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Age of Conan Product Developer interview, with gameplay video


On December 5th, I was invited to the Eidos/Funcom Age of Conan press event, where I was privileged enough to be granted access to both the game itself and the development team. I was able to play the opening area, leading into the first town. I sussed out the combat and the conversation interface. I spoke with Jørgen Tharaldsen, the Product Developer, and he let drop a metric ton of knowledge upon my fevered noggin. I reprint here our conversation, interspersed with my handheld-shot video pieces, the first of which is shown above, which is where the game starts, with you as a survivor of a shipwrecked slaver ship. I'd like to thank Jørgen and the entire Eidos/Funcom team, all of whom I found to be gracious, witty, and enthusiastic about their game, which is refreshing to see. My take? The game looks incredible, and it's extremely immersive from the get-go. They say they're on schedule for an early 2008 release, so this is something to anticipate indeed.

More videos and the interview after the jump!

This is a shot of the conversation interface, where you can choose from a list of responses in the lower left, by either clicking on the line of text, or pressing the appropriate number key. Note the scaffolding around the main building, looking like something humans might actually build.

Massively: So first of all, one of the big questions is, we know that this is more adult-oriented, so I expect that you're probably going to get that AO rating?

Jørgen Tharaldsen: No. We're going for Mature rating because with the AO rating we're going to be locked out of retail chains pretty much all over the world. And Conan was never an AO universe per se; it's not that gross. We're not really speculating that kind of violence, it's more like an inherent nature of living that kind of life that Conan did. So we've done everything in our power to push the barriers in terms of how far we can stretch it for the ratings boards to be within what's reasonable. If anything, when you read the comics and novels, they're a lot more brutal than what we are doing. We're going to the ratings boards right now. So actually you have seven different ratings boards to go to in the Western World, and they allow us to place certain parameters of what we'd like the game to be, and then we can twist like the horror value, the fatality value ...

So then it'll be localized by region?

It will be server-side. Through your IP we can control what kind of content you'll see, so let's say you come from Germany, you might not see all the fatality moves, but we hope you will see all of them, we'll know soon when we hear back from the ratings boards, whereas in the US you might not see nipples. But you probably will see nipples in Norway, for instance.

So it's not so much what client you download that makes the difference, you guys control it.

Yeah, we have to. Because we are the first mature MMO and there has been a lot of attention on this fact of our game, you know, Conan license, heads will roll. But since the beginning as we've said, we do not make this game for kids, we're all grown-ups, we'd like to make a grown-up game. We'd like to stick to the license, but we're not just about chopping off heads left and right and tearing off limbs. You have the ability to do that every now and then if you're good at what you do in the game.

Yeah, even then, it's not like a close-up, slow-motion sort of fountaining of blood ...

You've played it, you've seen the kind of level we're going for, and as you learn the game more you'll have better ability to use these combos and unleash yourself with these combos, but it's not gonna be like a blood-soaked kind of [makes exploding gesture with hands]

First combat! Fighting is based on a three-swing system, with each weapon sporting its own combo system. Experimentation will provide the best combinations of swings -- that is, which swings lead naturally into each other, thereby reducing time between strikes.

The violence is fine, it's acceptable. So, when I was running through the game, I had picked an Archer class, even though there were no bows to be had, will all the weapons be class-specific, or can anyone pick up any weapon?

In theory, a lot of them can be picked up by a lot of different ones, but all the classes have different weapons they will carry. So say, the Archer, obviously you have the bow, but also several other classes can use the bow, but then, not until level 50, for instance. Some classes can dual-wield daggers, whereas others can only wield one dagger. Two-handed swords can only be equipped by, you know, some classes have specialties with two-handed swords, others will have one-handed swords.

There will just be advantages for different classes.

Advantages and disadvantages. And then you roll your class according to what kind of role you think you'll go through the game, and as you learn more about it as you learn more about the game, you can either continue with that class, or restart and go in a different direction. We're pretty open in terms of what the players can do and not do in the game, but this also goes for the armor. Like, only the Guardian can wear the full plate armor, and no one else can have that kind of armor set, simply because that's part of the lore. So there are a lot of restrictions, but there are also a lot of opportunities.

