Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Interview with Joel Bylos

Joel "Nusquam" Bylos (as seen in this picture "air guitaring" theme to 1982 Conan movie) took his time to talk to me about the nitty gritty details of running 3 MMOs at once and keeping AOC relevant in the MMO genere: 

1/ How does one tackle such an enormous task as taking over two major MMOs (AOC and AO) in addition to already time consuming TSW? I am sure things have settled down by now, but how were those first few initial weeks? Have you kept tabs on post ROGS Age of Conan developments or was there a need to catch up on a lot of things?

With trepidation is the right answer, I think. It all happened incredibly fast, the downsizing of the company and I was suddenly in a position where I had responsibility for three projects instead of one.  
The first few weeks were complete insanity. On one hand I had a new, much smaller team, with responsibility for more than one project.  All of the team had different levels of expertise with different sets of tools – AO has a completely different set of tools to Age of Conan (with a couple of exceptions) and The Secret World has major changes again.
And then, as well, I had to catch up on everything that had been done since I stopped working on the game (roughly a month after launch) and even though I had been following and still playing, I needed to get more insight into the playerbase (they evolve over time!) and see what they were asking for.
I had been following the development of new content on Age of Conan – Craig has always been a mentor, so I always stopped by for a chat whenever I was in Montreal – but I wasn’t “in touch” in the way that someone who works full time on the project is. 
In the end, it was a pretty frantic period and I’m not sure I’d tackle it the same way again, but the choice for me was pretty clear – I wanted to do what was best for the games and their future was quite uncertain in terms of development so I wanted to ensure that they weren’t left untended and unloved.

2/ How exactly the development team is shared across the games? Many of us have this vague idea that devs, much like a horde, just rush in to work on AOC and after some predetermined time drop everything and switch to TSW. Could you elaborate a little how things are handled with a centralized team?

It’s somewhat more organized than that, but only barely.
Essentially, we have some devs who are focused full time on a particular game (like Cirith), usually based on prior knowledge of the tools and the systems. And then we have more general developers – coders, artists, animators, audio etc. We build the roadmaps for the games at the beginning of each year, get estimates on the development resources as needed and then shift those resources around from patch to patch.
Things get a little rocky when something takes longer than expected *ahem* Tokyo *ahem* and that can have unfortunate ripple effects on the other projects.
We’ve learned a bit over the past year, and we’re refining our processes to avoid these kind of situations but sometimes it happens to us.

3/ How does one set a development road map for already 6 year old MMO such AOC? Is it more or less about steady flow of additions or perhaps we will see adventure packs making their way back to Hyboria? ROGS sized expansions are ruled out or perhaps nothing is set in stone right now?

Well, I can probably rule out ROTGS sized expansions off the bat – my team for that project was much larger than the current live team for all three projects, everybody on the team was experienced at creating content for Conan and we had 1.5 years to work on it.
Currently we set the roadmap based on a few things – past promises to the playerbase that need to be fulfilled, things that we think need serious love (usually confirmed by the player base) and what we can achieve that provides long-term value to the playerbase.
Anyone who has been playing knows that we have been putting out some recurring, automated content – for me this is important so that people always have multiple options when they log in. But hand-crafted content tends to reach a higher quality bar with the downside that it takes more investment.
I want to get us into a state where we have fixed/revamped/improved systems that are not functioning as they should, and delivering new content for those systems. This means PvP and PvE, but it also means things like Achievements and Crafting. 
I’m a bit more of a narrow focus developer. I believe that fewer systems, done well, is always more interesting for players than a ridiculously broad spectrum of systems done in a mediocre manner.
Unfortunately, Conan currently falls into the second category, so we have to choose to focus to certain things and improve them to a standard we are happy with, before we move on. 

4/ In recent interview Matt 'Cirith Gorgor” Bennett hinted at pvp being one of the features that will now get their fair amount of focus. Are you planning to address just the most pressing issues in pvp or is it a sign of more balanced approach with both pve and pvp getting attention?

This falls a bit in line with what I mentioned above – we’re going to put focus on the core elements of PvP (items, abilities) for a while. 
On the other side of that, it was long overdue to make some additions to content on the PvP side of the game. We do want to take a more rounded approach to the way we deliver content – but I hesitate to divide content along neat lines of PvP or PvE. Especially in Age of Conan, which has open world PvP. Theoretically, all content should be built around creating player enjoyment. 

5/ How are you handling the issue of inheriting a lot of unfinished content that you and your team are now expected to deliver (like Dragon's Spine). Is there a temptation to just throw everything away and start working on your own ideas or perhaps it is common thing in games development that sometimes you have to finish someone else's work?

