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Interview: Turning AoC Around

We recently contacted FunCom to find out just what was involved in turning Age of Conan around after the less-than-perfect launch last year.Age of Conan was a highly anticipated game, seen as a possible contender for World of Warcraft’s MMORPG crown. However, a number of setbacks including delays on launch day, performance issues on lower spec machines and a lack of content immediately after launch had players leaving the game after a short period. Despite good initial sales, Funcom had to merge several servers, and rumours of the game’s poor subscription retention were rife.
However, recently we’ve seen a tremendous amount of work go into Conan, and with the recent release of update 5, the game is looking stronger than ever.

We contacted Funcom’s Erling Ellingsen to find out what troubles the company faced after launch, and what the company had to do to get the game back on track.

What went wrong with the launch of Conan and, with hindsight, what could you have done to prevent it?

Actually, the launch of Age of Conan was a huge success both in terms of sales and technical performance. We shipped a huge amount of copies and became the best-selling MMO of 2008, and in terms of attention it was a brilliant success. Of course, that’s not really what determines if an MMO had a successful launch or not, so we were also very happy to see that we had very few, if any, of the technical problems that usually arises when launching an online game of this size. People flooded onto the servers, people had a lot of fun, and I think everyone – both developers and players – walked around in a state of bliss for quite some time after launch. So apart from a game engine that unfortunately had performance issues for some players – particularly among players with lower computer specifications – after launch, we believe the launch itself went very, very well.

However, we did not live up to the expectations in terms of content and advanced features. There were content gaps in the game, particularly at higher levels, and advanced features such as sieging and city building were simply not good enough. It took a while for players to get to that point, and when they did, we met some significant challenges. We realized that, we listened to the feedback we got, and our developers went into a period of intense work on the game post-launch. In the few months after launch the game things really started to improve, and now, after a whole year of massive updates, I think most players will agree to the fact that it almost plays like an entirely different game. We’ve also had to go back and radically change core design decisions – such as the non-item-centric nature of the game, just because it didn’t work well enough for players over time. This wasn’t a bugged feature, it worked exactly as we designed it, but it’s one of the things that just didn’t work out well over time and so, recently, we revamped the whole thing!

Can you describe the problems you faced immediately after launch and what you did to combat them at the time?

I think that’s pretty much answered in the answer above, but let me go into a bit more detail. One problem we faced immediately was that Age of Conan ran very well on high-end machines, but many players without those kind of systems had an experience where performance simply wasn’t good enough. There were also memory leaks and other issues that we had to correct in the client, so a lot of the work we did after launch was simply working on improving the performance and getting rid of the most significant bugs. I think this is something we handled relatively quickly, and soon after launch the game’s performance had improved significantly across a wider range of systems.{PAGE TITLE=Page 2: Interview: Turning AoC Around}There were rumours that the number of subscribers were extremely low at one point, and you merged several servers. Was AoC ever in danger of shutting down?

I can’t comment on subscription numbers, but it’s quite natural for most games – except the elephant in the room (we all love that elephant by the way) – to have a drop in subscribers after launch. However it’s important to note that we are actually among the all time top 4-5 MMOs in the west! Also, Age of Conan sold extremely well, which just made it harder for us to not have a drop after some time. And indeed, the game had problems and word of mouth did turn sour at one point, which made it more difficult to retain players and bring in new ones. However, Age of Conan is performing well and with the slew of massive updates we’ve put out after launch, we’ve slowly built up a more positive word of mouth over time and recently this has culminated in a lot of positive feedback both among players, gamers in general and the press. Craig Morrison, the game director, and his team has done a fantastic job turning the game around and as far as we can tell, people are realizing that throughout the industry. No, Age of Conan was never in danger of shutting down. We love this game, and we did whatever was needed to improve on it.

It certainly seems that AoC is on the up again now, how have you gone about turning things around?

