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Age of Conan: Unchained Interviews: Fourth Anniversary Interview with Craig Morrison

By William Murphy on May 15, 2012

MMORPG: Age of Conan remains a staple on the MMO market. After four years what is the key to the staying power of the game?

Craig Morrison: I think many of the central pillars of the game that were originally planned contribute to its longevity. We have a visually stunning MMO, probably one of, if not the, best looking titles on the market, even four years on, we are still in that conversation. The level of detail and the amazing atmospherics that can produce with the Dreamworld engine give us an amazing edge over many other titles. A game like Age of Conan is why PC gaming still appeals to many, as it shows the true power of the platform.

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Then on top you have this brutally visceral setting. The Hyboria created by Robert E Howard all those years ago. It isn't an 'orcs and elves' high fantasy setting, and it has this very dangerously compelling mood to it. There is no 'good' and ‘evil’; there is simply this extremely threatening world that is at the mercy of the darker of mankind's traits and weaknesses. It is a setting that allows us to explore themes and situations that you just can't touch upon in other settings. In many ways it's the same fundamentals that make something like the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones so popular. Howard's Hyboria shares many elements there, just with more action and a little less talking. The great barbarian did after all usually let his sword do the talking.

MMORPG: What are your memories of launch? At that time what was the best part of the game for you?

Craig Morrison: I wasn't actually on the team when it launched, so I was a spectator and player. Some of us on the Anarchy Team at the time were busy playing through the content, just like the hordes of players that descended on Hyboria at the start. I think we were all a little overwhelmed at how successful the game had been at attracting players. While of course, it was those expectations that ultimately left some players feeling that the launch hadn't delivered, it was still quite an amazing accomplishment for a studio of our size. I think the only games that sold more copies that year were the Sims and Spore, so for me, stepping into that situation, and managing such expectations from so many people after the launch, was quite challenging. I went from managing two teams of fifteen people or so (Anarchy Online and Pets Versus Monsters) to heading up a project with over two hundred staff. So the game has been a huge part of my life for over four years now, it's been an amazing journey.

MMORPG: What has changed the most after four years of being live?

Craig Morrison: A lot changes over a time frame like that. At the top level, there has really been something like three or four incarnations of the production team for example. While some people have been here throughout, we have also moved things about and tweaked set-ups a few times. Made a huge expansion with the Rise of the Godslayer team, worked with a full live game team, and then moved the development to Montreal and built up another great new team here that made the most recent adventure pack, and oversaw the conversion to Free to Play with the Unchained version.

We have evolved the Dreamworld engine several generations, which has allowed the game to remain at the cutting edge of MMO technology. Some of the technical integrations we have done ended up being very challenging, and time-consuming, but the end result is that we have a platform that can hold its own in the years ahead as well, and is aging extremely well.

MMORPG: The community on Conan remains very strong, what do you have to say to them after all these years of support?

Craig Morrison: Just a huge thanks! We make these games for the community out there. I think that because MMO titles are as much service as product, you can be mistaken for thinking that the negative elements that you read about every day on forums, blogs and websites are how people consider the genre... even the most successful titles seem to illicit that reaction... but at the end of the day it's only part of the story. For me it's seeing the players in-game and enjoying the content, and seeing the communities that grow up there around the game, around guilds, around friendships and rivalries... that is what defines an MMO community.

MMORPG: Looking ahead in Conan, what can players expect for 2012?

Craig Morrison: We have a busy slate ahead of us for the rest of 2012, and indeed for 2013! Since we're fast approaching the half way point of the year already, some of the plans for next year are already being sketched out.

For the rest of this year however, we have two real focuses. The first is the already started set of system changes and new systems. A totally new crafting system is incoming, new multiple feat specifications, a serious revamp of the way sprinting works, and a series of class balance adjustments.

Then we have the content focus, a new adventure pack is in the works that we are aiming to launch in Q4 this year. Then we have a series of great free game updates coming up, with brand new tier four raids currently in testing, alongside new maximum level variations on some of the dynamic dungeons, and a new team version of the Breach.

