Hi, I'm Daedren. You might remember me from other interviews like "Mark Jacobs: He Didn't Call Me Back" and "Richard Garriott: Corp Por or In Vas Mani?" I write this not with a gun to my head, or a sharp weapon to my balls, but because I'm an advocate of objective journalism in the MMO industry. That means when I strike up a dialogue with someone as unlikely as even Erling Ellingsen, of Age of Conan interview fame, I must adhere to my own code. I think I'm saying that because I've been watching Dexter too much.
A short synopsis of the background leading to this interview: I recently wrote an article titled "Age of Conan: A Post Mortem Analysis" that was, by MMO industry standards, famous enough to have Massively's chief editor send me a couple hookers and a bucket of KFC for my troubles. Some of my readers summed it up as "The harshest review ever done on a game - but mostly true" or "inane babble by a crazed man, obviously driven insane by his socialist European overlords" - in any case, it got the attention of Funcom, probably because I emailed it to all of them.
I eventually came to discussing the article with one Erling Ellignsen. After he realized I was not all fire and brimstone, he lightened up to the fact that reaching out to MMO player base might be a good idea. No one is perfect, of course, and it's only fair to give someone the chance to explain. With that said, I've given Erling 5 questions to answer, and here are his responses:
Daedren: In an interview with Jon Wood of MMORPG.com, you state that "No big features didn't make it in to launch". However, Age of Conan was marketed as a PVP-Oriented MMO. As the game was launched without a PVP system, how is this possible? We understand the need for testing and ironing bugs out, but it really does seem like the PVP system should have been there at launch and wasn't. What gives?
Erling Ellingsen: I disagree with you that the game launched without a PvP system. You could PvP players from day one, both in mini-games, in the open world and in sieges. One of the things we received the most positive feedback on was actually PvP, and Age of Conan is unique in regards to the fact that the majority of our players actually play on PvP servers. We even launched with a PvP cultural server ruleset. However, we know that we need to develop PvP further and that's what we're doing when we're now rolling out PvP experience, levels, armor and the consequence system. Saying that Age of Conan launched without a PvP system would, however, be incorrect in my opinion.
Daedren: In the same interview, you mentioned that "We know better than anyone what issues we are facing with the game". That said, how can you then justify the recent gem changes, the horrible gem balance from before, the past and current in-game itemization, and lastly, failure to fix game breaking problems like gems and epic item farming (effectively ruining the economy) in a reasonable amount of time? What sort of assurance do players have that mistakes like this won't be done again in the future?
EE: I certainly understand your concern, but rest assured that we are doing the best we can at the moment. We would like to fix everything right away, but that's simply not the way it works. These changes take time to develop and implement, and we need to work from a list of priorities. We have done a tremendous amount of improvements since launch, just look at the various patch notes. That being said we know there are still many issues that needs to be corrected, and we are working relentlessly on that. The gem system is being worked on as we speak, and the recent change we did was a temporary one to offer an intermediate improvement until we get it right. We will address all the issues we can, we just need to work from a list of priorities, and that means some issues will be ironed out before others. I know it's hard to be patient about these things.
Daedren: There has been a lot of criticism about Funcom already announcing a pay-for expansion for Age of Conan. A hefty portion of people have been allocated for this project. How can you justify spending time on paid content when basic features (like PVP) are missing from the game, and how can you try and compete with other games like Lord of the Rings Online who provide these content updates at no cost?
EE: I have absolutely no idea where you have "a hefty portion of people" from. Right now the expansion team is very, very small. Our main focus now is, of course, the live game. It would make no sense whatsoever for us to not prioritize the live game -- we need players to be happy with the game or else there isn't much point even making an expansion, so improving on the game that's there is priority number one. We wanted to drop some news on the expansion now because we wanted to show our playerbase that we are making long-term commitments to the game. Again, addressing the concerns the players have about the live game is alpha omega to us. The expansion is far, far away from release and we merely wanted to announce that we are indeed committing ourselves to delivering that sometime in the future. Until then, the live game is top priority.
Daedren: With the release of Warhammer Online and the upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, how do you plan to retain players? What is the focus in the next 6 months of Age of Conan to either keep players playing or get them back from other games?
EE: That's a good question, and I'm sure it will be a challenge! Right now what we want to do is work with our players on addressing the concerns they have and making the necessary changes and improvements that both we feel is needed and that the players feel is needed. We're definitely getting there, and I think you will see us picking up speed in the time ahead as more and more good stuff is coming out. The first part of the PvP update is leaving the test servers now, and I can't wait to hear the player's feedback on it. Then we need to get the consequence system out, and I think we have definitely made a heavy improvement to PvP. We're also rolling out a whole new outdoor area for level 55+ players, a whole new dungeon for level 60+ players, Tarantia Commons for mid-level players, as we have at least two level 80 dungeons in production. Then there is epic raid gear coming for all the classes, and we will continue to revamp content similar to what we did with the Black Castle. We are also looking into loot distribution, making the items more meaningful and making raiding more rewarding. We are committed to improving on Age of Conan and a large number of the changes you're seeing is a direct reaction on player feedback.We will also work towards improving communication with our playerbase, and we want to keep everyone more in the loop on what we are doing with the game.
Daedren: How are the current subscription and server numbers? We've hear rumors of server merges and severe population declines on some servers. Any plans for these?
EE: I'm not at the liberty to discuss subscription numbers due to the fact that we are a publicly traded company. The latest number we announced was the 415.000 customers per August 14th. We will certainly do what is necessary to entertain a healthy community of players on the servers, and if we decide on doing anything such as server merges we will make sure to notify the playerbase when we can. Right now I can not give you any definite plans on this, though. We do, of course, register the feedback we're getting on the forums and we're taking it into consideration.
And there we have it, folks. I'm a bit disappointed with the answers, of course, but that's not surprising. If you call "able to attack another player" a "PVP System" then I guess that's your call. Perhaps I should have said "No meaningful PVP System" or perhaps "A PVP System different than Bruce Lee on the Commodore 64." Not releasing subscriber numbers might not be Erling's decision, but I think it's safe to say with Warhammer launching this week and WotLK out in November, Age of Conan is going to have a bit of a difficult time not only retaining players but getting new ones as well. From how Erling talks, Age of Conan is being patched constantly and fixing problems, not introducing new ones. How accurate is that?
I'll be honest: I haven't played Conan since June. That said, I'm not the most informed on the current game status: though word on the street is that the PVP patch still hasn't launched and there are still some glaring performance problems. I've heard from a couple MMO hobos that still play AoC that a real patch hasn't been introduced since July or early August, and that the PVP patch (the one promised in June) is hyped up every week, only to be let down come patch day.
That said, I ask my readers to come up with some questions to bring to Funcom. Of course, I'd like to know peoples response to these answers. I'll be compiling what I consider the "best" questions from readers around and giving them back to Erling in a week or two - that is, if he doesn't put a restraining order out for my vivid pictorial references above.
Consider this an open dialog with "the Funcom". I'd like to hear from both ex-customers like myself and also some current subscribers that still enjoy the game.
Oh, on a last note, here is the three month trend for Funcom Stock. If you're too lazy to click, it's gone from $55 per share to $8 per share in just over 90 days. I'm no market analyst, so I ask for help on this as well. Is that healthy?
Original article is here at r1ft.com
Coming soon to Massively!
I wish it could be featured at MMORPG.com but it's not possible. Yay for the Second Life blog about to knock my down into oblivion! :P (Paragus will get you!)