Today we bring you the developer introduction of Jarle Snertingdalen the Associate Producer on Age of Conan Systems Team. You'll take a ride inside the mind of the man who helps manage and drive all of the game systems under the rainbow from within the world of Hyboria.
So on with it...
Famine: Who are you and what’s your function at Funcom?
Hey, my name is Jarle Snertingdalen and I’m Associate Producer on Age of Conan.
Famine: Do you have any prior experience in the industry or what made you jump into system design?
I joined the Age of Conan team in August 2004 and have worked with it since. It is the only experience I have with game development, apart from having a background as a pretty hard-core gamer. I actually started out as a programmer on in our tools department, and I have had a handful of roles in the team since the beginning. I made the “jump” from my previous role as Technical Director to system design due to my genuine interest in MMORPGs and game-play systems.
Famine: For those who might not know, can you tell us what an Associate Producer actually entails?
We have a few Associate Producers on Conan responsible for different areas of the game. Without getting into too much detail, my team is responsible for combat, class design, character development, RPG systems, items and loot tables. We are also involved with any feature that’s produced for the game.
My job is to make sure our plans are followed, well thought through, out on time and of quality. It’s also my task to ensure that the people on my team are able to work as efficiently as possible and that everyone has the right focus.
A normal day for me involves reading and discussing feedback, attending production, planning and design meetings, following up on tasks, coordinating with other teams and departments, and reviewing work we have done inside the team. I try to squeeze in time for playing the game, which I also do after hours.
Famine: You help manage the systems team. Do the guys on the team all work on the same systems or are they assigned to specific systems?
While there is a lot of overlap in the skill-set team-members possess, I can give you a broad picture; we have specific people working on itemization, classes and spells, some on the RPG systems and budgets, trade-skills and on core scripts and combat. This is not the entire picture, though, as people help out in other areas than their usual ones when needed. The work needed for new items, for example, will vary a lot from update to update. To become more flexible and increase knowledge and skill we have invested time in cross-training designers in different disciplines.
Famine: Now that we have you here. Give us some details on what your team is doing for update 1.05!?
Learning about the scope and the nature of update 1.05 last year was one of the reasons why I was excited about taking on this role. It’s a challenging feat to alter systems in the way we are now, considering we are Live and have a large amount of customers already. The update is highly needed to strengthen the fundamentals of the game so we can keep building and improving on it over the next years.
Update 1.05 is obviously a very large undertaking for my team. We’ve worked mainly on this update for some time now, so it heavily involves everyone on the systems team. We have gone through and updated all the statistics budgets, made several new systems like the damage mitigation system, we have enhanced a lot of the items in the game that have stats on them, we have also updated all combos, feats, spells and monsters to balance them around the new budgets and conform them to the new systems, we have revamped gem cutting and changed the heroic system. In addition to this we have a substantial amount of new class abilities and feats.
As we are now getting closer to a good version, the work we currently do mainly involves fixing bugs and iterating on changes based on testing and feedback from our public test server players.
Famine: Speaking of classes! I think a lot of players would want to know the process behind class changes and class balance. Can you share any insight on how you guys go about that process?
Classes in a traditional MMO can never be completely balanced; it is an on-going process that will never stop. However, we have a lot of documentation and tools internally ranging from high-level visions to complex calculation spread-sheets and tools. We have, for example, a budget for how high DPS a certain class should be able to reach. Every spell, combo and feat created that affect DPS will thus need to be made within the scope provided by ¬the budget. This will give us the “theoretical” DPS, but we also have numbers based on empirical testing to make sure that reality is not far away from our calculated theory.
Balancing out PvP is a very hard task, considering the sheer amount of different combos, spells, feats and crowd control abilities people have at their disposal. We have always stated for Conan that class balance is mainly focused around team game-play.
The process behind a class change usually starts with us being made aware of a problem. The source of this information can be developers, QA, Advocates, players on Live servers or feedback from our public test servers. Normally we start off by evaluating if there actually is a problem. Feedback will often provide us with the symptoms of something being wrong, so we have to make sure that we understand what the source of the problem is so we can fix it in a good way.
If we find that there is indeed a problem for example, we discuss how to best solve the problem while still keeping the ability to be on budget, in line with the role and vision we have for the class in mind. When the change we agreed on is finally implemented, we then test a lot with the team to ensure the change works as we originally intended. If it does, it is put into a version that we hand off to our Quality Assurance team. If they deem the change to also be good, it is patched out to our public test servers for player to give feedback. If need be, we iterate on the change until it is exactly how we want it to be.
Not all class-changes originate from revealed problems, though. We also design and iterate on abilities and feats to move the classes in the direction we want them to go.
Famine: There are a lot of requests on where crafting is heading. Is there anything in the pipeline for the crafting system in the coming updates?
We are well underway with crafting already. There were updates to Alchemy in the update 3 series and the upcoming update 5 will contain a complete revamp of gem cutting. The change offers a more understandable system, predictable outcome of cut gems, enables more player choice and gems are with this change brought into a good balance with other items. There is a good article about this revamp on our public test server forums that I recommend all players to read.
As for future updates to crafting, there isn’t much I can say, except that we of course have internal plans to further expand and improve on our crafting systems. We got a lot done in the year that has now passed since the launch of the game, and there is more to come!
Famine: A lot of people don’t know how complicated it is to develop and maintain systems. Can you share some of the general struggles you and your team have faced and what you have done to resolve them?
A very broad question, but I’ll try to say something meaningful. There are lots of challenges when you design RPG systems and budgets and implement them into an environment with thousands of concurrent players, but I can at least talk a little bit about one of those challenges;
We have goals with any system we make, and we design the system to ensure that we reach the goals we defined. There are though cases where the player-base uses a system in a way that we did not anticipate. An MMO on Conan’s size is a very complex game, and all the systems in the game interconnect so it is hard to foresee every possible use of a system before it reaches the masses on Live servers.
When we experience that players are using a feature in a way we did not intend for it to be used, we have to evaluate if it is acceptable or not and possibly take action. Taking action involves getting back to the drawing board and discussing with peers how to best solve the problem that has arisen. This will from time to time force us to make very hard decisions as one part of the community might enjoy the way the system plays out, while another part of the community is asking for changes to be made.
As a general rule, a simple and consistent system is less prone to produce unexpected behavior, and I will do my best to ensure that systems are designed with this in mind.
Famine: This is coming to be a standard question in these interviews but how important is community to you and your team?
It is very, very important. The community is an important part of the entire lifecycle of an MMO, and goes from being important before the launch of the game to vital after the game has launched. The improvements and investments we make to the game after launch are heavily based around feedback from the community. It is, after all, the community we make the game for.
My team and I read and post on the forums daily to collect feedback and communicate with players. We also have people in the team who actively assist and play with players on the public test servers to get efficient and meaningful feedback. We maintain lists internally with top issues raised in the community, and we work with and review feedback from the Advocates.
Famine: What’s the most exciting change coming in the update to you? Don’t be shy!
With this update we are confident that players will be more excited about rewards and loot they receive, and that the changes we have done in correlation with improvements to different parts of the GUI will enable players to understand the game better.
All the changes in the update are important, exciting and needed to the game. I think the most exciting part of the update to me is how all the changes are tied together and how the entirety of the update will make for a much stronger game.
Famine: Is there anything you would like to say to the community?
I urge you all to copy your Live characters onto the public test servers and try out Update 1.05. The public test server forums contain Update 1.05 articles and preliminary update notes. I’d also like to thank all the players who spend time there and for the crucial information you give us.
Your feedback is integral and a necessity for making us able to improve the game!