Funcom’s Craig Morrison on Age of Conan: House of Crom and the Future

With the latest update for Age of Conan called the House of Crom now live on the servers, we took time out to catch up with Game Director Craig Morrison to find out more about this latest update and what Funcom have planned for the MMO this year.

First of all, as we have not had a chat for a while, how are things going with Age of Conan now the game has gone free to play. Has it surpassed your expectations?

Definitely, the team did a fantastic job with the game in 2011. We got the business model change done, upgraded the Dreamworld Engine, added the adventure pack, and added a massive amount of new content. There were lots of new players with the Unchained version, and the adventure pack, The Savage Coast of Turan, was well received, as were the other new instances and dungeons we added over the last year.

This latest game update, the House of Crom, has been in the works for quite a while now.  What was it that held back the release of this particular update? Was it the technical updates you have been applying to the game or were you just waiting for the right time?

Yes, it was actually original envisioned as part of the games launch, but was cut before I even joined the project. So while a lot of time may have passed, It wasn’t really development time. The dungeon was shelved for over three years in effect. No-one was really working on it. It was this huge area with no game-play that the original team simply hadn’t had time to finish. So when we made the decision to go back and finish things, it was a little daunting. Thus it has taken only a little longer than we would for a content update of that size, and that was because the current team had to go back and assess what was already done, what we would change, and how we would move forward.

As far as the two new dungeons go, what makes The Threshold of Divinity and The Vile Nativity special?

The location itself is epic for a start! It really is a huge place, and the art team have done an amazing job with the visuals in the dungeon.

The Threshold of Divinity is a social dungeon for up to four six-player groups for max level characters with nine separate encounters. Sent to aid the Cimmerians in driving out the Vanir desecrators, they will fight enemies both old and new, solve ancient mysteries, and learn the truth behind the House of Crom, and what happened there. And they might find that some puzzles are better left unsolved.

Having this operate as a social dungeon there will also be some challenges that require co-ordination across groups, these won’t be essential to your experience, but they will offer a very different game-play experience and some of the best moments this dungeon offers…if you can figure out the mysteries involved. Having a multiple group settings also introduces all these cool new mechanics that we can play with

The Vile Nativity is more traditional and is a six-player group dungeon for max level players. There are seven encounters in all; two of them optional. From the long-forgotten library where the Atlantean scholars once studied, to the treasury room where the wealth of Atlantis, was locked away, we are offering players a dungeon rich in lore and storytelling. Those who seek it could perhaps even learn snippets of the Atlantean language for themselves, unlocking even more clues into the history of the fall of Atlantis. Expect to experience everything from dodging explosions to working with unexpected allies; gargantuan foes to cryptic Atlantean riddles. It’s really a cool game-play experience that matches the location perfectly.

In the last developer update you talked about Open World PvP .Are you any further forward with this in the design process?

Yes and no, we are definitely further along, but we still haven’t decided upon the best approach as yet. This is something where we are listening closely to some of the feedback, and open world content is always the most contentious , as while people want the theory of open world PVP, the implementations are much harder, and people can’t always agree on how it should be approached. So we are being careful here, and being thorough with the design process.

I think there definitely is an interest in having open world PVP goals amongst sections of the player base, so it is worth further consideration, as I think we should examine these options rather than simply only concentrating on mini-game battleground PVP. We may end up there, but for now, we are still working on these designs to try and find something that will work.

Age of Conan has always looked great since launch and you have been constantly tweaking the game. What has been the most challenging aspect of keeping the game up to date to compete in the MMO space?

I think we are probably in the front of the development in the genre there, and pretty much always been working hard on that area. Once we took the decision years ago to make that one of our strengths. That our engine was at the forefront of what an MMO engine can be, that put technical development high on our priorities and I think that shows. The challenge is really that the tech updates take longer. They have longer development time internally, and then, most importantly for a live game, they also require some additional testing compared to content updates. That means that when we commit to the technical updates we have a pause in content additions. We do feel that it’s worth it in the long run though, as it ensures that the game continues to be one of the best looking MMOs available.

Part of me always hates the time requirements a little, as we are really good on the content side of things, so we are always itching to get on with the next content updates while the technical folk are doing their thing, but at the end of the day, you know it’s all in a good cause, and in the long term we get cool new tools, and get to use the latest updates to the engine. I mean, even just looking at House of Crom, the lighting in there is spectacular, and that wouldn’t be possible without those technical updates.

So what’s next for Age of Conan as far as content is concerned? It will take time for players to soak up the House of Crom update but where are you heading now with the game? Can Age of Conan players expect major changes to the current game systems and mechanics this year?

 There will really be two different aims this year. One is to continue to add great new content, but more importantly, we are refocusing a little to work on the games systems and features. We are working on an entirely new tradeskill system for the game, new features like dual-specifications, and various other ‘quality of life’ type of upgrades for the games systems. We wanted to take some time to address some of those smaller things, and feature additions that players care about as the game matures.

With the tradeskills we are completely re-vamping that system. Top to bottom. We didn’t think it would be efficient to just try and band aid the current system. Once we had accepted that the existing system just wasn’t interesting enough, we committed to giving it a more complete and thorough overhaul. That allows us to hopefully come out the other end with something deep and engaging. We wanted to aim for something closer to some of the older classic implementations of trade-skills rather than the ‘just click for item’ style of more recent games. The inspirations were games like Star Wars Galaxies, Diablo, and the like and then try to blend in some modern touches.

Then we will follow up later in the year with the next adventure pack location. This will add more content in a similar manner to the ‘Savage Coast of Turan’ last year.

With The Secret World being the next big release for Funcom, as far as the MMO technology is concerned, are the Age of Conan team and The Secret World  team passing around ideas that could be added to Age of Conan in the future?

For sure, it goes both ways. We are on a shared technology platform, which allows us to make the most of the platform. It has benefits to the business as a whole. The technology powering The Secret World is tested and more stable than you might find in a game built from scratch, which always helps mitigate launch risks, then you also have the advantage of being able to modular components and features from one environment to another. Of course not every element is transferable, but we definitely share where we can, or when it makes sense for the projects.

Finally, looking ahead to updates for the game this year,  what do you think players are going to find most exciting in 2012?

Personally I am very excited to add depth to the game, and things like the tradeskill update are vital for that. it is the beauty of working on an MMO. As they mature and have been running for years, then you get these cool opportunities to really push the available features as well as just adding new content. I am also a pretty old-school MMO player, so getting to add a more involved trade-skill system is something that I hope the players will find exciting too.

The House of Crom update is now live on the servers. Thanks to Craig for taking the time out to discuss the game.