Steve sits down for an hour-long conversation with Craig Morrison, who took over the helm as Game Director for Age of Conan after Gaute Godager departed Funcom last year.
Morrison is not shy about expressing his views on where he believes MMO design should be heading in the future, and in Part One of the interview the topics that are touched upon seemed to continually arrive back at a single point: Why can’t MMOs just be fun?
In the interest of full disclosure, I had never played Conan before in my life when I sat down to do this interview. All I really knew about it were the rumors and innuendo surrounding the game’s launch, none of which made me particularly anxious to rush out and try it.
As a result, I was worried that this going to be a very short conversation. It turned out, however, to be one of the longest I’ve ever conducted. I may not have been a Conan expert, but I can talk about MMOs like the day is long, and Craig seemed more than happy to oblige.
In the end we managed to get into some very interesting subjects, ranging everywhere from griefing, to raid design, to Deus Ex, and a dozen other topics in between.
Read on for the transcript.
The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself, and tell us a little bit about what you do at Funcom.
Craig Morrison: My name is Craig Morrison, and I’m the Executive Producer and Game Director for Age of Conan.
The MMO Gamer: So, bring us up to speed. Launched last year, game went through some tough times. How is it doing now?
Craig Morrison: I think we’re doing much better. I would say that, I’m biased. [Laughs]
After last summer, we sat down and we looked and assessed what parts of the game needed to be addressed, and what the player feedback was.
Which parts were responsible for, you know, I think it’s very well documented that the player retention wasn’t as good as we would’ve liked.
So we had to sit down and look through the different feedback channels and see what exactly was it that meant that players didn’t continue to subscribe.
The MMO Gamer: And what was it?
Craig Morrison: I think in actuality it was many things. Different factors for different people.
The first and most important one that we fixed as soon as we could–as soon as we took over in the summer–was the actual client performance.
You know, memory leaks, and just general poor performance on certain machines. I think that was most important to get fixed, because people have to actually be able to play and enjoy the game, and that was thankfully done relatively quickly.
Then I think the first major addition we made, and the thing we focused on immediately, was the PvP. The lack of PvP systems when the game launched really hurt us, I think. We saw a very significant, immediate improvement in retention when we introduced the PvP leveling and the PvP consequence system and started to expand on the massive PvP.
It was almost like night and day when we switched those systems on.
Then we also focused on the content, and addressing the content where the players felt it was a little bit content-light at certain level ranges, that was addressed. A lot of new content has been added.
And lastly, which is the next major thing, which comes in the next major game update, is the RPG system itself.
Players felt that the stats and the items and what the items meant to the player wasn’t necessarily compelling enough. They didn’t feel that the progression through item acquisition meant anything to their character–They could as well be wearing a level 20 dagger as a level 40.
They didn’t really feel the difference, and that’s because the numbers were relatively small as we dealt them. It was all best-intentioned… Conan has never been designed to be an item-centric game. It’s not World of Warcraft, it’s not… You know, I think in that game, you’re 400% above your base values when you have all your items.
But I think we went too far in the other direction.
The MMO Gamer: Right, so the players wanted a greater amount of item progression…
Craig Morrison: They wanted when they put on a level 50 dagger, rather than a level 20 dagger, they wanted to feel the difference. They wanted to know there was a difference.
And we dealt in such small numbers at the end of the player’s stats budget that it didn’t really feel different to them. And it wasn’t–it didn’t have a big enough effect, it was varying their performance by like 3-4%.
So what we’ve done is we’ve revamped that RPG system to not go to the other extreme, but to hopefully go far enough that players feel a difference when they upgrade their items, equip better items. Put more meaning into the central statistics, the core stats, like strength and constitution and dexterity.
So when they equip that item with +50 Strength, they see that their DPS is now 20% better, and they actually see it and they feel that in their game.
When they equip the item with +100 Constitution, they see their health go up by that amount.
The MMO Gamer: Do you think this will address the problem, or do you think the people who don’t care for the item-centric system might be less vocal than the ones who are, and this will create a new furor all over again?
Craig Morrison: Not really… I mean, yes, it’s a risk.
When we sat down and assessed it, it was like, well, you risk getting into it with the people that like what it is.
But I think even those people, even the people who love the game all the way through, even the people who were loyal to the game from the start despite the issues, there’s always been that very constant and consistent stream of feedback, “We don’t like the items. We like the game, we like the setting… We need more to incentify us to keep playing. We really don’t like the idea.”
To anyone who’s played RPGs, or MMOs, or MMORPGs for any length of time, it feels weird when you’re a level 80 player, and you’re like “Oh well I might as well use my level 60 sword, ’cause it looks cooler.” It just doesn’t feel right.
You know, they’re like “No! I want the dungeon boss to drop me something that is better than what I have. I don’t want it to be arbitrary and just… ‘I’m picking my gear because of what it looks like.'”
They really do want it to be meaningful. What we just have to be careful of, and what we have tried to be careful of in the testing and balancing of it, is that we don’t go too far in the other extreme.
We never want the player in Age of Conan to feel like that have to have that gear to be able to compete. Better gear will give them an edge, but an average gear equipped player who knows what he’s doing, who is skillful with his combos and feats and abilities, will be able to defeat a player wearing the best gear in the game, who might not be as good as they are.
We always want to maintain the ability for that to happen. Because what we don’t want to go to is a situation where the players look at PvP and PvE and go “Okay, I can’t do that, at all, because I don’t have a hope of winning.”
You know, “if I am in my average green quest gear, and I’m looking at that guy in his epic has-raided-for-months gear, I know that I can’t even bother attacking him because… I can’t win. He’s going to mitigate all my damage and I’m barely going to scratch him, and he’s going to kill me in two hits.”
We don’t want that situation to develop. We want it to be so that you’re definitely going to have an edge, you’re going to be able to look at a player and go “Okay, he’s in good gear, it’s going to be a little more challenging… But I can still take him.”
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