Funcom has been on the MMO industry map for almost a decade. They are known for Anarchy Online, Dreamfall, Age of Conan, and are now starting to release news on their next project, The Secret World. But the company has certainly had its ups-and-downs. Numerous players and critics believed that the company's most recent title, Age of Conan, was launched too early and suffered from high system requirements, bugs, and lack of content, thus leading to many updates over the past year. Similar problems cropped up when Funcom released their first MMO title, Anarchy Online, too soon as well, and the company has continued to pump time and energy into their still operating first project. Yet current Age of Conan and Anarchy Online players now hail both games as being strong and fun.
This past February, Funcom unveiled The Secret World at GDC '09, and the ideas behind the game seem innovative enough to complement the very creative viral marketing strategy that hopes to bring players into the mythology long before the game is launched. In the rest of this article, Ten Ton Hammer takes a look at what has worked for Funcom and what has not. Will Funcom learn from its trials and tribulations with Age of Conan and Anarchy Online to resurface with a fascinating new MMO style that is The Secret World? Let’s find out from both players and Funcom representatives.
Age of Conan's Conqueror. a melee class.
Let's step back to April 2008, fans of Conan the Barbarian are clamoring to get into the beta test for Funcom’s Age of Conan. The forums are abuzz and the numerous fansites are full of news, rumors, and reports on the game. The MMO industry is on the verge of launching its next round of big, post-WoW games that are exciting MMO junkies all over again. Fans cannot wait to see the blood and M-rated content of the grim Conan world, they are excited by a new combat system that uses combinations and allows players to attack multiple targets. The hype is high, the time is right and Funcom is riding the wave into launch.
Fast forward to May 2008. Funcom lets players jump into a very short open beta test, and the game is set to launch at the end of the month after some more delays. People are getting their first hands-on look at the Hyborian city of Tortage, a pirate town that jumps right out of the pages of one of Howard’s Conan yarns. The opening twenty levels of the game play like a single player adventure; your character feels part of the story and is actually secretly working for King Conan himself.
As players begin this journey they find it fraught with woes, and we’re not talking about Picts with spears chasing you through a coastal forest. We’re talking about system requirements and some bugs. Ten Ton Hammer asked Premium Members what they thought of the early days in AoC:
“Personally, I think the game launched way too early without the testers seeing much of the game. Were there good parts? Absolutely. Tortage was probably the most fun I've had in an MMO,” Centrik replied.
By the end of May, Age of Conan was in full launch mode. The release was covered by all the gaming press and the game drew some high marks for its innovation to the MMO genre. However players were starting to see a different angle. Some players felt that AoC’s high system requirements caused issues.
Age of Conan is known for its mature themes.
“[The] game was too intense for too many people's systems,” said Vaebn.
In June 2008, Funcom had rallied back with promises that things were being fixed, but players also had a lot of options to look at on the market. With World of Warcraft plotting its Wrath of the Lich King expansion and Warhammer Online only months away, the MMO market was suddenly getting very competitive.
To further prove the point, Funcom's stock price on the Olso Stock Exchange was as high as 53.50 NOK (Norwegian currency) on May 22, 2008. But by July 22, 2008, two months after launch, the stock price for Funcom had dropped to 25.10 NOK. Tough times were upon Funcom, like every other MMO company facing the early part of the global financial crisis. Erling Ellingson, the Director of Communication at Funcom, had this to say on the ups and downs of the company and Age of Conan:
“You're absolutely right, there were ups-and-downs. On one hand we delivered a game that shipped over 1.2 million copies - making it the third best-selling PC release of 2008 - and the game worked great at launch. People had a lot of fun early on, and the reviews were great. But as time went by and players got deeper into the game issues turned up that needed to be addressed. That's basically what we've done during the past year (we're nearing out one year anniversary now!), and we have managed to address most if not all of the most important issues players have voiced. The game is better than ever, and the feedback we're getting from returning players is great. It goes without saying that we learned a lot from this experience, everything from core game design decisions to production priorities, and we'll certainly take that with us for the future. We're very happy with Age of Conan's current standing, and we look forward to both the expansion and re-evaluation campaigns. The Secret World is building momentum, the game looks and plays amazingly well, and we're very happy with the public interest in the game. At the same time we've also started working on other projects that looks equally as exciting, and all in all I would say the Funcom future is looking very bright. We can't wait to reveal more on what we're working on, and we definitely have some very special surprises coming up later this year!”
