Live Age of Conan interview Finished
Age of Conan game director Craig Morrison has been answering your questions live on Eurogamer.
He's talked about upcoming changes to the MMO and the vision for the year ahead.
Apologies to those people whose questions we didn't have time to ask, but thank you for taking part.
The full transcript of the live interview with Craig Morrison follows. The earliest questions and answers are printed first.
Our live coverage has now ended. Here's what you missed: Updating...
Super Moderating Hero: First things first, Craig, can you tell us a bit about yourself and why you're so famous? Perhaps ignoring the IGN part of your life. Cough.
Craig Morrison: Hah, well, I'm not sure famous is the right word! I am the Producer for Age of Conan here at Funcom and responsible for the ongoing direction and production of the game. I previously had the same role on Anarchy Online and in the dim and distant past had a life on the other side of the fence working on fan-sites and reviews for that site you didn't want me to mention!
Super Moderating Hero: You took over last September, Craig. What's changed since then? Has there been major restructuring? Is the Age of Conan team now a honed racing pigeon compared to the hobbling city pigeon of the past?
Craig Morrison: We have made some changes certainly, that's an inherent part of someone new taking the reigns on a project. There will always be some adjustments. I think mainly it's been focusing on two things, making our processes and focus more efficient and secondly making sure we have the correct development focus, on making the experience fun and engaging for the players. By focusing that single question - "is this fun?" - to everything we do, I think we start to see better results. I have a talented and dedicated team, and that is by and large the same team I inherited, so its more been about shifting resources around for efficiency and focus rather than making any sweeping changes.
What's the biggest difference in design philosophy between you and previous game director Gaute Godager?
Craig Morrison: I think that's a very subjective thing, to be honest. As I mentioned above, I really like to focus on putting ourselves in the player's shoes when we consider design, and I think all designers to that to one degree or another. I think our approaches are certainly different in many ways, perhaps as someone who has always worked on live games rather than the development I have a degree easier as I can focus on refining and making sure the game systems we have work well and are tuned to provide the player with solid fun content. I am not sure that's any different than the approach Gaute took, we just express in different areas and slightly different focuses.
As a player since beta, I've really enjoyed my time in Hyboria. However, since the server merges, the Fury realm has turned into chaotic PvP, especially in Kheshetta, where big guilds and groups gank constantly without a care in the world. When will consequences come in? Are there any plans in the works to solve this chaos? Casual players are being muscled out.
Craig Morrison: I think that it's only natural that there will be a period of adjustment after the server merges that will calm down over time in addition to the changes we make.
There are already some additions that will hopefully shift some of the open world PVP focus to the border kingdoms and resource gather with the new PVP resource system. On a PVP server though there will always be a competitive atmosphere, in particular at the higher levels. We do of course monitor the behaviour of players on live, and should we see that we need to make additional changes or additions to the consequence system after the merges we will do so.
It's only been a few days at this stage though so we need to see how things progress, in particular after the next game update.
Craig, I never got into AOC, I was tempted at the time, but decided to hold off until Warhammer Online. As it plays out, I've found Warhammer to be a massive disappointment. Part of my problem was that it tried to emulate WoW too much and not push enough WAR. From what I've read that seems to be a problem with AOC.
Are you bringing AOC more in-line with other MMOs, or trying to be increasingly different in order to stand out?
Craig Morrison: I think that's a balance thing, we certainly have some elements that are different from WOW and some that are similar. It's definitely a design dilemma of a sort for the MMO genre with WOW's presence as so many people play and love that game, that they miss features from it when they aren't present.
Personally, though, having played many MMOs for many years, I prefer to look at it as choosing the right elements that are right for your game and your game-world. It's about finding the right fit. Some of those things might be features that players are familiar with from WOW, or they might be inspired from other areas, even those not specifically for MMOs. It's certainly important for us to be unique and play on our unique elements rather than take the lazy option and try to emulate a huge title like WOW. We should be Age of Conan and try to bring things to players that allow them to feel that they are getting a unique and engaging experience.
Super Moderating Hero: What is the next game update, by the way?
Craig Morrison: The next game-update is quite significant, I am not sure I'd have the time to list all the changes and updates here (they are though available on our test server forums if you want to check them out), the highlights though are three new dungeons, including a single-team, level 80 dungeon called Xibaluku, that really pushes the dynamic nature of our game-play content.
