MMOs do mature, but how many people care years after they walked away? It's a conundrum all MMOs face: how to tempt people back? Age of Conan has an enviable solution: a Hollywood movie.
Conan the Barbarian airs this August with Jason Momoa as the titular (in more ways than one) lead. To coincide, Age of Conan will launch a Savage Coast of Turan adventure pack. This opens a new outdoor 'playfield', a Tier 4 raid and group and solo instances. You'll meet characters from the movie 20 years on, unravel epic storylines and loot some of Age of Conan's most powerful equipment.
Is Age of Conan, three years on, ready for a second coming? Eurogamer put executive producer Craig Morrison in the chair.
Eurogamer: Can Conan the Barbarian (the film) save Age of Conan?
Craig Morrison: First of all I'm not sure we need saving! We wouldn't still be running the game with the size of team and the operation that we have if the game wasn't perfectly viable, profitable and doing well. We still have a sizeable team working on the game, we are still adding new content - we've added as much new content this year already as any of our other competitors and we're only going to do more for the rest of the year.
We invested a lot of money in upgrading the technology for Age of Conan last year. We had a gap at the end of last year after the [Rise of the Godslayer] expansion launched, up to January this year; we weren't really pushing out as many updates because we were focusing on upgrading the Dreamworld technology that underpins the game: the server technology, the infrastructure, the stability and the performance of the rendering engine, and making things more accessible for a wider variety of hardware.
"Jason Momoa plays Conan really well, and it fits with Howard's original stories."
We really feel that 2011 is an opportunity to grow and get customers back with the attention from the movie and the new content and changes. We are in a position to take advantage this year. We've never seen it as saving the game but as an opportunity to push the game.
It's well known there was an awful lot of people that tried Age of Conan at launch that probably haven't tried it since. It makes sense for us to invest so they can see how far it has come in the three years since it launched. It's definitely an opportunity.
Eurogamer: Have you seen the film?
Craig Morrison: We saw a version about a month ago that was only about 60 per cent done. I really enjoyed it. What pleased me the most was the brutal feel, the fantasy realism we aim for in the game. I saw so much similar art direction.
They've been trying to make The Conan movie for many, many years. It was actually first mentioned to me before I worked on Age of Conan some five years ago.
Eurogamer: Is Jason Momoa a better Conan than Arnold Schwarzenegger?
Craig Morrison: That will be an impossible question to answer! It's going to be subjective for people of different ages and different types. I'm going to sit firmly on the fence with that one. Jason Momoa plays Conan really well and it fits with Howard's original stories. They've done a really good job of translating that feeling onto the big screen.
Eurogamer: Whose idea was putting film content in Age of Conan?
Craig Morrison: It was always in the plan, so as soon as they started filming we started talking to Paradox. Once they confirmed they were looking at the fall of this year we started on production. We were provided the script by Paradox and found how we could tie it in. It's a challenge given that our game is set some 20 years after the events in the movie.
We're working with Lionsgate closely to do as much cross-promition as we can. When there's a Hollywood movie coming out you want to get as much attention for the game as you can. Even just having the movie out there and a huge advertising campaign behind it - it does great things for the game.
Eurogamer: What do you think about where Age of Conan is today, three years after launch?
Craig Morrison: We're really happy with how things are going. We went through a fairly rocky period after the game's launch, but the Rise of the Godslayer expansion we released last year was very well received by the players and brought people back to the game. MMOs mature; you get to add more content, address issues. It becomes easier to retain customers because there's more content and there are more things for them to do.
We're in a good place, and the movie puts us in a perfect place to raise the profile of the game.
Eurogamer: Are the Age of Conan servers full?
Craig Morrison: It depends which server you look at: some populations we consider very healthy and exactly where we want them. Some are above and then there are always one or two for whatever reason... It's the same with any MMO that runs multiple dimensions: not all the servers have the populations of the others.
Eurogamer: Why didn't you develop a full expansion to tie into the Age of Conan film?
Craig Morrison: We already had a very, very busy schedule. We're in the middle of a content push, and by the end of this month we'll have done six new dungeons in the last three months, including a full revamp of the crowd control abilities and faction progression. We already have a very full plate. And we wanted to do something for the movie. But we also knew that we couldn't do all the improvements that we wanted alongside a fully-fledged expansion pack on the side. We'd have to shut down everything else and only focus on that. And we really didn't want to do that. We wanted to provide content to tie into the movie and be able to do the constant updates and the tweaks and the fixes the players want.
