Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Interview with Matt 'Cirith Gorgor” Bennett

The man who won over PVP crowd's hearts took his time off making even more awesome changes to talk to me about few things regarding Age of Conan:

1/ First thing first: who the hell are you? Ever since you have popped on the forums people have been speculating whether you are completely new dev or someone promoted from within the company.

I'm originally from the UK, which I'm saying so that it will explain my spelling for the rest of this article, but I'm not new to the company. I've been with Funcom since 2009 and for the majority of that time I have been a part of the AoC project.
I joined the company over in Oslo as an 'AI Designer' for the Rise of the Godslayer expansion, which is one of those professions which always seemed to get missed out in previous dev team profiles. Really the position was a cross between dedicated scripter and gameplay designer. 
While I worked on quests, outdoor events, the mini-encounters between Khemi and Gateway to Khitai and visual effects; my main focus was on Dungeon and Raid encounters where I had a hand in pretty much every dungeon/raid that launched with Rise of the Godslayer.
Shortly after launch the AoC project moved from frozen Oslo to equally frozen Montreal and after that move I gained senior responsibilities and ran the content approval process for PvE content. While directly working on Ai District, Vile Nativity, Threshold of Divinity, (my particular favourite being the internally named 'Riddle of the Ziggurat'), Jade Citadel (Imp -> Emperor), Temple of Erlik, the Isle of Iron Statues and a starting point of several Dragonspine instances.
After a bit of time off the project to help out with TSW launch and on another new start-up (which has since moved elsewhere) I returned to the AoC team around a year ago and from there you are probably a bit more aware of what I've been up to.

2/ In recent weeks you have been posting a lot of stuff on forums and even used the community feedback to directly adjust certain aspects of the content. Care to explain this different approach?

Well since coming back, I've inherited a lot more responsibilities within the game, partly due to the team size and structure and partly due to good faith from my superiors. So since being given these greatly increased responsibilities I've decided to step up to the plate and take more initiatives. We have a really knowledgeable and passionate community and so I decided I wanted to utilise that more than I have done in the past and I also accept gaps in my own expertise which with careful analysis of player feedback I am able to fill. 
I also really think that game communities deserves to have their collective voice's heard and give feedback which will be taken into genuine consideration about where the game will go, especially in a subscription oriented game and I'm really happy with how this is playing out at the moment and I really do hope the community is feeling like their voice is being heard.
I personally think that my best decision as a designer has been to start the initiative to become more transparent with the community and receptive to feedback.

3/ What exacly are Senior Designer's responsibilities in Age of Conan? Are you switching between TSW and AOC development are are you solely dedicated to AOC?

Well technically I'm actually Lead Content Designer but Senior Designer is more understandable on the forums.
Honestly my responsibilities range anywhere from AI / puzzle scripting of PvE encounters and making visual effects to working with the Game Director on new 'seasonal' events and setting out visions and implementing the stats for new items.
Its also the responsibility of a senior or lead to pass on their experiences and training methods to those under them in the team hierarchy.
And yes my responsibilities at the moment are totally dedicated towards AoC.

4/ How are you handling the itemization process? How all those numbers, budgets and power scales come together in order to create perfect item? Do you have working knowledge of all the classes in game or is it pure math?

While I have played all classes and of course have knowledge of them I certainly wouldn't claim to be an expert on all of them, that would really be a full time task.
In terms of gear though the first step is to really have a vision (which might well change after further evaluation and feedback) of what a specific gear set / weapon / potion / tier of items is intended to achieve both long-term and short-term. When that's in place we have tools which do a lot of the maths for us but going through the process item by item can still be a pretty time consuming task.
Along with the gear we also need to think about the acquisition of the items, be that in terms of a price point or more likely in terms of how long will it take to be acquired and then balancing of motivation to acquire a particular item versus potentially frustration that could be generated as part of that acquisition system.

5/ When it comes to AI and scripting how do you balance "fun" and "difficulty level" on the bosses? Do you have rough idea how the fight should look like and build around it or is it more trial and error process and nothing about the dungeon is set in stone?

Usually we have a rough narrative direction for an instance, usually related to the playfield that the instance is a part of. The important part here is that the narrative is flexible so that an instance is not restricted by story rather the story is influenced by the instance, that way fun and the player experience comes first.
The next step is then to determine what the player experience inside the instance will be, there might be outside influences which effect this, such as the difficulty tier, links to systems or underused/new mechanics. Then we will try and map that player experience onto the narrative outline to get a high level idea of what we want to achieve.
Then we'll go low level and look at individual encounters/puzzles. Encounters are always designed from a player's perspective and with player experiences in mind; myself, I have a list of elements which I try to incorporate as much as possible in some way into anything I design. Without wanting to go into massive amounts of detail those elements are at a high-level:
Player Control (Agency)
Environmental Interaction
Epic (memorable moments)
Making Failing Fun
Puzzle Element (only really relevant for raids)
The most important step in design though is to get something playable as soon as possible and iterate over it; its very very rare that the initial concept will prove to be the final concept, and the same really goes for anything design related.

