The Anvil of Crom Extra: Silirrion on Turan, open-world PvP, and those pesky Funcom points

Anvil of Crom - Interview special
It's almost time for another Age of Conan content drop, and that means it's also time to catch up with game director Craig "Silirrion" Morrison to chat about it. This weekend I interviewed the Funcom executive producer about a range of topics, including all that's new and shiny with AoC's forthcoming Savage Coast of Turan adventure pack.

As we told you earlier, the pack features a boatload of new material, from new solo dungeons to a new raid to 50 new quests and a large outdoor playfield. While that's quite a bit of stuff, Funcom isn't done yet, as the devs are also hard at work implementing the bullet points Morrison covered in his latest dev update. Join me after the cut as we explore Turan, combo-skipping fixes, the riskiness of AoC's new open-world PvP content, and the question of whether subscribers are getting a good deal in terms of point rewards.

Funcom's Craig Morrison
Massively: The content pack features the fourth major solo instance released for AoC this year (after the Refuge of the Apostate, the Breach, and the Forgotten City instances), and you guys have mentioned that you intend to start publishing smaller adventure pack content updates more frequently. Will we see the focus remain on solo instances or are there any group/six-man/raiding content packs in the works?

Craig Morrison: Don't forget that the adventure pack also sees the third major addition to the team instances, after the two Paikang districts. With the adventure pack, we aimed for a nice mix of types of content, so literally, there is Dead Man's Hand, the ACG dungeon, the maximum-level dungeon on The Isle of the Iron Statues, a team instance in Fort Ardashir, and a raid instance in the Temple of Erlik, and all that alongside the massive new outdoor area, so the pack hopefully offers something for everyone's taste.

These instances are probably the best we have produced to date; I am immensely proud of what the team has achieved, everything from the stories to the encounters and quests. These instances are really, really good fun to play through, and that goes for both the solo and the team-based content.

We are always aiming for a good balance between types of content. The three previous solo instances also came about partly from the need to train the new designers in content creation, and that is easier on solo content. Now they are also going to be in a position to work on team content. So in terms of the future, we will continue to add a mix of content types as we see the need. In an MMO it generally goes in cycles as you try to satiate the different demands of an MMO audience.

The free update later in the year is currently more focused on the team and raid content with House of Crom and the dramatic conclusion of the tier four raids where players will get to discover more about who is behind events in Khitai.

Age of Conan - Turanian armorAny new music from Knut Haugen with the Savage Coast content?

Yes, Knut has again contributed a stellar set of tracks to go with the Turanian setting. The tracks are again recorded with a live orchestra and are again up to his exceptional standards. Since this is a smaller piece of content, it's not a full soundtrack, but the new tracks really capture the feeling and atmosphere of these areas. It is always a pleasure to be able to involve Knut; his soundtrack work is an integral part of the game and part of what gives our world such a fantastic atmosphere.

Have you seen the finished Conan film yet, and if so, what did you think? Does it capture the dark, brooding Hyboria that's so prevalent in the game's art direction? Can we expect to see any AoC ads packaged with the film in theaters?

Yes, we saw the movie along various stages, and I definitely think it captures the dark heart of Howard's Hyboria, and I think Jason Momoa does a great job as Conan (as does Leo Howard, who plays the young Conan). We were delighted to see how well Paradox Entertainment (which owns and operates the Conan license) has managed to keep the art direction so consistent across the genres, so watching the movie you could really tell that the movie was based in the same world as the game. I think folks are already seeing that from the trailers and clips, and it is the same when you see the whole thing.

The film is distributed by different companies in different parts of the world, so whether you see any of the co-promotions for the game depends on where you live. The eagle-eyed amongst the Conan fans will have already noticed that the game is featured on the main Lionsgate website for the movie, and just as we have already run campaigns with the Lionsgate audience, we are doing likewise with other territories where we can as well.

Are the story elements in the Savage Coast content self-contained, or do they require a viewing of the film to understand what's going on?

They are self-contained. The stories there are very much separate. A long time has passed since the movie, so even those characters the players meet have aged quite a bit since their younger days. When it comes to the movie references, outside of players meeting Artus and Ela-Shan and getting to do quests for them, we wanted the movie references to be there for the players to recognize and find.

So just as a Conan fan will appreciate seeing the Wheel of Pain or meeting Atali in Ymir's Pass, the elements we have taken from the movie are the same. Those who have seen the movie will have that same knowing smile when they encounter certain elements. The Sand Demons are a good example of that... there are a few Easter eggs relating to the movie content that players might just discover as they explore the areas in Turan.

How much of the new gear in the adventure pack is going to be available via in-game achievement (as opposed to purchased in the cash shop)? Is the new social armor exclusive to the store?

In terms of the usual rewards and such, those are all through gameplay. The new player armor sets, based on the Turanian culture, are rewards gained through gameplay. Likewise, players will find all the usual selection of quest and item rewards.

There will be new social armors modeled on armor that players will see in the movie, and yes, those social vanity items will be exclusive to the item store.


"This is an issue players have wanted us to fix for a long time, but whenever you come to fix an exploit that has hung around longer than it should have, there will always be those who then come out of the woodwork imploring you to keep it."

There's a wealth of Conan material out there in the form of novels, comics, the old Schwarzenegger films, etc. Any chance that you'll draw on some of that for future content updates?

In places we already do in terms of smaller references, but not as much as we do the Howard material. Paradox is very keen for the treatment of the license to be consistent, and the way it has achieved that is by focusing on the original Howard tales. It doesn't mean we don't also occasionally look wider, but by and large we like to try and stay true to the original Howard tales for inspiration and themes.

Can you give us a hint about any future adventure packs, or if not, what as-yet unexplored portions of the Hyborian map we might get to see?

