The Anvil of Crom Extra: Silirrion on Unchained, buying power, and more

Jef Reahard
J. Reahard|07.08.11

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The Anvil of Crom Extra: Silirrion on Unchained, buying power, and more
It's been a huge couple of weeks for Funcom and the Age of Conan community. Unchained brought a new freemium business model, thousands of new (and old) players, and new dungeon content to Hyboria. One week later, PvP fans were treated to the opening of the new Blood and Glory servers, with hardcore rule sets that included increased PvP XP, corpse looting, and a return to the game's unforgiving free-for-all roots.

AoC game director Craig "Silirrion" Morrison recently took the time to answer a few of our burning questions about Unchained and the game's immediate future. Head past the cut to see what Silirrion has to say about earning Funcom points in game, veteran point allotments, paying to skip the grind, and some spiffy new community-focused server tech.

Massively: First off congratulations on the F2P launch. Aside from a little chat lag it went really well from a player perspective and it's great to see all the new (and old) folks. Did you guys learn anything from the switchover, and is there anything you'd do differently next time, or was it as smooth internally as it appeared from the outside?

Craig Morrison: Given the technical complexity of this switch I was very, very proud of how well the team pulled it off. I think they executed very well. We were definitely helped by having learned a lot from having worked on the Korean version of the game last year, which featured an item store, so we benefited from a lot of the ground work that was done then. Likewise, ever since the days of Anarchy Online we have tried to ensure that our infrastructure always supports the option for a game to move to a hybrid or F2P model, so we also have an advantage there.

So a lot of hard work, planning, and then good execution went into the roll-out. I am very proud of this Age of Conan team, and what they are able to produce and roll out.

Some players have opined that Unchained isn't "free enough," and that the four classes/no AA restrictions in particular are detrimental to their enjoyment. Freemium is pretty flexible, though, isn't it? Is it fair to say that Funcom might tweak the services and offerings somewhere down the line?

We are always open to tweaking that will improve the model, but we aren't planning any changes right now, as we won't do any knee-jerk reactions and will see how things stabilize once people get used to it. I think the free-play offer is very strong, the fact that players can play all the way through to max level without paying is something relatively unique amongst the western conversions. In the long term, like once a player gets to max level, then yes, they will probably want to pay to be competitive.

I think some of that feedback comes from the veterans who can't imagine going back to not having what they already have, but for a new player it is very different, and they have a good period of time before they come up against many of those restrictions. If someone really wants to stay playing for free, that is just starting, they can.

Those who previously paid and had access to stuff before, and now want to play for free, will obviously feel a little more restricted than they might like, but I think that is only natural.

Any plans to allow players to earn Funcom points via gameplay tasks, sort of like how Turbine awards its cash shop points for completing LotRO deeds/tough quests/etc.?

Possibly in the future, but it isn't something we have specific plans for right now. We might also look at offering them for campaigns and maybe some kind of recruit-a-friend campaign in the future as well. We did think about it, but we didn't want to start with some kind of system that people would see as an extra grind.

We are a little different from LotRO in that respect as ours is a different model, since we opened up all the outdoor content all the way to max level. Players never have to pay for their next area, or have to look to earn it. We would rather free players enjoy that part of the game and eventually feel that the game is worth a premium upgrade than asking them to grind some tasks to try and earn just enough to buy their next content and have them feel like they are being forced to repeat certain tasks just to get access to their next area. So it is a slightly different approach than that taken by Turbine.

AoC veterans and P2P gamers have voiced concerns about the small number of Funcom points given to subscribers every month. The 60 points does seem a bit anemic given that the cheapest bag in the item shop costs 675 points, while the cheapest blue armor piece comes in at 135 points (and most others are 225 or higher). Any plans to either adjust item shop prices or give subscribers more monthly points?

Remember the subscribers also get a discount of 10% on the store purchases, which offers additional savings that, for many, are far above anything else out there. Over time, as the inventory of the shop changes, there will be sales, and promotions and such and special offers for premium members, so overall I don't think the premium members get short-changed by the store. We have seen really good initial sales from users which tells us that we seem to have pitched the majority of the pricing just about right.