Age of Conan has grown into a stronger game for 2009.
But even with the very successful launches of Warhammer Online and Wraith of the Lich King and the plummet of Funcom's stock price, Conan has kept on kicking. Although he wasn't part of the initial launch of the game the current game director, Craig Morrison, had this to say about the situation facing the early part of AoC and how the game has progressed in the last few months:
“To be honest I am not the best person to ask given I only took the reigns after the launch of the game. As with any project on this scope and scale I think the team faced a lot of challenges, some things I think they got right, like the more action orientated combat and really bringing the world of Hyboria to life in some great looking environments that really capture the feeling of the brutal world of Conan. Of course some things also didn't work out, I think we really missed not having all the PvP systems in place for launch and the client performance issues did prevent many players from really enjoying the experience. Thankfully, through a lot of hard work, we have managed to work through those issues and expand upon the game experience very positively in the post launch updates.”
Age of Conan has now settled into a core audience of players who enjoy the game and agree that many of the changes have made the game much better. Game Director Craig Morrison talks about the current state of the game:
“I think it's a good testament to how far we have come that many players now speak positively about the game and that the 'word of mouth' is turning in our favor. I think that speaks volumes for the effort that the team has put into improving the game over the last year. At the end of the day I could talk endlessly about how much we think we have improved but that pales into insignificance compared to the reactions of the players. That is really the pay-off for us! I think most of the players appreciate the fact that we have listened to their feedback and aimed our updates towards addressing the issues that were raised around the time of the games launch. Performance has been massively improved, the PvP systems have been added and expanded upon, a ton of new content has been released, and we have worked very hard to make that new content engaging, interesting and most importantly fun for the players to play through.”
So if you logged back into AoC right now, you might find a very different experience than what you might have discovered back in the early days of the title. Craig and his current team appears to be driving the game in the right direction and working with player feedback to create the best MMO possible for his current players. No one can argue that Age of Conan hit the Hyborian nail right on the head with themes, storylines, and especially R-rated content. So after one year we asked Craig what Age of Conan has in store for players now, here was his response:
“I think it's a good mix of both PvE and PvP to be honest, both parts of the game have been expanded upon and added to over the last year. I think there are several factors that work towards making Age of Conan a game that offers some pretty unique draws. At the front lines of this is our setting and game-world. As I mentioned at the top I think the art and design teams really did do justice to the brutal world as written RE Howard. The world of Hyboria is realized in a very visceral and compelling manner that does justice to the mature setting for our game. It's a game world unlike any other out there at the moment. I think it's also one of the best looking MMOs out there! We also have the more action orientated combat system that doesn't play quite like any other title out there right now. It really adds another unique element to the experience for players. Then when you throw on top the expanded PVP systems and constant content additions I think you have a very compelling offering for players to enjoy. We obviously have to keep the work up, and there are still many areas that we want to expand on and improve. There will be more additions to both the PVP and PVE parts of the game over the coming year!”
As Erling points out in his earlier quote, here we are in April 2009, and it has been almost one year since AoC’s launch. Funcom remains steadfast as a company with lots of projects planned. I asked Erling what Funcom has learned from the experiences in 2008 with Age of Conan and how they will apply the knowledge to their newest project The Secret World, he had this to say:
“You grow as a company with every title you put out there. We learned a lot from Anarchy Online that we brought with us to Age of Conan, and we will certainly do the same for The Secret World. One of the things that really took a lot of work for us on Age of Conan was the core technology. It was a groundbreaking title in terms of MMO graphics, and getting there took a lot of time and resources. With The Secret WorldThe Secret World will definitely see a leap forward from Age of Conan, but having that technology as a solid foundation to build upon is great.”
The Secret World holds many puzzles and codes.
At GDC this year, we began seeing some of the concepts behind their new game. The Secret World trailer is linked here: first trailer (if you have not seen it). The cinematic opened up a lot of questions from players as to what they will be doing in the game. The fact sheet that Funcom has provided about the game is very ambitious. This excerpt is from The Secret World write up:
Enter the real world: Discover the hidden places of the present-day world. Enter the thriving urban environments of New York, London and Seoul, and enjoy the social bustle of modern life. Then leave the cities behind and plunge into epic adventures that will take you through grand locations across the globe, from Egypt to New England, from ancient past to an apocalyptic future.
