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Interview with Age of Conan's Game Director Craig Morrison

Posted Mon, Feb 23, 2009 by Savanja

Questions by Savanja and Benjamin J. de la Durantaye
Answers by Game Director Craig Morrison

Last week Age of Conan saw one of the biggest updates yet since its release 9 months ago and you can be sure that there is far more to come!  The first in this series of updates brought with it several new zones, a PvP revamp of the mini-games, and countless other fixes.  With even more updates to come including a revamp to itemization, statistics, gems, and more PvP updates this just isn't the same game that we saw at launch and players are starting to take another look at what could be one of the hardest working games on the market today.

Game Director Craig 'Silirrion' Morrison graciously took time out from his busy schedule to talk with Ten Ton Hammer about the evolution of Age of Conan.  We'll discuss update 1.04, the things that haven't yet made it in, as well as the plans for the future in this very open and detailed interview.

 

Ten Ton Hammer:  First let's talk about the two new level 80 zones, The Slaughterhouse Cellar and Xibaluku.  These two zones are very different from each other but interconnected in their storylines requiring players to play through one to get to the other.  Can you tell us how these two zones relate to each other?

The Slaughterhouse Cellar is a much desired solo experience.

Craig Morrison:  Basically the Slaughterhouse Cellar is a solo player experience to gain access to Xibaluku.  There is a story in Xibaluku about how the picts have started to find ancient dark magics and what they are doing in the Slaughterhouse Cellar is kind of an introduction to what might be going on.   This will allow the players a solo experience in order to gain the key to gain access to Xibaluku. 

We've had good feedback since launch on the mix between solo instances and team instances.  With splitting this experience of Xibaluku into two parts we have the prelude to it through the Slaughterhouse with a solo friendly experience and then this leads up to the more boss encounter-centric encounters in Xibaluku which they have to have a group for.

Ten Ton Hammer: As you have said, Xibaluku will be focused on groups.  Will this be a single group or will you be able to pull in a couple of groups, and what will they be facing?

Craig Morrison: It's a single group instance.  What we've tried to do with Xibaluku is make the gameplay very interesting and dynamic.  It's about focusing on the boss encounters.  I think that some of the feedback, in terms of our higher level and group content at launch, was that the players felt that a lot of the encounters weren't really interesting enough or there weren't enough tactics to them.  With Xibaluku what we have done is taken that feedback and made an experience that is very different every time you do it.  The bosses behave in different ways, and more importantly, each individual boss does something.  When players go through Xibaluku they should be able to go "Oh yeah, that's the boss that sends you to prison, this is the boss that throws you off the cliff, or this is the boss where you have to do the platform puzzle".  Each one is identifiable in its tactics and players can identify with it and try to counter it.  There is none of these bosses in which you can just sit there and heal your tank and just tank through the fight.  These encounters will very much be pushing the players to interact with the environment around them.  They have to worry about timing, and they have to worry about reacting to the bosses’ abilities.

Ten Ton Hammer:  Is there a defined way to defeat each boss?  Are people going to require certain classes to take down a boss or are there various ways to defeat any given boss?

Craig Morrison:  We certainly don't design anything that will require any said class and I think that's a most dangerous road to go down in an MMO.  Any good, balanced group should be able to get through the content. 

In terms of tactics, it varies for each boss encounter.  A couple of examples of this is that one of the first bosses that players meet in zone has an ability that, through the fight, he will mind control a player and send them to a prison cell.  A random member of the group will be picked and that player will then be sent to a prison cell, the door locks behind them, and undead skeletons spawn that they have to kill.  Now if that happens to your main tank you might have a much more serious problem than if it happens to one of your additional DPS.  Depending on who gets picked by the boss each time will have a bearing on how the encounter plays out. 

There is a boss further along in Xibaluku which has a platform puzzle where the boss has a buff on him that makes him very powerful.  In order to dispel the buff and make him vulnerable to the players’ abilities there is an optional puzzle they can do.  This puzzle involves a series of buttons, levers, and platforms that will appear over a big pit behind the boss.  When they try to do the puzzle a player has to hop from one platform to another as someone else is activating the buttons.  They can't do it with one person and they have to do all this while the rest of the group is fighting the boss.

