Friday, August 2, 2013

Interview with Craig Morrison

Craig "Silirrion" Morrison, movie buff, twitter enthusiast and former Game Director for the Age of Conan took his time to answer few questions about his day-to-day routines in MMO development.

What does Game Director do on a daily basis? Let's say that it's Monday morning, you have your cup of coffee steaming and now what?

I think it’s important to note up front that my personal role changed a lot over the years, and there was a reason I also had the various production titles down the years, first as Producer, then Executive Producer, and ultimately as the Creative Director for the Montreal studio, so my days could be very different from what they were like when I first started out as a Game Director on Anarchy Online.

There were there though certain elements of my days that were pretty consistent and tied to how I approached the positions I had.

I was pretty much an early bird, and liked to get into the office relatively early most of the time. When I first got in I tried to spend an hour or so just browsing industry news and information. I had a list of websites that I worked through to keep up to date, from the MMO specific sites like Massively and through industry sites like Gamasutra and to the more general gaming sites like IGN, Kotaku, Eurogamer, Rock Paper Shotgun, and a lastly a few more pop culture centric sites to keep up to date with the other creative industries. IO9 is a particular favourite. It might not sound important, but I always feel that it’s important to know your industry as well as you can, even the stuff that doesn’t always naturally interest you specifically.  

Then I’d start with my mail; I could easily be accused of being a little OCD when it comes to a clean and organised inbox, and so anything urgent would be dealt with first thing. Check there were no new fires burning! That would lead me to the stats, as I would get three specific overnight reports that I checked every morning.

There would be one on server activity, how many players logged in, hours played, class breakdown, level breakdown, activity levels by server etc, this would quickly show me if anything worth investigating was going on that we weren’t expecting. Then there would also be a report from the billing and customer service side of things, which showed payment info and stuff like that, it could also flag stuff up that needed looking into.

Lastly there were the shift reports from the QA and customer service departments. The QA report would give the status of their testing on whatever builds they were currently working on, while the CS folk would provide an overview of the issues that affected customers on the live servers.

Then I would try and spend an hour or so going through the various forums for the games, and some external ones. It was almost important for me to keep up to date with what the voices in the community were saying.

We used a task management system called JIRA, and our awesome project managers had a suite of reports that gave me an overview of progress and where we were at with things. I would go through the top level reports each morning and make sure I didn’t see anything that alarmed me.

I would chat with the producers for a bit, make sure there were no major problems they needed help with. We would go over anything they wanted to discuss, or just wanted some feedback on, or if I needed anything looked into based on what had cropped up in the reports etc.

That would generally take you through the morning and then the afternoons could be anything! With such a changing role there were any numbers of meetings that might occur, anything from the hiring process, through meetings with Marketing or management, to content reviews, design meetings, or meetings with partners or external folk.  

Generally I talked with people, but if that sounds banal, I’m kind of underselling it. A lack of communication, or miscommunication, is usually the root cause of many of the challenges you face in game development with a large or medium sized team, so the talking becomes important. Whether it’s just chatting to the team to see progress or making sure people are talking to the people they need to be talking to, often nothing beats just having that extra conversation. It can save you a lot of time down the line!

How much creativity is there is in Game Directors daily routine? Do you design anything? Have a lot of meetings with the members of the team to see what have they come up with? Do you give the team a general idea for the new content or are you reviewing their plans?

I think that depends on the person, and the team. When I was first a Game Director on Anarchy Online we were a small team, so it was very creative and very collaborative and we all had to pitch in. We were only four or five people on the game design side, so it was very organic and we were all involved because we were all talking together pretty much all the time. I guess I was ‘in charge’, but to be honest it never felt like that, we were an awesome little team, and I really enjoyed that environment. Everyone on that team was experienced and knew what they were doing, so we rarely had much conflict outside of the normal creative discussions. 

That’s simply not possible on a larger team, so working on Age of Conan was a very different challenge. The team was close to two hundred people when I took over, and even years later, prior to the time they downsized all the teams earlier this year, there were still thirty people directly on the development team.

It’s the hardest part of transitioning to more of an executive role. Is coping with the realization that you can’t do everything yourself anymore, and worse, you absolutely shouldn’t, because it’s generally not conducive to keeping a happy team.

