The Changing World of Joel Bylos

We interview Funcom's Creative Director about the three MMOs in his care.

The last time I spoke with Funcom’s Joel Bylos was at Gamescom 2012. As Lead Content Designer on The Secret World, the plucky Australian was eager to show off the New York Raid and tease the new zone of Tokyo. But even though the Norwegian developer has gone through some turbulent times, Bylos has weathered the storm, growing to become Creative Director, with Age of Conan and Anarchy Online joining TSW under his stewardship.

When I caught up with Bylos in an interview more recently, the developer was nearing the end of an organizational change. All three games would be managed by a single Live Team based out of North Carolina, sharing the same building as billing and customer support. The Montreal and Oslo offices, meanwhile, would shift focus to the recently announced Lego Minifigures MMO currently in early development.

It’s a challenge that’s caused Bylos to draw up plans more than once, but which he also believes will benefit all three games in the long run. Because both The Secret World and Age of Conan use Funcom’s proprietary Dreamworld engine, a feature built for one game can be reused in the other. And with Funcom pushing Dreamworld to Flash and Tablet for Lego Minifigures, the possibilities for their existing franchises are tantalizing.

During the interview, Bylos explained how ongoing development will be handled by the Live Team, supported by an interweaving set of plans for all three live MMOs. He shared how the creative vision for each will be protected, and how he’ll avoid getting bogged down in project management. We also discussed Funcom’s future, and how he feels about the recent Dreamfall Kickstarter.

ZAM: What’s it been like, moving from Lead Content Designer on The Secret World to Creative Director for all three live games?

It’s scary, because there’s a lot more expectation. It’s interesting; Age of Conan I love, and have loved, because it’s the first game I was a developer on. I guess you always look at what other people are doing with the game, especially if you’ve worked on it in the past, and you want to make your own mark there, and I feel like there’re things still to be done on Age of Conan.

The Secret World, it’s progressed but it’s been quite linear, in the sense that I went from Lead Content designer to Game Director, but of a smaller team because we weren’t in full development at that point. We were a live team supporting the game and developing the issues, but it wasn’t like the 400-people team that it was before launch.

So for The Secret World it was fine, sort of a stepping up and taking more responsibility. Taking over the other two games, it’s scary. There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be fixed, and of course the team is smaller with the restructuring, so it’s about aligning my expectations with what can actually be done, and of course trying to deliver to what the players want. So I would say it’s scary and I’m still settling into it, and trying to get to the point where I’m happy with how things are going.

ZAM: It seems like only yesterday you were drawing up plans for The Secret World’s onward roadmap, and now you have to change those plans and draw up ones for two other games as well.

Yeah, [laughs]. While I was on Christmas holidays I sat down, because I had a couple of days free. I sat down and I planned out everything in The Secret World we were going to do until about mid-2015.  And then I came back, and my second day back at work they were like “Yeah, we’re restructuring, and downsizing teams, and so forth.”

And that was crippling, because I came back from Christmas just so excited about the future for The Secret World. I had a good grasp on what we could do - I’d been working with the guys for about six months by that point, and I had a really good feel for how the live team could deliver, and I sort of planned based on that for the next couple of years. And then I got crushed by the revelation, and then I got offered a new job amongst that situation.

So yes, it was an interesting scenario. The Secret World – I had the plans, and now I have to redo the plans.

ZAM: How’s that going? I know that you’ve announced Issue #7 for The Secret World, and you’ve got other stuff in the pipeline.

I’ve redone the plan for the rest of this year at least. The team is still settling in to North Carolina, and people are getting used to things and I’ll be able to see how people deliver and what our velocity is.  But at least in terms of The Secret World we have a pretty good handle on what we can deliver, so for this year we’re fine.

And then what I’m doing is weaving the roadmap together with Conan, so that when we get features for The Secret World they cross over to Conan. Some of the features The Secret World already has will make their way into Conan, and I want to set the roadmaps up so that they have a lot of crossover and alignment. And then, in addition, there’ll be unique content for Conan, of course.

ZAM: In terms of the North Carolina move, how are things bedding in there now? Does this mean that you’re clocking up the air miles, or spending most of your time doing video conferencing?

I do a lot of VC. We have meetings every day, so I’m always on Skype with the guys. I usually – it’s kind of annoying because my wife always complains that my workday is 12 to18 hours. Thing is, I come home from work, and that’s when everybody in America is starting, so I’m on Skype working with them as well, at night, after my kids go to bed. So it tends to be a bit of a long day.

But I’m travelling there in mid-April, so that’s my next trip over. The full team is not there yet – that’s part of the problem. There’s a lot of rigmarole over getting American work visas, so the people who are there in North Carolina are the Americans, who don’t have trouble getting visas obviously.

And then it’s the guys who are moving from Montreal, the development team that’s still working in Montreal, and won’t be able to get down until the end of the month. So this is the worst period in terms of having them split, and then from April onwards it’ll be fine. There’s a three office meeting every day at the moment.

ZAM: That kind of puts a blip on your roadmap plans, where you’re trying to balance between three different sites at the moment.

At least the latest plan that I’ve put forward has had that in account, because I knew what was going on, but certainly not the earlier one, but it should be all good though. People know their jobs, and they’re all pretty experienced – it’s not really that different to before launch when we had Oslo and Montreal, now it’s just that there’s this third player involved, and soon it’ll be back to two again. 

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