Life after layoffs: the former lead designer of Secret World looks back on the game’s struggles

Life after layoffs: the former lead designer of Secret World looks back on the game’s struggles

Martin Bruusgaard is a project manager at a software company in Oslo, Norway. He oversees a team of programmers that help create Web solutions for clients building sites, managing online portfolios, and more. You might also recognize his name in the credits of The Secret World, as lead designer. Bruusgaard is one of the hundred plus that were laid off or placed on forced leave by Funcom after The Secret World failed to find commercial success. Instead of waiting to see what would happen with the company, he decided to quit.

The Secret World was always a gamble. It was an MMO releasing in a window not long after The Old Republic, and not long before Guild Wars 2. It was explicitly Lovecraftian in many places, a formula which has not historically been commercially viable. It expunged many of the classic MMORPG tropes such as leveling and classes. Its production in terms of time, resources, and cost fell into the triple-A category, though developer Funcom had only mild success with their previous MMO, Age of Conan.

Still, things looked mostly bright for the ambitious MMO: At one point the beta had a million players, most of whom came away pleased. “If I turn the clock back six months, and looking at the numbers from our beta where – and I don’t know exact numbers – but it was something like 80% thought the game was good or great and would recommend it to their friends,” Bruusgaard said. “We thought this was great. It seemed like people from the beta really, really liked the game. Yes it had bugs and we fixed them, but we always sent these polls, and we had polls popping up throughout the game through the in-game browser and the numbers were really, really positive. We thought we must’ve done something right, that people really liked us.”

Now, just over three months out from release, the game has sold just over 200,000 copies, Funcom has “temporarily” laid off half its workforce, and the company has dropped financial expectations of The Secret World over a 12-month period by $35 million. Then there’s Bruusgaard, who came to Funcom immediately after receiving his Master’s and had been with Funcom for seven years. He was with The Secret World from the beginning, contributing to the ability wheel, dungeon design, user interface, and inventory system, among other design aspects. It’s an unfortunate tale for a game that tried to be different, and to hear Bruusgaard tell it reveals some of the saddest truths of the gaming industry.

So what went wrong?

I asked Bruusgaard where things got off-track. What was the cause of The Secret World‘s troubles? “I think we probably should’ve gone for something that was maybe a bit more familiar,” Bruusgaard admitted. “No classes, no levels, different weapons, and you have the skills. Yes we have quests, but some of the quests are weird, where you look up on the browser to get the solution… it’s all familiar, but with a twist, and I don’t think we should’ve twisted that many things.”

“I have to stress I really like the game the way it is now, but if I’m thinking about making the game a more commercial success, I think we should’ve gone more commercial,” Bruusgaard said. “That’s what I mean about not putting our twist to the degree that we did.” Bruusgaard pointed to the level-less progression system as a problem for the game.

“This may be a radical thing to say, but I think it would have helped if we actually had levels in the game. I’m sort of ashamed to say it, but I think that might’ve made things feel more familiar when it comes to players tracking their own progression and telling how strong they are, and knowing where to go. I think people got lost because they don’t have this number telling them how strong they are,” Bruusgaard said.

The timing of the game’s release presented its own problems. “I think it was a very difficult window to launch in, between Star Wars and Guild Wars and TERA. A lot of big MMOs out there,” Bruusgaard told the Penny Arcade Report. “I think we also could’ve done a better job when it comes to marketing and making sure people know there is a game called The Secret World. I think too few people had heard of it, even though again, our numbers seemed like we were tracking really well.”

Bruusgaard didn’t sound happy listing off the changes, and he reiterated several times that he’s proud the game was willing to take the risks it did. His critiques aren’t complaints, just business-minded hindsight. I asked Bruusgaard if he felt developers needed to make a choice when they got into the games industry: make the game you dream about, or make the game that will make money? “It’s a shame to say, but I think it’s very, very few cases where you can sit down and make the game that you really want to do, and it turns out to be a success,” Bruusgaard said. “Unfortunately I think that in order to be a success in today’s market, you need to make the game a bit more commercial.”

“We sat down and often had this discussion, like, ‘We have to make sure people like this game. We can’t make the game only for us, we need to make sure that other people like this as well.’ We had tons of playtests where the conclusion was ‘This is too intricate, too complicated, too convoluted. It’s not commercial viable,’” Bruusgaard told me. “The product we released actually went through a lot of those iterations actually, making it commercialized more and more.”

“I think you have to consider what sells. You just have to. Not doing it is a huge risk. Yes, you might get lucky and everything works out great, but I would not do that again.”

