The Anvil of Crom Extra: Craig Morrison on pioneering the hybrid business model

Conventional wisdom holds that Turbine is responsible for bringing the free-to-play/subscription hybrid to the west. It might surprise you to learn, then, that Funcom's Anarchy Online F2P implementation pre-dates the much-hyped Dungeons and Dragons Online experiment by a good four years.

Yes, Funcom is no stranger to free-to-play, and the MMORPG maker is looking to expand Age of Conan's playerbase -- much as it did Anarchy Online's -- by trotting it out again. It's no accident that this is happening alongside the latest salvo in a substantial content rollout that started earlier this spring and will continue well into late summer. Funcom is timing the buildup to take advantage of an expected upsurge in Conan interest as Robert E. Howard's barbarian reaver re-enters the public consciousness with the August release of a film franchise reboot.

I recently chatted with Funcom's Craig "Silirrion" Morrison for my second exclusive interview in as many weeks, this time picking the game director's brain about business models, content updates, and why we won't see additional servers to handle the new player load.

Massively: Your initial communication with us regarding this announcement referred to AoC's new business model as a "hybrid." The term free-to-play was nowhere to be found. How deliberate was that wording? Is Funcom intending to steer clear of some of the stigmas associated with "free-to-play" or is the terminology simply a more practical description of the actual model?

Craig Morrison: I think probably a little more of the latter. If you are being specific about things, many of the business models that borrow the free-to-play mantle are really a hybrid offering, as they retain an element of subscription. You just have to look at LotRO, DDO and EQII Extended to see that, and our offering there is no different.

We really started the ball rolling with that back in 2005 with Anarchy Online and used the words free-to-play because at a fundamental level it is actually allowing for just that -- the user can play the game, and a whole bunch of content, for no up front investment. Of course the companies want to make money, and there are very few free-to-play games that remain truly free. So the terminology itself is just what the industry has adopted to describe quite a wide variety of possible implementations.

Western F2P conversions can thus far be divided into two types: Turbine's approach with LotRO/DDO (where most things in the game are freely obtainable given enough time/grinding) and SOE's approach with EQII (where there are many desirable in-game items that are only obtainable via the cash shop or the card game). Was Funcom influenced by one of these models more than the other?

We didn't really take any narrow or specific influences, but we did research all of those games and more. We looked at the item stores and inventories of many, many games in search of the best balance there. There will, though, be items in the store that are exclusive to the store, but likewise there will be also be those that the players can get in-game or through the veteran system, so it's very much a mix of both.

Being "nickel-and-dimed" for in-game stuff like pets or appearance items is a concern of some free-to-play opponents. Will Funcom consider a higher flat-rate premium option that gives players the ability to earn everything in the game for a recurring monthly fee?

I don't think that is something we would consider right now. People after all have an easy choice there -- if they object to vanity purchases in principle, then they don't have to buy them. We might add some of that stuff to the veteran vendor down the line or offer them to subscribers as gifts at certain points in the future, but I think there will always be cosmetic stuff like those that sit outside the subscription costs. I am not sure that would be a good enough reason for people to want to pay more for a subscription, but who knows how things develop in the future... you never know, it might be an idea that takes off.

"Pay-to-win" is another oft-voiced complaint among subscription die-hards. What steps is Funcom taking to ensure that AoC's competitive balance isn't affected by the addition of a hybrid business model?

The systems team has control over the budgets in the game, and while some players will always take issue with even a 0.01% variance in perceived power, I think we have found a pretty good balance there, in particular in a game like Conan where the timing and dynamic nature of combat means that a player's skill will always have an effect on the outcome of any combat. Those items that do affect the stats of the characters are controlled within very strict budgets, and the balance of those areas account for those.

Personally, I never want a user to feel he needs to pay because we have arbitrarily road-blocked him in some way or to feel he needs paid power to be competitive. While there will of course be some users who have a zero-tolerance opinion on such things, I think the majority of users understand and recognize the reasonable limits of such.

Both LotRO and EQII provide stat-based items without unbalancing the games, for example, and we will be aiming for the same. It wouldn't be in our best interest to make the game pay-to-win, because if there is too great a perception of inequality, or if players as a whole don't see that a certain degree of fairness is maintained, then they don't stick around and pay.

