Lessons learned by working at Funcom for five years

I have an upcoming jubilee of sorts in a few months, at which point I can celebrate having endured life in the game development industry for five (measly) years. This cause for celebration is somewhat diminished by the fact that Funcom announced earlier this month that they are restructuring and consolidating offices – which means that I, along with the majority of the other developers at Funcom’s Montreal office, are being let go. For my part this means that I have at most two and a half month left before my official last day at FC, and having started working for FC in late March 2008, this means I might just about pass the five-year mark (yay!) before I’m officially out of a job (nay!).

Throughout these last soon-to-be five years I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with a diverse bunch of awesome people (and I hope that I’ll be able to work with some of them again in the future!) on two different MMORPG projects, and I would not change that for the world, but what exactly have I learned after this time spent working in the game development industry? Which of the preconceived assumptions and expectations I brought with me have held up, and which have been thoroughly shattered? What knowledge have I acquired that I can bring with me where-ever I go next?

I’ve played with the idea of writing a post along these lines in the past year or so, but what I’ve found out is that it’s not easy to summarize several years worth of experience in a simple blog post. Instead, I will try to focus on some of the more obvious lessons I have learned, the ones I can point at and say “that might have been useful to know/realize the value of when I first started”. Some – or maybe all – of them are perhaps obvious enough that they’re hardly worth mentioning, but then again – everything is obvious is hindsight.
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The Winds of Change

The wheels of the gaming industry churn, developers come and pass, leaving games that become legacies. Legacies fade to obscurity, and even obscurity is long forgotten when the development cycle that gave it birth comes again. In one development cycle, called the Facebook/Gamification-cycle by some, a development cycle yet to come, a development cycle long pass, a wind rose in the hills of Montreal. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the churning of the wheels of the gaming industry. But it was a beginning.

Ahem. Horribly mangled Wheel of Time-quotes aside… As March transitioned into April this year, it meant I had spent exactly four years in the game development industry, after I packed my bags and moved to Oslo (and later, to Montreal) at the end of March in 2008 to join up with Funcom – a few short months before the launch of Age of Conan. Since then I have worked primarily with refining, updating and maintaining AoC’s state-machine and animation-systems, while also temporarily taking on a few extra side-jobs where needed such as basic rigging/skinning and animating in Autodesk 3ds Max (very useful for fixing minor issues with character-animations and 3D assets), the creation of particle-effects for spells and environments, scripting triggers and conditions for said particle-effects to play, as well as creating and hooking up triggers for sound-effects for monsters. The common denominator (in my case) for all of these tasks is their link to the animation-systems and/or behavior control center (state machine).

When I crossed that four-year milestone two and a half months ago, though, I decided it was time for a change. Without change, without new challenges, the mind can grow stale and one’s motivation can falter. As luck would have it, an opportunity for change arose, and I took it. As a result, on Monday just hence, when I came back to the Conan-team after a five-month temporary hiatus spent working on particle-effects for monsters in The Secret World (which is just about to launch, btw!), I sat down at a new desk, next to new people (well, people I hadn’t sat next to before, anyway) to start training for a new position: AI Designer!

This is a new and untested field for me, but hopefully I can draw on the knowledge and experience I have acquired over the last four years to smooth out my transition into the world of AI Design for video-games.  It will definitely be in my favor that I have extensive knowledge about the state-machine (which is prominent in AI scripting for AoC), and that I am at least somewhat familiar with the primary tools I’ll be using as an AI Designer. I do, however,  have a lot to learn – though there will always be challenges to overcome and new things to learn. Anyway, interesting times are ahead, that much is certain. Who knows – perhaps this will be the start of another exciting four-year (or longer) journey into the future! :)

(For an insight into what being an AI Designer for Age of Conan involves, check this link. While “slightly” out of date (it’s from 2008!), the general principles (and tools in use) are roughly the same.)

Canadian Summer

A couple of months ago – back in early June – I was offered a position at Funcom Montreal, in Canada. The position is the exact same as the one I had in the Oslo-office, and the salary is pretty much the same, but with the added benefit of having a lower cost of living in Montreal compared to Oslo.

It took some deliberation and much chin-scratching to decide what to do next; it’s never easy to uproot and move, especially not to a completely different continent, but in the end I concluded that the pros of moving outweighed the cons and accepted the offer. That was two months ago.

