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.
"So on a fundamental level, it was just the original creative decision that we didn't get quite right. That's one of the risks that you take when you're making a game on this scale, for this number of people. You believe in something and you try it, and on this occasion, unfortunately, it just didn't work out."
Fixing the item system isn't just about giving players shiny new toys to play with, however. As I talk to Morrison, it becomes clear that the mistakes the team made with itemisation have impacted every part of the game - causing knock-on problems and headaches that have dogged Age of Conan for a year.
Take, for example, the other major problem with the game's items - the common criticism that they all look the same, with players at level 50 barely distinguishable from players at level 30.
"That was exasperated by the fact that the items didn't do much, so there was no real motivation for the player to change their items," Morrison explains. "There were many more items out there, which players had to look a little bit more deeply to find, but there was no motivation for them to do so. They all ended up using the generic armour because it did the job."
Another area which is changed significantly by the new patch is those guild cities - player-built towns which provide benefits to the guilds who have the resources and manpower to construct them. Along with player-versus-player sieges, which have improved in leaps and bounds in the past six months thanks to the attentions of a dedicated team within Funcom, guild cities are the apex of Conan's endgame. In Update 5, the cities have developed a whole cast of new NPCs and exclusive new retailers for players to use.
"We wanted to give the players more rewards for being part of a guild and taking the time and resources to build up a guild city," says Morrison. "Communities are very important to MMOs - they're the fabric that knits it all together. We wanted to make sure that guilds have goals and objectives of their own as well, and that's something that will carry on with a great deal of focus in the next update cycle, with some systems that are coming there. This was the first step."
Of course, for many players, sieges and guild cities will remain out of reach. They're available to players involved in the largest, most organised guilds - are there any plans to open up this kind of experience to the rest of us, letting those who don't play several hours each day still try out the sieges that feature so prominently on the back of the box?
"Yes and no," is Morrison's answer. "I think there are some things we can do there, and some things we're looking at. We've been batting around things like a mercenary system where players can recruit to fill gaps in their siege forces, so players can volunteer themselves to be hired. We will continue to look at that, but so far, it's been slightly down the list of priorities."
That's not to say, of course, that he's not thinking about the average player - the guy who only plays six to eight hours a week, which Morrison reckons is the norm for an MMORPG.
"[We are] looking more at how we can get people involved in PVP - encouraging people to be open to the idea of playing PVP, and giving it a real meaning," he tells me. "I think that's the biggest barrier to people taking part in PVP, is them not having a reason to do so.
"Last year the PVP levels were a first step in that direction, they gave people a reason and goals and rewards, so they could get into PVP. Now we want to take it a stage further and give more meaningful goals, based around social activities - community activities that don't require you to be in a 50 to 100 person guild to take part in."
That's all coming in the next patch - but first, there are a few problems with this patch to be ironed out. For a start, there's a clamour being raised on the game's forums at the moment over class balance - with casters, it seems, having being favoured a bit too much by the recent changes, and melee classes in uproar. It's a concern, given the game's heavy focus on its innovative melee system.
"We haven't got it quite right, on that specific issue," Morrison admits. "Some of it is inherent, because the spell using classes in our game don't use the combo system. It is inherently easier - well, maybe easier isn't the right word, but it's more forgiving to play a spell-using class in Conan than it is a melee class. Once an experienced player is at the controls of those classes, the way we would like it is that there wouldn't be that much difference between the two. Right now it's not quite right."
"We don't expect to get something so complex completely right straight out of the gate," he says, somewhat apologetically. "We knew that we would have to do some updates, and we certainly will have to make some adjustments to the relative power between the spell users and the melee users. The players' comments are fair. We know that that's an area that we need to work on over the next couple of weeks - the guys are already working on it."
On the scale of the problems Morrison has had to deal with since taking over Age of Conan, however, this is a minnow. It's very telling that itemisation is only being fixed now, having been noted as a problem right from day one - but although that fix took a long time (largely because it's such a fundamental part of the game), Morrison reckons that the team is near the end of the to-do list from launch.
"We're getting very close," he says. "We're now in the region of adding features that weren't necessarily missed from launch. I think the other stuff we've addressed - the PVP systems that didn't make it for launch, we added those. The content gap that people identified, where there wasn't enough content at certain level ranges, that's exactly where we targeted the content over the last year, to fill those gaps.
"The performance and the stability of the client was an issue early on, and that was one of the first priorities that we had. We improved that to make sure that people could play the game smoothly and that there were no memory leaks - we resolved that. The itemisation and the statistics were the last of those major feedback results that we had from the launch. That was the last of the major ones that we had to address, because that was obviously a little bit more complex and took a little bit more time."
Still, the game faces an uphill struggle to win back the faith of MMOG players - and Morrison knows it. "You've got to be pragmatic and honest," he says. "When a game goes through a period like ours did, when there were issues with retention of players... Well, obviously the sales figures for the game are widely available and there aren't that number of subscribers still playing the game.
"There are players whose only impression of Conan is the time they spent in May, June and July last year, when there were more significant problems for them to play through. I don't blame anybody for feeling burnt. They invested money in a game, they buy it retail, they pay a subscription fee - and if they don't like it, or there are technical issues that stop them from playing... I think we shouldn't kid ourselves and say oh, well, they're just internet trolls. Those people had very valid points, and that's why we spent the last year working hard, addressing those issues.
"All we can do is keep working hard, and keep focusing on hopefully the right things. Hopefully we'll start to see that our players appreciate it. In the MMO genre, that word of mouth is everything. It's the experience that a player has in a game, so that when his friend says, 'Age of Conan? I'm not touching that again!', someone who's playing it responds and says, 'Actually, they've improved it quite a bit and I'm having fun with it now'. Any amount of me talking to you or doing other press interviews, or advertising the game, can't beat that kind of feedback from players."