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?
Craig Morrison: It's never really bothered me. All MMO games have some features that developers talked about during launch as wanting to have, or that they were working on, which didn't come to fruition or never came out. Even the biggest games in the genre have features that they talked about pre-launch that never made it in the game.
Sometimes, that's the correct thing. Sometimes you talk about a feature in theory and it just doesn't work. Developers are players too, and they can get excited about a concept and talk about it as something they really want to do - something they are, at the time, planning to do for the game. Then, sometimes, they just don't work.
Obviously sometimes it's a resource issue, and things are just cut due to priorities, and again that's a fact of life in any development environment, not just MMOs. Some things you'd like to do, you don't get to do. I don't let that hang me up - I always just focus on each update, and on asking the developers, on behalf of the players, "is what we're doing fun?" Are we going to give the players some extra value with this update?
That's what it comes down to. If you have Feature A, which might be something that's been talked about for some time, or a new feature, Feature B, which will actually be more fun - I'll always go for the option that's more fun, even if it's at the expense of something that might have been talked about in the past. It's all about making sure that we use our resources and assets in the best way possible to improve the game.
Eurogamer: You talk about using your resources in the best way possible - so where are you focusing your resources right now?
Craig Morrison: We have two main focuses - part of the team is focusing on providing the new content, things like Ymir's Pass, which is coming in the near future, and new playfields.
We're filling out the content gaps that might have been there at launch, where there wasn't as much content in some areas as there was in others... We've been identifying those areas and focusing the content side of the team into addressing that. We have part of the team working heavily on the revamps of the existing instances, making sure that dungeons are populated better and that the experience is more fun for the player.
Secondly, there's the systems side of the game. Our gameplay systems designers are working hard on the itemisation of the game and the statistics, on making the gamplay experience more meaningful.
One of the major issues we identified was that, by intention, we'd made Age of Conan into a game where the statistics available to the player didn't have a very large scale. While we don't want to make the game as item-centric as other MMOs, we came to the realisation that we probably didn't get it right - we went too far to the other extreme.
We had statistics in the game that would only scale between 0.2 and 0.6 over 80 levels! When you picked up a level 20 item, it didn't feel that different to a level 80 item. What the system designers are looking at at the moment is that itemisation and how we use statistics, to see if we can increase those ranges.
We want to do it without compromising the central, core vision of the game, that we don't want it to be too item-centric, but still making the items into a progression driver for players. At the moment, they really aren't. Players can take them or leave them. It's about finding the right balance, and that's one of our key focuses at the moment.
Eurogamer: This has been a persistent issue - early in the game, a lot people thought that the items were bugged because their stats simply didn't actually do anything meaningful. If you aren't driving people towards improving their gear and getting better items, where's the incentive for the end-game?
Craig Morrison: It's a balance. It's not that we're not going to be doing that - we're certainly going to be making items more important than they are. I think it's about the scale, about how people look at your game in relation to other games - because that's a natural part of the process when people have played other MMOs.
If you look at a game like EverQuest or WOW, the itemisation is very important. It's the be-all and end-all of the character's development. We don't want to go that far. We don't want to make a game where the player's progress is bottlenecked by the reliance on gear in all situations.
When you get to high-end raiding, yes, we want to make items more important so there is a sense of progression and a sense that you'll have an easier time taking on high-level content in better gear. But we don't want to take it to the extremes that you see in some other games, because I think that's one of the key things that people have found appealing about Age of Conan. Many players like the fact that the game isn't completely item-centric, and that their knowledge of their class and their skills do factor into the gameplay more.
Eurogamer: One of the first things you announced after taking over is that you wanted to overhaul the crafting system. What exactly are you planning to do with it?
Craig Morrison: The update that comes with the PVP consequence system has a lot of new content for crafting in the game. The way that the crafting designers have been looking at it is, obviously, to add more recipes - to do the basic thing of adding more new items that the player can acquire and build through tradeskills.
But also, we want to improve the interweaving of the tradeskills - the way they interact with each other so that players have to combine tradeskills to make the absolute best items in the game. We're also starting to see some of the tradeskill recipes drop in the gameworld, allowing players to create items, armour and weapons that are more meaningful for them, and give the tradeskills a bit of purpose.
It ties into the itemisation issue as a whole. When we had limited itemisation, the difference between a tradeskill armour, a dropped-loot armour and a raid armour wasn't large enough to make the players make a choice - to see a tradeskill item and think "this is worth it for me". That's what we want to bring back. It's about trying to put purpose back into the tradeskill system,giving players goals so that they can look at the end result and say, yes, I want to do that.
Eurogamer: For the players who have left the game since launch - how do you get those people back? What's your strategy for showing them that the game has changed, and for encouraging them to come back and try it again?
Craig Morrison: I think that's more a question for our sales and marketing people than it is for me. They'll have strategies for re-evaluations and things like that - they have their plans for that. In terms of what we do, as the production team, it's mainly about demonstrating to the existing players that we have listened, and that we are working on things - that they're starting to see the changes.
In the MMO space, word of mouth is incredibly important. If we can show that the players who are playing the game are having a good experience, that the game has improved and that they can see that - that they're talking to us, and we're engaging with them... That has a positive knock-on effect. When people first mention the game, they don't necessarily hear a negative voice - they start to hear people going "actually, you know, the guys have fixed all of that - the game's better now, you might enjoy it now".
From our point of view, that's what we focus on - making the game as good as we possibly can, so that our own players become advocates for the game. They can see the difference, they can tell their friends what they've experienced, that the game is improving... If we continue to focus on that, that's the best thing we can do.
Eurogamer: Sketch out the near future for us - you say we're getting the PVP consequences system in the next few days, what's on the menu after that?
Craig Morrison: After this update, the next major update will contain Ymir's Pass - which is the largest playfield that we've added to the game yet. It's actually looking really cool. I'm very impressed with the work that the designers have done with that playfield. They've now had even more time with the tools and the features for creating content, and they've got player feedback on what they were doing before launch - and it's allowed them to make a really interesting and unique playfield.
It's a fully-featured playfield, and it's also got a dungeon instance included, with a really great boss encounter at the end of it. That's taken straight from the Conan lore itself, and I think the Conan fans will get a real kick out of seeing it.
Alongside that, in terms of content, we're continuing with the process of updating and revamping some of the existing dungeons - like we have over the previous updates - so you'll see that. Like I said earlier, the team is very hard at work on the DX10 version. It's looking very promising at the moment.
On top of that, the itemisation is currently in progress, and the systems guys are very hard at work on that update to address those issues with the statistics and the itemisation. With those three things - the content, the systems and the technology - there's a lot to focus on and get out over the next couple of months.
Eurogamer: Do you have a goal for how frequently you want to push out large content updates?
Craig Morrison: I take that as it comes. We have plans for the major content additions that we want to make - and internally, that's broken down into features. When a feature is ready for an update, we look at the update schedule and see where we should slot it in, so that we don't have very large gaps between content updates. So, we might push a smaller feature out in between so that we have an update between two larger ones.
I'm not one to put arbitrary dates and specifics, or say that we're shooting to patch every 28 days or whatever. I would much rather see that the content is tested correctly, and if that means three weeks between one update, and five weeks between the next, and then one week to the next one... To me, that's fine, as long as the quality is there and we've taken the time to make sure that the updates are worthwhile for the player.