"We're in a good place, and the movie puts us in a perfect place to raise the profile of the game."
This adventure pack has something for everyone: a large outdoor playfield, solo instances, team instances and raids, all linked by a unified story. And it ties into the characters from the movie and also a couple of Robert E. Howard's books.
Eurogamer: The new solo instance - what's that called?
Craig Morrison: We're still working on which of the different instances we'll open to teams and solo. There are three main instances that we're doing. One is called The Dead Man's Hand, which is an island infested with pirates. The second one is called The Island of the Iron Statues, which Conan fans will actually know from the lore and from Howard's original stories. It's actually one of the only locations in Howard's writing where Conan almost met his death. That's probably the dungeon that will end up as the solo instance, because it's a very cool storytelling narrative.
One of the solo instances will be maximum level, which means you'll need to be level 80 to do it. One of them will be an auto-content generation dungeon (an ACG), which adjusts to the level of the player.
Eurogamer: The new raid instance - what's that called?
Craig Morrison: This will take place in a temple location: The Temple of Elric in Ardesia. That will involve the storyline where players meet Ela-Shan, the master thief that Conan uses as an ally in the movie. The players will be catching up with him and going through quests as part of the solo play in the outdoor playfield. The raid is the end of the conspiracy at the end of the questline.
Eurogamer: Who or what is the final boss of this raid? Does it tie into the film?
Craig Morrison: It's actually a surprise for the players. It's a nice treat for fans of the Conan lore. It's tied to Howard's original stories. We're taking an old enemy that Conan faced and placing it in a different context. It'll be a cool discovery at the end.
Eurogamer: Is the new loot going to be more powerful than existing equipment in Age of Conan?
Craig Morrison: It'll probably be a mix for the rewards at level 50 for the outdoor content. It'll probably be better than what's available at the level range right now - a slight upgrade.
For the team instances, they'll be slightly more powerful than the rewards we give for max-level content in Godslayer. There will be some armour sets; you can't go to an area like Turan and have that magnificent Persian theme without bringing in new armour sets. But we want to distribute them down through the levels as well, so some of them will be available at level 50 to people doing the solo content. And then we'll spice up some of the drops later on. We always want to make sure it's worth it for the players.
For the endgame stuff we'll probably be continuing the raids in Tier 4, which is the current Tier that's in progress in the game.
Eurogamer: What's the new epic questline about?
Craig Morrison: There are two or three different story arcs. There's an overarching story that explains what's happening and a plot on a grand scale that involves kings and generals and an attempted coup and the player won't know who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.
One of the two main arcs has players meeting Ela-Shan, the master thief, who's down on his luck and is trying to form a new thieves guild and you'll be tasked with helping him.
On the other side, players meet Arthas, Conan's pirate ally from the movie who, at the time of our game, is head of the Red Brotherhood group of pirates. He's having an internal dispute with the pirates about who they should back. Conan can't help him because he's king, so he sends the players to help instead.
Preview: Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer
The fall and rise?
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With over 700, 000 copies being shipped on launch day, Conan has already compiled a healthy user-base. But will it be a winner in a hugely competitive field which is claiming some rather famous scalps at the moment? Only you can decide. Well. You the public, not only you specifically, that's unnecessarily melodramatic.
Eurogamer: Why aim the Savage Coast of Turan content at players level 50 or above - won't newcomers excited by the Conan film miss out?
Craig Morrison: One of the strongest elements of the game and one of the parts we've always had the most amazing feedback on is the beginning of the game. Everyone that plays the game, almost universally, loves the experience in Tortage and getting from level one to 20 in that very solo-centric way. We've never felt like we've needed to mess with that. It works, and we know that it works.
Rather what we focussed on in the last three years was improving that area between level 20 and 40 to really get the players into the MMO. It's actually one of the areas now where it's got a lot of diverse choices.
Levelling isn't really that hard or slow in Age of Conan: players can get to level 50 relatively quickly. As soon as they play the game they'll realise it's not that far off. And when you get to level 50 you immediately get the chance to start another character at level 50.
We placed the Savage Coast of Turan content at level 50 because that's really where players want additional choice. It's a chance to add a big chunk of new content to the game's progression and solve the last of those content issues for the players.
It was a risk, but it was a calculated risk. We have faith in the beginning of the game.
Craig Morrison is creative director of Funcom Montreal and executive producer of Age of Conan.