore in fresh ways. Other industries seem to do a better job of balancing e.g. their popcorn movies with their Oscar hopefuls and indie films. 

You can find out more about our speakers and book your tickets at www.develop-live.com. 

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