With Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures passing its one-month milestone, game director Gaute Godager has one of the most successful launches in MMO history under his belt - but the work is only beginning. A month of frantic patching has produced a more stable, playable, enjoyable game, but the weeks and months to come will make or break Conan, as Funcom strives to ensure that players are happy, entertained - and paying their subscriptions.
In the past fortnight, the team revealed some of its plans for the coming months, in the form of new content and systems for the game. Despite our heartfelt affection for Age of Conan, there's no question that Funcom still has much work to do, and many criticisms to answer - so we tracked down Gaute in his northern fastness (well, phoned his Oslo office) to talk about the launch, future plans, and the issues setting the game's forums alight at the moment.
Eurogamer: You've had somewhere over a million sales of the game in its first month - did you expect that level of success?
Gaute Godager: We've actually had over a million sell-ins, which means that that's the number of copies that have gone to shops. That's a bit different from sell-through. We expect those to go out in the first four to six weeks - but we don't really know exactly how many copies have sold through to customers.
Eurogamer: Even allowing for that, you're still by far the biggest MMO launch since World of Warcraft - you must be pleased.
Gaute Godager: Yeah, we're delighted - and we're a bit taken aback and surprised at how well it went, in terms of the number of users that we got. We're also very happy that we were able to have a launch that is.... Well, it's a great deal smoother than [Funcom's previous MMO] Anarchy Online was, put it that way! I think we have something that could be a great success.
Eurogamer: Have you had any teething trouble, given the large number of players at launch?
Gaute Godager: Technically it's been smooth, in fact a lot smoother than we'd expected. I was actually a bit surprised at that, because based on previous launches and what we've seen from other games, I was expecting more technical troubles. The servers have coped miraculously well.
What we weren't able to ramp up was customer service... We had a sales projection, and we went with that in terms of hiring customer service staff - and then we sold a lot more. We were caught out by our own success there. We're really doing absolutely everything we can to deal with that issue as fast as we can.
Eurogamer: Looking to the future, you recently issued a huge statement about what's coming up for Age of Conan. What are your present development priorities, though? If you had to pick a number one and number two priority for things to fix or add, what would they be?
Gaute Godager: The short-term focuses that we have internally are on polishing - finding more bugs and fixing them, polishing quests and so on. I think that we've been able to communicate that quite clearly to the players, not through what we say but through the number of patches that we've had and the number of improvements that we've made. They know that we are taking the bugs very seriously and are doing absolutely everything that we can to correct them.
That's the immediate and the most short-term focus that we have. In addition to that, giving PVP real purpose is the second thing that we are really focusing on. There are certain measures that we want to take to make PVP more focused, more fun and more rewarding to play.
Eurogamer: So this is the stuff you've announced about adding consequences, PVP levels and so on.
Gaute Godager: Yeah, that's part of it. The Kingship system is the second part of it. It's basically two stages, where we start by doing something immediate - giving you something neat to play with, which is the item system, the level system, the PVP items and the fugitive system, things like that. Then you have the long term one, which is the Kingship. That gives you guild alliances and those kind of things.
Eurogamer: The fugitive system sounds like an attempt to protect lower level players, while still allowing them to be involved. Is that right? Can you explain how it will actually work?
Gaute Godager: Yeah. The method that we're using is one where you get something called "Fugitive Points" for certain types of behaviour. You get them from attacking someone, being the aggressive party, you get them from killing someone much lower than you - and certain other types of behaviour too. It's focused around never telling the player that they can't do something - but if you do it, it will have a consequence.
The consequences that you have are Fugitive Points. Those points will dribble away with time - they time out - but you can also grind them off by doing communal things. We're trying to make a penal system without actually making one. Basically, if you help with guild activities, for example, you'll get a faster reduction of fugitive status.
There are two steps of fugitive status. The first one we call Orange, and if you're in Orange state then other people can attack you without themselves being flagged as a fugitive. The second state is Red - and then not only can everyone attack you without being flagged themselves, in addition to that there's a chance of you dropping an item. It's a bit like a bounty on your head.
It's something we've been playing around with for some time, and there are a host of technical and balance issues to make this work so that it's not hugely exploitable.
Eurogamer: Talking about the changes you're making to quests and zones, there's been some criticism of the content of the game as you progress - it definitely thins out as you go along, and at some points you can be dumped back to old-fashioned grinding. What's being done to fix that?
Gaute Godager: I think there are a host of issues and a host of reasons for that. First of all, I think we have actually already addressed quite a few of those things. We did have a lot more chaining - which means that you need to do an early quest to get the later quests in the chain. Let's say that you're 27 and you arrive in an area - if you haven't done the 20 and 22 quests, you don't see the 27 quests. We've broken quite a few of those chains up so that they'll be more available to people.
Secondly, we have added quite a lot more content in the early and late thirties, which are the places where people were making themselves heard most clearly about these issues. I do also think that we need to promote the quests that we have - because we do have a lot of quests. It's just about finding them.
