by Cody "Micajah" Bye
As my final day at the Austin Game Developers Conference came to a
close, I hustled outside and held my hand in the air. I also waved it
like I just didn't care. I had an appointment to keep, and I needed to
head to the NCsoft Studios. I grabbed the wrinkled piece of paper out
of my pocket and read the driver the address, letting him know that we
needed to be there "as quickly as possible." Without delay, we were
cruising towards the studios like a soldier in style="font-style: italic;"> Tabula Rasa
heading towards a control point being overtaken by the Bane. However,
even though we were driving as fast as possible, it still took us an
extremely long time to get there. Long enough, in fact, that the cash I
had on hand didn't cover the entire cost of the cab. Let's just say
that the NCsoft studios are quite the drive from the conference center.
Even with the distance that we needed to cover, we made it to the
studios on time.
Without any trepidation, I entered the NCsoft lobby and immediately was
confronted with two larger than life monsters straight out of a fantasy
MMOG. While I couldn't tell if they were creatures from style="font-style: italic;">Guild Wars, style="font-style: italic;">Ultima Online, or style="font-style: italic;">Lineage, I was
impressed with their prominent presence in the gaming studios lobby.
This was a place where corporate culture took a back seat to creativity
and cooperation, and it was evident by the two figures standing in the
doorway. Since I'd been to several gaming studios before, the
appearance of the two beasts wasn't a surprise, but it's always a
welcome change from what you come to expect in typical business
offices. This was a good reminder that this was a gaming studio and not
a law firm or some other form of corporate structure. I could feel my
eyes yearning to see piles of concept art and other interesting areas.
After I'd thoroughly poked and prodded the massive beasts, April Burba,
one of NCsoft's community managers, emerged from the elevator with a
smile on her face. "Glad you guys could make it," she said cheerily. As
a community manager, one of April's greatest assets is her ability to
communicate, and it was readily apparent here. She immediately made us
feel at ease, even though we were treading on what many would consider
hallowed ground. We talked for a few minutes before April looked down
at her watch and urged us to follow her. "We have a bus full of South
Korean press coming in in a few minutes," April said. "They're here to
see the NCsoft studios, and we're trying to get you guys through before
things get really crazy. There's a ton of 'em."
Our first stop as we stepped out of the elevator was the audio section,
which included several offices for the audio directors and a massive
box-room that was stationed awkwardly beside the offices. "That's a
fully sound proof room," April said. "You'll find a drum set and other
noise making items in there." According to April, this was the area
where all of the music and sound effects for style="font-style: italic;">Dungeon Runners and style="font-style: italic;"> Tabula Rasa was
made, unless it was one of the few items that they'd contracted out. I
had a distinct urge to peek inside the room, but I resisted and
followed April down the hallway.
"Next we have Robert's office and the offices of the Korean executives
that are here in the United States," April continued. As I stared into
the Robert's office, I was surprised at the size. While it wasn't
small, it certainly wasn't as big as many corporate offices I'd seen in
the past. With enough room for a large desk and several bookshelves,
most of the executive offices were merely more comfortable versions of
their employees offices. Whether it was due to humility by the upper
management or just an organizational equation, it was nice to see
offices that weren't absolutely extravagant.
Passing by many more offices, I found myself constantly staring at the
walls. Most gaming studios display their concept art in the blank
hallways or on any large walls that they can find, but there are
usually a variety of ways to display that art. Some studios go for the
immersion method, which features concept art being plastered on any
blank space available to them. It's always impressive to see hundreds
of pieces of concept art lining the walls, and I'm sure it's doubly
impressive when you actually work there. Other studios go for a more
formal method, hanging framed pieces of art throughout the building in
key positions to get the most out of their feng shui environments. The
NCsoft offices held a mixture of booth versions with the Lineage 2
office walls featuring vast swaths of concept artwork, while the style="font-style: italic;">Tabula Rasa
hallways had a large picture of the Bane or a nice shot of Sarah
Morrison every few feet.
