by Cody "Micajah" Bye
Over the last few weeks, few industry professionals have gotten any
sort of lengthy stay at home, including the team at Ten Ton Hammer.
With the convention season wrapping up, everyone has been making their
last few rounds of appearances before the post-show lull that usually
accompanies the holiday season. Companies vying for a better allotment
of pre-release hype have been attending nearly all of the shows on this
year's convention circuit, and one of the most traveled individuals in
this segment has been Jørgen Tharaldsen, Product Director
for Funcom's Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Jumping from GenCon to
Leipzig GC to DragonCon, we're seeing Jorgen at the end of a five week
endurance marathon where he traveled from city to city, shaking hands
and generally getting to know the journalists and players who are
interested in Funcom's upcoming MMOG. This week marked the first day
off Jørgen had had in the last five weeks.
Tharaldsen at Leipzig GC, explaing how he loves his pet - and that she's naked.
Thankfully at AGDC Jørgen's schedule was fairly open, and
the Ten Ton Hammer team took the opportunity to sit down and chat with
the well-traveled product director. When we first made the interview
with Jørgen, the Ten Ton Hammer staffers were wondering
what, if anything, Jørgen could say that was new in any way
shape or form. However, it seems that the Age of Conan team has
prepared for this long-running convention season and have compiled new
content for almost every single show that Jørgen has
attended. Although nothing was strikingly new at AGDC, the Age of Conan
team had just spent their time at DragonCon showing off a whole slew of
new fatality moves that had been implemented into the system. "We
actually had to turn people away," Jørgen said. "We had so
many people that wanted to come into the booth that they had to be
dispersed by the Atlanta police. Apparently it was a fire danger to
have so many of them surrounding the booth."
"We also showed off emotes for the first time," Jørgen
continued. "We've been holding off until now because we wanted to make
sure we had the hair and facial animations ready. On top of DragonCon
last week, we also got the award from you guys (which can be viewed
here) that really made this whole last week into a really great
experience for us."
However, the biggest focus for the Funcom guys at AGDC has been to
really relax and learn about the gaming industry. Jorgen mentioned that
several of the Funcom guys had been brought down from Norway and were
attending various seminars and lectures to try and learn more about the
industry. "First of all, we really want to find out what's going on in
the industry. What's going on with other people, what're some common
issues in the industry; that sort of thing," Jørgen said.
"We also like to talk with other studios and see how they structure
their company in comparison to your own. You talk with one another and
you pick up something from them and they get advice from you in return."
"When companies don't got to these sorts of conferences," he said, "you
get to be very insular. You lose touch with what other people are
thinking. It's great to come to the U.S. and see what we can learn from
other developers, especially the foreign companies."
That said, Jørgen also mentioned that U.S. and European
development companies have more similarities than differences in the
basic outline of things. Other than being developed by Europeans, the
games that come out of the European countries are hardly any different
than what we see in our U.S. retail market. "The biggest
difference that I can see," Jørgen said, "is a focus that
doesn't center around story-telling." In general, the Norwegians are a
very story-based culture where sagas and tales of their ancient
brethren have been passed down throughout generations. As Americans,
it's often an afterthought for many of us, but it seems to be more of a
prominent situation the European markets.
I wouldn't mind seeing her naked.
Art was also one of the differences that Jørgen mentioned
when comparing the European and the U.S. studios. "We live in a part of
the world that looks very different from anything you see in the United
States," he said. "And I think you can see that in Age of Conan when
you view the screenshots or take a look at the general concept art for
the game. This isn't something that's cartoony or meant to feel
"light". This world is lush and fantastic but also holds an element of
realism in it as well." From a player's perspective, I can totally
understand what Jørgen is talking about with his talk of a
"more lush player environment"; rather than be "stylized" or something
like that to attain the Robert E. Howard feeling, Funcom simply made it
work with the graphics that they wanted to put into the game.