Can any class use magic?

No, it's a hotly-debated topic how much magic is there in the world of Hyboria. Well, more or less all of [Robert E.] Howard's stories had elements of magic in them. But only a few of the classes are magic classes. Obviously, you would move toward the Priest and Mage classes, those are the key ones, but you have elements of it in, for instance, the Dark Templar. Whereas the Barbarian class cannot use magic at all.

Well, Conan always hated magic.

Exactly. So we're trying to stay true to the lore there as well. We even have it that you need to be a certain culture to have this kind of class. It's just a running theme throughout that we're trying to stay true to Howard's universe.

So will there be creatures from the series in the game?

Actually, creatures, monsters, NPCs, background lore people – Thoth-Amon, the archvillain of the series is the archvillain of the game. Even the first guy you meet on the beach; there are multiple characters you can speak to, and with the story and setting we have, we are also allowed a certain revival of the dead through Thoth-Amon's skills. You're pretty much journeying in the footsteps of Conan, so you can expect to see all the same stuff he did, and the place you're going into now is the home region of Conan, where he grew up, and you can meet the clans around the region. This is the stuff that I think very few people see because very few have this depth of knowledge of Conan. For most people, it's Arnold Schwarzenegger, they know the name, but those who are fans, they'll see that wow, this universe is pretty deep.

So it's from both the novels and the comic series that was running on Marvel for a while?

Yes, both. In addition to stuff we devised ourselves. But the novels from Howard are the key inspiration. That's the creation, that's the start of it all. There's some really cool pacing as well, it's written in a very page-turner kinda way, and then it's a matter of what makes the best game? What is the coolest to get in there? What should we focus on? Because we have a lot more to think about than one cool thing that Conan did in one of the stories; we have to think about what are you gonna do throughout this entire world, and we need to give you multiple adventures in the entire universe. And that's one of the challenges, that we have to bind all of this together, because if you look at the novels, there's many Conans: Conan the Conqueror, Conan the King, Conan the Barbarian, so forth and so on. And we're giving you a chance to follow in many of these directions. If you like Conan, you should be like 'Cool!'

He's the original badass.

Yes, definitely!

Single combat, where you can see the white icons on either side of my opponent, and one over his head. These represent where he's shielded, which according to one of the devs, changes over the course of the combat to reflect how he's being attacked. You can see this in the video -- watch for the left side icon move over to the right, to better protect the side that's getting more hits.

So, what was it that drew the team to Conan in the first place?

We started off in 2003, in January, and we sat down and said Do you wanna make a new online game? We'd had Anarchy Online before, and then that was well up and running, and we just worked on the new major expansion pack called Shadowlands, and we knew that after Shadowlands we wanted to start on a fantasy game. So do we make our own property, or do we see if there are any licenses out there? So we started a process of both, looking at what we could do ourselves and what licenses are out there. At the same time, by coincidence, some Swedes, you know, our neighboring country Norway, actually bought the rights for the Conan license, and they started looking for a company to create an MMO. Back in 2003, there weren't a lot of companies who could do that. There still isn't a lot of companies who could do that, so we were a very good match. And Stockholm is like an hour away, same timezone, and Conan has a very special fanbase in Norway. I can go to any grocery store in Norway, I can go to any gasoline station in Norway, I can buy Conan, still. I've been reading it since I was a kid.

It was meant to happen.

Meant to happen! We also have of course, Norwegian views on how to treat violence, so I think it's a fresh way to treat the license.

I really like the fact that the fighting is skill-based, rather than by the numbers.

And now you've seen a fraction of it, because as you move through it, you get one nugget here, one small skill there, you get access to a horse at level 40, or a War Mammoth, and you can fight from the horse or the mammoth or the rhino, and then it goes into the Siege gameplay, and it just escalates up to level 80.

Is it possible to solo your way through the game, or do you need to group?

You can solo all the way to level 80. 'Cause we've seen that in a couple of online games that you have to group, and of course we've been doing online games, we know all about the fact that the social gameplay is like the essence that takes you through the game. But we also know that a lot of people, some nights, they just want to be alone.