I think the guys did a fantastic job with Xibaluku.  We really challenged them to push the bar up a bit again and make sure the encounters have that really dynamic feeling and challenge the players so that they look forward to doing again.  It's different, it's interesting, and a lot of the encounters in there actually make the players challenge themselves.  On top of all that, there are actually different end bosses depending on how the players perform through the experience.  There are two very different and very engaging boss encounters and how a group performs will determine if they get the boss that is usually there or if they get the more impressive boss encounter which obviously also has a little better loot.

Ten Ton Hammer:  You mention that the one boss will have a bit better loot.  Just in general will the loot of these zones be major upgrades for the average player or will it be on par with the already existing loot?

Craig Morrison:  I guess it is subjective to what you are calling an average player.  In terms of the power level of the loot, because it's a single group instance it is not as powerful as the raid gear that is out there; so for people who are raiding, it won’t be an upgrade for them. We've put some fun loot in there and for the first time there are some social pets that players can earn from defeating these bosses and there are new tradeskill recipes.  We've tried to itemize the loot table with the fun and interesting stuff so that even if the players aren't getting a power upgrade from the armor and weapon items that are dropping, there is still a reason for them to be there and there is still something cool they might pick up through the experience. 

Ten Ton Hammer:  We understand that PvP mini-games are getting quite a bit of work this patch; can you comment a bit on the changes that are going into the PvP system?

Come to Xibaluku looking for a challenge!

Craig Morrison:  We generally take PvP as a whole, and there are a lot of changes in this update to all of the PvP systems.  With the split we have between PvE and PvP players, PvP is a very important part of the game and we try to make sure that each update upgrades the system in various ways. 

In terms of mini-games specifically, I think because we are a game that has developed a decent amount of outdoor world PvP, mini-games have never been the core of PvP like they are in some other games.  What we found, though, was that the players on some servers were having difficulty finding enough players to start the mini-games particularly below level 80.  What we've done in this update is significantly overhaul the queuing system so that players can queue for the first available fight rather than picking a fight and only being able to queue one at a time.

And in addition to, but not directly related to the mini-games, we are adding incentive for people to earn points for war declarations during mini-games as well as outside.  When a guild declares an intention to siege another guild's city and battlekeep, there is a period of war declaration where other guilds can also say "Now wait, hold on a minute!  We want to also have the right to attack that battlekeep!"  What happens is over the period of war declaration the points that the players have gained from PvP activity is counted towards a score.  Whichever guild has the best score for the end of the period is the one that gets to assault the battlekeep!

Ten Ton Hammer:  Another great incentive to participate in PvP.  Moving on to other important game aspects, do you have any idea when we can expect DirectX 10?

Craig Morrison:  DX10 is currently has been on the test server for a while now and it is getting close.  Obviously it makes sense to not put it out for technical and safety reasons for the stability of patching it.  We decided to not put it out with the main update but it will go to the live servers at some point during this series of updates.  That's the plan we've communicated for a while and it is still looking good.  We are at the stage now of just sort of trying to fine tune the experience for the players so it is smooth when they get to use it.    It's very easy with new rendering technology to make things look pretty, but the key is to make it look pretty and run smoothly.

Ten Ton Hammer:  How have the server merges been received by the playerbase?  Do you think they went well?

Craig Morrison:  I do!  I think that the players wanted the server merges quite a while before we actually decided to do them.  We received a lot of feedback from our existing players that they did want to see it happen and the reaction overall has been very positive.  Players like having more people around, and it is creating more vibrant communities and generally having the positive effect that we had hoped it would have. 

Ten Ton Hammer:  So now that this first update has come in do you have an idea of what the team will be focusing on next?

