During PAX Prime 2012, Bill and I had the opportunity to sit down for a face-to-face chat with Age of Conan Game Director Craig Morrison. Funcom had a very small presence at PAX though it was just curious circumstance that PAX came right on the heels of the company’s announcement that it had implemented cost saving measures including the ‘temporary’ layoff of employees. Craig was at the show to talk to press and to fans about what was happening and to give a bit of insight into Funcom’s way forward.
Funcom in General
Given how soon after Funcom’s redundancy announcement, it was only natural that the first item up for discussion was about the overall health of the company, what the layoffs mean for Age of Conan: Unchained, The Secret World and Anarchy Online.
“Obviously these are hard times.” Craig told us. “We’ve implemented cost restructuring to make sure that we are still here. We haven’t hidden anything and are very open about what’s happened.”
“Make no mistake though: We have many, many good people working on the updates for Age of Conan, The Secret World and Anarchy Online and our teams are committed to keeping to a schedule. We will continue to support our games on an ongoing basis.”
The Secret World
According to Craig, much of the financial woe that Funcom is currently experiencing is due to the failure of The Secret World to reach as broad an audience as they had hoped. He didn’t cite any specific reason but mentioned the thought that TSW is a brand new IP, that it embodies genre-altering systems and that, just maybe it came out at a difficult time with Guild Wars 2 looming on the horizon.
“We might have lost people to Guild Wars 2 or other big titles but, by and large, The Secret World is having difficulty getting people to play the game.”
Morrison then told us that the idea is to continue to get the word out. Players, he told us, love the game and the team wants potential new players to read peer reviews, talk to players still involved with the game and more.
Out of that came the natural question about whether or not Funcom was considering “lowering the barrier to player entry” and whether or not it should have launched as a free to play title from the start.
“Obviously hindsight is 20-20. We felt it was strong enough to warrant a subscription.” Craig told us. “We might or might not have gotten more players. Still, we haven’t ruled out free to play for The Secret World. We may move to it eventually but we’ll do it when we think it’s right for the product and in the right way, a way that’s right for the game.”
In the meantime, Morrison told us that vanity items are in the shop are selling well and creating a positive revenue stream particularly in light of the fact that the things in the shop are vanity, not “play to win”.
“Clothing is popular and it adds positive elements to the revenue stream particularly if we go free to play down the line. Those are the things we would expect to sell well.”
Age of Conan: Unchained
From the discussion of The Secret World we moved to what Craig is most versed in: Age of Conan Unchained. He told us about the just-announced “Secrets of the Dragon Spine” expansion and spoke excitedly about how the content will be released episodically over a period of months rather than making players wait for a long period of time between updates.
“During our annual summer survey, where tens of thousands of players participate in answering the questions, we discovered that players wanted less content more often. We are happy to oblige. “ he said.
The Secrets of the Dragon Spine takes place in Southern Stygia, roughly the transition zone between North Africa and Central Africa. There is an ancient evil affecting the denizens of the area (isn’t there always in a Conan story?). It’s up to the players to discover what is wrong, to meet with the local inhabitants and work to solve the problem.
The first of the episodes for Dragon Spine is tentatively expected at the end of October though we couldn’t get Craig to commit to a firmer date than that.
“The target is six weeks (from time of the interview) from now, though the producers will probably kill me for saying that.” Craig said.
Dragon Spine will be free to premium subscribers and can be purchased episodically by free players. In addition to the content (quests, dungeons, etc.), players will find some new thematic armors for sale in the vanity shop.
We came back to Funcom a second time as our interview wound down. Obviously, Craig was very moved by the plight of the workers Funcom had had to let go. He told us that the day after they had been told every single worker was back at their desks the next day to keep working, that no one was absent.
“I’ve never been prouder of a team I’ve worked for.” Morrison said.
And Funcom showed its classy side as well by inviting local game companies to a recruiting event so they could talk to the employees Funcom was forced to let go.
“These are people who love to make games and we want them to do that even if it’s not with us.” He said.
As for the future, Morrison told us that Funcom, because of so much existing technology (i.e. the Dreamworld Engine, etc.), will be able to make more cost-effective games but that doesn’t mean a ton of Facebook or browser-based titles.
“We can still make great games, just smarter and more efficiently.” Craig said.
With that in mind, he told us that the games in Funcom’s future will likely be less content-driven and more systems-driven.
“We want to allow players to tell their own stories. We can create a combination of a wonderful visceral world and a place for players to tell their stories and to work with us to create something new.”
It was a terrific interview and Craig, while obviously concerned about the laid-off staff, had a very positive attitude and a forward-looking mindset. Funcom has survived tough times before and we think they will again.
What about you? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.