We also have the extremely intriguing single server technology being developed by the Dreamworld folk. We have some high hopes for what will be possible with that technology, but it's a little too early to go into details there, as the Dreamworld team are obviously quite busy at the moment with the launch of the Secret World incoming.

MMORPG: What game mechanics do you use to work with your veteran player base? How much input do they have on the game?

Craig Morrison: I wouldn't say it's about mechanics; it's a deal more old fashioned and straight forward than that. You play the game! You play alongside players, veterans and new-comers alike, and you play. You watch and you listen. The closer you are to your game the better you understand it, because it is those players who get the closest to it. The designers play the game; listen to the players actually playing the game. Learn what they like and dislike, what they appreciate, and what they don't. That's really the best way to cut through much of the 'smoke signals' and the like, that can dominate forum discussion, where a few vocal voices can often dominate at the expense of an impartial assessment.

Honestly, the best information is farmed from being in the game, and talking to players as a player. That is when you hear the most honest assessments of the game. When they don't know they are talking to a developer players are often brutally honest, but also quick to recognize what they like and appreciate. We couldn't make the game without that feedback. The veteran players are often those that understand the mechanics the best, and know how to optimize things, and are a vital part of our testing process.

MMORPG: Can you give three major highlights of the game that continue to impress players today?

Craig Morrison: The combat system is probably still the factor that most popular reason players attribute to their love of the game. The dynamic nature of the combo system, and the importance of positioning and movement, makes the game feel different from almost any other MMO out there. Even those titles that have tried to take combat in a more 'action' based direction, haven't quite captured it in the way that we have with the combat in Age of Conan... and of course then there are the fatalities. Players love the fatalities!

The game play in our dungeons and instanced encounters has really shone out for me over the last few years. The team has really learnt how to make some brilliantly compelling experiences there. Whether it is the amazing new raid encounters in the Jade Citadel, or the story driven solo instances like The Island of Iron Statues, there is a lot of really fun game play there. That after all is the main aim of developing game play content, to make it fun first and foremost, and I am very proud of what the team has achieved there.

Then you really have the aspect we mentioned at the top - the game still looks fantastic over fours year on. The Dreamworld engine powers some amazing visuals that make the game stand out.

Also it would be remiss to not mention the introduction to the game. Sorry to squeeze in a fourth thing to the list, but the beginning of the game still resonates well with new users. The more single player centric, very story driven, game play of the Island of Tortage really gets people hooked, and it still works as well today as it did four years ago. The experience there gets almost universal praise from the new players as they start to explore the game.

MMORPG: With the new additions coming to the game, what tools are you giving players to bring down their Hyborian foes?

Craig Morrison: Game play wise, the main balance change that is coming up during the summer update schedule is the long awaited changes to sprinting. It's been the proverbial bone of contention amongst the player base for some time, so it's great to finally get to implement a proper solution.

When that update goes live, your ability to sprint will be linked to a brand new personal resource, that will be used just for sprinting. It is also not observable by other player. This resource represents your sprinting capacity and is measured in seconds. It will also be drained when using the double tapping avoidance techniques.

The regeneration is represented over a set amount of time seconds, which is currently being tweaked during testing. The same rate will apply in and out of combat. For some players this will mean lower regeneration rates out of combat, when compared to the current system when using stamina, but offers a system that is way more consistent, flexible and understandable for everyone.

Since this will be completely independent of stamina regeneration, everyone will have a greater tactical choice with this ability, as they will no longer need to choose between sprinting or combo execution. This will be a timed resource that players can manage to their maximum advantage, and will make timing of its use vital, in particular in PVP.

In terms of new items and weapons of bloody destruction, the new adventure pack at the end of the year will bring with it lots of new items and armor to collect, and the new crafting system will contribute some there too.

So there is a lot coming up for the game. It's been quite a ride over the last few years, and we are looking forward to the next four years!

William Murphy / Bill is the Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He''s been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.

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