Yesterday, Funcom launched a re-evaluation campaign granting all previous Age of Conan players 2 weeks' free play if they reactivate before 22nd July. It's also offering 1000 free copies of the game to new players through yours truly this Friday, and you can watch a developer video on Eurogamer explaining what's changed and improved in the MMO since launch. We caught up with game director Craig Morrison to find out what's behind the sudden flurry of confident activity from the Norwegian developer.
Last time I spoke to Craig Morrison, the MMOG veteran who was tapped to take over Age of Conan after its troubled launch, he was just settling into the new job - arguably one of the toughest in the game business.
He inherited a game that had sold bucket-loads of copies at launch, but quickly lost its subscribers when teething troubles failed to get sorted out quickly and what should have been minor issues snowballed into months of development, delays and false starts. Along with it came a community that had lost faith in the development team, a totally sceptical press and forums full of disgruntled people cancelling their accounts.
This week, over nine months after taking the helm, Morrison seems much more comfortable with his role. The team's latest and most ambitious update to Age of Conan shipped a few weeks ago, bringing many new features but also changing the entire underlying fabric of the game.
It's perhaps the most ambitious change that a developer has made to a launched game in recent history, and it firmly places Morrison's stamp on Age of Conan. No longer is he clearing up a mess created by others - this is his game now, and he's proud of it.
The big news, in Update 5, is that the game's itemisation has been completely overhauled - and with it, all of the statistics and mathematics that make up the game's RPG nervous system. What this means for players is that finally, Age of Conan's items and armour sets are meaningful - with easily understood figures attached to each item, and a noticeable effect on your power and ability from equipping new gear.
"It ties into a lot of the feedback that the game got early on after the launch," Morrison explains. "One of the key things that a lot of players keyed in on was the fact that the item system and the RPG stats didn't really give them a feeling of progression."
"That came through time and time again - I think it's well-documented that Age of Conan had a fantastic launch and sold a lot of boxes, but didn't keep the players interested. I think that the itemisation and the RPG system as a whole is one of the key things that we could see in the feedback from those players who didn't continue, who didn't like the game. The stats were a bit too obtuse and they couldn't figure out how they affected their character."
The reason for that, Morrison says, is that the company wanted to make sure that the game focused on player skill rather than on what armour you're wearing. It was a fine principle. The problem was that the team went too far in their pursuit of this ideal, and ended up making items practically useless.
"We had a very thin power scale," he continues. "Even if you had everything maxed and all the best items in the game, in the original design, items only added a maximum contribution to your character of 20 to 25 per cent. In the scale of an RPG system, that's very very narrow. Players didn't see any difference when they actually equipped an item. They thought that a new item was 20 levels higher so it should be better, but they didn't actually see a quantifiable difference in their character's performance."
Morrison pauses to think for a moment. "You know," he continues, "it's important to point out that it wasn't even a mistake. It was very intentional. When we did our analysis last summer and went through what was and wasn't working, we spoke to the original guys who made the system - everything had been done perfectly. All the percentages worked out. Yep, it was meant to be 20 per cent contribution... It was all exactly on the game direction.