It also depends on the person I guess. Some Game Directors are more hands on than others. While some like to micro manage more, others prefer to take more of a behind the scenes role.

Personally I like to get a bit metaphorical and compare it to the role of the pilot that joins a ship to see it through a river channel or a dock. The team are the ship and the producers the captain, the Director or Executive producer is not there to tell them how to run the ship, but we are there to point out where the rocks are and where they need to get to. I have found the best balance for me results in that kind of a guiding role.

So we would be the ones laying out the intentions, drawing the box as it were, and then it would be about trusting the team and empowering the team to fill the box with the content. If your systems, tools, and general directions are understood by the team then they can usually work some magic when allowed to really own, and take responsibility, for their own content. I’ll always prefer that to designers feeling like they are just peons rigidly implementing someone else’s ideas. You will almost always get better content out of happy, inspired designers.

That’s not to say they are left to their own devices completely, we would review the content as it went along (and the producers and lead designers do a lot of that), and I made sure to play through everything before it went live, both on internal builds, and more importantly on the test servers, as there I could also do it with real players.

Generally however, as long as the set-up and briefings were done right, we didn’t run into too many problems with people going ‘off the reservation’ as it were. The team knew what was required of them, and went at it. The challenges were usually more likely to be implementation issues, or trying to push the tools a little too far! When you have creative people they are always looking to push the boundaries of what is possible with their tools, especially as they get more experienced, so sometimes you have to balance ambition against the time available for a particular piece of content.

If you could make one more add-on for AOC is there a particular   REH story that you would want to explore?

The original team had already tackled one of my favourites in ‘The Frost-Giant’s Daughter” and in some ways it was hard because of when in Conan’s timeline the game was set, after Hour of the Dragon. That limited some of the direct implementations we could do. So we had to get creative, as we did with ‘Shadows in the Moonlight” for example, I loved what the team did with that one, and see the players revisiting one of Conan’s adventures years later.

Personally, I would have loved to have found a way to explore the great barbarian’s pirate years and his time with BĂȘlit, in “Queen of the Black Coast”. That was one of the first Conan stories I read, and I always liked it. The main issue was that it risked feeling a little like we were retreading Tortage, and the timing just never seemed to work out to do something there. I would have loved to do something with it, in particular as Dark Horse did such a great job with the comic adaptation last year.

What tools did you use to keep tabs on Age of Conan project? I imagine there was a lot of things to track of.

As I mentioned earlier we used a reworked version of a tool called JIRA for our task management. There were also the reports I mentioned earlier, I tried to keep constant tabs on what was going on with the game. There is a lot going on, and a lot of teams interacting, so keeping track of things becomes very important.

What is the toughest part of being GD and what is the most satisfying about it?
The toughest part is always having to play the bad guy. Even under the best circumstances you invariably have to say ‘No’ far, far more often than you say ‘Yes’. With so many great creative folk involved there is never a shortage of ideas or suggestions and you simply don’t have anywhere near the time and resources to do them all. So the toughest part is trying to prioritise between what might be two, there, for or even more really good ideas for what you can do with say one available slot for new work. You might think that all of them would make great additions, but you can only do one. Those are usually the really tough choices and the hardest part of the job.

The other end of the spectrum is an easy answer

The most satisfying thing for me is always happy players J.

Playing on the live servers and seeing players enjoying what the team made is a great feeling. Really it’s why we do what we do. The creation process delivers some satisfaction in and of itself sure, but it pales into insignificance compared to the feeling you get when you see the positive impact it has on the players’ experience. At a fundamental level that is why most creative people want to create, to have it enjoyed by others.

Nothing beats that for me. 

What do you think was the biggest achievement of the development team and what was not entirely satisfying?   Stats system and Bori are not permitted as answers :]

I have a soft spot for the Savage Coast adventure pack. When it comes to the balance between the size of team and what they achieved that was probably one of the best deliveries we made. The team did a good job of making the pack, while still providing live updates, and the finished results were some really cool content. The instances clicked for me, and I felt they were the closest we got to really nailing a ‘Conan’ experience.

In terms of something I’d have liked to have done better, I think I would have preferred if we had stuck to the original concept for the alternate advancement system. Our original idea did not have any ‘passive’ abilities and everything had to be slotted in one of the six available slots. That way players would always have had to choose and we would have avoided the issue you see today with veterans having a real advantage, in particular in PVP.

