Monday, August 11, 2014

Interview with Peter Lavoie "Pyzerius" Massicotte

I give the interview with a true "working class hero", a man that co-created much of the most enoyed content and AOC (and never truely got a credit for doing so) . He is currently tinkering with class balance changes on TL server.

1/ You have showed up on TL forum around the time Cirith left for break so please tell us: have you locked him in a deep dungeon (Scarlet Citadel style) and took his place or perhaps you got your developer position in a much less sinister circumstances? How did you end up on AOC team?

I've known since I was about 7 years old that I wanted to design games, but never thought a career in game design was attainable or possible.

In 2006, I began my career in the industry, starting as a QA tester. I further specialized my talents by learning and becoming a certification tester for the three major console companies, as well as serving as a French localization tester.

When Funcom opened up in Montreal, I switched over with the intention of trying to make my way into the development team. I subbed to Age of Conan immediately to get a sense of what the game was about. I remember my first go through Tortage, the music, (Knut is a genius imho), the ambience...I was hooked. I would go on from there to level every class to 80 to really experience my options, (having been an MMO veteran, this is typically how I approach MMOs). After 4 months of QA at Funcom, I applied to become a designer and got the position. Thus, I began my journey as a content designer for Age of Conan, back in 2010. I was ecstatic!

My first assignment was to create a solo dungeon in Kara Korum, so I designed and implemented Refuge of the Apostate. From there, I moved on to group and raid designs, working on dungeons such as The Vile Nativity, Temple of Erlik, Jade Citadel and Sepulcher of the Wyrm. Cirith and I became fast friends during this process, (as we worked together on these dungeons), eventually going on to becoming roommates. I even had the honor of being co-best man at his wedding! 

I was also tasked with the responsibility of handling the changes to Thoth-Amon's Stronghold and Amphitheatre of Karutonia (normal and unchained).

There was a period of about 18 months or so where I was not present on Age of Conan. I won't go into too many details as I don't want to bore anyone, but I had a nervous breakdown. I have always had to deal with depression and anxiety disorders my whole life and in the years I spent in the gaming industry trying to get noticed, I pushed myself physically and mentally beyond my limits for too long, which ended up in a crash. After lots of therapy and rest, (during which Funcom was infinitely patient and understanding), I am back with a vengeance and ready to tackle whatever needs to be done to continue enriching Age of Conan!

Just so happens that Cirith was getting married and going off on a honeymoon adventure, so I picked up some of the stuff he wanted done while he was gone. He's back now, 100% more married than ever. (Age of Cirith: Chained)

2/ Please explain, and in details too, what is exactly that you do as a developer? Most of us have a very vague idea how the content for the game is made. Lets say you need to develop a dungeon. What tools and assets do you use? Do you have complete creative freedom or do you follow some kind of rough draft of a dungeon? 

- First thing we do is decide what the design goals of the dungeon will be . This acts as a sort of foundation for the whole dungeon, something we can come back to for inspiration on spells, NPCs, etc... It also helps keep the entire dungeon cohesive. During this step, we will decide the basic level design, (layout).

- After the design goals have been decided, we then move on to the concepting phase. Here we will decide how many bosses we'll have and begin a writeup on their design. For the concepting phase, we normally don't decide numbers, just a rough draft of how we want the fights to work and which of our core design pillars we’ll be trying to hit and how. We begin documentation at this point, and once we're happy with our concept, we send it off for approval, (it normally bounces back and forth a few times before both the designer and lead are happy with it). We don't have 'complete' creative freedom, but we have a huge amount of creative freedom, which makes Funcom a lot more interesting to me than some other studios in the area.

- Once the concept is done, we begin the design. This is where we cement things in our documentation to have a guide to follow when implementing things; this is always written and considered from the players’ perspective with the sort of experiences they will encounter at the forefront. Around this point is where we see if we need to request new art assets or whether we can use existing ones. 

- Next is the implementation phase. This is probably the longest phase, as we now have to "make" everything we whipped up with our imaginations in the concept/design phase. We have many tools at our disposal to help us with this, but I can’t go into much detail as they are largely proprietary. Now we can start scripting logic and prototyping mechanics alongside abilities to see how they play out in reality rather than just in theory.

Moving on to particle effects is a logical next step, since they are tied to the spells we just made, so we'll decide on spell visuals with special attention paid to what we need to communicate through visuals. For this step, we either use existing particles if they fit nicely, or create new ones if we can't find a particle that does exactly what we want it to do. Soon after, we create every NPC needed for the dungeon and decide what armor they should wear, what race they will be, etc... The World Designer will be working on the physical dungeon, and once they have a version of it ready to use, this is usually in grey box format to start so that we can test mechanics in the ‘correct’ space as soon as possible. 
These steps are usually cyclical in nature, so we constantly shift from one to another and come back to each several times until the dungeon is ready for testlive. This iterative approach to design is pretty important to how we work and allows us to adapt the original concept as we play through the mechanics and later after we start getting player feedback.