One of the more impressive instances of artwork in the entire
structure, however, was what I called the "people posters." As we
walked through one of the hallways on each wall were dozens of these
"people posters" that served as visual identifiers of certain traits
that people possess. For example, on one poster was written the word
"masculine." Surrounding that word you'd find dozens of pictures of men
that epitomized the word masculine, from Viggo Mortensen in style="font-style: italic;">Lord of the Rings
to Gerard Buter in 300.
All of these posters had a different descriptor written on it and they
completely lined the hallway. The sheer number of pictures per poster
was astounding, and I couldn't begin to guess how many man hours it
took to create these vast murals.
Inch by inch we swept through the NCsoft building, peering into offices
and saying hello to a variety of different developers. As I poked my
head into one office, I couldn't resist staying a bit longer to chat.
Inside were six foot posters of the style="font-style: italic;">Baldur's Gate, Fallout,
and Planescape: Torment
boxes. The individual inside the office was Greg Bauman, a senior
marketing manager for NCsoft who had worked at Interplay during the
Black Isle golden years. Since Baldur's
Gate is my favorite game of all-time, he and I talked for
a few minutes about the differences between the current MMOGs and the
RPGs of the 1990s and what had changed. It was pretty heady stuff, but
eventually April pulled me out of the room and continued our tour,
smiling at my fanboi-ishness.
Next on our journey was the "media room," which consisted of piles,
stacks, and rows of various PR and marketing merchandise. Everything
from posters to cardboard cutouts were in this room rolled up in tubes,
stuffed in boxes, or generally piled on various tables. It was a motley
collection of awesomeness. Scanning the area, I quickly found a sexy
pop-up of Sarah Morrison, Tabula
Rasa's lead character and proceeded to get a little
freaky. Oh how I adore the cardboard loving. Before April could see I
was back by her side and we continued further into the NCsoft compound.
Perhaps the coolest room in the entire complex, however, was the
official Tabula Rasa
room that had been set up by Dell."This is the room that Dell built,"
April joked. "These machines are big, bad beasts with quad-core
processors." Inside were seven top of the line Dell XPSes stationed on
rows of gaming tables separated by cut diamond-steel and blue
tracklighting. Each of the Dells had style="font-style: italic;">Tabula Rasa running
on them, and April told us that this was where they'd sometimes do
testing or press events. Once you'd enetered the room, it really felt
like you'd entered a barrracks or a drop ship from style="font-style: italic;">Tabula Rasa. It was
Another interesting section of the NCsoft studio was Richard Garriott's
collection of old arcade games that were scattered throughout the
complex. With each corner that we passed, we happened upon games like style="font-style: italic;">Pac-Man, Ms. Pac-Man, Star Wars,
Galaga, and more. Collecting games is one of my interests,
and although I don't have a lot of room in my apartmentat the moment,
it's one of my aspirations. I'll probably start with old Atari of Sega
Genesis games though, and not their more expensive arcade counterparts.
Finally, one of the last things we saw on the tour was the
chronological collection of Richard's game development career. Starting
with his first game, Alkabeth,
which came in hand-made packaging all the way into his NCsoft days, I
walked through the entire extent of Richard's career in the length of a
long hallway. It was impressive to see where his gaming had come from
(and the old school of gaming that existed back in 1979) to what his
games have developed into today. Richard's office was also close by,
and we stopped to peek inside, but unfortunately the legendary
developer wasn't home. I would've enjoyed talking with the man, but
that's a story for another day.
Walking towards the doors to the lobby once more, I wish I could've
spent longer in the offices of NCsoft. To see the team in their native
environment was a wonderful gift and to actually spend a day following
April, Richard, Starr Long, or Paul Sage would be absolutely amazing.
Knowing the crew here at Ten Ton Hammer, we will do our best to bring
you that sort of coverage, but until then enjoy this brief glimpse into
the world of NCsoft!
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