Tour of NCsoft's Austin Offices
Just after the Austin Game Developers Conference, Jon Wood, Keith Cross, Evan Wilkinson, and Laura Genender all of MMORPG.com were given an opportunity to have a tour of the Austin, Texas offices of NCsoft. MMORPG.com site developer and graphics monkey Evan Wilkinson gives this report on the experience.
To start off, let me tell those that have never worked in, or visited a game studio what it's really like. First off, creativity and a degree of "strangeness" is not a liability. Quite the opposite in fact, it is often considered an asset. One might think of an office that develops software to be stark cubicles in an unending row with the strong flicker of fluorescent lighting accompanied by that incessant hum. This, in my experience, has never ever been the case of a game development studio. Picture if you will: A large room with many desks in it. The walls are almost completely covered with art, drawings, posters, and toys. The desks are the same as the walls: covered in paper, toys, pictures, disks, and quite often soda cans. The glow of monitors is quite often the only real source of light. When light is needed, those overhead fluorescent tubes never get used, but desk lights and the ever popular tall free standing lights shine on. Indirect light is king in this realm. It is not quiet. Usually the faint sound of music and chatter among those working hits your ears when you walk in. This is the picture of a game studio office... and NCsoft's offices in Austin, Texas fit the stereotype perfectly.
Upon our arrival at NCsoft, we were greeted not by a person (in fact the lobby was briefly devoid of human life), but by huge monsters and boxes of the games that the company has published. Fortunately, there was a bell... you know, one of those bells you would see at a hotel. Ding!
After a bit of mugging for the camera in the lobby, we were escorted to the elevator to the second floor and though a room that I could only imagine as being referred to as the "show-off room". This room was probably filled with every single promotional asset ever used for every game published by NCsoft. There were boxes, posters, bags, cardboard stand-ups, pens, neon signs, and for some inexplicable reason, a fax machine. I will say this: I really wished I had a large trench coat at that point, and as it turned out, many more times that day.
Passing a few office doors and saying hi to those inside, we eventually reached a Tabula Rasa Demo Room. This room had seven, count 'em, seven top-of-the-line Dell XPS machines on Sci-fi styled desks running Tabula Rasa (surprised?). The ceiling was covered in netting and black fabric and the floor was metal paneling. The room in essence was literally a Tabula Rasa room... with Tabula Rasa running in it.
Finally, we met up with Opal Lertutai, PR manager, and Mike Crouch, Associate Communications Manager, who led us to a conference room where we had a sit down chat with Greg Bauman, Senior Marketing Manager and Steven Nichols, Dungeon Runners Producer. Not to worry, good men and women, we'll be bringing you an article detailing the conversation early next week. The room itself was exactly what you would image: A white room with a conference table. Thrilling, I know. I guess every room can't be full of toys and swag.
Anyway, with Opal in the lead, we started our way though the facility. Now, let me say this first: I have no idea where we went and how we got there. We turned and twisted our way so many times that I felt like a mouse in a maze. A pretty maze with lots of pretty pictures. The halls are covered with posters of their games, CDs of their games, newspaper clippings of pretty well anything that's been written about anyone there, magazines about their work and people. It was fantastic to walk though, as seen in the below few images
My interest was piqued when we turned the next corner and saw what was on the wall. Having worked in offices like this before, I can safely call it the "wall of people" There were hundreds of pictures of different body types, style types, clothing types, facial types. I have a directory on my machine with very similar stuff, but to go though the effort of putting this on the wall was much cooler, and (I'm not too proud to admit) theirs was much better.
Moving on with our NCsoft trek... There are many spots were cameras aren't allowed because of future projects and sensitive information on current releases... let's just say lots of great stuff to behold!
Now, a particularly interesting stop on our journey was the office door of Dallas Snell, Director of Business Development. As Opal says “He is our backbone of research and player metrics, and new businesses in general." He had some interesting things to say about Habits of Happiness and their relation to the gaming world. I think we probably could have talked with him for a good bunch of hours. If you want to learn more about what he had to say, head over here www.habitsofhappiness.com.
Before heading over to the second building, we walked though a connecting hall full of arcade machines. Now, I have to admit, I have a weakness for old-style arcade machines... and the one I play now on my Wii is Galaga by Namco. I really wanted the tour to take a break right there and have a go at that, but alas, it was not to be. These machines are apparently the property of Richard Garriott and apparently he is very generous with stuff like this, which was quite evident walking around. There was cool stuff everywhere!
Leaving the beauty and wonder of old arcade games behind, we crossed a wooden bridge and made our way into the neighboring building which housed the Quality Assurance Department. As expected, we can't take pictures here, but we were given a tour by Michael Craighead, the Manager of the department. This room was darker than the rest (and was the epitome of monitor-only lighting), we were told that it was darker because any additional lighting could lead to a tester missing something. There were a few different sections, some testing Tabula Rasa, Dungeon Runners, City of Heroes, and Lineage 2 (as far as I can remember at least). We also got the chance to take a peek inside the hardware compatibility room. Anyone who likes to build their own machine and tinker would be in heaven in this room. It was full of great stuff, as you can see from the picture. Obviously, this allows them to test their games with the widest possible variety of hardware.
Carrying on, we continued though halls, peeking in rooms. In all honesty there isn't much to report just because everyone is hard at work and we didn't really want to interrupt them.
Near the end of our tour, we come across a very large group of people heading into the building. They all had NCsoft shirts on and, as we are told, were winners of a contest in South Korea where they were flown out to Austin, got to go Zero-G flying, topped off with a tour of the offices, among other things. We're not a particularly envious group, but that seemed pretty cool.
After our tour was over and Laura was driving Jon, Keith, and myself to the Airport, I couldn't help but miss working in such an environment. (Not that my job isn't great now... right boss?) Those of you who have had the experience of working in a similar creative environment know what I'm talking about. For those of you out there who haven't had the pleasure, let me say that the Austin NCsoft office was a very cool place where you could practically feel the creative juices flowing. Personally, I think we can expect to see some great stuff coming out of there in the future.