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Online Game Pioneers - An Interview with Funcom's Gaute Godager Part 2

Morgan Ramsay Posted:
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After 15 years, Godager, the last Funcom founder standing, retired from the company and perhaps video games altogether. Currently, Godager works as a clinical psychologist, diagnosing and treating psychiatric illnesses at an inpatient clinic in Norway. Read our exclusive excerpt from Morgan Ramsay's recent book, Online Game Pioneers at Work. Today, we present part two of Morgan's interview with Godager.

You can read the whole book by purchasing it on Amazon.

Ramsay: When a company develops MMOs, that company tends to publish their own games. Funcom had publishers prior to entering the MMO business. Why the switch?

Godager: By 1998, we were fed up with the developer for hire model. We were really fed up with making console games where we saw the hardware manufacturers make all of the money. We made excellent games, but they could screw us at a whim. I have so many tales of that.

I remember in 1997 when we worked in the Irish office on a really cool title, a comic book driving game. We had married some cool comic characters we'd made with Sega Rally-type driving. It was not only fun to look at, but it played really well. We thought that game had huge potential, so we made the game for the Sony PlayStation.

Sony was super interested in the game; they were asking for new copies all of the time. And they had said that for the approval process to be really fast, we had to submit games to them and we did. Suddenly, when had a really nice contract with them. Everything was fine, they were smiling, and we were hugging. But when the game was ready, they started finding bugs we couldn't replicate. So, the game remained in limbo for several months. And one day, Sony's in-house team releases a game that was a clear competitor. I can't prove anything, of course, but isn't that a weird coincidence?

In 1998, we decided to shift to developing and publishing PC games. PC development was the place to be because we could control everything. Retail still had to get their cut, but at least we could sustain lower sales numbers and make our money back. But we had less risk; we didn't have no risk. And so we eventually moved more toward the subscription model, where sales weren't dependent on normal distribution channels. We could sell games directly online.

It's important for me to give credit where credit is due. Marius Kjeldahl, the vice president of technology, was the one who actually had the vision of moving the company into online games. I am not saying I was against it, but I wasn't very happy about it. It was just a new place where I didn't really understand the games. I wasn't visionary enough. I hadn't been online enough, basically.

Ramsay: Was Funcom technically prepared for online games?

Godager: The development infrastructure we had was ready, more or less, on the client side. We everything we needed to make PC games. On the server side, it was a much bigger struggle. What type of server do we need? What do we need to know? We didn't know, so we hired people who understood servers and server programming.

And although Marius was a visionary, he didn't really get the backend, so we launched Anarchy Online without any methods of receiving payment. That was a disaster! The game had been in development for three or four years. It wasn't that hard to make, but so many things needed to be coordinated and weren't.

We also had no crowd control system. Let me explain it to you very briefly. Let's say that you want to make an online version of the summer Olympics in London. There is a set number of people that can be gathered in one place. We could carry the load when they were evenly distributed throughout that world, but real people don't have that way. The second everyone hears that Usain Bolt is running the 100-meter dash finale somewhere, everyone rushes there. In our MMO, our system broke down. We didn't understand why.

So, basically, we had a leaky ship—a ship that when we poured water on it in the dry dock, it seemed to hold up, but as soon as we dumped the ship into the ocean and filled it with passengers, the ship started to leak everywhere and sink. It was just something that was almost impossible for us to predict. We failed quite miserably at launch and lost a lot of customers. And we were notorious.

We were the first to fail in such an epic way, but other games had come after us and done the same. If you go to MMORPG.com and read about launches, you will see that eight out of ten launches fail in some way. There are so many ways for a world to fall apart.

Ramsay: What did you learn?

Godager: Launch day was a remarkably happy event. We were sitting around in our offices—taking pictures, popping a bottle of champagne, and saluting each other for doing a good job. Of course, we didn't have the tools to understand how badly the launch was actually going. It took some time for us to understand how much crashing we had. We were in the dark about almost everything. There were so many broken pieces of technology glued together with hope and fear. Some pieces were just missing.

