by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
In an MMORPG, perhaps no other single person's work is scrutinized more closely than that of the raid boss designer. Eirik Munthe is one of Funcom's top AI and script programmers for Age of Conan, specializing in raid dungeons and group dungeon encounters for levels 60-80 (the last 20 levels). Eirik got his start at Funcom three years ago, working his way into game design from the job he first held in the QA while in university. We met with Eirik at the Age of Conan Launch Event last week in Oslo, Norway, and he was kind enough to share some of the secrets of his trade.
We've heard rumors that there's a separate team working only on the level 80 content. Is that correct, or can you clarify how much development emphasis Funcom is putting on the endgame?
We have been working in teams. It's not all the other levels and then the level 80 team, but there are 20 level "strike teams." But all the other scripters are part of the scripting team and we help each other out, and we all know what happens in different areas of the game. I've been working closely with the 60-80 gameplay designers and a QA tester that tests our stuff specifically and also the quest writers who do quests specifically for the 60-80 playfields.
In the raid presentation, Erling talked a little bit about how each boss mob has a "gimmick." Have you ever had a great idea for a gimmick, but you just couldn't make it happen with the scripting and game design?
The design ideas for bosses is done by Per Storløkken and I in pretty much all cases. He's the Gameplay Designer and does necessarily know all the scripting requirements. There have been times when some ideas might not work exactly as planned, but you can modify it and change things slightly.
So it's an iterative process between gameplay design, scripting, and testing?
Yea, and I think the fact that Per is the Gameplay Designer - he's designing the surroundings of a boss and the conceptual idea of the boss - in teamwork with me, who knows more of the scripting - how things can be done in a good and efficient way - I think it's worked out really well. Of course, then we have the Quest Designers who want something else as well. Which often is way beyond what is advisable to do. *laughs* We usually find some way to fit it in.
You mentioned using the surroundings to add complexity to the boss mob encounter - is there one example of this that sticks out in your mind?
I didn't get to show you in the dungeon today, but the last boss is this demon lord. He summons demons at intervals, and also when you walk in on the bottom floor of this two floor structure, you look up and see open spaces in the floor above you. But when you come on top, you see the floor but can't see the openings - you have the illusion of a solid floor. So players will need to know roughly where those holes are. With collision and everything, it will get frustrating - as demons spawn, you may lose your orientation. To make matters worse, the demon lord has knockback too, increasing the chances that you'll fall through. That's one example.
Do you ever use collision - players colliding into each other instead of passing through as if they weren't there- as a mechanic?
It's indirect - you can't have too many melee guys, but perhaps you want to have a lot of melee guys so you can position yourself in a clever way. That aspect comes more into play when the dungeon itself is being built - maybe it's narrower at one point and the boss takes advantage of that. It certainly makes it harder for the players. Standing in one little dot, like in other MMORPGs, doesn't work in this game. Our healing is either in a cone or as an area, so you need to position yourself very carefully. Multiple boss encounters - the bosses will stand in different spots so you can't have everyone in your cone. So positioning is very important - that makes AoC very different than other games.
How did the concept of collision impact the scripting process just in general?
It makes it very different. Because - what if there isn't any room next to the boss, he's boxed in, and he needs to move. There's a lot of "what ifs" that other game developers didn't even have to think about. So if there's no path, I guess I smack these guys to the side and then walk. It's both a blessing and a curse in many ways, I have to think in a new way. That's really the alpha and omega when it comes to scripting; that things aren't exploitable. That's really what makes me suffer. * laughs *
Right, because players can funnel mobs?
Exactly. So there's a lot of extra thinking we have to do. But we can use that to our advantage as well.
The shields on each mob - are they a function of their stats, like intellegence or perception at noticing that this player is constantly swinging from the left, or is that programmed per boss mob?
It's programmed as a system working on its own, but it's also something that scripters can modify as we feel fit. We can override it. We can say, "OK, now you're doing this, you should be vulnerable here." But maneuvering it dynamically on ordinary mobs - it's not something that scripters do, it's the system. But, as with many features of this game, the scripters can modify specifically.
Are you able to spend as much time as you'd like to on each boss mob, or are there some times when you wish you could just spend a little more time on a particular encounter, but have to press on to meet deadlines?
I think we have been quite good at limiting ourselves to what we're able to deliver well. When I'm finished with a boss, I think it's finished. I think it's very important to have these details in order and hold on to the hardcore players as long as we can. We have a great degree of polish going on now.
Have you taken feedback from players and worked it back into these encounters, though?
We have a lot of communication with a group of players that play regularly on our test servers. The feedback they create, we cherish. But we haven't shown them quite everything.
Many thanks to Eirik and the Funcom team for their time and hospitality at the Age of Conan Launch Event.