Age of Conan Game Update 5 Interview with Craig Morrison and Erling Ellingsen
Hard-working may be an understatement when it comes to Age of Conan's
current live development team. Over the last few months, the developers
have pushed themselves to reconfigure a game that - at it's release -
wasn't what players wanted or expected. But with the upcoming Game
Update 5, the folks at Funcom have not only created new content for
their player base with the Tarantia Commons, but they've also
completely renovated what they're calling the "RPG system" in AoC,
among other things. Few games have seen such extensive changes in their
histories, so we sat down with AoC's Game Director and Director of
Communications, Craig Morrison and Erling Ellingsen, to find out some
of the details in GU 5.
Ten Ton Hammer: How much new content will the Tarantia Commons bring to the game? Will there be new dungeons or raids in the area to explore?
Erling Ellingsen: Tarantia Commons District is the newest outdoor playfield for level 75 and up. You will be able to experience countless more hours of content with a whole new series of quests, outdoor boss encounters scaling from the high rooftops of the district to the dark mysterious graveyard, and the addition of a single-player as well as a 6-man grouped dungeon.
Craig Morrison: The location really adds a lot of new very dynamic game-play elements. We have really focused on adding interesting and exciting elements to the design for these new play-fields and the urban environment of Tarantia Commons has actually added to it even further, street riots and rooftop game-play really brings some new dimensions into play in a way I think players will really enjoy.
Ten Ton Hammer: Can you tell us about the revamps you've made to RPG system?
Craig: That would actually be an interview all in itself I think. There have been a lot of changes in this update, but the premise is straightforward. What we have achieved with this update is to make the item and statistics in the game a deal more meaningful to the players’ progression. One of the major issues many players had with the game when it launched last year was that they didn’t feel a goods sense of progression, and this update addresses that.
You can find all the details of the changes on our community site article.
Ten Ton Hammer: How will the revamped itemization of gear effect gameplay for both PvE and PvP gamers when it goes live?
Craig: As above it means that players can now improve their character more through items. When a player finds different items through their gameplay the choices of what to equip now mean more, and offer many more options for customization. Hopefully players enjoy it much more now that the relative merits of different items are clearer and more obvious for them. So far the feedback seems to be positive.
Erling: I’ve been getting feedback from players who claim that their experience has completely changed with this update. It’s quite interesting to see how much of an effect these changes have had. Being able to understand more clearly what an item does to your character makes a big difference for players, and having more meaningful statistics on your weapons and armor I think makes obtaining items a lot more rewarding.
And we all know that in RPGs finding good loot is a big part of the fun.
Ten Ton Hammer: With the 1.05 update, Craig made a call to arms on the official AoC forums to recruit guilds to aid in testing the raid encounters for the update. What has been improved with the raids as a result and what can players expect to experience when they hit these raid targets once the update goes live?
Erling: I hope you have some time, he likes talking about this subject! Seriously, though, it’s great for us to have such a dedicated community that is willing to step in and help us make these updates a reality. It’s one of the great things about working on an MMO; having a test server where players can follow the development of an update and provide feedback throughout the process makes it a lot easier for us as developers to make sure we get the best possible result.
Craig: The main point of getting that important extra testing was to ensure that the raid gameplay worked with the new RPG system. Each subsequent round of testing has allowed us to make sure the new system works with the existing mechanics. We went through four stages of testing with the player community. I explained this at length to our community during the testing, with some good discussions, but I thought it’s worth sharing here for your readers as well! It was an interesting process (of course those following Conan closely may have read some of this already!)
The First Stage - Finding the Conversion Errors
The first stage was to get through all the raids and see where the new system made them simply impossible. The system has scaled some things up and some things down, moved from invulnerabilities to protections etc etc and that meant that some of the Boss spells and abilities were simply too powerful or completely redundant after the automatic conversion.
Alongside the testing, the team went through each and every raid boss spell and ability and checked the scaling and the new outputs. Having guilds testing the encounters at the same time helped tremendously. For example, testing with Vistrix meant that immediately the team had a list of changes easily identified from the very first tests. So even though the players wiped completely (and were of course a little frustrated by that) it allowed the team to identify exactly which spells and / or abilities were the culprits (in the case of Vistrix it was a debuff that was still using an old calculation rather than a new one that was then reducing the players effective level by 20 rather than 2!). Each of the bosses was then worked through in exactly the same manner, testing and re-testing the numbers until the numbers came within the ballpark ranges of the new system and we had weeded out the remnants of the old calculations.