Craig Morrison:  Well we've already got our next update going which will have the revamp of the items and statistics.  Basically quite early on, immediately after launch, the players didn't feel there was any real incentive through the itemization of the game to progress.  The statistics, such as strength or dexterity, didn't really mean enough to them to be worth investing the time in upgrading it.  It was a conscience decision early on in Age of Conan development to not make the game item-centric and to make it more skill based but I think that it is fair to say that we've come to the conclusion internally that we probably went too far.  When a player can wield a level 30 dagger at level 80 and not feel the difference we didn't get it right. 

So what we are doing with the revamp is changing how the statistics affect the character and we're not going to go to the other extreme either.  We are trying to find the right balance by keeping the things that made the game appealing to people in the first place, such as the very hands on combat, and the fact that it is not just down to your gear how well you perform, but we do want to make sure that items and statistics are a viable progression driver for players.  They should be rewarded as they go along so that when they get that new cool armor item for completing a quest that they can put it on and see that it helps them in some way. 

It'll be going to the test servers in the near future, sometime over the next month, so that players can get to see it for themselves.  There will be a lot of information released as it also involves a slight re-balance for every class.  When we are doing something as fundamental as adjusting the statistics, what they mean, and how much they affect the character, that also means that it is the right time to look at all the classes, feat trees, and their spells and abilities to make sure they are balanced with the new system in mind.

"We're happy with how things are progressing and hopefully we are addressing the things that players really had issues with after the launch."

On top of that, the update will have a totally new gemcrafting system, which was another system of the game that had some serious issues after launch.  The gems went from being useless to being overpowered and we had to take them out to prevent people from exploiting them. The guys on the team have spent a lot of time revamping that system and making sure that it will work right and provide tradeskillers with a way to have a valuable impact on the both themselves and other players through the gems.  It's going to be a sizable update that is also a challenging one because we do have to be careful to not go too far in the other direction. 

It is going to be an interesting series of updates and we expect it to be one of the longer periods during testing.  This is the kind of update that will go through a few iterations on the test server with plenty of player feedback once we release all the information to them.

Ten Ton Hammer:  Is there anything else you'd like to tell the playerbase about this update and the future updates?

Craig Morrison:  I think mainly we're really starting to see, especially once the items and statistics revamp is done, that most of the key issues from launch have either been addressed already or will be addressed in the next major update.  We've tried to avoid just band-aiding things to keep people happy in the short term.  We have been looking at doing updates comprehensively and making sure that we address things in the right way.  With the new content, new zones, PvP, the consequence system, and continuing making the changes to siege system with the new war declaration and new PvP lootable resources, it'll be interesting to see how the players react.  Basically in this update the resources required to build a battlekeep have now been changed so that the only place to get these resources is in the border kingdoms, which is a PvP zone, or these resources can be looted from players when killed in PvP.  Someone can take what you just harvested by killing you!  It's about how can we change the systems, improve them, build upon them, and actually tackle the key concerns.  What we are really looking at is how we can make the whole siege system, the border kingdom, and the resource system come together to make a meaningful whole so that guilds really have a reason to be there, shifting the PvP to something meaningful. 

A lot of the open world PvP was just kind of random PvP around zone areas and now we want to try to move people into a PvP that really has meaning.  They'll have to go out and harvest if they are looking to siege another guild because they will have to have the resources to be able to build a keep once they win.  To do that, they're going to have to harvest these resources which means they are going to have to protect their people during the harvesting.  Even if you're not protecting them from the other guild you’re probably going to have to protect them from random gankers that are going to hang around where people are most likely going to be.  We'll probably have to tweak and adjust things like the drop rate of the harvest system but I think it will be a real interesting dynamic to see how guilds and the guild PvP develop from these changes.

We're happy with how things are progressing and hopefully we are addressing the things that players really had issues with after the launch.  No one here is under any delusions as to the reason why the game didn't quite live up to expectations and the team is working very hard to address those things.  We hope that the people will hear the positive word of mouth and they might try Age of Conan again and hopefully they will be pleasantly surprised by what they see when they get back.

 

We'd like to thank Craig for taking the time to talk with us and look forward to seeing these updates in action!

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