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Massively Exclusive: Age of Conan's Craig Morrison on Blood and Glory, grind, and the future

Jef Reahard

Interesting times are just over the horizon for Age of Conan, and whether it's due to the Dreamworld game engine upgrade or the recently announced Blood and Glory PvP servers, Funcom's sword and sorcery epic isn't standing still as it moves toward its third anniversary in May of 2011.

On the heels of the PvP ruleset announcement, we sat down with Funcom executive producer and AoC game director Craig "Silirrion" Morrison for a chat about ruleset specifics, PvP balance, grind, and what we're likely to see once Dreamworld hits the live servers. Join us after the cut for all that and more.

Massively: The new server ruleset sounds pretty awesome, even to occasional PvPers. Once the initial euphoria of the announcement wears off, though, many players are asking themselves if they want to go through the AA grind, the gear grind, and all the endgame stuff that is required to have a chance in competitive play after already having done so on their existing characters. Are there any firm plans to lessen the grind or lessen the effect of gear on PvP on the new shards?

Craig Morrison: That is something we are willing to tweak and adjust somewhat during testing. We are already making some serious adjustments to the endgame content in particular to significantly combat that feeling of grind, and that will roll out across all the servers, so I think that will also help to mitigate at least some of the concerns there.

We understand players are usually, I think it is safe to say, somewhat sceptical when a developer says we are going to significantly improve things, but on this occasion I am fairly confident that the changes we are making there are pretty fundamental and wide-ranging, and I am not someone prone to too much hyperbole. In the expansion content we kind of made one of the classic game design misjudgements of making our base case for progression centred on what the hardcore player could achieve, rather than the majority of players, so this is something we are serious, really serious, about addressing. It is being done now and will roll out at some stage relatively soon after the Dreamworld update is done.

Gear is a slightly different case. There are some things that won't be changing, and that is mostly the core system itself. If we changed too much, like not having alternate advancement and/or the same available gear on the new server, it would make maintaining this different ruleset much, much harder in future, and it would also mean that we could not introduce the cross-server functionality when it comes around sometime next year. So there is longer-term logic at play here as well.

So all core gameplay and progression systems in themselves will have to be maintained consistently, so that is the only area where we probably won't try to make many, if any, specific changes just for this server. The rest of the content and features, though, those are wide open for change, which leads to seeking the players' feedback.

Are you going to prioritize any of the player feedback taken from the new Blood and Glory forum polls? Is there any chance that something like the recent Wilderness campaign in RuneScape could happen in AoC (meaning specifically leaving certain features up to a player vote)?

Yes, for sure!

The polls that are currently up on the PvP sections of our forums will very much drive the decisions that are made. If a preference is clear cut in those polls, we will abide by it. So right now, for example, it would appear that players would want the Border Kingdom shrine systems disabled, the siege reward buffs reduced or removed, and probably a limiting of fast travel options and not allowing for offline levels (at least as the polls stand today; get out and vote folks!)

I would not have been comfortable canvassing the players that directly with such specific questions if we were not willing to allow them that input. So yes, on those areas where there is a clear preference we will definitely abide by it, and on those areas with more of a split opinion (like the question of looting is right now on the polls) we will use it as guidance to try and find the best solution for people.

Regarding the single character per server limitation, is that purely for meta-game reputation purposes or do you foresee any future instances where the gameplay might morph into something more sandboxy (and therefore stipulate that players be dependent on one another instead of being self-sufficient due to alts)?

That's the kind of long-term hope. I mean, you can't just change a game like Age of Conan, which was designed from the ground up as a more quest based experience, and make it into something like EVE, but you can hope for some evolution and maybe, with a niche interest like this, try to nurture something a little different if it appears like it might be a cool, sustainable niche. We will still be supporting the main game and adding content, but having an alternate environment like this allows us to try some different and interesting things at the same time.

The single character choice very much ties into that. We want a player's reputation to count for something on this server, and sure, some people have alt accounts and it isn't completely fool-proof, but I think it is something that makes for another additional interesting element that will make taking part in this community a little different.

Are there any plans to address class balance prior to the Blood and Glory servers' going live? (Things like stamina issues, Ranger tracking, etc.)

The general PvP balance is something that is being worked on anyway and will benefit all servers; right now the systems team is hard at work on a significant set of PvP-centric balance changes in relation to the crowd control abilities in the game. It is one of the areas that players have raised the most in terms of having a direct impact on the flow and fun of PvP combat, so we really want to address that as our priority. So yes, there will be some significant class balancing efforts coming up!

The looting poll mentions that you can't allow looting of no-drop items (faction gear, etc.). Is this a code limitation or just a line you don't want to cross? Is it flexible in any way (i.e., is there a possibility of full looting at some future point)?