Stage Two - Encounter Mechanics
Once the most glaring imbalances and errors had been worked out the next stage was to assess the existing encounter mechanics and where those might need to be adjusted. Which of the bosses spells and abilities might need re-balancing, or which of the players abilities may need tweaking with raid content in mind.
This was a more straightforward stage and involved running through the encounters watching how players reacted to the abilities in the new system, which leads to an important point...
New Systems vs Existing Mechanics
There are not really any new mechanics being introduced with the raids in 1.05, but the RPG system changes do have an impact on the existing mechanics. Part of the entire reason for the systems changes is to provide a more robust back-bone with more potentially interesting mechanics for us to build our encounters on. The lack of differentiation between levels and the relative slim power scale in the original system meant that a lot of the mechanics that had already been designed and implemented were almost inconsequential to players in many cases. The system changes allow those mechanics to function as they were originally intended.
A Case in Point
So what exactly does that mean in practice? Let me give you a specific example that illustrates the point. The Champion of the Honorguard encounter is one that demonstrates this quite well and has been a good 'litmus test' for some of the balance testing.
When we first started the organized raid tests, this encounter was giving players far more problems than it should have. Raids were clearly struggling with a difference between the live environment and the new 1.05 build. (This of course was true with a few of the raids at the start of the testing but I'll follow this one through as a good example).
So we followed a few raids through, and then had the systems and raid developers sit in on a run through. What we found was a great example of the difference between the builds. The Champion of the Honorguard has a spell that basically does more damage in an AoE attack the more players are around. He has always had this ability; it's not new and was part of the original design. The problem for raiders was that on live, players were able to completely mitigate this damage with healing and protections even when they were all bunched up around him (which was then a valid tactic in the old build to keep everyone in team healing range). In the new system however the new scale of damage and HP levels meant that this spell had an increased effect. This meant that in order to succeed in this encounter with the new system the players had to adopt a strategy of spreading out a little more, as was the actual original design intention.
Once the raiders realized this, they were able to complete the encounter much more easily. It wasn't a new consideration; it was just a consideration that had been inconsequential with the original system (since it could be completely mitigated). What we have now is the scenario where the original design implementation is actually playing out better and providing a more interesting encounter.
Yes, it does mean the encounter can be argued to be 'harder', at the very least 'different' and all that without any actual changes to the mechanics of the encounter itself. The team hadn't given the boss any new abilities, spells or tricks, but the new more robust system means that his existing abilities are coming into play more and have to be considered by the players.
Stage Three - Getting the Numbers Right
Tied to this of course is actually tweaking, adjusting and balancing the spells, abilities and attacks themselves. The team have been following and watching the raids, measuring damage output, healing and the timing of both the players and the bosses. This has allowed the team to tweak the numbers down to a level where we try and get the raids to that pivotal point between being challenging and being improbable (or even impossible in worst cases!) We generally tweak downwards because we knew we were starting them off too high in the first builds, it's easier for us to tweak down towards an acceptable level than it is to tweak upwards)
Stage Four - Bringing It All Together
Lastly we worked on some more balance testing and making sure that we tweaked things after the previous pass and made sure all the encounters were possible with the new system.
We will also be continuing to watch raids closely now that the update has gone live!
Ten Ton Hammer: I noticed that the player cities are going to become a little livelier with update 1.05. Can you tell us what type of new things players can expect to see when they stroll through their guild's city?
Erling: Quite a bit has been added here! Players will find their Keep now not only provides a siege supply merchant at Tier I, but a Wagoner to Old Tarantia at Tier II. At Tier III, as before, your guild is permitted to participate in massive PvP battles.
The Temple (Tier I) provides a spiritual leader who can teach the Path of Comrades, an ability that allows you to return to your guild city in the same way that the Path of Asura returns to you to your bound location.
