The Anvil of Crom: Age of Conan turns four, taps SWG for crafting inspiration

The Anvil of Crom - Age of Conan turns four, looks to Star Wars Galaxies for inspiration
The last time I did an anniversary retrospective for Age of Conan, we had a recent expansion, some new dungeon content, and several class revamps fresh on our minds. The year before that, we had the earth-shaking combat and itemization changes. This past year, the major development was, of course, the switch to a freemium business model, followed closely by the game's first adventure pack.

Join me after the break for a quick rundown on the last 12 months as they happened in Hyboria, as well as an anniversary interview with game director Craig "Silirrion" Morrison that sheds a bit of light on the crafting revamp.

Age of Conan - Aquilonian capital
Unchained
The end of June saw AoC join the ranks of Western freemium converts with the Unchained update. The majority of the original Hyborian Adventures campaign was made freely available to all comers, along with four of the game's 12 classes. The game's 2.6 patch also brought us the Breach and Forgotten City dungeons in Khitai as well as appearance armor functionality (and there was much rejoicing).

Blood and Glory
A week later, Funcom threw a bone to its hardcore PvP crowd with the introduction of the Blood and Glory special ruleset servers. Deathwish and Rage were initially quite popular, and Funcom also hinted at some curious instancing tech in the works. We haven't heard much about it since, but I expect that we'll learn more this summer after the launch of The Secret World.

The Savage Coast of Turan
The end of August brought us AoC's first adventure pack. The Savage Coast of Turan was too small to be called a proper expansion but too big for a simple "patch" moniker, and Funcom has hinted that this will be the primary distribution model going forward.

We got a new level 50 to 55 playfield with a ton of quests, a level 50 to 80 scaling solo dungeon, a max-level solo dungeon, a max-level group dungeon, and a new raid instance, all of which were based around the Jason Momoa Conan film that debuted in the summer of 2011.

The House of Crom
January saw the introduction of the long-awaited House of Crom dungeon. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), this happened after my personal AoC sabbatical, so I've yet to cover the dungeon here in the pages of The Anvil of Crom. That will be remedied in short order, though, and in the meantime, you can read all about it on the game's official website.

Tier four raids
March brought us the new Jade Citadel raids, also fodder for a future column installment or four. The Priest of Mitra class was given an extensive makeover in this update too, and that brings us up to the present day.

As per AoC anniversary tradition, I had a chance to ask a few questions of executive producer Craig Morrison. Keep reading to see what he has to say about the upcoming crafting revamp plus a whole lot more.

Age of Conan - Craig
Massively: Is there any overlap between the AoC and TSW dev teams? Any cross-pollination of ideas? For example, TSW's crafting system looks pretty nifty. Any chance that AoC's upcoming revamp shares anything in common with it or is inspired by it in any way?

Craig Morrison: The teams are run independently and have their own resources and management. Remember that we both run on the same technology platform, which is independently developed by another separate department, so we get many inherent upgrades simply through that process. In that way, there are many shared initiatives and considerations. That means we may use the same Dreamworld feature in different ways, just as we will with the single server technology that is currently in the works. It's a cool situation for a game of our age to be in because it means we can sometimes take advantage of some pretty cool technical work that we simply wouldn't be able to afford otherwise.

In terms of the crafting system, that is something very unique to TSW. They took their inspiration from Minecraft when it came to their shape- and location-based crafting, and it is a cool system, really good fun to play with. On the other hand, I am really looking forward to the new system for Conan. We are looking back a bit more, taking our inspiration from games like Star Wars Galaxies and the other earlier MMOs, with a focus on ingredients and finding the best combinations. That adds a layer of depth that you don't find in the other modern MMOs that have used more simple list type crafting systems, where you get the same results all of the time.

Personally I think it's exciting to see proper crafting making a comeback in our games. Both approaches have merit, and I think what the team is cooking up for Conan is more suited for the slightly more stat-based level progression we have in Conan, as opposed to the flatter system in TSW. However, both systems are putting a premium on true experimentation and asking players to think and explore the system rather than just read an ingredient listing. I feel it's something that MMOs can benefit from exploring again.

Age of Conan - jewel thief doggie
In regard to a high-level view of the crafting revamp, how much can we expect crafters to be necessary to the in-game economy? Will players be able to get end-game gear and consumables from crafters, or will those items remain exclusively loot-drops?

The aim is for the crafted goods to be competitive will all but the best of the endgame gear, and maybe even in some instances, provide some of the best items, although I don't think I would like to cast that as a definite in one direction or another and make some kind of sweeping blanket statement.

What I will say is that we are aiming for the items to be useful for veterans and endgame and that the freedom it will represent will allow those who focus on it to make the best items. We hope to create a symbiotic relationship there, where some of the better items will come from crafters, and crafters will need the assistance of the raiders to collect some of the rarer ingredients.

Can you give us any hints about the next adventure pack? What part of Hyboria will it cover (geographically, even a general area if you can't get specific)? Can we expect it in 2012?