A bit of both, and that is a fairly hard and fast rule that we won't change. The no-drop flag on items is there for us to be able to designate those items as something that can never be transferred from player to player. Whether that is because we think it would lead to farming or whether it is a paid item purchase and we can't have people able to lose it or whether it is for a balance reason, it is our safeguard for items that we simply can't have players be able to transfer from one to the other.

I guess that is one of those core legacies that you have to abide by, even when you are trying something different. If you are going the whole way, as it were, having it fully open might appeal to the hardcore of the hardcore and may be right if you designed your system for it from the ground up, but when you are converting an existing environment like we are here, it is something that we have to retain.

Interestingly, this is the area the players responding to the polls are most torn on; at the moment, the least harsh options are those that look the most popular, so we shall see.

Player feedback thus far has been nearly unanimous in the desire to see Bori completely removed from the new servers. BK buffs are also a source of frustration, though the desire to tone them down isn't quite as vehement or as widespread as the anti-Bori sentiment. Is removing these features something that Funcom can do fairly easily or would even be willing to do?

As I said above, for this server ruleset, we are fully open to what the players decide there. We always knew that those features, in particular Bori as it was a casual player-centric PvP feature, was really not popular with the hardcore PvP players at all -- we always knew they preferred their PvP to be earned the hard way, as it were. That is really the cool thing about this endeavour, in that we get to play with options that might not be open to us when we are trying to appeal broadly with general content. Since this server will be intentionally uncompromising, we can appeal to that niche and give them an environment that they prefer without having to worry about the impact on the casual gamer.

How feasible is it to tie advancement XP to PvP and largely ignore PvE and quests on the new servers as some players have suggested? Is that even a possibility at this point?

That's something that alas probably is a step too far. It goes back to the core system stuff I mentioned above. It's a nice thought, although I think it could never be a complete replacement (or you might risk players finding it hard to level at off hours of the day for example), but having it involved would be an interesting experiment for sure. In reality I think that is something we could only consider if this server ruleset became a huge success and we felt there was a real desire to see it.

The reason we are doing is that we did see a real desire amongst a certain section of our playerbase for a more PvP-centric environment, and their desires were often mutually exclusive of what we could do when taking the opinions and preferences of the average player into account. So we felt it was the right time to try something different alongside. If it really takes off, it makes it much easier for us to think about expanding it in the future!

Are you concerned that these new servers will further divide the game's PvP population? For example, do you worry that people who don't want to re-grind will stay put, and people that want the hardcore PvP experience above all else will leave, and neither server will have much of a population?

We wouldn't be doing it unless we had considered that, and we are confident that once all is said and done and we look at the server populations as we launch this server that we will still have a good healthy population on the regular PvP servers. This won't be for everyone, so we really don't know how popular the new server will be, but we are willing to embark on the adventure and see where it takes us!

How substantial will the Dreamworld update be from a player perspective? Are we talking about something on the order of switching the client from Dx9 to Dx10 (which makes a huge visual difference) or will the tweaks be more subtle?

That really depends to be honest! How much of a difference you will see and how it translates will depend on what you run now, on which hardware, and how the game runs for you. Basically everything has been optimised, and we have been able to add great new visual techniques and at the same time increase the quality.

If you currently have a top-end rig and already run smoothly at high settings, then you will probably notice the difference the least, apart hopefully from a noticeable improvement in FPS. The DX10 version now runs much faster and maintains far, far better FPS than before.

If you run on DX9, however, on medium rigs you will notice a massive possible difference in how you can make the game look and still run smoothly. There are a lot of new visual tweaks there that really raise the standards. You now have options like god rays and improved shadows in DX9 as well.

So some people will notice it a lot; others maybe only a little.

Performance is still an issue for some players, particularly in Khitai. Is this Dreamworld update the answer?

I certainly hope so!

I can't stress enough how much of a focus that has been for us, in particular with loading times, and in particular memory handling. 32-bit users should have a far, far, better experience in the game with the new update and should no longer be plagued by annoying out of memory issues. Likewise, while the loading times are still relatively longer in Khitai (as the playfields are much larger), they are now a degree faster, and we are also going to continue some focus there as we go along.

You've said previously that the new/improved back-end dev tools on the engine will allow for faster turnarounds when it comes to new content/encounters/cutscenes/etc. Do you guys have firm plans for additional content that you can share/tease at this point, or are you mostly focused on getting the tools in place?

The tools are now in place and the designers are starting to play with their new toys! We can't share all that much right now, but I can say that we have something planned for the fall. With the new Conan movie coming to the theatres and hopefully some increased visibility of the Conan brand, we are definitely preparing some cool stuff for later this year that we will talk about probably during the summer. It is going to be an interesting year for sure!

Thanks for chatting with us!

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