Right now I find myself situated in a temporary apartment in Montreal, and my two first weeks on BritishCanadian soil have just passed. Despite all the fake Frenchmen running around, it seems like a decent enough place. At first glance it seems pretty similar to Oslo and Norway. At second glance, though, you start noticing some differences. The metro on bouncy rubber wheels, and the lack of any air-condition in the metro-stations. The hilarious policies that cellphone service providers operate under (I have to pay both when sending and when receiving SMSs/phone calls? wtf). Monthly bandwith limits on Internet. The fact that drugstores seem to outnumber grocery-stores. The absurd amount of water in the toilet-bowls. The lack of Norwegian brown cheese. THE LACK OF NORWEGIAN BROWN CHEESE!

I did find a Norwegian website that can ship me some of this precious cheese (and other Norwegian food-products), though unfortunately the shipping-price for half a kilo of brown cheese from Norway to Canada seems pretty expensive. No luck as of yet finding anyone/anywhere actually selling it in Canada – though there must be some “Norwegian-Canadians” around (432,515 according to Wikipedia) who should have created a market for it. Hm. Unless they’ve abandoned their cultural heritage completely and forgotten all about the brown cheese! Traitors, all of them.

(Edit: Since this blog-post was originally published I have actually found Norwegian brown cheese in Montreal. Currently I know of two places where it can be bought – though I’ve only ever been to one of them. The first (which I’ve been to) is in a cheese-store inside Atwater Market (2nd floor) called La fromagerie Hamel, and the second is a place recommended to me by a random stranger who read my post and sent me an e-mail telling me about La Vieille Europe, which apparently has quite a lot of special/exclusive cheeses (which the Norwegian brown quite clearly is), though I have not yet been there.)

Brown cheese or not, it does seem like I’m going to be staying in Montreal and Canada for a while, and as my current abode is just a temporary thing that I’ll only have access to for another two weeks, I had better get back to my apartment hunting.

Au plaisir de vous revoir!

Offline Character Progression

I haven’t blabbedblogged about anything on this blog for quite some time now. I have, amongst other things, been pre-occupied with working on the Rise of the Godslayer-expansion for Age of Conan, the release-date for which has finally been made public :)

What brings me out of hybernation, though, is the Offline Character Progression-system introduced in Age of Conan with patch 1.07.2 earlier this week. It has spurred some debate in the MMORPG blogging community (communities? do they all belong to one communtiy, or are there several ones?) about whether this is really a good thing or not, with concerns that this is just the first step towards a bleak future for MMORPGs where players play by not playing at all.

Basically the system works like this: Every four days that pass, another “free level” gets added to a pool from which you can hand them out to any of your characters as long as said characters are above level 30 and under level 80 (the level cap).

Offline Character Progression in AoC
Offline Character Progression in AoC

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Free, everlasting Age of Conan trial

Age of Conan Unlimited TrialOut of pure self-interest, I’m going to blatantly promote Age of Conan by mentioning the press release just released (duh, obviously) that announces the offer of a free, everlasting Age of Conan trial (aka “Unlimited Free Trial”).

Basically, if you sign up for a trial account, download and install the game and then log in at least once before January 1st 2010, the trial account will never end and you can keep on hanging around in Tortage (level 1-20 area) for as long as you want.

Some limitations apply to the trial accounts (out of necessity due to the potential abuse by spammers/gold sellers), though;  no trade with other players, no use of in-game mail, no public chat channels, no forum-posting access.

Anyway, that’s this year’s Age of Conan (Available in a retail store/webshop/Steam near you!) promotion (Buy now! Don’t hesitate!) from me (Buy your friends a copy too! And your mom!). Now going back to my regular schedule of updating this blog at random intervals.

Not a good day at all

As days go, this one could definitely have been better. As reported here (the details of which have probably been spread all over by now), about 20% of Funcom’s work-force are being laid off or put on forced leave, and most of those being affected are situated in the Oslo-office, where I happen to work.

I was not, thankfully, among those 20%. Unfortunately, plenty of others were, and it’s going to be really hard to get used to not seeing the now familiar faces of those departed friends and colleagues in the hallways, during the morning meeting, in the cantina – or face to face as a part of the development process. Though not quite as hard as being without a job, obviously…

Best of luck to all those who were affected by the layoffs/forced leave; I really hope I get the chance to work alongside with some of you guys again one day, be that at Funcom or elsewhere. You guys all rock several different sorts of awesome.