It’s been a long process for us, one that has claimed a lot of blood, sweat and tears! Immediately after launch we sat down and planned out in utmost detail how we wanted to realize the game’s true potential. We set up a long road map for what we wanted to do, and for a period of time we focused intensely on getting rid of the most important issues that our players put to our attention. Our entire development team focused on improving the game after launch, and even today we have over one hundred people working on adding to the game and improving upon it! We’ve gone through pretty much everything – we’ve improved combat, sieging, city building, tradeskills, existing content, we’ve added new content, and just recently we completely revitalized the entire items and RPG system. It’s a work of passion for Craig, his team of developers and the entire company in general, and I think it shows.

So far we have put out five major updates to the game, and what we’ve been doing is trying to get as much attention as possible for each of those updates. Usually these updates contain a large content update – such as Ymir’s Pass and the Xibaluku dungeon – and a host of improvements, changes and so on. We’ve worked closely with the gaming media on getting attention for these updates, through trailer videos, new screenshots, interviews and articles on what these updates actually do. The interest has been great, and I think we’ve succeeded in keeping Age of Conan firmly placed in the spotlight since launch. We’re also very focused on working with the community, and we’re doing significant community communication for every update with newsletters, game director letters and more. For Funcom it’s not just launching the game and moving onto the next thing we’re doing, we’re working just as hard now with getting attention for the game among gamers and the media as we did before it was launched. And personally I think it really shows.

How are the figures looking now, are things looking good?

It’s a question I would love to answer, but I can’t comment on subscription numbers! Generally, though, things are improving for Age of Conan on many levels.{PAGE TITLE=Page 3: Interview: Turning AoC Around}How successful are you expecting this re-evaluation offer to be, has there been a huge influx of former players, and how many are you aiming to retain?

Correct – we recently did launch the re-evaluation campaign for Age of Conan, something I believe is a very strong indication on where Funcom believe the game is at the moment. We’re looking very much forward to seeing how it’s received among our former players.  I can’t really comment on our goals for the re-evaluation, but it goes without saying that we really hope that as many as possible of our former players come back and that they will hopefully be convinced by how it’s improved. The amount of attention Age of Conan has had the past 2-3 weeks has been incredible, and we’ve seen news stories, feature articles and videos on major websites all across the world. This is giving the game a lot of attention, attention that I believe is very useful to any player who are contemplating returning to the game. Being able to inform players through the sites they usually read is great.

So far, what we’ve picked up among members of the press, is very encouraging. WarCry said the changes were staggering and encouraged people to return to it, while IGN recently said that the game was back on track. That response is very humbling to us, and it only helps to keep us pushing harder to make Age of Conan even better!

There are many other MMOs of the same genre, and players can only afford so many subscriptions. Blizzard said earlier this week that it’s possible WoW will be free to play with microtransactions one day, would you ever consider changing AoC to a free to play model?

We’re certainly not ruling anything out, but we don’t have any current plans for that. However, we’ve had huge success going free-to-play with our other MMO Anarchy Online, and we strongly believe its a viable business strategy for these kinds of games.

Just how big of a task has it been to get AoC back on track?

It’s been quite a challenge, but it’s definitely paying off. We’re seeing it in the feedback from our players, and we’re seeing it in the way public opinion and word of mouth is turning around. Word of mouth is an incredibly powerful thing and it takes a long time to turn that around, but I think we’re getting there with Age of Conan now. With the most recent update out the door, we’ve really noticed the difference and with the re-evaluation now launched we hope that players will return, enjoy it, and tell their friends. And if they don’t enjoy it – we hope they still tell us so that we can strive to make it better! Our development team, with Craig in the lead, has done a fantastic job so far and when I look at the plans we have for Conan’s future I am certain that players have a lot to look forward to. We’re announcing our first expansion at GamesCom in August, and let me tell you it’s looking amazing, and we’re also working on our next major free update for the game. We’ll be able to talk more about that soon, but for now we’ll just say that guilds have a lot to look forward to!

Turning an MMO around is team work. We have a great development team working on the improvements, and we have a great marketing and communications team that are fighting with tooth and nail to bring attention to the game well after it was launched. In the end it’s a work of passion for all of us, and we hope that shows both in terms of the quality of the game and how we talk about it publicly. You haven’t seen the last of Age of Conan, that’s for sure, and we’ll make sure to make it very hard for gamers to avoid hearing more about the game in the months and years ahead!


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