Questioning Conan

An audience in the court of the Barbarian King. For Age of Conan, obv.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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