The Anvil of Crom - Spring 2012 Craig Morrison interview
It's been a little while since we've interviewed Age of Conan executive producer Craig Morrison. In the intervening months, Funcom's bloody fantasy MMO has added developers, new content, and fresh ideas at a fairly steady pace.

This week sees the introduction of tier four raiding content in Khitai as well as a lengthy Morrison-authored update letter that provides a roadmap for the rest of 2012. Follow along after the break as we talk raiding, the upcoming crafting revamp, and the community potential (and perils) of Funcom's spiffy new single-server technology.

Age of Conan - Emperor's Courtyard art
Massively: A year ago, some pretty big things were afoot in Hyboria: free-to-play, the Blood and Glory PvP servers, and of course, all the content you guys continued to release throughout the year. How does 2012 compare so far? Is AoC performing as well as you hoped it would following the business model conversion?

Craig Morrison: Yes, the conversion has been successful for us. I think for any game that reaches that three- or four-year mark in its lifecycle, the F2P option simply lowers the barriers to entry. Obviously we can't compete with the marketing behind titles like The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2, so the ability to remove that barrier of an upfront cost is important as you get older and have a traditional subscription model.

I think it also helps when you have periods like those we saw at the end of 2011. With the launch of The Old Republic and so many great games coming out (Skyrim, Uncharted 3, Arkham City, the latest Assassin's Creed, new Modern Warfare and Battlefield games -- the list seemed endless for a while there!) and then more and more MMO titles following suit and going free-to-play, it is an important part of staying competitive in this space because it is as demanding a market as we have ever had.

It's great for gamers because it means they have more choice than ever before, but it also means that as an older game, you have to work on keeping new players coming into your game. Free-to-play was a very important step in that for us. It helps us to weather those periods when there are a lot of demands on gamers' time!

What's new in the world of Hyboria lately? We're getting some tier four raids with this week's patch, yes? Any other content notables in this update?

The new raids are really looking great. I might be a touch biased there, but I'm very proud of the way in which the designers have managed to take the themes that run through the experience in Khitai itself then use those as the inspirations for the encounters found in the Jade Citadel. Players will now get to venture deeper into the mysterious Jade Citadel that dominates the Paikang skyline and is home to the Emperor himself. Through these encounters, the players are inching closer to the powers behind the evil in Khitai, and these encounters ramp up accordingly.

There are some really interesting encounters in there that both tie in nicely to the wider story in Khitai and play well in isolation. Each of the three encounters is unique and offers a different pace and style of experience. The main additional updates are those to the Priest of Mitra class, which has had a fairly substantial revamp.

We have also added new social armor drops from PvP to the social areas of House of Crom. While it's a small addition, players seem to be appreciating more options for customization, and we also want to seed some of these in the game as well so that they don't come only from the item store.

How's the crafting revamp coming? The monthly dev updates have touched on it a little bit, and it sounds pretty fantastic. Can you give us anything new on that today? Any idea on a release window for that patch?

Our wonderful producer, Per, would kill me if I put a specific date on it right now! The last few weeks have been really important for the revamp as it was when the system moved from design into production. Last month's development letter was the important milestone for them as it set down most of the core tenets of the system. Now the hard work of actually putting together all the actual data starts -- moving from the designs and prototype items and starting to put together the actual resources, ingredients, and items.

We have also expanded the team and brought on board new GUI resources (and also have another position currently in process there) to help with that element. So this is the main production phase for the system. That means the folks here would develop a taste for my limbs if I were too specific at this juncture, but we are aiming to have it ready for testing during the summer, and the release will, of course, depend on how that testing goes.

I would prefer that the team do it correctly rather than rush something out to meet an arbitrary deadline. That's not to say it will take forever, but it does mean we will give them the time to make sure the new design and data are sound before we relaunch the system. There is so much potential with this system that I want to make sure we give it time to gestate, as it were, so that the finished product provides everything we want it to when it launches.

Personally, I am as anxious for it as anyone else. I have always been a fan of really good crafting and tradeskill systems. Quite a few times in the past I have played certain MMOs purely for that element. So trust me there -- on one hand I wish I could crack the proverbial whip and get it out next week, but the right approach is to let the team get it right first.

Age of Conan - Jade Citadel
Dead Man's Hand, Forgotten City, and The Breach are getting high-level versions. Will any of AoC's classic dungeons be getting a similar treatment at some point? Along the same lines, has the team thought about any sort of mechanic for high-level players to reduce their level temporarily to do lower-level content with their friends (or solo)? Is something like EverQuest II's chronomagic a possibility?

I think we would rather make the content relevant to the players' characters than force a change to the characters as you see with EQII's chronomagic. (And on a side note, getting to use the word chronomagic in an interview is cool; it's just one of those words that fires the imagination, but I digress.) On one hand, it does minimize the changes you need to do to the content itself, but I'd rather a designer got to go over the content and make it more enjoyable and relevant for your character in the state it is in now.

That said, never say never; as a game gets older, a system like that makes more sense (as you will eventually have more content than you could feasibly rework, and it makes more sense in a title like EQII that is constantly raising its level cap). So a system like that definitely has it merits, but in the short term, we will be converting the chosen dungeons and repurposing them.
In the long term? I think we'll probably seriously consider a system like that at some stage in the future.

With PvP world bosses off the table, what can PvPers look forward to? Is PvP development mainly focused on the class tweaking now?

No, not at all, as I mention in this month's letter. It is more inspiration to look at new supporting systems so that we can embark on more open world PvP ideas next year. It might be a stubborn personal thing for me, but I refuse to give up on the idea of having more meaningful outdoor and open PvP. Yes, it is definitely harder to accommodate in a progression-based game, and maybe I am a little bit of a broken record on this subject, but I'm a fairly persistent guy and have faith that somewhere out there, a good solid design for those more meaningful PvP interactions exists. I think it will just be a case of getting the right supporting system in place first.

In terms of content, since we have dropped the world boss concept for now, we instead will introduce another PvP minigame option alongside the adventure pack that is coming toward the end of the year.

The single-server technology sounds pretty fascinating, particularly the bits about players being able to define their own communities and rulesets. What does Funcom see as the potential downside to that? From here it seems like a win all the way around (in fact, I'd personally pay extra for something like dedicated roleplaying communities/instances), but are there concerns about the long-term health of the game that we as individual players haven't considered?

It is fascinating! It's an area that holds both amazing potential, and as you mention, some inherent risks.

For me, MMOs have always been about community. Even in the more linear quest-driven progression games, the genre is still better for the participation of other human beings. The power in this technology will be in connecting people with similar interests and playstyles. However, playing devil's advocate, I find the danger is also that you lose some of the dynamic nature that comes with a diverse population when you allow people to splinter off into their own exclusive communities.

I guess our long-term goal is to try to establish some kind of middle ground where it is dynamic, in that we allow players to form their own communities when appropriate but bring them together when it is beneficial to the game and the game community as a whole.

Where that balance lies, I don't think we know yet, and it may be different for different communities (or even different parts of the same community), so this is something that I think will evolve and change as we look at how to use this technology.

There is a lot of potential for this technology, and I'm really glad that as an independent studio, we get to consider and try this kind of an approach. That is where new ideas and concepts are born, and who knows -- they might indeed spawn something that we haven't thought of yet either!

Sounds awesome, thanks for chatting with us, Craig.

Not a problem!

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Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran as well as the creator of Massively's 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.