Our many patient and nice investors actually had a critical role in the failure of Anarchy Online: they pushed so hard for an unfinished game to come out because they felt like we had spent enough time and money. They were right, but they tossed their investment out the window by pushing so hard. Before launch, I remember we, the non-management people, were saying, "The game isn't finished! The game isn't ready! We need to wait. We need to do more." But we had spent so much money, and we had been saying the same thing for so much time, that we didn't have any credibility anymore.

We didn't know when we started how little we knew, which is always a problem. We were breaking in a new technology, a new platform, and, for the first time, we were the publisher and we didn't have another publisher's quality assurance organization. We had to do everything ourselves and make massive leaps everywhere.

Everything fell apart over the weekend after launch. It was really bad. There were many bugs, and players were demanding we fix them. So, we were working around the clock on a huge patch, and when that patch went out, we actually broke everything. We had gone from crappy to completely disastrous.

The worst thing we saw that we had to fix was cheating. It was bad enough that we had to implement a crowd control system. Players were using speed hacks to move ten times as fast, so our coders worked really, really hard to implement fail safes to ensure that a player's character was always positioned correctly. The fail safes worked really well in our office on our servicers, but the crowd control system, and the anti-spoofing and anti-cheating systems, kicked in constantly for players around the world. People would log in and start moving but then they were suddenly yanked back. The client would display a message saying "take it easy."

It was like spitting in the face of our customers. Players grew really frustrated, and we lost a lot of customers that first weekend. And, of course, all the coders were so tired that they had gone on vacation. They took some time off because they just delivered this big patch.

The launch of Anarchy Online was a really stressful and terrible experience. We learned a lot, and there's a lot of code in The Secret World that is probably many hundreds of iteration better than what was in Anarchy Online. Going forward, we built on what we had done, fixed it, and made it better, so The Secret World had a flawless launch with almost no crashes or bugs.

Ramsay: Who were your competitors?

Godager: The two biggest MMOs at that time, at least in the West, were Ultima Online (UO) and EverQuest (EQ). UO was extremely focused on online player vs. player combat, and there were no levels. You came into the game as a new player. I remember that I had two gold pieces and very little equipment. It was hard for me to make money because the game was styled around the hardcore player. I wandered around for hours, trying to find some way to make money, and, gradually, I spent all of my money on food.

Being extremely weak, I stumbled out into the world where these player killers were just waiting for me and several hundred other hopeful newbies. They slayed us over and over and over, and we'd respawn where we died, so we were just killed over and over and over. We had to log out, wait several hours, and then log in again. UO wasn't flawed from a technology perspective; the game was just super hardcore. UO was made for the winner, for the player killer. That was the philosophy of the people who made UO.

And the same goes for EQ. That was a game balanced around high-level gameplay—a game that you had to spend hours and hours and hours playing. I played a spell caster. Every time I cast a spell, I spent mana points, but there were absolutely no mana potions in the game. There was nothing you could buy to replenish your mana. The only way to regain mana was to sit down and read your spell book, which took up to five minutes to regain your full mana. You could kill one beast, but then you had to sit down and read your spell book. The spell book was a full screen page, so you saw nothing for five minutes except your spell icons while you waited for your mana to replenish. It was really hardcore and balanced around playing in a group because you were really poor and puny by yourself.

These were our competitors and they were successful. The only reason UO and EQ were successful, in my opinion, was that they were first and people just accepted what they were given. It wasn't until World of Warcraft where Blizzard plied their "games for everyone" knowhow. They made an extremely solo-friendly MMO. The other games were really hard to play by yourself. That's why they had 12 million subscribers instead of 500,000.

With Anarchy Online, we remedied many of the problems with UO and EQ. We tried to create the first MMO, and we tried to create the first player-friendly MMO. Unfortunately, really broken server technology didn't really help our case.

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Morgan Ramsay

Morgan Ramsay, bestselling author of Gamers at Work: Stories Behind the Games People Play and Online Game Pioneers at Work, has interviewed more than 50 leaders in entertainment, technology, and sports, such as EA founder Trip Hawkins, Gaikai CEO David Perry, and NFL punter Chris Kluwe. Follow him on Twitter (@MorganRamsay) or visit his website at theramsayinterviews.com.