There's a concept known as l'espirit d'escalier, which describes those wonderful comebacks and phrases you think of the moment you walk out onto the steps after an encounter that didn't quite go as well as it might have.
This writer learned this wonderful phrase a few months ago after an early morning BBC news programme presenter caught me out entirely by asking condescendingly whether our topic of discussion - videogames, unsurprisingly - was "all just a fad". By the time I'd made it out of the studio, I had ten wonderful, sparkling comebacks in my head - none of which had made it as far as my gaping, astonished mouth while we were on air, of course.
In that spirit, then, an apology is owed regarding this interview with three of Funcom's staff working on the upcoming Age of Conan massively multiplayer game. Somewhere over the North Sea between their appropriately wintry development headquarters in Oslo and the marginally less freezing London, we realised that we'd completely failed to ask Ole Herbjornsen (associate producer), Joel Bylos (quest designer) and Erling Ellingsen (product manager) the obvious question; namely, what is best in life?
Sorry. Given the presumed Viking descent of the Norwegians on the team, we can only assume that there's a certain genetic sympathy for Conan's own unreconstructed perspective on the finest things in life, but now we'll never know for sure. We did, however, remember to ask them plenty about the game, so that's alright then.
Eurogamer: One of the most notable things about Conan is the attempt to make this into a mature game - you've commented previously about wanting to break away from the traditional view of MMOGs as cartoony and family friendly. The level of violence and the degree of sexuality are obvious moves in that direction - but what other things have you done that make this mature? Violence and sex seem mature if you're a thirteen year old boy; are there things you've done to actually make this appeal to adults, as opposed to kids who want to play "adult" things?
Ole Herbjornsen: When we write the story and the quests, they have a much more mature theme than you're probably used to in most MMOs, or other types of game for that matter. The locations and the art direction also lend themselves to a more realistic perspective - more gritty, more sinister. Hopefully we've managed to realise Robert E Howard's vision of the world, and in a mature way.
Joel Bylos: There are definitely a lot of the design elements in the quests - and of course, that spills over into world design and so forth - which are more mature. A lot of people look at games and think of children; but we have quests where the player really has to think in an adult way.
I have one quest where the player has to sentence people to execution - they have to talk to these people and weigh their crimes, and then decide whether they live or die. It's not an easy choice - there's no simple situation where someone killed another man, so he's a murderer and you kill him. It's very much a case of people who have done something bad, but are also good people in other ways. The player has to make a decision, and the outcome of that will affect the reward they get.
Eurogamer: You've implemented a conversation system in Conan which is more like an adventure game than an MMOG - is that an indication that moral choices will play a major role in the game? How does that relate to the violence of the world, and how much impact will it have on people's individual experiences as they play?
Joel Bylos: First of all, we have a very talented dialogue writer, who is a former Mongoose pen and paper writer that has come to work for Funcom. I think he puts a lot of personality into all the characters in his dialogue. Essentially, a part of the design philosophy in the game is 'What Would Conan Do?' - in the same way that people say 'What Would Jesus Do?'. In a lot of the quests, we put players in the position where, if they ask themselves what Conan would do, they'll come up with the best way through a quest.
That said, there are tougher situations. Not all the quests are easy decisions - a lot of them are, but there are a lot that aren't as well. There are times when you'll have to really think about what way you want to go. For example, we never force a Stygian character, who might worship Set, to defend their god if they're in an argument with a Priest of Mithra. You'll always have that in the dialogue system - you'll always have the option. If you don't believe in this god, you'll have the right to say that, and as dialogue writers we've tried hard to put that in the game.
Erling Ellingsen: The beauty of the dialogue to me personally is that I actually get into the quests much more. In World of Warcraft, I just hammer yes, yes, yes, yes - I don't really read the text, I just read the objectives I have to do. In this game, it's sort of fed to you in a way that really involves you.
Joel Bylos: But also, we've set it up by design so that people can do the World of Warcraft thing if they're very lazy. We've made it so that you can always get the quest by pressing 1 repeatedly - if you don't want to read, that will always give you the quest. That will also spill over for people who want to play alts and so forth, who want to level up ten characters in the first month or whatever. We provide both - I think we're doing the best of both worlds.
