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Funcom's Joel Bylos on the centralized TSW, AoC, and AO team

MJ Guthrie

By now, most MMO gamers are pretty familiar with the fact that Funcom underwent restructuring. But what does that mean; what exactly did it entail? The term "restructuring" in itself signifies changes but does nothing to actually enlighten folks on what the changes are. Other than the fact that Joel Bylos was named creative director for all three of Funcom's titles -- Age of Conan, Anarchy Online, and The Secret World -- and that the team will be in one centralized in location, we know little of the details.

How many developers survived the restructuring and relocated to remain on the team? Is this move foreshadowing one or more games slipping into maintenance mode? How will the coveted dev attention be divvied up? What does the future hold? Devoid of facts, players are left left wondering about how these changes will impact their favorite games.

While chatting with Joel Bylos in an exclusive interview, I was able to ask some of these very questions.

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Massively: With such an upheaval, many people are curious as to the new structure of the centralized live team. How many developers currently comprise the new team? How are their roles divided?

Joel Bylos, Funcom Creative Director: The new team consists of developers with a very wide range of different skill sets. The elements of any production team at Funcom have always been the same: AI designers, gameplay designers, coders, 3-D environment artists, character artists, animators, UI designers, cinematic directors, and writers. Everybody is able to work on both Age of Conan and The Secret World because of the flexibility of our DreamWorld engine technology. The world building program, Genesis, can just as easily create the savage lands of Hyboria as the mist-cloaked towns of New England. Our other tool, Gaia, allows us to create items, monsters, spells and abilities, visual looks packages, achievements, and more, which can be used in all of the projects. With such a flexible tool base, it is easy for the gameplay designers to switch between projects quickly and efficiently.

I also think it's a great thing to have people who worked on one game give their creative input on the others. That can quickly turn out to be a real benefit for each game as we're sharing ideas and solutions within the team. In general, we are putting together roadmaps that include all of the projects; the designers will switch between projects as required.

AoC screenshotWere more people lost from certain games over others? For instance, you indicated that the core of the AO team still exists to care for many aspects of that game because of its inherent differences in coding and databases. Is there an equal number of devs from both AoC and TSW, or are their numbers lower since those two games share more of their basic structures?

The Age of Conan team lost more people than the other projects (as a percentage, of course, Anarchy Online had fewer people to begin with). The reasons are relatively simple: Almost all of the people on The Secret World have experience with Age of Conan in their various positions. The Lead Systems designer for The Secret World, for example, was formerly a Systems Designer on Age of Conan and worked on all of the classes and the AA system on Age of Conan. So he has experience with both games that really couldn't be found elsewhere in the company.

When assembling the new team, we thought it it was important to get the people with the right skill sets and the right experience with the tools and the games.

Some folks are worried that the combined team spells impending "maintenance mode" for one or more of the games. How are resources and time split between the three titles? Will devs remain basically focused on each title in smaller teams, or will the group flow from game to game as a larger group?

My personal goal is to get a good blend of features and content for both games. As I outlined in my letters, there are ways to get double value from features that will benefit both Age of Conan and The Secret World. Anarchy Online has some dedicated developers, whereas I foresee the rest of the team switching it up between Age of Conan and The Secret World. It's also great for the designers as well because the games have some uniquely different design ethos. It will never get boring for them, that's for sure!

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How will you personally divide your time between the three different games so that none will fall by the wayside?

I tend to make pretty long-view roadmaps and then stick to my roadmaps and work on each part as they come up. For The Secret World, for example, the roadmap stretches well into 2015. I am working on a roadmap that combines Anarchy Online, Age of Conan, and The Secret World so that I have a long-term overview for all three, and then I will work on each milestone on the roadmap as it comes along.

For example, I am just signing off the Issue #6 milestone for The Secret World, and then I will be looking at the next slice of Dragon's Spine for Age of Conan before moving back to Issue #7 for The Secret World. We recently completed the server merge on Anarchy Online and have been dealing with the various associated issues, then we have several internal milestones for the engine and the new player experience. After that, we are discussing systems changes and balance for the professions. I am working closely with the developers right now, those who earlier worked on Anarchy Online specifically, making sure we make the right choices for the game.

Massively Exclusive  Bylos expounds on the centralized team for AO, AoC, and TSWSince you've been working on TSW lately, it is understandable that you could provide a clearer content path for that game. Do you anticipate having a more detailed content path available for both AoC and AO soon?

For Anarchy Online, there is a technical roadmap related to the engine, and the content roadmap mirrors that to a certain extent. There are technical reasons, including an older data structure, but essentially the content roadmap for Anarchy Online is tightly connected with the technical roadmap. The Anarchy Online roadmap primarily includes profession balancing and the new player experience right now, as well as the new graphics engine.

For Age of Conan, the short term roadmap is examining the various things that have been worked on by the current team and picks up the work and finishing it off. That means Dragon's Spine and the crafting revamp. Once we see the velocity of the team on those, we can decide what to work on next. For Age of Conan, there is no shortage of systems or locations that we can explore.

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In your AoC game director's letter, you talked about looking forward to the new Conan movie to incorporate elements of it into the game. Moving forward, will there be a focus again on the PvP element of the game?

Absolutely, I have heard a lot of voices crying out for more focus on PvP in Age of Conan. I think that if you have a game that incorporates PvE and PvP, you need to give some love to both. In The Secret World, we have made updates to PvP every time we have made updates to PvE (whether people are happy with the updates is another discussion), and I'd like to get into the same practice on Age of Conan.

Has the timetable for the crafting revamp in AoC been thrown off? Will this anticipated feature be delayed because of the restructuring?

Work continues on the revamp, and our goal is not to have any delays on it. If anything does delay it, it will be the clean-up work around the old crafting system -- removing the old missions and replacing them with new missions to explain the new system. The plan is to get it on TestLive very soon.

AO imageIn your first address to the AO community as creative director, you admitted that AO intimidates you because up to now you haven't dealt with the lore of the game. How far have you gotten with familiarizing yourself with the game by playing it?

I think I may have given the impression that I've never played the game before, which is not the case. I've played the game to around 120 before with an Adventurer, but I was playing solo most of the time and never really became a part of the community. So I've started a fresh character, and I'll make some blog entries about my experiences on the official Anarchy Online website soon. In many ways I think it's going to be good for Anarchy Online having someone who can look at it with different eyes and draw upon the experience from Age of Conan and The Secret World. It's a great game and I'm definitely very excited to be working on it!

Is there any one message you want to share with the three gaming communities about the changes?

With your continued support, we will continue to deliver the experiences you love!

Thanks so much for your time.

When readers want the scoop on a launch or a patch (or even a brewing fiasco), Massively goes right to the source to interview the developers themselves. Be they John Smedley or Chris Roberts or anyone in between, we ask the devs the hard questions. Of course, whether they tell us the truth or not is up to them!

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