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

Morgan Ramsay Posted:
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Ramsay: What did you take away from Anarchy Online that you used in the making of your later games?

Godager: One of our Anarchy Online expansion packs, Shadowlands, was the biggest expansion pack that Funcom had ever made. It was set completely in another world, a new game in its own right with a portal to the Shadowlands from the main world. That was our test bed for our ability to execute a successful launch and make a really huge world. I think we learned more from that.

Shadowlands was a massive expansion. In terms of real estate, we almost doubled the size of Anarchy Online. In terms of complexity, we added a lot of new systems. In terms of graphics, Shadowlands wasn't 2.0; it was more like 4.0. We didn't have that many customers, but Shadowlands was still successful and we made money. That was where we wanted to be as a company.

We saw with Shadowlands that we can execute a huge game, that we can make a good, huge world, and that we can make something really visually appealing. At the time, my boss and I worked really well together; he put a lot of faith in me and saw that the team that I built with Shadowlands could go on to make another title. We were shopping around and wondering what we were supposed to be doing, so we picked up the rights to Conan. I wanted to do something with that. It was a happy coincidence that the IP had just been bought by some Swedish people. Norway is like Canada to Sweden. We speak the same language and we have the same mentality, so it was easy to get in touch with them.

They really saw that we understood how to take care of someone else's intellectual property through our work with Disney on Pocahontas. We were able to convince them we could make their IP worth more if they let us build a huge MMO. They thought that was a fantastic thing, of course. There aren't many MMOs coming out, maybe one or two every other year. There are fewer and fewer coming out because breaking into that market is really hard. So, we took what we learned from Anarchy Online and made Shadowlands, and then we took what we learned from Shadowlands and made Age of Conan. We started making Age of Conan in 2003 and continued until the launch in 2008—five years in production!

Ramsay: Before we talk about why you left that year, since you were the creative director, did you spend any time on developing creative talent? I ask especially because Ragnar Tørnquist is effectively Norway's Sid Meier. Did you play any role in building that kind of creative leadership within the company?

Godager: I don't think I can take credit for building Ragnar. Ragnar and I were the two big stars depending on which game was coming out. Ragnar did The Longest Journey, and I did Anarchy Online, and then he did Dreamfall, and I did Age of Conan. Now, he's doing The Secret World. We were on different teams. I don't remember if I hired them, but I remember when he started working with us in 1994. I thought he was a brilliant, brilliant guy. When everyone asks me about the talent, I would always say that Ragnar is probably the most talented person we had in our company.

I'm much more of an organizational development guy. I build organizations, I build companies, and I build relationships. I had a very, very conscious role in building talent. I always thought my role was to help build an organization that could run itself, especially if I were to leave, or if I was hit by the tram or the subway.

I was always trying to find talent and spend a lot of time with them, giving them responsibilities and letting them run with the ball. I'd check in occasionally and review what they were doing, but I was never in complete control. Sometimes you need more control than I had, but sometimes it's also very costly to have too much control. When I left Funcom, I was very proud of the organization I left behind. I was very happy about that.

Ramsay: What were the events leading up to your departure?

Godager: To be very honest, I was depressed. I had done everything I could, and exhausted everything I knew, when I made Age of Conan. I had tried so hard to make something that could be my legacy. I had wanted to leave Funcom in 2003 after Shadowlands. I was tired of the game industry and I was tired of making games, but I was dissatisfied because I didn't have a hit.

Age of Conan sold like a hit, but we lost customers because it didn't have enough content. It was too empty. People consumed the content too quickly and the end game was not. Age of Conan was substandard compared to World of Warcraft, or any other game out there for some time. So, we didn't really make it.

When I left in 2008, I saw that too many players were leaving, and I was depressed by that. I had really put all my soul into it. My boss was very sad that I left. He felt we had done everything right, and he felt I was a good game developer, a good game designer, and a good creative director, and that the company lost a lot of knowledge when I left. I know this because he doesn't lie about stuff like that.

I wasn't asked to leave, but I wanted to leave because I was so sick and tired of failing. I was sick and tired of the game industry. I just wanted to do something completely different with my life. I realized later that I left too quickly. I should have stayed on, helping the company learn more from our past mistakes, but I had to put myself and my own feelings first. For the first time in 15 years, I did that, and that felt really good.

Ramsay: In 2008, what was the trigger that motivated you to go through with leaving Funcom?

Godager: Before then, every day, I was receiving an e-mail message, automatically generated from Funcom, about the number of subscribers; I was watching the number of subscribers just dwindle. When I went to Portugal with my wife and kids, my life without Funcom felt so good. That's when I realized I can no longer stay on, so I wrote my letter of resignation on the way home. I just needed some time away to really understand how stressed, tired, and fed up with the game industry I had become.

Ramsay: On the way home? Was your decision to leave that easy?

Godager: It was very hard, but not in the sense of having doubts. It was very hard because I felt like I was killing a large part of my identity. I was Funcom. I was the only founder left. My life had been Funcom every day, every morning, for 15 years. I chose Funcom because it was mine. After I left, I chose psychology because it was good for me to help people after all that time.

Ramsay: What do you think makes an entrepreneur successful? What do you think makes him, or her, fail?

Godager: When you're starting your own company, I think you need to be able to disregard naysayers who say "ah, I think that's been done before" or "this is really hard; you shouldn't do it." Fill in where you don't have knowledge with hope and aspiration, and then surround yourself with people who can tell you what you don't want to hear, so that you can prepare yourself for your own mistakes. You can't give them power over you, or your company, but you need critics and you need to be able to disregard them.

I also think that one of the biggest flaws I've seen in founders is that they become hooked on investor thinking. Instead of thinking about how to make a good product, something interesting, or something you can love to make, they ask, "When is my exit? When is the next round of financing? What's the price of my shares today?" The people who lasted the shortest of the Funcom founders were the people who were most interested in becoming rich or powerful.

You can become powerful and rich, but that's not why you should become a founder. You must believe you can do something that's cooler, different, better, nicer, faster, or cheaper. I've seen many startups fail, and nine out of ten times, they failed because the founders were more interested in riches than products. I'm not saying you should want to be poor though. I'm not saying that.

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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.