Ole Herbjornsen: I think there will be some benefit, but I don't think you'll really need to have much background knowledge about the setting, about Hyboria, to go and have fun in the world. For me personally, I didn't know much about Conan before working with this project - that's when I started really digging into the Robert E Howard books, reading them thoroughly and discovering this amazing universe.
You don't need to do that, though. I think you'll be able to pick it up as you go - we've tried to build in some of the lore in the game itself, so you'll indirectly be reading some of the books as you go along, and you'll learn more for that.
Joel Bylos: I can give you a quest example where you learn about the Stygian lore. In Stygia, there's a quest where you'll actually be sent to look for a man's friend who's missing - and if you know nothing about Conan, you won't realise that in Stygia, serpents are holy and they're allowed to eat people. You'll come across a snake that's just finished eating the guy, lying in the street, and if you talk to the guard next to it he'll warn you off touching the snake - he'll tell you that this is Stygia, and we don't do that here.
Eurogamer: When you look at games like WoW and their audience, there are a lot of children playing them. Have you got any way of preventing children from playing this game, which clearly isn't suited to them - or do you just leave it up to the parents, since it's really their job?
Ole Herbjornsen: We do have a German version, which is going to be scaled down compared to the US and UK versions. Other than that, of course you'll need to have a Visa card - well, if your 14 year old son manages to get hold of a Visa card and go online, there are far bigger problems you have to worry about. We don't have retina scanners or anything!
Erling Ellingsen: We do also have pre-paid game cards. We can't keep underage children from playing in the game - it's just impossible. We just have to trust in parents. It's their responsibility.
Ole Herbjornsen: We've definitely seen in our community feedback that the most interested group of people, in terms of age categories, is 18 plus. The highest levels of interest come from people even older than that.
Erling Ellingsen: Besides, the average age of an MMO player is supposedly 27.
Eurogamer: One of the most unusual things about the game is that you have a combination of multiplayer and singleplayer right up to level 20. How did the decision to do that come about, instead of having newbie zones like most MMO games do?
Ole Herbjornsen: I think that stemmed from the initial analysis that was done about five years ago. We wanted to know how we could make MMOs more mainstream, how we could increase interest and get new players to test it out. There were a lot more players playing single-player RPGs than there were playing MMOs.
I think at that time, the MMO market was much more hardcore than it is today - now we have much more casually oriented MMO titles than we had back then. That was part of the decision. We wanted to have an easy transition for offline MMO players.
Joel Bylos: Funcom is well known for its stories, and I think a part of the original design intention was to make sure that we were telling a real story in an MMO. A lot of MMOs tend to fail at that - we really wanted to tell a strong single-player story, and that thread runs the whole way through the game, not just from 1 to 20. If you follow the Destiny quests all the way through the game, you'll really feel the single-player experience very strongly.
Eurogamer: We last saw the game back in July, and there have been a number of big changes to the gameplay since then - you've got a new defence system, big changes to the combo system... Have a lot of things gone back to the drawing board, or is this just part of the natural tweaking and fixing process?
Ole Herbjornsen: We've been taking beta feedback for quite some time, and we saw the need to make some changes there - to make the game more appealing and easier to grasp. Some of us have been playing for a really long time, so for us it's like second nature - we have it in our blood. Once we started getting beta feedback, it was clear that we needed to make some changes to guarantee the success of the game a bit more.
Eurogamer: One of the things we noticed, say, is that whereas previously combos were triggered by hitting attack buttons in sequence, now they're triggered with a more conventional hotkey. Are you deliberately moving towards being a little more similar to World of Warcraft, because that's what players are more familiar with?
Ole Herbjornsen: I think the intent is that we're going to enable the old system as you get further up through the levels. The idea is to make it an easy transition, to learn and get to grips with the combat system - we're just making it a little easier to understand initially. We haven't removed the ability to activate the combos by just hitting the attack directions themselves, it's going to be unlocked at harder levels.
Erling Ellingsen: It's not because we want to 'WoW-ify' the game - it's really down to the beta feedback. We were very up front about that when we delayed the game, we actually stated in the press release that we had to work more on the combat system.
