AGDC 2008: Q&A: Age of Conan battles on

Funcom product director Jorgen Tharaldsen sits down with GameSpot to provide a postlaunch update on the publisher's M-rated MMOG.

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In May, Oslo, Norway-based Funcom launched Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, a massively multiplayer online role-playing game that drew its inspiration from famed fantasy author Robert E. Howard's grim Conan the Barbarian universe. Thanks to largely positive reviews and prelaunch buzz, the game shot up the PC sales charts, with Funcom laying claim to the lofty title of "biggest MMO launch since World of Warcraft" less than a month after the game launched.

Jørgen Tharaldsen.
Jørgen Tharaldsen.

However, despite the strong start, player discontent soon bubbled over, with players increasingly vocalizing their concerns about a range of bugs as well as the absence of promised features. By August, Funcom found itself with 415,000 subscribers, despite having shipped more than 1.2 million boxes to retailers.

This week, Funcom product director Jørgen Tharaldsen was in the States to attend the Austin Game Developers Conference, and GameSpot had a chance to speak with him to get an update on the current state of the game. Although quick to acknowledge players' qualms with Age of Conan's stability, Tharaldsen also noted that the team has been working full-tilt to iron out the wrinkles. He also spells out just why it is close to impossible to flawlessly launch an MMOG, what AOC's new game director brings to the table, and how Funcom is approaching the launch of its two main rivals: Mythic's Warhammer Online and Blizzard's Wrath of the Lich King.

GameSpot: What do you guys think you killed?

Jørgen Tharaldsen: You can look at it in two ways. There's the game itself, and everything that surrounded it. When it came to the game itself, there are a few things we did really, really well. There's the storytelling, the presentation of quests, and the immersion in the world, and that included the graphics and the audio--I think we blew everyone away with that. How you feel inside the universe, I think, is unique compared to anything that's come before us, just putting all the actors in there.

I'm also very happy with going the active route with the combat system. It feels a lot more responsive, a lot more fun actually. It's a bit stale going back to the old mechanics. I think taking that step forward and having the guts to do that is something that paid off in the end. It was a very hard choice because it took us a lot of time to get it right and polish it, but I think it's given us something really good out the door, and a great foundation to build further on. And that's on the mechanic side.

There's also many small things. How we took the Conan license, how we stayed true to it, and how we expanded on Howard's work instead of just taking it and trying to cash in on the license, but really respecting it and evolving it. And that's something we did great as well. There were many areas that we achieved what we set out to do.

GS: On the flip side, what's killing you?

JT: We took a conscious choice in terms of going for an extremely high-end engine. And that in many ways that was the right choice to make, but the system requirements and just fixing everything to make it look that good meant that the engine wasn't as stable as we would have liked it to be. So we are spending a lot of resources now on stabilizing the engine and fixing all of the memory leaks. I'm not quite sure if it was a mistake. It was a gift and a curse in ways. I also think that our item system could have been better. The reward systems for the items and how it worked, and also the trade skills--I wish we could have given some more polish, and the siege-ing as well.

And even though all of these systems are now coming into place and being polished and being in a state that we are becoming happy about as they are rolling out, I wish we could have spent more time on those specifically. To mention that as well, we had a defined list of, I think, 634 features, and when you're dealing with that kind of feature list, there's always going to be stuff that you're not happy about and that you want to improve on. That's part of the game as well. But those are the things that I think we should have spent more time polishing.

GS: What do you think resonated the most with the player community?

JT: I think the first thing was the Conan license, because it gives you instant mental images of what you were supposed to do and what Conan was, and that you can become something along the same lines. And I think next was the active combat system, because obviously everyone at Funcom plays online games. When we started discussing this back in 2003, we said OK, where can we invent or evolve in online games. And I think the active combat system is moving the genre in the right direction. And, of course, the graphics.

GS: What did you guys spend a lot of time on that the community said, "Umm, we don't know what to do with this."

JT: What we spent the most time on was actually the combat system. In the beginning, a lot of the testers didn't quite get it, because it was too hard. So we had to go back and redesign it and change it and make it more accessible, which was all for the better. It was a bit too simulation at first, so that's something we spent a lot of time on. I think we had eight iterations.

GS: What have you learned from the launch of Age of Conan that you plan on keeping in mind when it comes time to launch The Secret World?

JT: Ahh, it's a big secret!

GS: Broad strokes then, anything that you can share?

JT: What I think that we learned from the Conan launch was server stability, network code, billing systems, all the things that surround that. We learned a lot about how to deal with communication and customer service around the launch, and what to do better for next time, how to scale it up more correctly around the launch time frame. Whenever you do online games, there's never such a thing as you having complete wisdom, because it always evolves. It's a moving target. So we'll take all these key lessons that we learned now, adapt it, and implement it a bit differently for Secret World as needed.

But we also learned as a company that we're self-sufficient in many ways in dealing with players and working with them. So there are some positive takeouts and some critical takeouts as well. In all, we did awfully well at launch. It did tremendously well. It was like a dream come true around the launch, but the mindset isn't really there anymore. But our mindset isn't how great the launch was four months ago. We're focused on moving forward and seeing how we can evolve the game further, how we can remain a top game, and how can we make it good for many, many years to come.

GS: How are you feeling about how the player base is expanding since launch? Is it at the levels that you expected? Better? Worse?

JT: My personal goals for Conan many years ago were far exceeded. But also, we had a drop-off of many casual players who tried it but didn't go for it. Maybe they went back to World of Warcraft or will go for the next game. I think we should be very happy with the position we went out in, and that's what we're working on now, stabilizing, and making sure that we have a really good income for many years to come that we can spend on Conan and making new games.

