After a promising launch and a depressingly rocky first four months, it's all change at the top for Funcom's Age of Conan. The game's original director, Gaute Godager, is gone; his seat (probably still warm) promptly filled by Funcom veteran Craig Morrison.
Morrison's job description probably isn't this simple, but in the eyes of MMO gamers, he's there for one reason - to turn Age of Conan around. Even if the game itself is by no means awful, there's a lot of work to be done - both to bring it up to the standard it deserves, and to redeem it in the eyes of gamers around the world after months of bad press and negative word of mouth.
If you want to find someone who can do that, you could do far worse than Craig Morrison. Genial and honest, he's widely considered to be the man who rescued Funcom's previous MMO, Anarchy Online, from a bug-ridden and much-maligned launch, and turned it into a sleeper success with a dedicated cult following that persists to this day.
We tracked Craig to Funcom's northern fortress in Oslo (actually, this is entirely untrue - he rang us earlier this week and we didn't have to set foot outside the M25, let alone fight off hordes of Vikings) to find out what he's got in store for Conan players still keeping the faith, and perhaps even for some of those who've already abandoned the barbarian king.
Eurogamer: You've recently taken the helm on Age of Conan - from your point of view, what state was the game in when you took over, and what were the first priorities you set after taking charge?
Craig Morrison: I think we had a lot of very positive feedback from the launch, and there were elements of the game that people really liked - but obviously, there were also parts of the game which hadn't worked as well as we would have liked. There were areas that we needed to look at and focus on off the back of player feedback, to try and see if we could take the parts which hadn't worked quite so well and develop those.
When I started this process in the summer, we looked at that kind of feedback - at what the players had flagged up as not really working, or not providing the kind of incentives that they were looking for. One of the first areas we focused on there was the game's itemisation and the way that the statistics worked in the game.
Content-wise, I think the team were already on top of everything. They had a pipeline for creating content that was working quite well. So we kept focusing on that area and kept that part of the team working as they were - to pump out new content and fill out the areas that didn't have as much content as they should have had at launch.
At the same time, we had the people who deal with the systems side of the game looking at the itemisation and starting to look at how the character progression really worked. I think that's one of the areas that the players flagged up - it didn't really work.
Eurogamer: The last major patch we saw was the first half of the PVP system - the levels and rewards - but we're still waiting for the consequences. Do you have an estimate of when the second half of those systems will arrive? We've heard mid-winter being talked about...
Craig Morrison: Oh no, not at all! It's very, very soon. It's been on the test server for three or four weeks, and we're actually doing final tests on it this morning [Tuesday], as I speak to you. The hope is that if it's not this week, it'll be early next week.
The final touches are being put on the version, and it's something that I'm really looking forward to seeing. The consequence system is one of the first things that we looked at when we started this process. It adds another dimension to the PVP, taking it beyond the levels and the standard PVP features. I think it's actually something a little bit unique, that will add something to the game. It's close.
Eurogamer: That's something we heard quite a few times about the first half of the PVP system - that was "close" quite a few times, before slipping again and again...
Craig Morrison: All I can talk about is what the team is doing now. I think we've improved our testing processes, and we have the Public Test Server up and running now. It's one of the things that I have tried to bring to the project - it's the big difference between running a development environment, where you're working towards a launch, and working with a live product that's on air.
I've been working on a live product with Anarchy Online for a good few years now, and hopefully a little bit of the experience that we've had there, we've been able to bring to the Conan team. So our estimations, and when we speak to the public - when I'm talking to people on the forums, and we talk to people about delivery dates, we're a lot more realistic about what they are.
This system has been on the test server, players have been using it and giving us feedback, and tweaks have been made off the back of that. This isn't something that's still not quite there, or hasn't been fully fleshed out. It's there, it's been there for players to see on the test server, and we're getting very close to being able to push it out onto the live servers.
In terms of the content you're working on, isn't there the uncomfortable feeling that some of the things you're working on are still things that were promised for launch?