They may not have the time to commit to ...

Exactly, I need to leave in 2 hours, or today I just want to play for an hour, I wanna do this, I wanna complete this, but of course going solo all the way, you miss out on a lot of content. And it's gonna get harder, but it's possible.

Is there a system in place to hire mercenaries?

Yeah, in the Siegeing. Other players. So you can be a mercenary in the game. If it's a siege battle going down, and you see you're about to lose, or if you wanna take someone out, you can actually send out a call for mercenaries, and give them in-game credits to join the battle and they will be teleported into the siege battle. Those are other players, and there are five mercenary levels as well.

So when you do that, are you pretty much the de facto leader of them, or are you all on equal footing?

Well, of course there's a risk hiring mercenaries. They teleport into your battle, and they are on your side ...

So they could turn against you if they wanted?

Well, that would be friendly fire, so that wouldn't hit you, because they're defined as being on your side, but you could count on them and spend your money and they could be standing in the corner idling, but of course the serious mercenaries would like to go out and kill stuff because that will also reward them with levels.

And then their reputation would suffer.

Exactly. So that's like a subgame. You don't necessarily have to be in a guild to be part of the guild gameplay, which I think is a pretty nifty approach. But that also has its limitations, of course, not being in a guild, so there's always this risk versus reward tradeoff, how you want to play the game, and this goes all the way back to the basics of our class design. Which route you want to go is pretty much up to you.

Melée combat. It's important to know that your strikes don't just hit the opponent directly in front of you. It's a cone of effect; anyone standing inside the cone gets hit! And check out the smoothness of the animation -- nice work, guys!

Is there anything in the game where you can follow a god, or a deity?

Yeah, many of the classes are tied to it. For instance, the Priest of Mitra. You would then see how to do spells, you would see avatars of the god being represented. So let's say you wanted to revive some of your friends who have died on the battlefield. And to revive them you would see three avatars with Cups of Blessing being held over them. But you can't call down gods. And according to the lore, meeting a god is something you almost never do. Like Conan getting to a villain who's been messing around for 5 years to get this demigod or demon to come to him, but there will be smaller versions like people worshipping demons, black magicians, like that.

So basically, having the support of a god will be like buffing your stats.

Exactly. You would have skills according to your dedication or following.

And is that based on your character class?

Yeah, but the gods are also around, and you notice that by the way the particular culture is speaking, how the cities are built up, how the architecture is built up, how temples are built up, so like in Cimmeria, there will always be Crom. And you will speak to someone and they will say 'By Crom!', and how this culture looks at their god. But if you go to Stygia, they will look at their god in a whole different, obedient way. Whereas with with Crom, it's 'Well, he gave us life, but he also gave us shit.' And this is something we really tried to give throughout the game as well.

What's the death penalty when you die, what happens?

Depends on how you die. In PvP, obviously, less penalty, if you die in PvE, you'll be teleported back to your spawn point and you can run back to reduce your death penalty by finding your tombstone, but there will be a timer where you will have reduced skills. So let's say for two minutes you'll have reduced skills, but you'll soon be back to full again. And these penalties can stack, so if you die within the two minutes, you receive another reduction on top of the original.

Can you have pets?

There's two key pet classes. And there are pet points, you get up to 8 as you move to level 80, and you can divide these pet points, you can have 8 small pets, or you can have one 4 point healer pet, and you control these pets the way you do a squad in a team-based FPS. But they're not gonna be tanker pets, like you see in other games, they won't agro all the time. They can help heal you, but the main agro target will actually be you.

What age of history do the players inhabit?

In terms of the lore? That would be the novel called Hour of the Dragon, by Robert E. Howard. And Conan has just become king of Aquilonia. He has a wife, he's actually expecting a child, and in Stygia, his ancient enemy, Thoth-Amon, is stirring, a lot of weird things happening in the world. At the same time, the Vanir are invading, you have the Kushites invading, the Picts are invading. There is constant conflict going on, the way it used to be in medieval Europe, for instance, a hundred kingdoms. So the conflict is everywhere.