It is one of those situations where hindsight is 20/20. At the time there was a real concern that such a system would not motivate players long term, and they would get the six to twelve skills they wanted, and then not care about the AA system. Even the player feedback backed that up, and lack of longer term goals was one of the driving criticisms for adding it in the first place. It was a trade off, we could foresee the potential issues with passives, but at the time we decided that it was worth those risks. If I could go back and change that back to what we originally said I would.

In many ways it’s indicative of the challenge with bringing more open systems to a progression based game. Fear creeps in, and you start inching towards what you see as a ‘safer’ option. That is one of those times I wish we had been a little more adventurous.

From professionals perspective how big of a shift have you noticed in the MMO market since AOC went live? Is there any other industry that you would compare the changes  to?

Night and day to be honest! The market has changed massively since I started working on MMOs. The audience is larger, and also more demanding, not just in terms of content consumption, but also for quality and experience. The online space itself is changing. More and more genres are moving towards having almost compulsory online experiences, some for the better, and some maybe not so.

Essentially we are fast becoming a more and more connected society, and games are simply reflecting that. It’s all new and still, to a degree, unknown. We are also a relatively young industry, and haven’t matured yet. Think about it, movies have been learning for over a century, TV for over eighty, so we are very much the proverbial new kid on the block. That’s an exciting thing to be a part of, but it also means the future is very hard to predict. I point out to people that when I started at Funcom, you tube didn’t exist … think about that for a second … it’s now so influential, so pervasive, yet it didn’t even exist less than a decade ago. An iPad was a prop from Star Trek.

Personally I think that’s an amazing thing, and yields a lot of potential for creating future virtual worlds and games. We have learnt a lot from the generations of MMOs so far, and I still believe that someone is going to take them a step further, and then a lot of doors will open. There will be challenges for sure, and ultimately we might have to move beyond the way we have thought about them so far, but that is probably a bit away yet. Each generation teaches you something new, and will challenge our perceptions about what works and what doesn’t. The key is taking the best parts from each generation and continuing to evolve the genre.

I’m not sure there is anything else that can compare to the potential, as games have always had the unique element of interaction, and MMO style games have the added element of human interaction. That brings with it a lot of good, and a lot of bad, but has the potential for interactions that go far beyond simply scripted thrill rides. I’m looking forward to continuing to explore that potential!


Slith said...

Just a heads up: Hideout is a place of peace and solitude and therefor any rude comments will be simply removed.

Kravex said...

The overall AoC community blames Craig for the current game situation.
My opinion is simply that if it wasn't for Craig the game would be offline by now.
Some ideas work and result in awesome content and some simply fell down flat in the floor, that's how it works in game development. And in AoC case some of the fails I blame the community, because players will always try to find a way to cheat, avoid and exploit everything to their advantage.

Anonymous said...

I don't like the fact that so much content is underused, like Erlik, and the Raid encounter in HoC + some of the dungeons from 2011+

I think they should also have just built on the current crafting system, because now we haven't had a crafting update for 3+ years. And that's killed off parts of the economy. Other games with 10m+ subs have a similar shitty crafting system.

I don't like that blue items don't drop from new content. there should be new blue items at a normal droprate (not like khitai blue items).

Those are my main complaints about the Silirrion era.

These are in my opinion quite basic things that should never have gone wrong.

Anonymous said...

Craig Morrison definitely takes the brunt for AoC's blunders.

People often forget about Gaute.

I think Craig did a decent job. There are some things that were implemented during his tenure that I vehemently disagreed with. Horse racing being among them, it was a waste of resources of time in my opinion.

Arcalimon said...

As an ex-blogger, ex-dedicated HoX player, I'd like to thank AGAIN Craig for what he has done.
I had the chance to have several chats with him on twitter, through his blog, on IRQ and I can say that one thing cannot be denied: His willingness to improve AoC.
I do believe, as Kravex does, that after a TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, DREADFUL release of the game, Craig took the good out of the messs and brought it under the lights.
He may have done some mistakes? Who doesn't? Some things may have been done or done better? Some things that were needed and never looked at? Yeahm all true.
But... I remember day 1 of AoC, and I see what it is now.

And it's entirely another story, also thanks to Craig.

He did a great job!