It's a little early for announcing that! We do already know what the next area will be, and a lot of pre-production has already been done on it, but our next focus after the adventure pack will be the free updates scheduled for later in the year. Then we will turn to the next adventure pack.

There was a blurb in the last monthly dev update about fixes for the combo-skipping/molding animation issues. Can you elaborate on that at all? Is this a big we've-solved-this-problem kind of fix or more like a first step on the road to a long-term solution?

It's a major fix, and it does remove the issue; however, as with any balance change, it is thus the start of that process. That's inherent in balance changes; there is always a need for adjustments and tweaks as players get to grips with the system. I don't think there has been an MMO that has ever found a long-term solution for class balance; most have a constant cycle of adjustments and change. It is also an essential part of adjusting to player behavior, since players generally find ways to optimize the systems that designers didn't account for in some way, shape or form.

In terms of this particular fix, the systems folk are confident that it removes the unfair advantage that some players had developed, but likewise they know that it's a part of the process, and there will certainly be adjustments that need to be made on an ongoing basis. This is an issue players have wanted us to fix for a long time, but whenever you come to fix an exploit that has hung around longer than it should have, there will always be those who then come out of the woodwork imploring you to keep it.

For those interested in the nitty, gritty, details, our systems lead has explained the changes at length on the test server forums, so players are welcome to pop by and check it out for themselves.

Also going back to the dev update for a minute -- PvP world bosses. To me they sound pretty cool, but I'm more of a PvE fan. Some hardcore PvP guys are concerned about another Bori. Can you talk a little bit about how the system will work and maybe allay some of those fears?

I think on one hand, there are always voices of dissent when it comes to PvP, as there are so many different tastes when it comes to the "best" form of PvP; some prefer minigames, some prefer arena-style PvP, some solo duels, some open-world objectives, etc.


"So we hope that Age of Conan players will seek to compete rather than game the system, but we also feel the risk of that is worth it, as otherwise your option is to give up totally on open-world PvP content and just stick to the safe option of minigames."

So it really depends what is motivating those concerns. On the other hand we also understand those who are a little skeptical, as there is always an inherent risk in doing outdoor open-world PvP objectives.

This content will be outdoor and is objective based, so yes, it shares that with the Shrines. However, it also differs in several key elements. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it is not constantly available. Part of the issue with the Shrines, from the point of view of those hardcore PvP fans, was that people could go there at quieter times and progress without as much opportunity for combat. With the world bosses they will appear at certain times, for a limited window, so there will be a known time, which might even be broadcast, so there is a natural grouping of players.

Of course, whether they choose to cooperate or fight each other over the kill will be entirely up to the players. That is, of course, the fine balance with outdoor PvP content: You are always taking a risk that players will simply not fight and will let each other take turns, so with this content we hope the limited window will mean that is less likely. Then the rewards are also important. If players don't want to share, or there isn't enough to go around, it will hopefully generate sufficient conflict to mean we see some fun PvP in and around this encounter.

We were very much inspired by some older games, like our own Anarchy Online, for this new content. There are similar bosses there, which are still competed for even 10 years on. So we hope that Age of Conan players will seek to compete rather than game the system, but we also feel the risk of that is worth it, as otherwise your option is to give up totally on open-world PvP content and just stick to the safe option of minigames. We would rather make the attempt and see if we can create some cool outdoor encounters that encourage players to compete and engage with each other to see who wins the right to take down these bosses.

So yes, there are definitely challenges, and risks, but if everything in life were easy, it wouldn't be anywhere near as exciting! I would rather we take the occasional risk, even if they don't always come off.

One last question that many readers have asked me over the last couple of weeks that I wanted to run by you: Some folks have opined that there's no reason to sub if you've purchased the content you want, because the 60 Funcom points per month aren't enough to buy anything from the cash shop. You've mentioned before that subscribers also get a 10% shop discount, but at 60 points per month, that's a negligible benefit since a subscriber would still need to wait two or three months to be able to afford the cheapest item in the store. So what are the incentives to continue paying a monthly sub?


"So far the new Unchained version has seen an increase in those signing up for the premium offering, so that is telling us that the incentives to upgrade are working pretty well."

I think those people are conveniently forgetting all the differences between the free and the premium offering. I also think they are mostly subscribers making those comments... if you asked many of them to step down and play as a free player, they would very much miss their benefits of being a premium player. Six more character slots, access to all the content, Alternate Advancement progression, access to Khitai for those with the expansion, and all the classes unlocked, and that is before the points and the discount.

The discount was only ever a small addition as a token part of the larger premium offer. I can also confirm that a sizable number of subscribers are very much taking advantage of that 10% discount. For the larger packs and items available, many of which are some of the better-sellers in the store, that 10% discount is sizable and saves subscribers quite a bit of cash in the long run.

At the end of the day, it is also down to each player to choose as a consumer, and so far the new Unchained version has seen an increase in those signing up for the premium offering, so that is telling us that the incentives to upgrade are working pretty well. As we mentioned in the press release last week, all the stats are up across the board: more people are playing, there's massively increased play-time, there are more people converting to premium, there's an increase in subscribers, and we've seen doubled revenues. So personally I am proud of how well the team tuned the hybrid offering you find in Age of Conan: Unchained.

I think it would have been very hard to achieve those results if we had gotten things wrong and the offerings weren't appealing.

I think that many players are seeing the value in the premium offering for themselves, and that is pretty much as much as we could have hoped for! Having the subscriber number rise, even when the game is free-to-play, is a great indication of that.

Thanks for chatting with us.

Don't forget to check out The Anvil of Crom in its regular time slot tomorrow for an exclusive look at one of the new solo dungeons coming with the Savage Coast adventure pack!

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Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via jef@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.