GS: You guys have said you're making an Xbox 360 edition. How do you think a console MMOG will affect your subscriber levels?

JT: Well, it's the great unknown. In a way, it's about guinea-pigging our way into a world where MMOGs haven't been really strong. You have Final Fantasy [XI], but that's more of a conversion. Hopefully, it will turn out positively. It will make us think of things differently in some ways. But right now, our entire focus is on the PC version. That's where all our minds go, that's where all of our resources go. The live version of Conan is our bread and butter, and that's what we're going to push on. It's not like we're going to take huge resources out of the PC version now, because obviously we know what we have now, and building on that is our key priority. And there's so many unknowns for the consoles, everything from patching to textures to everything is different when it comes to this approach.

GS: So you were mentioning some of the technical things that didn't go quite right at launch. Looking at Funcom's second-quarter financial report released in August, you guys have $37 million in the bank. Why not push the game back a month or two, bank on the millions you have, and smash out some of those bugs?

JT: Well, we did push it back, several times actually. But the last calculation we did, all the feedback was "We will make it." And we did make it, I think it was one of the most stable launches. But there were also bugs. In hindsight, personally, I said, "Yeah, we should have ironed out some of these bugs." But I think there would have been bugs anyway. I think it's impossible, or close to impossible, to launch a completely flawless online game. It is like launching an operating system. And I think you can ask this question to pretty much any MMOG company after launch. You could have asked the same to World of Warcraft a few months after they launched as well. And some things also just come as a surprise, so it's like "What?!" And there's unpredictability as well. But obviously, what we're spending time on right now is polishing, and polishing, and polishing. It's going to keep on going for many more years to come.

GS: So do you think players will ever have a reasonable expectation to have an MMOG that launches nearly flawlessly or at least at the quality of a console game?

JT: They should have. As a player, I would expect that in this day and age. But Funcom, and Mythic, which is launching Warhammer, we're the children of the post-WOW era. The expectations for what your game is supposed to contain at launch has changed dramatically. When we launched Anarchy Online back in 2001, or any game that came out in that era, the feature set and what you were required to do change dramatically. I think we had 400 people on the creative list on the end [for Conan]. The growth, and what you have to do to progress and evolve the game further, is just staggering, what you have to learn and how much complexity is involved. As we launch new games, as Mythic launches new games, yes, the experienced MMOG companies, you should expect a certain level of perfection coming out the gates. The players are spending $50, so you should expect a great service.

GS: So yeah, you just brought up Warhammer is coming out this week, and Blizzard just announced for November. What are your guys' thoughts as these games are coming out?

JT: World of Warcraft has nothing to do with it. Why even bother, you know? They're in a league of their own, and we always knew they would be. If you make a dent in their wheel, you are still doing fantastic. As for Warhammer, they're going to be a neck-and-neck competitor for us for a long, long time to come. But I hope they do great, because honestly there's really not that many large MMOGs that have done that great. And there's huge investments here, so I hope the major and most anticipated games will do good. And I respect the Mythic guys a great deal. They're good game developers and they're good people. I think we're going to have many interesting challenges with them for year's to come.

But I also think that we have on purpose, that was a clear choice we made many years ago, we chose to differentiate ourselves. I think Warhammer is more similar to World of Warcraft, and we chose to go a different route with active combat and going for a more mature audience. So I think we have a lot of differentiating things, as well as upcoming features. So I think we're in a pretty awesome position.

GS: So that mature audience. To my knowledge at least, you guys are the first major MMOG to launch with an M rating. Are you happy with that decision? What do you think it has done for you?

JT: It's allowed us to be clear in our positioning, and be clear in our development, and being clear with the quests, and being true to the Conan license. We really had long discussions on this. Will retailers cut us out? Will we get certain issues? What about the Christian organizations that we've had some complaining from when we've launched other M games. We spent a lot of time discussing this. And in the end, we said OK, we grew up with Conan, we know what Conan is about, let's make the true Conan experience. And yes, there's going to be some downsides, but let's embrace the maturity and embrace the upsides as well. So it means we can use the language and use the tone, which suits the license a lot better. I'm really happy about it, actually.

GS: Do you think we'll see more M-rated MMOGs in the future?

JT: I'm certain of it. Not the least because the guys and the girls with the credit cards are normally 17-, 18-plus. And I also think that for MMO-like games like Grand Theft Auto, for instance, these universes are bound to merge at one point or another. And I think people actually like playing these types of universes, too.

GS: What are you guys thinking about for the future?

JT: Yeah, right now we're in a bit different of a mindset because we're in the postlaunch era. So that means we're tying to find the line of where we want to take the game and where the players want to take the game. And we want to make sure to keep them in on advice as we progress the game further. Our goal is, obviously, this autumn to work on expanding the PVP options in the game, and giving the players more reasons to play PVP. We're adding a lot more content for level 55-plus. Keep on honing the game, making sure more people can play it. We're coming out in Russia and Poland, and of course looking at the rest of the world as well. We're working on the trading system, the items system, like I discussed earlier, and improving that and taking it to the next level. And eventually some sunny day there's going to be an expansion. We've run Anarchy Online for seven years now, and I think a good MMOG today can run for 10 years, so it's about what we can do to entertain people and make sure they're having fun in our world for many more years to come.

We're also getting a new game director on Age of Conan. So Craig Morrison, he's coming from Anarchy Online and has been the game director there for a few years. So I think that will mean a small change, because he used to be the community manager as well, so he has a really player-driven approach to how he does things. I think that will mean we'll have a stronger player-needs focus, so that's going to be a good change moving forward.

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