Speaking of blue armor, some folks raised eyebrows at the fact that stat gear is now available for purchase, circumventing the need to "work" for it in game. This is a hot-button issue, and GamaSutra recently ran a piece that posited that many gamers simply don't want to grind anymore and have no problems paying to skip time-sink gameplay. Do you see this as the future of MMOs? Does it bother you at all that a significant number of people think the gameplay is so unappealing that they pay to avoid it?

I actually don't look at it that way due to the way we have introduced those items, and where they are pitched in the relative power tiers. We have very carefully considered the balance there, and I don't think that we feel any of the items available adversely affect balance in any significant manner.

So really, when you break it down, those items can be considered to be more progression-based, or items that might allow less experienced players to compete a little more and get into the thick of things a bit faster, but we specifically ensured that nothing we sell in the store is the best available, as we need to ensure that the most powerful items are available through gameplay and not a store purchase.

"That is why you see most western companies preferring these hybrid models that retain the subscription element, rather than a truly free-to-play model, as it means we can generally avoid having to tune the game to only turn a profit if people buy power."

So progression in that manner, yes, it is a time-saver as it were. They will never allow a player to have the best stuff available; that should always be earned.

I think people generally will pay for convenience if they can afford it. I don't think it necessarily says that the 'gameplay is unappealing', as that kind of a situation would usually make users feel forced to purchase, and that is never good for your product in the long term (unless you can somehow keep a constant stream of new players going, so you didn't care if you lost the old, but that is very hard!). So for me, I always stress to the team that the game itself should not change due to this business model. We don't want to try and engineer a way to force users to have to pay right off the bat to get any enjoyment. We want them to enjoy and appreciate the game first, and then want to pay, and become a premium member because they enjoy the game.

Maybe that isn't how all companies look at it, but I don't feel it is too naive of an outlook on things. I firmly believe it is possible to not have to compromise your game to have a working microtransaction element function as well as an additional revenue stream in your product. That is why you see most western companies preferring these hybrid models that retain the subscription element, rather than a truly free-to-play model, as it means we can generally avoid having to tune the game to only turn a profit if people buy power. We can have people enjoy the game, and want to purchase for either progression or premium content.

With Unchained and Blood and Glory behind you, and the Savage Coast of Turan in the near future, are you guys going to take a break at all this year? It seems like new content is coming out on a monthly basis now, and while we're certainly not complaining, can you keep up this pace? Any hints on what's coming after the movie tie-in stuff?

It's probably not quite a monthly cycle as a bit of this was backlogged due to the Dreamworld update in Q1, but I certainly hope we will be keeping a good pace! As I said at the start, I am immensely proud of this team, and what they can achieve. We already have stuff lined up for after the movie-tie in, like House of Crom (yes, finally!), and new tier-four raids, as well as preliminary plans for the next adventure pack after the Savage Coast of Turan. So yes, we will be aiming to keep the proverbial foot to the floor as much as possible.

Silly question here, but I'm curious. Why the switch from Unrated to Unchained? Unrated seemed to match the adult stylings of AoC pretty well.

We felt that since it was used in other contexts and after considering the various name options, and talking to other Conan license holders we decided that Age of Conan: Unchained was a much better name, even more fitting with the lore and the upcoming Conan movie.

If I can ask a final question that isn't necessarily related to Unchained... You mentioned some very interesting server tech in a forum post a few weeks back. How is that coming along? Can we expect to see different "server" rule sets or smaller/more specific "server" communities other than Blood and Glory/PvP in AoC's future?

It is more about the communities than rule sets, although rule sets might be possible down the line, depending on how the tech works out. The ultimate goal is the ability for people to choose their communities for their regular play and then group activities pull from the larger pool of players across all the communities, cross server play as it were by proxy.

The progress on the first internal code versions is coming along nicely. The tech team tell me they will have a prototype over the next few weeks, which probably means we are four to six months out from realistically having it on the live servers given our existing schedule, but we shall see. Hard to say until we test the prototype.

Thanks for chatting with us!

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

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