What we look for is the sweet-spot where people still have fun and feel motivated to want to make purchases because they enjoy the game rather than because they feel they have to. I think having that first situation makes for better potential revenue in the long term.

Some players have level 20 characters courtesy of the long-running Tortage free trial. Will those accounts be converted to the hybrid model (and will the characters be able to leave the island and progress through the rest of the game)?

Yes, those players will be able to play on using the free-play options.

Can you give us any hints on some of the new content planned for the post-hybrid era? Has the new model affected your long-term plans for the game regarding the number or frequency of content updates?

The latest content pack addition, The Savage Coast of Turan, was announced yesterday; it has content that ties into the stories of some of the characters from the new movie, which is very exciting to be involved in. The model won't effect our delivery schedule, if anything, now that the new tools and technology are there; our general pipelines are getting more and more efficient as has been shown recently with a steadier stream of content. We definitely aim to keep that going, and the Savage Coast of Turan is part of that.

Will AoC: Unrated feature separate hybrid shards like EQII's Extended server, or will the hybrid customers mingle with the subscription population?

They will mingle with the subscribers; we didn't want to segregate users in that way. I actually feel that one of the benefits for the subscribers from a change like this is having lots more people to play with and a bigger potential community.

So dungeons like Black Castle, Sanctum, and the FotD stuff, which are terrific experiences but can be hard to get groups in for now -- do you see the new model drawing enough new/old blood to make these old-world areas viable gameplay destinations again?

Very much so! That is exactly what we saw with Anarchy Online back when we made the switch to having free players there. It definitely makes a lot of the content of the game much easier to revisit as players play their way through the content.

Following on from that, is Funcom planning to open additional servers to cope with demand?

Our technology scales pretty smoothly now, so we are actually planning on doing the opposite. Our new Dreamworld technology now supports more users on what would previously been considered different shards or servers, so we will actually be working toward having fewer but larger servers so that more people get to play together, and then we'll be continuing to develop what players would consider "cross-server" technology so that more people can play together in the same environment.

"This is simply a case of the right time for our latest product because we feel it's the natural progression for an MMO title at a certain stage in its life cycle."

We will be preparing the live servers for this over the next few weeks as we make sure that peple don't have to worry about chosing the "wrong" server for them. We want the definitions to be easy, so the choice will more be "Do I play on the PvE server, the PvP server, or the hardcore server?" and they won't have to think "Which PvE server should I play on?"

The beauty of our new technology is that it scales so easily, and with the developments coming over the next year, it will get even more flexible in allowing us to define how people play together. There will be some challenges with a pre-existing game like Age of Conan (how many Border Kingdoms do we keep, for example?) but overall it should mean that we maximise the community elements by ensuring it is seamless for people to play with others easily.

F2P speculation has swirled around AoC for a year or more, and some time ago players discovered in-game cash shop assets in their local installations. What's taken so long to get the ball officially rolling? How hard has it been to convert a subscription game to your new hybrid model?

That just goes back to timing. We have always, since day one, said that we would adjust the business model for the game when the time is right. There is definitely a lot of work involved, but those assets, for example, came from the Korean version of the game, which has always used the free-to-play model, so the underlying technology has been ready for over a year in those terms. The time goes into making sure the system is right, the pricing is right, that we have the right store inventory, and most importantly that it is the right time for the game.

This is something that we have been constantly assessing for several years now. Funcom has always been willing to consider different models. We were pretty much pioneers of this model, at least amongst Western companies, when we adopted this model with Anarchy Online way back in 2005. So we were really market leaders here, and this is simply a case of the right time for our latest product because we feel it's the natural progression for an MMO title at a certain stage in its life cycle.

Now is when it made sense for Age of Conan! Why? A couple of factors: Firstly we recognize the opportunity presented by the increased profile of the license, with the new Conan movie coming out this fall. So we realized that the time had come to make the switch to make sure we were in the best position possible to market the game again and to draw in even more users to this wonderful world that we have brought to life.

Then you have the fact that the industry is changing, and a model like this really is the best way to drive more traffic to the game. We have gotten very positive feedback on all the improvements made to the game by our loyal players, so this is the opportunity to take the game and re-present it to MMO gamers who may have tried it years ago and wouldn't otherwise give it a second chance... and that is good for everyone involved!

Thanks for chatting with us again, and good luck.

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