There is also the addition of new PVP resources that will be required for battlekeeps and can be found in the Border Kingdoms PVP zones - the cool thing being that these resources can be looted from other players if you defeat them in PVP, so you'll have to be watchful while collecting them! It is a very large update though in addition to those highlights, with a lot of tweaks, updates and improvements
Super Moderating Hero: And when's that coming out?
Craig Morrison: When it's ready! Sorry, I had to use that line once!
On a serious note, it's currently on the test server being put through it's paces. We hope to be ready for the live servers soon, most likely at some point in February, but it will depend on testing. I'd much rather give a realistic outlook that might be a little more vague than give arbitrary dates that might end up being missed due to testing or further polish and tweaking.
Historically, once an MMO begins to slide there's no way back, given the calibre of competition on the market. How do you about-turn and convince disillusioned players you're back on track when so many claim Age of Conan remains fundamentally broken?
Craig Morrison: I'm not sure that it's completely true a game can't come back, EVE Online for example has built itself up very successfully over the years, and our own Anarchy Online is still going strong almost eight years on from its poor launch.
So I firmly believe that if we focus on the right things and continue to provide that fun and engaging content I mentioned above then it does start to turn. Once players are having fun in the game and enjoying the content, they start to tell their friends and word of mouth improves and it can grow from there.
There will of course always be some players who simply aren't into giving a game a second chance and will continue to mention only the launch, but I think the majority are fair minded enough to listen when they hear fellow players saying, 'You know what? This came has really improved,' because at the end of the day it doesn't matter what we say about the game ourselves, the key is what those playing it think and share with the community. To achieve that we need to keep that all important focus on improving the game and giving players the experience that warrants them telling their friends about the improvements.
Super Moderating Hero: What about specifics, things like free trials and promotions? And, similarly, how do you reward your loyal players?
Craig Morrison: That's really an area for our PR or Marketing folk, but there are plans for those kinds of campaigns, yes.
It was important for us to get the server merges done first so that we didn't risk uprooting new trial players during their trial experience. I am sure you will see trials of some form in the near future. In terms of our loyal players I think that's two fold, firstly the most important thing we can do is to keep providing them with new content, but we are also considering some form of loyalty program for later this year which will offer some form of rewards for subscribers. With our strong focus on the upcoming item and statistic changes first though it's something that hasn't been flushed out in detail just yet.
Super Moderating Hero: What sort of item and statistic changes are those?
Craig Morrison: As we have mentioned in various community letters and interviews one of the areas we weren't satisfied with after launch was the itemisation and statistics in the game. While Age of Conan was intended to not be an item-centric game we feel that we probably took it too far and that the item progression in the game, and how much the player's statistics meant to game-play, needed to be better.
This has meant us going back and overhauling the underlying formulas and statistics to improve the character progression and make items more meaningful in the game. We won't be going all the way to the other extreme, where items are 'everything', but we do intend to make item acquisition a better gameplay driver.
These have been really extensive changes for us, and we have the first builds being tested internally now. Then we will release a version for public testing sometime soon after the current update cycle is complete.
What's the plan for updates during 2009? How often can we expect meaty patches? Can you give us an example of the areas being targeted and the type of change we can expect? And, leaving aside the expansion, what's the most exciting piece of content in development?
Craig Morrison: Again, I'm not really one for setting schedules and specific time-lines. I think the frequency will be pretty similar to that you have seen over the last few major updates, at least for those 'meaty' updates.
In terms of the overall plan, I think it's split into three fundamental areas. Firstly, there is the new content, starting with Xibaluku, aimed at level-80 players, then Tarantia Commons, which will be aimed at the mid-70s (to break up the levelling in Kheshatta), and features a really cool story-driven outdoor zone with lots of quests and several dungeons.
Then we will have House of Crom a large dungeon experience aimed at the highest-level players and featuring a combination of single and multi-group encounters.
We will keep adding new areas after those mentioned as well. We are already working on parts of other areas, too, but it's a little early to go into details there.
Then we have the area I mentioned in the last question. The items and statistics update will really be the foundation for us being able to improve all our content in various ways. This will be through improved itemisation and rewards, better balance and an ability to work better on class feats and abilities as well the building block for further systems to provide better character advancement.
Lastly, we have an additional focus for the year, and that's the community elements of the game. We want to improve the guild functionality and we have plans already in motion for that area. It's a little early to go into too many details on this just yet, but it's most definitely something I want to achieve in 2009.
