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Message From the King

Glen "Famine" Swan from Funcom's Age of Conan answers questions, and discusses the game, life, and the industry. Let us know what you would like to hear about.

Author: FC-Famine

Behind the Scenes: The Systems Team

Posted by FC-Famine Thursday March 4 2010 at 11:34AM
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Long time no see! It has been a while and this week I come bearing the systems team and all their magical mathematical ways. I will take you behind the scenes and show you the inner workings of our own systems team and the painstaking process of maintaining the balance in Age of Conan.

When it comes to developing and maintaining the game during its live phase, the systems team is really the backbone for the entire Conan team. They both aid in support for other development divisions and step up to the plate to lead in their own initiatives with new system features. Yet, there is much more to the team than just that and I set out to find out more from the systems team themselves…

(Dave Williams presents a paper-scissors-rock metaphor for community interaction.)

When I asked about a more refined description of what the team actually entails Lead Systems Designer Dave ‘Ilaliya’ Williams states:

A game at its core level is a series of mathematical comparisons called rule-sets, which possess varying degrees of complexity. This could be anything from a dice roll, to scissors cuts paper, to red blocks can only be stacked on top of blue blocks. Systems designers create the rule-sets, and then encapsulate them in a system that governs how different rule-sets interact with each other in game terms. Players interface with these rule-sets by playing content, which is created by content designers, and this content must be cognizant of how the systems operate since content is the player's window into the game rules. Systems Designers may create the ability in a game that players can use, but the content designers give it purpose by making encounters that require that ability.

This means Systems Designers must design the rule-sets and systems so that it supports the content vision, since generally at the Game Director level the vision is in content terms (I want dragons that breathe fire and pillage towns) and the Systems Designers have to figure out what this means in game-terms using the pre-defined technology, and then balance it.

In summary, the team takes great ideas and defines them with a system (or rule-set) in order to make them come to life. Sometimes this is easy to spot and other times it is not as noticeable to the player. Therefore, you could say that much of what systems designers do are behind the scenes of the actual game is hiding from the spotlight until some player comes along and finds it.

(Good systems designers come in 3's)

However, what actually makes up a systems team? Certainly there is not just one lone evil mastermind controlling the mathematical matrix of the entire game all by him or herself? I asked the Lead Systems Designer Dave ‘Ilaliya’ Williams to clarify what roles some of his team members fill and he explained:

The team as a whole has a wide knowledge base, which is necessary to cover all the areas of the game with which the team is involved. In addition to generally contributing to the big picture, designers will have one or more focus specialties in everything from power contribution budgets, to complicated mathematical manipulation, to class design/implementation, to entire systems such as items, PvP and trade skills.

Despite what the team focuses on and what they actually entail as far as structure, there is obviously a very large gap between the players and the developers here. Systems design has generally been a widely talked about topic on almost all games in our genre. Mainly it is because of the reoccurring balance changes that come out of the systems teams everywhere. All systems in the game must be maintained and sometimes that means fine-tuning them even more from the original implementation into the game you see today. The fine-tuning itself can either go one of two ways for the players; it can go either very good or very, very badly. It is very hard and very rare that you actually find a good medium in changes where all players are equally happy (from a community management perspective). Therefore, the reasoning behind changes or fine-tuning are sometimes lost in translation no matter how well you try to convey the messages.

(At Funcom,  Systems Team has a tribal hierarchy. One cannot speak in meetings unless he holds the Coconut of Power.)

I am one of the Community Managers and one of my primary focuses is to bridge the gap between the developer and the player. These short peeks inside the minds of the developers of course help in giving you more knowledge of how these people actually make the games we all love to play. However, still I can see there is a huge gap between understanding why things happen and why things do not happen. For example, how do these people decide on what changes make it to the final patch or update and what does not? In another example, how do they even come up with these formulas or equations that convince them on a better balance for the game? As I sit here listening to the systems designers talk about reasoning, balance and even *gasp* calculus, it brings me down to reality that understanding their world is much more complicated than what any community has ever made it out to be.

The best way for me to understand something is by asking questions and the first couple of questions I posed were more along the lines of balance. This is one of the most talked about topics in almost all communities when factoring in different styles of game play. On the topic of what defines balance, one of the systems designers said, “Balance is not whether something feels correct, it’s whether you can mathematically demonstrate that two values are in a specific and pre-determined relationship. Now, there are some things that simply cannot be balanced mathematically (such as stun versus root), and these things we draw on experience and play testing.” Further adding, “Balance is validating that a relationship between two objects conforms to pre-defined philosophical direction and/or assumptions”

(Systems Designer "Didek" posts anonymously on the internet.)

Then when you talk about what is not balanced; the systems team is quick to respond. Obviously showing off how much they lurk and troll on the forums for feedback; you could tell a great deal of what they do is because of what the player is experiencing rather than what changes they are stating. Looking at it from afar, you can see this is one of the gaps between the developer and the player. What does the Systems Designer look for in feedback to influence change over systems? Simply put from one Systems Designer, “Players are experts in how they feel about a game and that's very valid.” On the other hand, sometimes things can become distorted and even from a community management view -- I can see this being very valid. Players sometimes state changes without consideration of the impact of said changes on everything else within the game world.

You see, systems in game are not interacting with just themselves. It is like a big orgy of interaction with all other systems in the game. Sometimes that gets lost in translation in regards to feedback from the player-to-developer. It is much harder to change one aspect of a system saying, “Plz increase this spell by X damage,” because of how its increase will affect everything else. Therefore, in most cases the systems designers convey the best feedback are from players who tell them how the ability in question feels, how it plays and why it is not terribly useful in its current form.

In the end, the Systems Designer's overall passion is to create good and fun gameplay for the player. Their actions are not just determined from the player’s experience, but of their own experience as a player. Furthering this point, Game Director Craig ‘Silirrion’ Morrison adds, “Judging balance is born out of experience as a player and not just divulged from a player. The key thing that separates a good systems designer from a knowledgeable player is the ability to look objectively and pragmatically at that big picture – the overall effect.”

(The Senior Systems Designer gathers feedback from valued sources.)

Conclusion:

It is very clear that there is a gap between developers and players. It’s my job to help bridge that gap as much as possible WHEN possible. As we look behind the scenes, we can also see that the systems team is made up of many people who work on some very important parts of the game. Some of it is hidden and some of it is very clear. Nonetheless, we can see the systems team relies on feedback in order to balance what they call the unknown and trying to figure out the rest of the equation can complicate things much more than it needs to be. The best thing to take away from all of this is that the systems team does not use a magic 8-ball to decide the fate of the game. Everything has a plausible reasoning behind it but can sometimes need fine-tuning in order to get it in line with the big picture. Then when you reveal it, let the world know not from exclaiming how your proposed change is balanced but how the selected change feels, how it plays and why it’s not terribly useful in its current form.

Until next time, I salute you and bid you farewell!