We aren't revealing the exact location of the pack just yet, but as we teased in the last development letter, we're looking south again, close to one of the original game areas.
The adventure pack is currently aimed for the end of the year, yes. The team is currently hard at work on it so that we can release it toward the end of Q4.

Age of Conan - Khemi
South, you say? Stygian content is pretty barren compared to the game's other zones. There's Khemi and Khopshef for levels 20-35 or so, and then Kheshatta from 70-80. Is the adventure pack set there, or are there any plans to add some more Stygian content between, say, 40 and 70?

I think we addressed that level range in other playfields, like Ymir's Pass and Tarantia Commons. I don't think we ever set up to necessarily have an equal number of locations in each of the games territories, partly for visual and cultural diversity and partly to cover some different ideas and concepts from Howard's Hyboria.

Age of Conan - ranger towerSince we are looking south, yes, the adventure pack content may well stray nearby geographically, but the cultural and mythos that will influence it is another beast altogether. Expect to hear more about the adventure pack a bit later in the summer. While the production teams are separate, as we talked about above, since we're an independent studio, all of our central teams are shared, so the marketing and PR folks are a touch busy right now with the launch of The Secret World, so we'll hold the adventure pack reveal until after that.

There's a perception out there that because of the perceived inadequacies of AoC's launch, the game isn't worth checking out even four years later. Why do you think that is, and would you agree that MMOs like AoC are completely different animals from their launch builds?

MMOs always evolve. That is one of the few constants in the genre. Personally I always try and check out games a second or third time, and I think many veterans are the same. We are also helped by the fact that thanks to the Dreamworld engine, the game still looks competitive with recent releases. Of course the issues that the game had at launch does have an impact on some veterans' opinions, and that is an expected part of working in that genre.

I don't think you can hold it against anyone, at the end of the day there were very high expectations for that launch, and the original team fell just short of some of those expectations. It is natural that some players won't give you a second chance. You will never, ever, win everyone back over. On the other hand, it is somewhat of a shame because MMO titles do evolve. As long as you always focus on improving the game and adding content, then there is a constant flow of people who come back to check out the game again.

In fact, those players often end up as some of your most loyal followers after that because someone who had an issue with the game and returns to see the issues they had resolved appreciates how far you have come. Of course, that fluctuates for each player; some really like the changes while some feel a game might have moved away from what they liked about it, but overall we generally hear pretty good things from those who had extended absences from the game. They come back, and they remember just how much they liked the combat system, or they get to embrace the viscerally mature setting that Hyboria offers.

Age of Conan - Piles of gold
Any plans to adjust the free-to-play offerings in the near future, or is Funcom pretty happy with the amount of access Unchained players currently have?

Overall we are pretty happy, but we may consider some tweaks and adjustments. As part of the birthday celebrations for example, we are giving free players the ability to grab permanent access to the premium dungeons from the original game, so we are open to continuing to evolve the free player offering so that the game remains competitive. I think free players in Age of Conan Unchained have one of the most open systems out there.

No mandatory quest or progression content blocks until they reach max level is a pretty sweet deal, one that offers more than many other F2P titles. It is an ever more competitive market, though, so we will definitely continue to change things up as and when we see fit in order to appeal to the ever-growing and ever-more-demanding army of free players out there.

Age of Conan - Bear shamanHowever, one important point is that we really want to be able to avoid having to go down the whole pay-to-win path. We have been very careful to avoid that for a reason, so we want to maintain the value to players of being premium members. That in turn means that you simply can't give everything away for free unless you are willing to fully embrace a pay-to-win approach, and that isn't somewhere I'd be comfortable taking the game.

What about an AA respec for subscribers -- any plans to offer that at some point?

The alternate advancement system was designed to not need "respecs" as you can after all simply earn more points since there is no steep curve in the progression, and it is a flat value. So at a fundamental level, there aren't any plans to allow for players to re-use already spent points.

If we added a respec we would have to consider the entire set-up, since players would then never need to get beyond X number of feats they have decided are optimal for different situations, and they would just switch between them. That said, of course you don't want to stand in the way of players feeling they can progress, so we may look at it from another angle, be that some form of adjustments to the AA progression, or maybe in the future, some form of multiple-specification system as we are doing for feats.

Finally, as good as the questing and the storyline in Tortage is, some of us have literally run it two dozen times now on various alts. Any chance veterans might get a "skip Tortage" ability at some point?

Yes, I'd love to get something like that in at some stage. We have talked about it a few times, but it tends to be one of those things that loses out in the priority conversations. As we move towards a fifth year, it will hopefully be something we can sneak in at some stage.

Sounds good -- we're looking forward to the next 12 months!

~~~

In addition to providing us with an interview scoop, Funcom has also thrown some prizes our way to give to Massively readers. We have 10 codes that grant four months of premium time to any existing account. If you don't have an existing account, you can always create a free one and apply the codes from there.

How do you get your hands on one of these codes? Simply watch our Facebook and Twitter pages where we'll give out all codes from now until Friday evening. Best of luck!

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