Let's say you do Conall's Valley when you leave Tortage. Then you arrive in Khopshef Province, say, and you don't see any quests there. That's basically because you now need to go to another quest hub, rather than the one on the docks where you arrive. We don't have enough funnelling quests to push you into that new area. Even though when we discuss it internally, we say, well, we actually have the same amount of quests in sheer numbers as we have at lower levels - they aren't advertised and available enough.
Eurogamer: Your classes are one of the most ambitious parts of the game - you've got lots of splash damage, and also some hybrid classes which nobody else has really done before. How has the balance between them worked out? Have you had to make serious changes, or are there serious changes in the pipeline?
Gaute Godager: I'm not saying by any means that it's perfect - but we're actually a bit surprised that we haven't seen any classes being singled out as excessively popular, because of huge imbalance or huge exploits. I just don't see that in my statistics.
There are some classes which are a bit more popular than others, but there are also classes which we are surprised by the popularity of, even though they are so different. The Herald of Xotli is one of those. We're just not seeing that any class is either very unplayable, or very popular, due to imbalance.
From statistics, then, it looks fairly good. What we are seeing though is that the fun factor of some classes isn't up to what we want them to be. The more complex a class is, the more likely that it's going to have issues. The one class that we saw that we needed to put more loving into quite quickly was the Necromancer. We've done that, it's been patched out, and it's been fairly well received.
Eurogamer: In all the changes you're talking about now, is there much in there that you really planned to do before launch, but simply wasn't finished?
Gaute Godager: On the content side, that's almost true without exception. What we chose to do at launch was to play it safe - to pick areas and zones and regions and hold them back, then finish them post-launch. That was to be able to polish the areas that we did for launch to a higher degree. So on the content side, the big zones that we're giving out this Autumn like Ymir's Pass and others - those are definitely pre-launch stuff that was cut or put on hold.
The same goes for quite a huge amount of quests that we have patched out in the past weeks. I think we've patched in close to 50 or 60 quests, and we have 60 quests with voiceover coming - all that stuff is basically pre-launch, but we weren't satisfied with the quality and wanted to do another pass on them before they were released.
When it comes to the features, some of them were supposed to go in for launch, and some of them weren't. The PVP levelling system and the PVP fugitive system, all of those were things that we were planning to do for launch but we said, okay, we could rush them now, but we want to see how things pan out. Instead of giving people a playing field and then changing it, because we were unsure about it, we'd rather go without it, look at how things developed and do another iteration in-house.
Some of them are brand new, too. They're based more around feedback that we got from players in the days after launch. Most notably, the Powerpoints system and the Kingship system are the ones which spring to mind in the category.
Eurogamer: One feature that hasn't been mentioned for a while is Drunken Brawling. Is that still on the cards?
Gaute Godager: We have Drunken Brawling - it's still in there. The thing is, though, I feel like it needs more polish - and I don't see players complaining about not getting it. That's why I'm saying, yes, we will give it out - but we're not doing it now. We have it, and it's a fun feature, but it's one of those things where I feel that with the fixes we have coming to other, bigger, more important things, putting too much focus on that could actually lead to criticism. People would ask why the hell we're doing Drunken Brawling when.... Well, enter issue here!
It's a social feature, first and foremost, and it's something that we should do when we feel that we've nailed the most important post-launch issues.
Eurogamer: Where are you seeing most success for Age of Conan at the moment? Is it mostly in Europe, or is North America taking to it as well?
Gaute Godager: What we're seeing is almost a fifty-fifty split in terms of player-base in North America and Europe. I must say though that I feel that our game is a lot more European than many of the other MMOs which have come out. It seems to be the only European successful MMO. I think that as we open in other territories, localise in Polish and Russian, for instance, I think our game will shift towards being a more European success story.
Right now, though, it's fifty-fifty - and also remember that Conan is, of course, an American IP. They have a big love for the big brute! It's only natural that we get support in the US as well.
Eurogamer: What do you think it is about the game that makes it so European in its flavour?
Gaute Godager: Oh, how should I put it... It's in the style. You can find The Witcher, you can find Gothic, you can find those series which are produced in Europe and which the European players love in our RPG style and in our visuals - and in the fact that we go with realistic graphics and those kinds of aesthetics.
I'm not sure that that's something the Americans don't like - I'm not saying that. I'm speculating, but it seems to me that very many gamers in the US play both console and PC games, it's a bit more mixed - and they like the same type of games on both types of system. They enjoy a visual style that's more colourful, not that realistic.
In Europe, a lot of people don't have consoles, and they use their PC for gaming to a bigger degree. Many European countries also have better internet connectivity than many parts of the US, and PC gaming has for many years promoted the consumption of high bandwidth, not only through legal means but also through piracy.
I enjoy playing WOW, I enjoy playing Lord of the Rings Online. But you know... I'm going to be a bit cheeky now, but if you've been to McDonalds for four or five years, and had your burger and your coke, sometimes it's great to just have a great steak and a glass of good wine. I think that's what we're trying to do. It's more expensive, it's not for everyone and perhaps it's not as easily accessible as WOW is. But it could be more meaty. [laughs]