Heh, so I have this presentation that I give to newly hired designers. It’s kind of a “set your expectations for this type of work” presentation. One of my points in that presentation is that nobody who works for a decent sized company will ever work on “their game”.
It goes for almost all designers, they are usually working towards somebody else’s vision and even the people with ultimate creative responsibility are limited by the budget/tools/team etc.
So the live team, being pretty experienced in their own right, get this and I don’t think it bothers them much. I’m certainly used to it, Khitai was determined as the expansion location before I was on the project, I had no say in the scope etc.
Unfortunately, what has caused problems for us on Age of Conan was the knowledge loss from the old team to the new. The coders who work on the crafting system now are not the people who worked on it originally. The artists on Dragon’s Spine are not the guys who originally modelled it etc.
And that is the part that slows you down – having to learn how/why something is built the way it is. It’s almost always faster to start from scratch than start over, but we don’t have the resources to start many of these things from scratch. So we learn, adapt and hopefully get them finished eventually!

6/ With The Legend of Conan in production and Paradox Entertainment fully backing the reboot will AOC also provide content based on the film? You have already confirmed that it might happen, but are you perceiving it as a great opportunity for the game to reach new players? Did the last Conan The Barbarian movie with Jason Momoa have any significant impact on AOC population?

I think anything that spreads the word of Conan out to more people (and I mean the general REH word of Conan) is a good thing for the game. I’m sure we’ll do some tie-ins to the movie, it really does depend on the scope I am given for said tie-ins.
I don’t have the numbers from the period around the release of the earlier movie, but it is always hard to pinpoint the cause and effect around population fluctuations, so I usually don’t play the guessing game unless there is a large and very obvious trend.
Age of Conan’s population is at a point where it seems to be quite resilient to the factors that affect other games – like newly released MMORPGs for example. 

7/ Are there any plans to change/adjust the current payment model? Will we see the F2P expanded? The Rise of The Godslayer expansion opened up to F2p crowd? Or perhaps current subscription model is working well? With "The Savage Coast of Turan" we had an adventure pack that was sold as separately regardless if someone was a subscriber or not. Is this something that is again being considered or perhaps we will see something totally new?

In this regard, I have very little control. I have made a series of recommendations about the future of F2P on AoC, several of which were taken from the community, but I don’t have any news on that front.
I would prefer, currently, to keep any future content updates for subscribers for as long as we have that model. System updates become available to everybody and I think the base content for a free player is already very generous. That said, I agree it is slightly odd to have to purchase the expansion and then subscribe to use anything beyond Gateway to Khitai. I have made certain recommendations in this regard, but it isn’t my call
As for whether the current subscription model is doing well, it’s probably something you’d be better off asking the business people. Age of Conan earns money, which is the single most important factor for my team and I, and as long as it continues to do so I don’t see dramatic changes being made to the way things work.

8/ If we were to day dream about content based on a particular REH Conan story, what would it be?

Let me tell you a story. When the expansion was wrapping up in 2010, I wrote a proposal for a series of single player adventures based in the world of REH. They were essentially reproductions of the Howard adventures in the Age of Conan engine, and you could buy them stand alone, or tied to the MMO itself.
You played Conan through these adventures, targeted to 3-4hrs long and at the end of each, you received a code which could be redeemed in Age of Conan for an item based on these legendary adventures.
Alas, the team was moved to Montreal, we went through another round of layoffs and I was moved to The Secret World. But I still have the design document I wrote for the first of these adventures, and it was Pool of the Black One.
Why? Because we have the assets for that island, we have the Black Ones, we have the pirate assets and because making it as a prototype for the concept would have been extremely cheap.
Those reasons really haven’t changed, so if I was to start building adventures based directly on the REH stories, Pool of the Black One would likely be where I would start.

9/ are you still actively developing AOC or have you switched to more of a Game Director's role and deal only with "vision and direction" ?

Those quotation marks make vision and direction seem like they are simple concepts! Believe me, not at all.
In any case, on Age of Conan I still get my hands dirty in the tools and on a design level. I wrote the story and flow design for the last few events, implemented the quests (at least for Halloween) and wrote all of the texts.
I certainly don’t (and can’t) do as much as anybody who works full time on the project, but I like to use the tools every now and then. It keeps me clear on the limitations of the engine that we are working with and helps me to understand more what my team is struggling with.
I don’t need to be an expert – that’s why I have a team full of them – I just need to be able to understand what the experts are saying and why.

I hope that gives you some insight, thanks for listening!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good questions and responses. Thanks for the post.