3/ Can you share some details how the class are adjusted during the struggle to balance the game? Again many of us think that the developers haphazardly mix a bunch of nonsense together and call it a day. Pure math and number crunching, player feedback, statistics and developer’s own experience with certain class – how are those used in the process?

The first step is to address the problem at hand or the outline the goal we want to achieve. For example in the current iterations you are seeing the goals are two fold, firstly continuing with the class re-balancing that kicked off in the last patch and secondly highlighting key feats which are undesirable or largely avoided by players and reworking them into something which is at least an interesting option. Of course time factors for the patch are a consideration in what we are able to do too.
The next step we took in this case is to go through thread after thread on the forums and start compiling a list of sane suggestions and valid problems for each class and the game as a whole.

Once we've formed a list, we begin research, testing and documenting on the shortlisted changes so that we can highlight the problem and then think about possible solutions. Once we have a bigger picture after looking into every item on the list, we consider how much of an impact making these changes will have on the game, (ie. if they are particularly skewed toward one class/archetype, whether adding any of these suggestions will make other classes feel less useful, etc..). If we have ideas for some changes that we have wanted to make for a while, we normally throw them in this list too.

Next would be patching out a rough draft of our work, essentially paper prototyping the changes. This process means reading through a lot of feedback and making tweaks where necessary. Here's where it's easy to get trapped, because the player feedback is easy to drown in. We have to make sure that we keep a level head and use our research to make informed decisions, and not just implement everything we see on the forum. There's not much more to it than that, we just bounce between prototyping, feedback, tweaking & balancing until it's ready for live!

I think the most frustrating thing about class balancing is the feeling that we will never be truly satisfied. For example, the latest class balancing, Cirith gave me a list of 10-12 things to change. Since he was on vacation and I was inspired, I went a little nuts and added a lot to it. We've now reached the point where we want to patch it out and where I am needed elsewhere, but I feel like there is so much more I can do! But this is why we want to keep these class tweaks coming in future patches, its easier for us to balance in batches and we can then gradually gauge the state of the game and that provides a spring board for the next set of tweaks.

4/ You have developed Refuge of the Apostate solo dungeon which, at that time, was a pretty unique in AOC (compared to old, boring Villas in Noble District). Where did you get the ideas and inspirations for this dungeon? The maze/puzzle part of the dungeon reminds me of old school Tomb Rider and the “nightmare” sequence looks a lot like Max Payne 1. Am I on to something or did you have something totally different on your mind?

 For Refuge, I wanted to bring a console-like experience to our MMO. It was something that I felt was lacking from the MMO genre in general, and since I had an opportunity, I decided to go for it and try for something different that AoC players had not necessarily experienced in our game. Since Refuge was going to be a solo experience, we had a little more freedom than in group or raid dungeons where there are many unpredictable variables, (players). 

I had just finished Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light and was nuts about it, so the maze area was fueled largely by that. I won't lie, getting that aspect of the dungeon functional was probably the longest and most difficult task of all of Refuge, but I am happy with how it turned out. As for the nightmare sequence, both the artist and myself loved the Scarecrow sequences in Batman: Arkham Asylum so we used that as inspiration, (the artist even threw a "scarecrow" straw dummy in one of the prison cells in the nightmare realm if you look closely). The nightmare realm itself is just the boss room of the actual dungeon broken up into several pieces to make a new, creepy version of that boss room.

Fun Fact: The Tian-bai in the nightmare realm is actually the largest NPC we have ever put in the game, (take that Frost Father!)

5/ How much of a lore fan are you? Is Hyboria just a setting for MMO you are working on or is it something that you are passionate about? When designing new content do you pay close attention to making it “in line” with lore, or is it something that you leave to the writers and artists?

We are all lore fans here on the AoC team! I don't think there is a single person who was not read every Howard story. When making new things, keeping the setting in mind has always been important. Sometimes we stray a little from the setting, but it's normally to offer players something fresh, or something that will improve their quality of life, (therefore, something mechanically fresh that adds a lot to the game but does not necessarily fit with lore. A good example would be the plethora of exotic mounts. There's only so many types of horses we can make.) Its inevitable any individual/company inheriting a licence will take a little bit of artistic freedom, but the essence of Howard’s world is always in our minds.

6/ If you can share this: how much server wider stats are available to the developers? Characters made, resources gathered, gold acquired, most kills by class, most deaths by class, most crafted item, most popular dungeons, bosses killed most oftne…. Most of us drool at the thought of having those stats to win forum arguments. In all seriousness thou: are stats important in day-to-day development, or perhaps they are just a tool used to monitor for very very serious issues?

The database contains a vast amount of information which can be cross referenced to aid in the solutions to many problems, however data can only really prove so much and should never be the only tool or factor in determining the solution to any problem. Something we added recently for example was zone traffic information to see where players are going and when, its some very interesting reading, especially during World Boss and PvP Festival weeks.


YD Wes said...

Thanks for another great interview!

Anonymous said...

Yeah another great interview. Love every one of them.

Please continue ^^

Anonymous said...

Great work Slith :)