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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.)


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!

Aghora writes:

Nice pictures. :)

Thu Mar 04 2010 12:44PM Report
kanechart writes:

cool :)

Thu Mar 04 2010 1:12PM Report
BadSpock writes:

That right there illustrates the number 1 problem almost every MMO troll/complainer fails to realize - how interconnected all the various systems in a game the size of a MMO are.

You can't simply change spell X to do Y because it effects the balance of PvE, PvP, crafting, leveling/achievement progression, and many others including the ominously hard to quantify "fun" factor.

Kudos, great read thank you.

Thu Mar 04 2010 2:11PM Report
Catriona85 writes:

Ask your systems guys to create a ruleset that allows players on Fury to siege without crashes or lags. We know it's possible having seen a youtube vid from a US server.

I enjoy paying wages to people who supply substandard products. No really I do.

Thu Mar 04 2010 6:54PM Report
wootin writes:

This article highlights one of the big problems with game companies - the designers are expecting the players to appreciate their genius in designing the machinery that powers the game.

However, the main job of an game environment is to free the player from having to care about the machinery and immerse themselves in the gameplay. You're supposed to make players forget its a game entirely if you can.

I don't play AOC for this very reason - I took 1 look at the forums and saw that the players were all using their perception of the above mentioned system design rules to create class builds so they could have uber optimized characters, instead of talking about how much fun they had playing the game and what part they were going to play next.

That way lies min-max madness, and it is a plague upon all fun :\

Thu Mar 04 2010 9:35PM Report
undead17 writes:

all they need to do now is bring ppl back to there game and keep them there , not an easy task for any game these days , so many to choose from all haveing the pro and cons , good luck guys and keep the coconut close

Thu Mar 04 2010 10:49PM Report
JeroKanedead writes:

wootin. What you describe is a problem with ALL MMO's! You have these min-max'ers in ALL of them. Every single forum is full of them.

Even in Sandbox MMO's like EVE Online and Fallen Earth you have a ton of people min max'ing!

The people that are playing the game for fun and not worrying about crap like that, don't visit forums, don't post there and are just happily playing in the game.

Fri Mar 05 2010 2:20AM Report
svarteryttar writes:

Different players play the game differently when it comes to hand controles (mouse and clicking versus keybinds keybourd/mice etc and movement with mouse) and combo system in this game in perticular since its not so much a one click attack game. This has a huge impact not on balance but how each players percieve the balance. This can lead to a discussion that some times is obscured by the fact that one player simply have a better muscle memory and plays this or that class better then the other player with the exact setup.

Fri Mar 05 2010 2:20AM Report
FC-Famine writes:

@Wootin: I wouldn't call that a problem. I only say that because a lot of players play games just for that. That's what immerses them into the game the most. You can't escape that, and you really can't hinder players from doing that. It's most common in PvP games, and well, it will never change.

@Catriona85: I was just looking over the statistics with Fury the other day. We've had a large reduction with issues on Fury since the recent updates to Massive PvP (and yes they do still have issues). They're still working on it and mostly it's in conjunction with the programmers; not just the Systems Team. It's not an easy system to hash out perfectly the first time. :)

@Svarteryttar: Very good point too.




Fri Mar 05 2010 5:03AM Report
Crolug writes:

"The people that are playing the game for fun and not worrying about crap like that, don't visit forums, don't post there and are just happily playing in the game"

You've said it mate, I'm one of these people. :) 

Fri Mar 05 2010 8:39AM Report
w1cket01 writes:


Great post and it got me thinking more about the systems team. Can you elaborate more on what backgrounds system designers possess to do their job? You mentioned that creating the rulesets often involves mathematical computations or manipulations. How do systems designers figure out how to create the numbers or formulas for the game mechanics? I hope I'm making sense but I find this completely fascinating.

Maybe a future post about how system designers begin their work and conceptualize something.

Fri Mar 05 2010 8:44PM Report
Urrthling writes:

 I am a Simulation and Game Development student and I beg to differ. I can make a game where min/maxing can be thwarted but not punished. I have been thinking on it for years, but I have years to go until I graduate. Never say never Jerokane.

There are some of us thinking outside the box.


Sat Mar 06 2010 10:42PM Report
Nipashnaka writes:

You can't be serious Urrthling. You are a "student" with "years to graduate" but because you have been "thinking on it for years," you have solutions to complex game design issues that have plagued industry experts for over a decade?

Sun Mar 07 2010 11:14AM Report
undead17 writes:

ive decided to go back to age of conan mostly because of the expansion and to give it another try , ive been playing another mmo but too cute for my liking i want to hug the mobs not kill them. lots has changed and i like what i see , just need more of it:) yes im greedy

see you in there


Mon Mar 08 2010 8:29AM Report
Battlestorm writes:

I'm sorry all, I agree with Wootin here. If you're going to make a game fun, don't require individuals to look up the mechanics of the engine to figure out all the flaws or tricks the system has in order to max out your character . . . one should simply have to read the skill's description and perhaps put it into practice a bit. If you've made a game well enough, that won't just suffice for most people, it will be the only option needed to max out a character.

That said, there are those that will want to know more about the intricate details of the game's calculations just to make sure what they are doing based on their experiences is truly the best option (perhaps their calculations have all been just random luck). These rules should be available but should provide little in the way of providing completely conclusive evidence, let's not completely detract from the game's mysticism.

In the end, what I think wootin is saying, is that you shouldn't HAVE to play with the server calculation statistics to ACTUALLY max out your character because things aren't already properly balanced or working correctly to begin with. It should be a possibility but not a near necessity to look up the detracting details of a game just to get the most of your chosen class.

I stopped playing AoC not long after it's launch as well and it had a LOT to do with the community, Tortage over and over, and the 8-your-olds running around with their female anatomy out mouthing the most immature and retarded of all possible spam; but also the large mass of people that were running around as a level 80 not two weeks into the game leading me to believe that there may have just been more than a few technical exploits out there (and I felt I was practically gimping my own character by ignoring them).

Sat Mar 13 2010 12:28PM Report writes:
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