Thirty years ago, the closest thing to a massive multiplayer game was an extended round of hide-and-go-seek with the neighbourhood kids. Today, however, there’s an entire genre of Internet-based video games—role-playing games called massively multiplayer online (MMO) games—that gives new meaning to the words “massive,” “multiplayer,” and “game.”
When they’re playing an MMO, hundreds, thousands, and even millions of players from around the globe converge in real time in a single, virtual world that transcends time and space. There, a player in Japan can deliver an object to a player in the United States; a player in South Africa can learn a new skill from a player in France; and a group of players in Canada, Australia, and Brazil can unite in order to defeat a ferocious digital monster.
It’s this team-based approach to playing video games that one company, Funcom, is also using to create them.
One of the world’s largest and most successful independent MMO publishers, Funcom was founded in 1993 in Oslo, Norway. Its first MMO, Anarchy Online, debuted in 2001 and has served more than 200 million hours of entertainment, or more than 8 million days of playtime, to nearly 2 million gamers. To spearhead development of its latest game, The Secret World, Funcom established a Canadian division, Montréal-based Funcom Games Canada, in 2009, under the direction of Miguel Caron, who has since built one of the most diverse and most collaborative independent game-development studios in the world.
“The Secret World is being built in four studios in four different countries, and the four studios act like one,” says Caron, who is president and CEO of Funcom Games Canada. “So when you talk about working in teams, that’s something that is extremely important to us.”
The four studios building The Secret World—which was still pending release at press time—are located in Montréal, where the game is being designed and developed; Oslo, Norway, where the game’s business and marketing staff are located; Beijing, China, where the game’s concept art is produced; and Durham, North Carolina, where the game’s customer-service staff is based (Funcom also has an office in Zurich, Switzerland.)
Although it’s essential, working in teams isn’t always easy. Geography and time zones pose the largest challenges. To overcome them, Funcom relies heavily on Skype, as well as frequent overseas travel, to allow the team to stay both virtually and physically connected.
Although lag—both the jet and network variety—is abundant, the benefits far outweigh the costs. Caron says its multiple offices allow Funcom to maximize its resources. For instance, maintaining an office in Oslo, where the company was founded, allows it to retain its senior executives. Meanwhile, having a studio in Montréal—a gaming-industry hub, where the cost of producing games is much lower than in Oslo—allows it to take advantage of Canadian tax credits. Outsourcing art to China, on the other hand, means the company can access an untapped pool of talent that is unusually large and uniquely affordable.
And then there is the diversity of its workforce. Because it has offices all over the world, Funcom employs more than 45 different nationalities, including more than 32 in Montréal alone, where the team totals 160 people. “As much as we can, we’re trying to minimize the downsides of being multilocation,” Caron says. “One of the benefits is having different perspectives; The Secret World will be a game that is beloved by every nationality possible.”
Typically either subscription- or micro-transaction-based, MMOs are extremely intricate, and therefore extremely complex. “You’re talking Hollywood budgets for MMOs,” Caron says, adding that many cost upwards of US$100 million to produce. “The reason why is you’re basically creating new lives for your players.”
Because they’re designed to be played for as long as possible by as many players as possible (some people have been playing Anarchy Online for more than nine years), building an MMO requires an infinite supply of gaming content, which in turn requires an infinite supply of staff energy, creativity, and commitment. Collaboration plays a big part in that, which is why Caron designed his Montréal studio with teamwork in mind.
When he built it, Caron put his office and all his managers’ offices in the middle of the studio with glass walls, and all the employees’ desks around them on the perimeter of the building so they could have window access. The result has been a unique democratization of the workforce that’s given Funcom employees the fuel they need to produce The Secret World.
“The design of our studio has created a very positive energy,” Caron says. “I’ve always been a manager who’s focused on employees—it’s my job to create the best environment possible for my employees so they can produce the best game possible.”