Super Moderating Hero: Better character advancement? Does that mean feats and abilities will be completely overhauled? And will classes fundamentally change?
Craig Morrison: No, we won't be making fundamental changes to the class roles for sure! What it means is that players will have more options for character development.
Some feats and abilities may need to be tweaked and improved but we aren't talking about radical changes. We are talking about making the player's choices - what items they equip or where they put their feat points - more meaningful.
We've seen Blizzard scale back dungeons to focus on 5-man groups and 25-man raids, and add hard modes to the former offering epic rewards. Are there plans to make Age of Conan epic drops more achievable and less time consuming?
Craig Morrison: I think we have a different game from WOW and the itemisation can't really be compared directly. I think the key - and this ties back to the items and statistics update again - is for us to make sure that the items and rewards players recieve offer them good options and upgrades. Having already acknowledged that this was an area we weren't happy with, we are working hard to improve the rewards of gameplay.
What about factions? Why were reputation rewards never included as a way to work towards sparkly items? And will we ever see them?
Craig Morrison: I personally can't answer why it wasn't included for launch as I wasn't involved. I think 'reputation grinding' is something WOW has taken and run further with than any other MMO in the past, but it was a system that we didn't go with for the development of Age of Conan.
I think this links to the earlier question about how much of a clone of WOW you should be. If we found a variation of such a system that would benefit our game would we consider it? Sure, of course we would. It's an area we're looking at. But as I said before, it's not just about taking a system from another game, it's about finding the right way of incorporating the same gameplay goals and drivers in a way that works for your game. That is certainly an area we are looking at, even if we don't have any specific plans right now.
Let's talk about the expansion! When's it coming out? And can you give us a little spoiler what of what we can expect? A new continent? New classes? Motorbikes?
Craig Morrison: I'm afraid it's a little early to talk much about the expansion plans, right now there is a dedicated team working on concept and playfield design for it, but the focus for the majority of the team is working on the currently scheduled work for the live game. I am sure as the year progresses you will start to hear a little more about the expansion.
Are there any plans to rework low-level content or offer an alternative for people re-rolling characters? And what about adding more support for the role-playing community to get their teeth into?
Craig Morrison: I think the early-game experience in Age of Conan is one of its strengths. The vast majority of feedback we receive on Tortage is positive and players seem to really enjoy it, so I don't think you will see many changes there. We have discussed the options for allowing veteran players re-rolling to skip Toratge possibly, but there aren't any firm plans on it at the moment. It's one of those 'maybe in the future' ideas.
In terms of role-playing that is an area that was never a strong focus for the game as a whole but we do try and include what we can when we can to offer role-players more options. It is, however, not one of our primary focuses for the game for the coming year.
Super Moderating Hero: Going back to the expansion - oh look over there it's a flying distraction - can you give us a teensy weensy clue as to the theme?
Craig Morrison: I'm afraid that I fear the flying distractions that might come from our lovely marketing folk if I was too distracted by your distraction to answer that!
You've quite clearly got your hands full with the PC version. Are we really still going to see Age of Conan on Xbox 360? I don't think anyone would be shocked if we didn't.
Craig Morrison: There is a small dedicated team working on the Xbox platform at the moment. We still plan on having a 360 version of the game at some stage but I'm afraid I can't go into any specifics beyond that at the moment. It is a very technical task for a game like ours.
In Anarchy Online you were known for being very active in communicating with the community. How will you handle communication with the Age of Conan community?
Craig Morrison: I try to be as active as I can, although I also have to let our fine community team do their job as well. Having graduated from community manager to production on Anarchy Online, I was very hands on. Here I also have a sizable team of community folks to help with the communication. I read the forums every day, and probably always will, and make sure to pop in and post on threads where appropriate in addition to the community letters and doing interviews like this.
Super Moderating Hero: That's all Craig has time for, we're afraid. We suggest looking out on the official Age of Conan forums for specific change notes in the future - lots of people asked about intricate tweaks.
But before we go, Craig, would you rather have lasers for eyes or be able to turn invisible? And why?
Craig Morrison: Oh, most definitely invisible! So many opportunities for seeing cool things you might not be supposed to! I think I'd probably be very geeky and wander through film lots trying to see all my favourite films or TV shows ahead of time!
Super Moderating Hero: And what is your favourite film?
Craig Morrison: My favorite film? Dangerous question to ask a total film nerd! Probably Bladerunner or Akira if pushed!