So is Conan someone you can visit?

Yeah, your Destiny Quest that's taking you from level 1 to 80, the one with all the voiceovers and stuff, ties into Conan. So as you progress through it, depending on your archetype, there will be different interaction points with him as you move forward.

Are there any advantages to choosing a male over a female, or a female over a male?

Well, it depends on if you like to beg for coins and stuff. [laughter] No, that's one of the things we actually changed from the lore. Because Conan was created in the 1930s, and it'll be 2008 soon, and in Conan there were very few strong females, and in general, the female would be the wench, or something, but in our game, everybody is strong. And all of them have male-specific armor, female-specific armor, we're just trying to make everything specific for the chosen gender.

I noticed that in the trailer you were showing some housing being built. Is that in the game as well?

That's a player-made village. What you saw was a Battle Keep going up. So depending on whether you want a peaceful city or a PvP city, you stake your claim on land, and in the peaceful areas, obviously, no one can actually siege you, but in the border kingdoms, you can lay siege to other's lands and take the land from their guild. And that's where the mercenary system comes in as well. And there will be opportunity where you can actually attack these places. The system is somewhat similar to a strategy game, where you have a grid of land, x amount of space for the group, say nine buildings or whatever, and you need to choose which buildings should my guild build, what can I afford, how should I build it ...

So you can build, say, a barracks or something ...

Let's say you build a stable, which will boost how fast you can travel, but if you build all stables, you lose the benefit of an armory. And you can upgrade some of them, and of course, you need resources to gather to build them, four base resources, and that's where the crafters come in, for those who like to play that part of the game, and obviously the killers would defend it. So this is the beauty of the MMO, I think, you can find your role in it.

I would assume that if you're a builder, you're not limited to just building, you can fight as well.

No, it's just a role that you take through the game where you actually spend more of your time, more of your points increasing this aspect of your gameplay experience. And this ties into something we call Prestige classes, which you get when you get higher up in the game. And it sounds very complex when you take it on a base level, but it feels very natural and intuitive when you move through the game, because when you get to level 35, you say Hey, I wanna experience something new, and when you get to level 40, you can choose which of four branches you want to pursue through the game. And then you would choose the Architect way, because that's what you see your role as being. Or the Commander, because that's what you like to do.

Earlier I heard someone say that there were four tiers of 120, like 1 to 40, 41 to 80 ...

PvP tiers. There are a lot of people who are saying that my friends have more time than me, they play a lot more than me, if I'm out of the game for two days, they won't even talk to me anymore, so we implemented some stuff to make the game more playable for people with families, and less time. One of these is the PvP tier system, almost like a master/apprentice system, where you can actually have someone of a lower level follow you through the game. Most of us have families, we're developers, we have kids, we see that we're not able to play as much as we did when we were 18. I'm not gonna say that there won't be hardcore stuff in there as well, but the main bulk of it should be accessible to pretty much everyone.

I noticed that the game has a much more realistic and muted palette, and the environment looks natural.

Do you know a game called The Longest Journey? The co-creator of The Longest Journey and the art director of Anarchy Online, a fantastic man, Didrik Tollefsen, and the first thing was the definition of what it was supposed to be, do we go for the cartoony look? What do we want to do with this? And the word was Magical Realism; let's push it. We are a technology company as well, everything we do is proprietary, so we're also interested in pushing our engines. It's very lush.

It's gorgeous. Everything looks natural, like you really are in a living world.

Exactly. And we have six audio people in the game, and they've been working on the music for the past 4 years as well, and it all blends with the acting and the storyline.

I noticed that when you're running along it sounds one way, and when you get into combat, it changes to match.

Yeah, and it's actually different depending on your culture, and the time of day, and what region you're in. And we got an MTV nomination for our latest game – we didn't win, but hopefully for this one. We upped the budget even more for the music on this one. And I think we'll actually be the first online game ever to have 5.1 Surround music in the game. So the music is all mixed in 5.1, and if you have the right equipment, it's a world of difference. So we've been getting a hundred percent feedback on immersion; the most immersive online game ever.

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