Is the modern world too complex a setting for an MMO? With cities the sizes of New York and London will players have endless side streets and alley ways to explore? It seems like an interesting start but is the world too deep? Some players complained that the content in Age of Conan after the opening of the game was lacking. Will The Secret World be different? With the game updates that Funcom has put into Age of Conan over the last year and the fact that they have been listening to players carefully gives us hope that some of the mistakes in the past that have been fixed in AoC will now be overcome with The Secret World.
Another change to normal MMO guidelines is the character construction that is being talked about in Funcom’s fact sheet. It seems like a very open character policy and that can be either very good for players or leave them confused about the types of decisions they make when building a character.
Be who you want to be: There are no classes or levels. Experience the freedom of complete character customization at every stage: flexible character creation, unrestricted and almost limitless combinations of clothing and accessories, and skills directly shaped by your actions during play. Experience a reactive, fast-paced combat system that allows you to defeat enemies using anything from martial arts to black magic, from legendary armaments to modern firearms.
Players look to have a lot of options in The Secret World.
While skill-based games are coming back into popular with titles like Fallen Earth, Mortal Online, Darkfall and Earthrise, it seems like The Secret World will offer similar sorts of options to players. That prospect seems very exciting indeed and could offer some great opportunities for players.
Besides these brief write ups, Funcom has taken a very different angle on marketing The Secret World. If you look at the site: Sanctuary of Secrets you will find all sorts of puzzles and clues that will help players figure things out about The Secret World’s mythology. Ten Ton Hammer asked Erling Ellingson to comment on the site and its unique style of drawing players’ attention, he said:
“Sanctuary of what? I have absolutely no idea what you're talking about. But there do seem to be a lot of strange things stirring on the web these days, and I am sure the secret societies of the world are watching it with a keen eye.”
As gamers, we all know that figuring out things is in our blood. We constantly seek to answer the question, defeat the boss, and solve the puzzle. Has Funcom hit the right spot at our very core to get us excited about the game? Right now the buzz over The Secret World is growing fast, game journalists at GDC were very excited by the trailer and the hidden mysteries that Funcom is creating with the game. Again Funcom is ramping up the hype machine, something they are very good at, for better or for worse.
But you can't fool the players. The MMO community is incredibly intelligent, yet this time there seems to be a lot of enthusiasm behind The Secret World despite Funcom’s mistakes in the past:
“I love the puzzles they're doing. Sanctuary of Secrets is the most recent and it was a lot of fun. And hopefully it paid off for what we got from it. It looks like Funcom are putting a lot of effort in to this one and I hope it has a good launch,” said Metal.
We also asked Ten Ton Hammer players if Funcom had successfully reinvented itself with the new information on The Secret World, Metal had this to say:
”As for re-inventing... YES. They're taking the mistakes from Conan and learning from them, and I hope they take the time they need to finish the game delays or not I'm going to be playing this one.”
Yet a good chunk of our premium members still have their doubts about Funcom. When commenting on The Secret World, Ten Ton Hammer member Bobfish added this point:
“I will say this though, TSW will be a great game, it just won't be ready when they release it.”
Centrik weighed in with a different response:
“I know I am looking forward to it a lot, second only to DCUO. As for what I'm looking forward to, it would probably be the setting/backstory/genre combined with a classless system. Hopefully Funcom can make a classless system actually work (not going to name recent failures). However more importantly, I think this setting will be great for an MMO.”
In closing, the point must be made that MMOs are a marathon not a sprint. Many games work hard to build up launch buzz and eventually drop down from the mountain they build. No one has said this industry is easy. Funcom has run the marathon with both Age of Conan and Anarchy Online. Hearing Craig talk about the improvements on AoC has players taking a second look at the game, and nothing beats word of mouth marketing. It is good to see AoC now growing again with a strong direction and learning from its mistakes. Age of Conan at least *seems* like it is now stronger and more rewarding and worth a second look. These lessons continue to grow with Funcom as they prepare for unveiling The Secret World. With lots of great puzzles and mysteries to solve, players are already excited and the game information has barely scratched the surface. We sure hope that the rest of The Secret World lives up to the hype.
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