Eurogamer: We've seen some games in the last year that have had big problems at launch through being too ambitious - Vanguard is probably a good example of a game that tried to do a lot of exciting things, but at launch, nothing in it really worked. You're doing some very ambitious stuff in Conan, like the city building system; are you worried about being able to get all of that together and working in time for next March?
Ole Herbjornsen: In terms of those features, it's an ongoing process. We really test them, and we want to have them as good and as fun for the players at launch as possible. We've launched MMO games before, and we know there will be issues with some of the features - that's why we're trying to plan ahead, to tackle it and be proactive, rather than having a launch and then going 'oops!', and having to go back to the drawing board.
Also, as Erling mentioned, based on the beta feedback for combat, we decided to take responsibility and go back and make some changes ahead of launch.
Erling Ellingsen: We're not releasing half-baked features. We'd rather wait and patch that feature in later - I'm not saying we're going to do that with any of the features, but it would make no sense for us to put out something that's half-done.
Eurogamer: Because you have a real-time combat system, are you worried about lag in the game, and about how network connections will affect that? Most previous RPGs have worked around latency by removing real-time elements; it seems quite brave to say that you're going to change that.
Erling Ellingsen: This is always a difficult question, because what can we say - 'no, it really works! I can show you the code!' *laughs*
The beta feedback has been so positive on that front. Personally, I've never heard about lag interfering with the combat system - and honestly, we wouldn't release this combat system if the technology didn't support it. Again, we're not releasing half-baked stuff.
The code is actually based on Anarchy Online's code-base, so it's something we've been working on for ten years.
Ole Herbjornsen: I think also that if you look at the beta feedback we're getting, we don't hear stuff about it being laggy - it's more about class balance. That means that we've managed to get a certain distance - we've got a product that has come sufficiently far that people can actually play it and give us detailed feedback on the balancing, and not on other issues like lag or technical problems.
Eurogamer: With Conan, are you aiming for casual, WoW type players, or is this something more complex, more suited to dedicated players?
Ole Herbjornsen: I think we're very clear about wanting Conan to have a casual appeal. We don't want to exclude the hardcore players, but they're not the primary focus, in the sense that we're aiming towards a more casual-friendly style of play.
You don't need to grind twenty hours a day to avoid the risk of your friends levelling away from you, or anything like that. That's not the focus of our game. We believe people should have fun as they play, not just grind up as quickly as they can to get to the end game.
Erling Ellingsen: You have both aspects, really. Conan is a very PvP centric game, for instance, which implies that it's a game for very hardcore players - but it isn't. You also have a strong focus on quests, being able to do quests quickly, and on jumping in and doing solo stuff. You don't have to group - the game can be soloed from 1 to 80. There's something for everyone. If you're a really hardcore player, you'll probably spend a lot more time doing the PvP stuff.
Eurogamer: Other MMOGs see a lot of more casual players dropping off when they reach end-game - because you go from being able to solo almost the whole game, to needing a large, organised guild to accomplish anything. Is Conan going to have the same problem for players who hit level 80, or do you have a way to keep everyone involved?
Ole Herbjornsen: When we talk about sieges, and massive PvP, the way that it has been conceived and designed is that you'll have stuff to do for the bigger guilds, but there will also be a role for the smaller guilds - those with fewer players, who have less time to sink into the game. They'll be able to have an active part, and have fun - there's a role for them, whether it's helping out a larger guild, or cutting out a piece of land for themselves in a bigger space.
Erling Ellingsen: For example, if you're a big, organised guild, you can try and take the Battle Keeps in massive PvP - the huge keeps - but if you're in a smaller guild, you can try to capture smaller towers, resource nodes, things like that.
Another thing about massive PvP is that we have something called a mercenary system. If you're in a guild, and you're attacking a battle keep, you can say to all the players on the server that you need more people to fight for you. Then, if you're not in a guild, you can just accept these tasks from other players - you jump right into the action, help that guild, and get a certain amount of gold for it or whatever.
It's a great way of getting players right into the action without having to be in a guild - you can experience that gameplay without doing the daily guild meetings and all of that!
Ole Herbjornsen: One second you're plucking berries and the next second you're chopping heads.
Age of Conan is due out on PC in March, with an Xbox 360 version to follow. Pop your head into our Age of Conan Eurogamers group for a chit chat.