Caught in limbo

Shortly after The Secret World launched, Bruusgaard took a vacation. He went into something of a self-imposed electric blackout, taking only his phone. He told Funcom they could call if there was a crisis, but at no point during Bruusgaard’s time off did any such call come. He came back to Funcom with a heavy feeling in his gut.

“I could sort of tell something was wrong. There was a lot of rumors saying it was going really badly, but nobody really knew, because they wouldn’t tell us any numbers. Player numbers and all that is very confidential, so we actually didn’t know because we’re a listed company,” Bruusgaard said. “But I could tell by the sort of frequency of certain meetings and certain people talking. You sort of get this vibe that something is wrong.”

Bruusgaard had seen enough layoffs to know what was going on. After the fact, Funcom would announce that half of its staff had been laid off. But what was actually happening was much worse for The Secret World. According to Bruusgard, almost 100% of the people at the Funcom office in Oslo who worked on game were placed on forced leave, otherwise known as furlough. “I think it was five people who weren’t put on forced leave,” Bruusgaard told the Penny Arcade Report.

The furlough is a temporary solution: it only allows a company to place workers in a sort of hiatus state of employment for 30 weeks, where they receive a fraction of their salary, but are still counted as full employees. At the end of the 30 weeks, the company must either fire the person in question or re-hire them. Many of Funcom’s employees are still on forced leave, including Bruusgaard’s friend, who was the first person to tell him about the job opening with Funcom that lead to a seven-year career.

“We were supposed to work for two more weeks before the forced leave actually kicked in. I worked for a week and then said, ‘I’m going to take a week of vacation, because I’m going to find a job. I don’t want to be on government support and sit there and wait for you guys to take me back,’” Bruusgaard told me. He explained that his hiring with his current company was quick, and his return to Funcom was to quietly turn in his resignation.

“I didn’t want to make a thing out of it. I was afraid it might hurt the game, or people who are anti-Funcom would get more fuel for the fire, so I just sort of wanted to fade out.”

Game developers don’t evaporate into thin air once a game is released, and they don’t congeal into existence when a project is started. They’re people, with lives. Bruusgaard has a wife and child to consider, as well as a mortgage and car payments. Waiting for Funcom wasn’t a financially viable option, moving to Montreal was out due to an inability to speak French. “I’ve seen a lot of couples moving over there, where the wife isn’t very happy, where she struggles getting a job. That was a risk I didn’t want to take,” Bruusgaard said.

“It wasn’t the right timing for us,” Bruusgaard told me. That doesn’t mean the creative process is over for him though. In fact, far from it.

The would-be doctor

Despite the unfortunate hiccup in Bruusgaard’s history, he looks back on the time he spent with Funcom with happiness.

“It’s actually a coincidence I got into computing, or studying computer science and ended up at Funcom,” Bruusgard told the Penny Arcade Report. “I wanted to become a doctor. I spent a year in the Norwegian armed forces, and during that time everybody takes a course where you can sort of… you take a course where like, you want to be a security guard, or want to learn to operate a forklift, different types of courses. One of the courses was HTML and I didn’t really know HTML at that point, so I took a week of that and I just fell in love.” From there, Bruusgaard developed his passion for gaming and combined it with his love of coding. Funcom offered him the chance to do both, something he is grateful for.

Regardless of The Secret World‘s success or lack thereof, game design isn’t the only thing Funcom is pushing the boundaries on. The company uses a lot of proprietary technology and code, things Bruusgaard said puts them at the forefront of the industry. He recalled traveling to GDC and hearing developers talk about the breakthrough of creating a system where multiple developers could edit a single set of data at the same time. Bruusgaard wasn’t impressed.

“We were sitting there like, ‘Is this really news? We’ve been doing this for four years!’” He laughed. “It slowly dawned on me that Funcom is actually really, really pushing the limits and pushing the boundaries on how to make software. A lot of that I’m very grateful to have picked up on, and it’s something I can definitely apply to other places that I work now.”

Bruusgaard still remains in close contact with people at Funcom, including Ragnar Tornquist, creative director of The Secret World, Dag Scheve, lead writer, and Joel Bylos, former lead content designer and newly-appointed game director. “Some of us have this weekly ‘Magic Monday’ we’ve had going for about a month now, where we meet Monday afternoon at a cafe and play Magic: The Gathering,” Bruusgaard said. “I don’t have any problems or hard feeling against anyone there at all.”

“I have to be honest though, I still really miss being creative. If there’s one thing I really miss it’s being able or being allowed to be creative,” Bruusgaard told the Penny Arcade Report. “If the right opportunity comes up, I would like to get back into gaming. I think I have something I’d like to sort of get out. I really like sitting and playing with systems and trying to come up with creative things. I don’t feel I am 100% done with that.”

“I haven’t given up on creating.”