Along with that, Funcom has actually taken into account the incredibly
dark nature of the Howard novels. Long time Age of Conan fans may know
this, but Howard was longtime friends with HP Lovecraft, and the two
wrote letters back and forth to each other. Both of their worlds were
significantly dark, but it was something that Funcom didn't want to
ignore in Conan. "It is evil," Jørgen said. "Each man and
woman fights for themselves. The crush of barbarians are pressing on
people's psyches. It was something we wanted to capture."
"What we did," Jørgen continued, "was we created an art
bible of concept artwork and then we just went through each piece of
Conan literature. From Howard's books to comics to even the
movies. After that, we did a bit of modernizing - similar to what Peter
Jackson did for the Lord of the Rings movies - and we created a world
that, we think, is truly Conan, truly Howard, but still very much a
modern MMOG product."
In fact, Age of Conan has gotten so modern that players might be seeing
some of those "naked pets" Jørgen loves to talk about
hitting the inside of their favorite adult magazine very soon. "We've
got some beautiful artwork coming up," Jørgen said. "When I
got the image I just went, 'Wow....'" With all of the other games
hitting the "women of video games" sections of adult magazines, it
seems only appropriate that Conan, with its amazing in-game work on
naked men and women, could submit their female to an adult magazine.
The Norwegians take their Conan very seriously, even when it comes down
to the look of their naked female models.
Even with the mature rating, it's important to note that AoC is an extremely dark world.
But that sort of dedication doesn't come lightly. In a kind of tangent
with Jørgen, we found out that Norway treats Conan products
like people in the U.S. might treat a major published magazine like
U.S. Weekly or Newsweek. "This is just my own contemplation - I don't
know the true numbers - but from what I've seen," Jorgen said, "if you
took the circulation of Conan in Norway, it is as popular there as
U.S.A Today is here. Everyone purchases or subscribes to Conan in
Norway." When Jørgen mentioned that fact, I suddenly
understood why so much of Conan seemed to ring true for the die hard
Conan fans. There was no one else in the world as qualified to do that
sort of gameplay as the guys in Norway.
"So many of the developers collected Conan comic books," Jorgen said.
"It's just such an easy fit for the team. We all dreamt, as kids, of
doing something like what we're doing now and actually playing as a
pillaging barbarian." Strangely, even though I grew up in the United
States, I had a similar situation to what Jorgen described with the
collection of comic books (I inherited many of mine), yet I couldn't
quite figure out exactly why so many Norwegians would fall in love with
this IP by a long dead American. "It's the Viking heritage,"
Jørgen said in his best Viking voice. "But in general, I
think Conan is just a really good comic. It's deeper than just a Viking
heritage thing too. I think a lot of guys wish they could live out this
sort of lifestyle, at least vicariously through Conan."
Which made it even harder for the team to delay the game and keep it
from the hands of the players. But, as Jørgen commented,
they didn't want to make an "okay game", and that was a possibility if
they released too early. "We were looking at our feedback, alot of
which was about combat," Jorgen said. "We decided another six months
was necessary to make the combat system perfect and really hone the
rest of the game. However, our March 25th, 2008, date is what we must
hit now, so that's what we're working towards."
In the end, Jørgen wanted to discuss how the the employees
at Funcom are getting into their sort of "escalation mode", which
consists of constantly showing new content to the industry press - and
subsequently the consumer - then going back and reshowing the same
content that we had seen earlier but in a more polished state. "There
are things we like to unveil early, like siege combat, horseback
riding, and character creation; but there are things that we are
keeping really under wraps until we are totally comfortable with how
things look," Jorgen said. "As a quick example, we want our female
character models to look absolutely spectacular, therefore everything
you have seen so far has been almost exclusively male."
And the Ten Ton Hammer crew will be waiting to receive and post those
pictures as soon as they're released. Thanks again to Jørgen
Tharaldsen of Funcom for taking the time to meet with us in Austin, and
we always look forward to talking with him again!
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