So really, it's been a wild ride thus far. That's what we game archaeologists prepared for when we attended MMO U (go Fightin' N00bs!) and dusted off old copies of Neverwinter Nights. Be flexible, be enthusiastic, and always be ready for an older title to sweep you off your feet -- these are the sage words of my instructors.
Because of this, I didn't find myself tongue-tied when Anarchy Online's Colin Cragg agreed to an interview. I might have blushed and stared at my feet so that I wouldn't become lost in his wizened, sage eyes, but I marched forward nonetheless. So what did AO's head honcho have to say about working on a mature MMO? Click the link and wonder no longer!
The Game Archaeologist: Please introduce yourself, your role on the team and how long you've been attached to Anarchy Online.
Colin Cragg: I'm Colin Cragg, the Producer/Game Director of Anarchy Online, and this March 29th will be the seventh anniversary of me working on the project. Time passes quickly when working on a project like this one... there is never enough of it.
Where did the concept of Anarchy Online come from? Why sci-fi instead of fantasy?
There are many of us who have always preferred laser guns to swords -- this is one of the rare times that the laser gun fans won. I don't know what sealed the decision at the time. EverQuest was a fantasy juggernaut in the marketplace at the time (much in the way that WoW is today) and it is possible they didn't want to try and compete in the same space. It would be real archaeology to try and find out after 15 years has gone by since the initial start of development. The concept of the Anarchy Online world is generally credited to Ragnar Tørnqvist who is a brilliantly creative force of nature. I myself can't wait to see people dig into his next project, The Secret World. There were a great number of people who had a hand in the development of the story and the world as it evolved. With incredible people like Gaute Godager on the team at the time, it is impossible to put credit on one person.
Let's get this out of the way early: launch day. What happened? What was going on behind the scenes? How long did it take to get everything straightened out?
I wasn't there at the time and had only peripheral contact with the game during the launch. My brother in-law was working in customer support at the time, and I know that sometimes two or three days went by without him actually coming home. The war stories some of the "old" guys tell are pretty frightening. Tales of bouncing servers, crashing and just about everything that is possible to go wrong did.
I can't say that I am sad to have missed it. I'm sure some of the developers still wake up sweating and shaking at night dreaming about that first month. People love to talk about the bad launch... but I prefer to think on it as a shining example of the level of dedication and love that was put into this game that many of those involved worked through those conditions and remained with the game for many years afterwards. I don't think you will find many examples of closer-knit groups without looking to combat veterans.
"Everything" is still being straightened out every day... I'll let you know if we are ever "finished."
What was the community like in the early days (beta and first year of launch) versus today?
I really couldn't say what the community was like at launch as I wasn't here. I really enjoyed the people I played with in the first year the game was launched. A lot of players have been with us since launch, and I think that says a lot about the community. I certainly wouldn't trade them for any other community I've seen in any other game. We had an open player event at the office on September 11th and they packed the office with way more people than we could actually handle. It was amazing. They rock.
Why was the decision made to offer a free-to-play version of the game? Do you see yourselves as pioneers when you look at titles like DDO and LotRO that are now doing the same?
The decision was of course financially motivated as it was started out in conjunction with the in-game advertising system. Free players generated money for Funcom by simply playing the game. The launch of the ad system was another first for Anarchy Online. Yes we see ourselves as pioneers in the industry. We get a great deal of support and encouragement from management that allows us to continue to innovate our product and we've seen it influence a great many other products over the years. That being said the item-shop model developed by DDO and the open dialogue they have had with their players and with the industry about their experiences has been inspiring.
What funny stories through the years stick out in your mind?
There are too many to really share. Working here has been a big long list of funny stories, and I never cease to be surprised at the things that happen working in the games industry. It really is like working in an office full of people you could not picture working anywhere else. But if I have to pick one:
When my first son was about a year old my wife returned to work but had evening shifts sometimes as she is a horseback riding instructor. These days my wife would drop my son off at the office in the afternoon and he would play around my desk for an hour or so before we left (Funcom is a VERY understanding employer). My wife's face when I walked out of the office to meet her in a full Teletubby mascot-style costume was priceless. The pictures have circulated through my community for years now. This was right in the heart of crunch for Age of Conan and apparently it was great for morale for people to look out the window and think "at least I'm not THAT guy."
What was the philosophy behind each of the major expansion packs?
I don't know what they were thinking at the time, but you would probably get a different answer if you asked them now. I'll ask the old game directors the next time I see them.
Was Shadowlands developed in response to players who wanted a more linear progression?
Not that I am aware of. I think they just wanted to add something significant and memorable to the game. Whether you liked that addition or not it was definitely a big advance for Anarchy Online.
What do you think Anarchy Online has contributed to the MMO genre as a whole?
Anarchy Online has influenced the development of pretty much all MMO products that have been made since and likely many more that are still to come. It is still very much the kind of game that a game designer wants to play and can never really get tired of. You will find AO players and past developers on the staff of a great number of the major titles of today, especially if you know where to look. AO did a lot to establish what hard-core MMORPG gaming really is. Anarchy Online really established how far to one extreme the genre can get.
Is it hard staying passionate about a game that's aging and doesn't get as much press these days?
Anarchy Online is staffed by previous players, so we really don't have any trouble at all staying passionate about this game and its community. Almost nine years later I am still sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to play it... but a little less as I am getting older now and need more sleep. There isn't as much press coverage, but AO is still very much a talked-about game. Facebook games get a lot of press nowadays... but that doesn't make me want to play Farmville (I'm sure it's very nice).
What's the status of the much-anticipated graphic engine revamp?
We had our first large-scale viewing this weekend with about 75ish players getting to view it internally. Things look on track for 2010 Beta and Q1 2011 release. There is still work to be done... but right now it feels really good and is starting to really come together.
Any other future features for AO in development?
Spoilers! We are quite busy with the engine work and in our effort to "balance and improve" gameplay in an upcoming update by an overhaul of all profession nanos and perks. However (first mention of this is here!) we are working on incorporating an in-game browser into Anarchy Online and are looking forward to the interactive events we can get started once we have access to that kind of flexible technology.
Thank you for your time and passion, Colin!
When not clawing his eyes out at the atrocious state of general chat channels, Justin "Syp" Olivetti pulls out his history textbook for a lecture or two on the good ol' days of MMOs in The Game Archaeologist. You can contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or through his gaming blog, Bio Break.