Interview with Funcom's Joel Bylos: One content team, three games

The last time I talked to Funcom's Joel Bylos , he was Game Director for The Secret World, overseeing its business model transition. In the wake of some staffing changes at the MMO developer, he has now been put in charge of content development for all three of Funcom's active products: The Secret World, Age of Conan, and the venerable Anarchy Online. We recently had a chance to ask Bylos a few questions over e-mail about his new role, the challenges of one team working on three game simultaneously, and what the future might look like for each of them.

PC Gamer: Could you lay out, briefly, where you started at Funcom and what path led you to your new position?

Joel Bylos: When I first came to Funcom I went to work on Age of Conan as a quest designer and a writer, and my first focus was on the level 20 to 40 content. It was definitely a challenging way to start off my career in the company—our team basically had to create the 'transition' content from the beginning of the game which is very story-heavy, very scripted and with full voice, to level 20 to 40 which is much more a traditional MMO experience.

I also worked on Age of Conan after launch, on content such as Black Castle and later Ymir's Pass which was one of the first full-fledged adventure areas we added after launch.

After that I was lucky enough to land the position as Lead Designer on Rise of the Godslayer, our first expansion to Age of Conan, and I worked on that for about fifteen months. That was really a great time, we had a lot of freedom with that expansion, and for me it was great to be able to so directly influence the entire creative process—from the overarching storyline to the more specific quest mechanisms, the visual look and so on. Rise of the Godslayer received some great reviews and it was very well received by our fans, which of course felt incredibly rewarding.

After Age of Conan I went on to work on The Secret World, which at that point was about two years away from launch. Initially I started as a quest designer, but quickly moved up to Lead Content Designer. As the title suggest I worked on all aspects of the content, from how the areas were put together to the mission designs. My pet project was definitely the investigation missions, and it feels great to know that this is such a popular part of the game now.

Not long after The Secret World launched I was promoted to Game Director for the game, and from there I delivered the Issue #4 and #5 content updates, and very soon also Issue #6. My primary goal since stepping into that role has been to make sure we deliver great content as often as we possibly can, to make sure the experience stays fresh for people. I think we have definitely succeeded with that.

Having now stepped into the role as Creative Director for all of our live games—including Age of Conan and Anarchy Online—my ambition is to make sure we can do that with all of them!

How much will your personal workload increase with this new set-up?

There is quite a bit more work involved in overseeing all the projects, just on the level of community interaction required and the amount of time that I need to spend in each game to understand the major issues affecting the player base. To me it's really important to have an open line of communication with the players, and I try to spend as much time as I can allow myself on the forums in open discussions with them, listening to their suggestions and even commenting on the suggestions they present to us.

Of course, with a centralized team, there is less overhead on feature design and production. With a unified feature roadmap across several projects, it will be simpler to keep track of the team and the status of updates.

Creatively, I have plenty to do, but this is also the part of my job I find the most enjoyable so it doesn't really feel like my workload has increased at all! After having spent so much time with The Secret World, now having the opportunity to work creatively on Age of Conan and Anarchy Online is something I see as a great opportunity both personally and professionally. Sure, it's more work, but it's incredibly rewarding!

What do you see as being the most challenging thing, going forward, with heading up a live team for three very different games with very different communities?

I think the largest challenge for me personally is getting a good handle on the right direction to take all three games. As you say, all the games are very different and they have different needs. There is no "blanket" philosophy which can be applied. So getting my finger on the pulse is important—and as with all online games there are thousands of different opinions about what is best for each game.

As you said, it's three different games with three very different communities. Giving them exactly what they want may never be possible—I don't think that's possible for any developer—but I think the most important thing is having an open dialog with them, not only to learn about their needs and what they want to see in their game, but also to let them know how we work internally and give them an understanding on what we are able to deliver on.

Realistically, we have to make sure we use the resources in the best way possible, and divide them fairly between the games based on what really needs doing and what we should be focusing on from a business perspective. There is a ton of stuff we would like to do for each game, and maybe we will be able to do it all in time, but it also means we need to prioritize.

It all comes back to working with the community, I think. These games aren't just ours, the developers; they also belong to the people who play them.

What are the biggest differences between the communities in, say, TSW and AoC, that are apparent to you guys as developers? How do you plan to use this information?

It's actually surprising how well the breakdown within the communities aligns—PvE and end-game players and PvP players seem to make up equal proportions of both populations. And many of the requests are the same—more content (always the most popular request), less gear dependence in PvP etc. That's also a part of why I think we can create features that will work for both crowds and both settings you mentioned.

Related to that, however, is that both games have very different business models. The Secret World is a buy-to-play game with zero restrictions on players and an optional membership which provides the members with additional bonuses to help while they play.

Age of Conan is free-to-play, which means there obviously is content gating which can only be removed via a subscription. Currently the Age of Conan model causes a division between paying players and free players—too much of a division, in my opinion. We are discussing ways to broaden the experience in Age of Conan for free players. That's a priority for me.