The Barracks now supports not only the straw men and patrols of guards but also scattered watchmen throughout the city. These guards increase in level according to the tier of the Barracks (I = level 40, II = level 60, III = level 80) and will defend their guildmates against attacks. At Tier III, the Barracks also supports a Guard Captain, who will transport visitors to the Border Kingdom of their choice for a nominal fee.
City Gates will now be guarded by four sentries at all times. These sentries level up and behave in the same way as Barracks-spawned guards.
The Armorsmith, Weaponsmith, Architect's Workshop, Alchemist's Workshop, and Thieves' Guild, as before, continue to support a merchant to sell profession-based crafting materials. This merchant is unaffected by building upgrades. The Armorsmith and Weaponsmith also attract guards that level up and behave in the same way as Barracks-spawned guards.
The Tradepost now not only provides a Trader, but offers the following additional features:
Tier I: A food and drink merchant, as well as business-savvy whores.
Tier II: A Potions vendor, one of the new Provisioner vendors who sell crates with bulk consumables, a
Tradeskill supplier, and a new local merchant who has a new social pet for sale from the region.
Tier III: The local merchant expands his or her wares to include two more pets, a wagoner to Conarch Village and a wagoner to Khemi.
Craig: These elements are also important for their social value I think, guilds are an important element of the game, and something we will definitely be developing further. These additions are really just the start of the process when it comes to guild functionality, you will see a lot of focus on it in the next major game update as well.
Ten Ton Hammer: In the latest “Letter from the Game Director”, Craig mentioned that players will have the option to purchase two additional character slots for their account when the new update goes live. Any word on what this will cost players who want to take advantage of the offer?
Erling: Unfortunately this new service has been delayed a bit, but we’ll be introducing this very soon. Players will be able to purchase a maximum of two character slots and one slot will cost 15 US dollars or 15 euro (incl. VAT where applicable). We’re also very pleased to be introducing one free character slot for those who have accumulated six months of subscription time. This will also affect people who reach six months accumulated subscription time in the future.
Ten Ton Hammer: Can you tell us about the new gemcrafting system? How different is it from its previous incarnation and how different will the new gems be in comparison to the old?
Craig: Again, that’s pretty much an interview in itself and there is an in-depth article on the changes on our community site. At a top level though, just as with the RPG system changes the new system means that the players now have meaningful changes for their gems, and the system is far more flexible in terms of meaningful additions.
You can find the detailed article here.
Ten Ton Hammer: What kind of new social pets can players obtain from the new vendors being added to the guild cities? Will there be additional social pets that can be found throughout the world in other locations?
Erling: The social pets vary depending on which location in the game-world your guild city is based on. Those based in Cimmeria will find the pet vendor providing dogs, Acquilonian cities offer cats and the Stygian version offers snakes.
Craig: It’s something we may do more of in the future if they prove popular with players. I think players do appreciate having some more social elements added alongside the new game-play content. So there will most likely be new social pets added in future updates as well
Ten Ton Hammer: Would you care to tell us a little about the next update or the very secretive expansion pack that you teased us with the art for some time back?
Craig: I don’t think I am allowed to talk about the expansion.
Erling: All we can say is… mark GamesCom in your calendars!
Craig: In terms of the next update, as I outlined in the community letter we have three main focuses.
The first focus, and the major feature addition, for the next cycle will be guild gameplay. As we have mentioned before one of the major focuses for this next set of content is improving our guild functionality and the purpose and role of guilds in the game. I will explore this in more depth, and reveal a little about the direction these changes will take, in the next community letter.
In addition we will have new content as we move on to looking at the addition of new high level content for both groups and raids in the majestic halls of the House of Crom. The team is preparing some really fantastic gameplay suitable for such an epic location. Continuing to add even more high level content is an important goal for us and this location plays a huge part in that. As the next major content addition you can look forward to hearing much more about this over the summer months as we prepare the challenges and encounters that await you in this most imposing and deadly of dungeons.
Then we also have the ongoing task of adding more goals and objectives to the Borderlands PVP playfields. This is something that we are busily planning and working on already and hope to be able to add to over the course of the next update cycle.
Ten Ton Hammer: Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.
Craig: Always a pleasure!
Erling: Thank you for having us! We really hope players will come back and take a look at what’s changed with the game since launch, particularly after this massive update. We look forward to everyone’s feedback in the time ahead!