In terms of match difficulty against fun factor that's actually really tricky. We have to accept that for some players fun and difficulty are mutually exclusive, but this is where Unchained Modes are the longer term solution. 
Something else we have to accept is that for a lot of people there is the 'path of least resistance' or in other words the easiest route to achieve progression. In almost all cases this means doing the easiest content at a given difficulty tier rather than what would be most fun. Now the solution we have at the moment for this is what you have seen recently with the quests that give out big rewards for completing broader brackets of content and that's probably something we'll look at expanding in the future.

6/ It seems unlikely that Age of Conan will ever have more classes or rised level cap above 80. How do you see future progression and character development for the years to come? Is it important from your point of view?

I can't really speak to much about it until things are set in stone otherwise its going to cause an inevitable amount of backlash if those plans have to change for whatever reason. What I can say though is that it will be hard for there to be much more vertical progression, at least without completely separating PvE and PvP in terms of stat gains. However that does not mean there will be no progression there is a lot we can still do with horizontal progression and there is certainly a very good precedence for almost purely vanity based progression being viable if you look at games like Guild Wars 1, especially in PvP.

7/ With the world bosses and new questing system Age of Conan is taking a turn for more dynamic content. Is it conscious change in the direction or just 2 content additions that just have same idea behind them?

Yeah absolutely its a conscious decision. Its no particular secret that the team is much smaller than before and resources are at a premium. Therefore as designers we need to be as smart as possible when we are creating new content and make sure it is as sustainable long term as possible, without becoming tedious or stale of course, dynamic content using existing world locations (which are really nice to visit again too) achieves those goals pretty well. We also have to look at the direction the MMO industry is going in at the moment and for a large part of it that is with more dynamic content.

8/ You nick "Cirith Gorgor" suggest that you are Tolkien fan. How about Conan lore? Are you into REH's writings or are you just fantasy fan in general?

Very astute, for those that don't know Cirith Gorgor is the point where the Black Gate separates Mordor from the rest of middle earth. On the whole I'm actually more of a low fantasy guy, which puts things like Song of Ice and Fire and the world of Hyboria right up my street. One of my favourite experiences as a designer on the project was trying to recreate the experiences that Conan himself had when venturing onto the Isle of Iron Statues in the “Shadows in the moonlight” story. My absolute favorite Conan story however is the Scarlet Citadel, Tsotha-lanti is such a bad ass, and I'd love to be able to make this place a reality in a content patch; but that's just a pipe dream of my own.

9/ You singlehandedly made more changes to pvp in couple of weeks than whole team did in couple of years. Why would PVE dev dabble with PVP at all?

Well I'm not going to comment on past focuses because that wouldn't be fair; but I would like to point out that in no way was that ever related to game direction. 
Both myself, the current Game Director and Producer agree that we really need to do more for PvP in the game. Ok so I'll be honest PvP is a bit of a scary prospect for someone who has previously specialised entirely on PvE but I guess you could call it a new year's resolution of sorts. I had a bit of down time to think about ways we can give something to the PvP community without breaking the bank in the terms of new resources, particularly code related; and well the results of this is what you are starting to see gradually making its way towards the live servers.
I'm pretty pleased with the progress that has been made so far and I'm really looking forward to the potential prospects we have with open-world questing.

10/ How does it feel to be first just an AOC player and then actually to join the development of AOC? 

Yeah so I started out as a player on the old Ymir EU server not long after launch. As a recent graduate of a game related degree course back in the UK I was constantly on the lookout for positions opening up and then I saw 'Quest Designers' pop up on the Funcom website. I immediately thought this is the job for me and sent off my CV and got a test back from Funcom. I spent a full week fine tuning that test and sent it back, I heard back a few weeks later finding out my application had been unsuccessful, I was absolutely 'gutted'.
But persistence can pay off and later that year the AI scripter position opened up and this time I was able to see out my dream of joining an MMO dev team.
Its pretty crazy making that first step from player to designer; but its also a pretty important step for an MMO live environment dev as you have to be able to think like a player and have experiences you can relate to.


Murddock said...

Nice interview! Was glad that you got the Tolkien question in there!

Anonymous said...

Nice work Slith, really like these interviews :)

Slith said...

thanks guys, more coming in the future :)

Anonymous said...