The chthonic, tentacled elephant in the room is that, marketing-speak aside, it sounds like you've consolidated resources so you have fewer people working on the same amount of content. Whether or not it's the case, a lot of the community views it as a decision of necessity in somewhat dire times. What plans do you have to adapt, and what solid info can you offer to assuage players' fears that they might be getting less attention overall for "their" game?

As I talked about in the Age of Conan Community Letter, there are plenty of ways to get double value out of the feature development for both games. We're working on a roadmap which will combine feature creation for both Age of Conan and The Secret World which will direct the development resources into creating value for both products.

I mention those games specifically because they share a common technology platform. Anarchy Online is a somewhat different beast because the features we implement to Age of Conan or The Secret World can't be carried over there without a lot of bespoke work.

Of course, everything can be construed as "marketing speak" so I'd rather just say that players should wait and see what we do, and judge us on how we deliver. I think there are a lot of advantages to having a consolidated team all working together, sharing ideas and coming up with practical solutions to the challenges each game faces.

It also means we're taking advantage of each other's experience using our in-house tools, something I really think makes a lot of difference to the overall development process.

The Secret World

The investigation gameplay in TSW is one of the most highly praised elements of the game (and one of my personal favorites.) Where did the idea for that come from, and where might you want to take it in the future?

Ragnar and the people doing pre-production on the game had been running ARGs (alternate reality games) for a while and they were discussing ways to bring that into the game. They even had dedicated people working on community-focused ARGs, and they had also begun working on ideas for how to put it into in-game gameplay. When I came on board, there were a lot of great ideas on paper, but translating them into gameplay terms took a lot of work.

The first real investigation that we implemented was The Kingsmouth Code and when we ran it by Ragnar he was happy with the general direction, so we continued wracking our brains for more ways to include these elements. We ended up creating quite a lot of them by release, and players will find them many places throughout the game world. They're definitely the hardest and most time-consuming missions to do from a development perspective, so we never had the chance to include as many as we would have liked. Beautiful thing is, of course, that we can keep adding more of them after launch and we already have.

The next evolutionary step for the investigations is the puzzle raid system, which was designed to accommodate multiple players and have random elements which mean the experience is different each time. That's something we've come quite a long way with internally and I hope to be able to bring that into a future update relatively soon.

And of course, the Tokyo zone will see a whole new batch of investigation missions.

You released a pretty complete outline for what's coming in TSW this year. Which one item on the list are you, personally, most excited about?

Hah! That is like asking me to choose among my children... I'm really excited about the thematic stuff we have been doing with the Issues in general, and I'm looking forward to some of the James Bond-esque set pieces in Issue #7.

Tokyo is exciting because it is a sprawling urban environment to explore, and the atmosphere is amazing. Plus it really does wind up the first part of the story arc and drives it into deeper and darker places! Finally the yet-to-be-disclosed content feature for Issue #8 should cause a big stir in the community and give everybody more to do in the game.

If you had the TSW launch to do over, what is the biggest thing you would change?

There were a few broken missions in the game during the launch period that had a negative effect on some of the reviews. Identifying and fixing the scripting issues which caused those to break under strain would have been something I would redo, within my personal sphere of responsibility.

Of course, the nature of game development means that there is so much stuff you would like to do, but you only have a limited amount of time—and budget—to make it happen. So there were obviously a lot of ideas that we had which never got into the game, many of which I would have liked to see at launch. Again, being an online game that constantly keeps evolving and expanding, we can try and get some of those things into the game in the future.

Overall I'm very proud of The Secret World and what we were able to do with it. It's an incredibly unique MMO which does a lot of things very differently, something which I think people found both appealing and a little frightening. The overall quality I think is really strong.

Of course I feel the same way with Age of Conan having worked on that since pre-launch, and I'm sure the original team on Anarchy Online feels the same about that game. Hopefully those of us working on the new live team are able to bring some of those long-forgotten but much desired ideas into the games going forward. Still, it's important to keep in mind that what might have been a great addition at launch might not work very well if they were put in now. Systems have changed, content has been added and even the community's priorities and their wish-lists might have changed.

These are living, breathing games, and they have all changed—especially Anarchy Online—significantly since launch.

Might we see another RotG-sized expansion for Age of Conan in the future, or will it be strictly smaller updates from here on?

Never say never, as they say, but it is more feasible for the team to deliver smaller, more regular and more focused updates than it is to cordon off a portion of the team to spend 18 months on an expansion. So I'll say it is unlikely, but not impossible.

That doesn't mean we're not going to see significant additions to Age of Conan. Recently we released the Dragon's Spine update which introduced a huge new adventure area and a really cool-looking dungeon filled with new monsters and new loot.

We have a ton of ideas for what we want to add to all three games going forward, and I really look forward to discussing those with each of the three communities.

Thanks to Joel for taking some time to help us understand what's going on at Funcom. You can read his letters to the three communities for more: The Secret World , Age of Conan , and Anarchy Online .