MMORPG fans take note: Age of Conan is almost here! To celebrate, developer Funcom invited the world's press to Oslo, Norway, to glue their eyeballs on some never before seen raiding and guild PVP footage. But, as AoC's US and European launch inches ever closer, concerns have begun spreading online about how the game will cope with the server pressure its massively successful beta promises. We cornered product director Jorgen Tharaldsen following the bash to find out what Funcom's doing to ensure a smooth, and playable, Age of Conan launch next week.
VideoGamer.com: I wanted to ask about the guild cities. Are they in the open world or are they instanced?
Jorgen Tharaldsen: No they're instanced. We have to make it like that. There are two kinds of guild cities. We have the battle keeps, which are the PVP siege ones. They are limited in terms of how many instances they run in. You have about nine on each server. The purpose of those is to have an eternal guild war going all the time. Then you have the peaceful ones, which is the one we saw today. That will have a lot more instances. So when that one instance is full you just brew a new one. If the guild is unable to keep up their upkeep for that they will lose it and then that means a new spot will be available. But they have two very different focuses. One is the social gathering, what you do with a guild, the focus of the guild, the other is pure battle. They are also very different in terms of how they are built up. It's a lot easier to build up a siege PVP one than it is to build up a normal one and take it through all the tiers, simply because we want you to be up and running quite fast. So if you take a siege PVP one down, with what is left in the rubble you should be able to get a new one up quite fast so you're ready for war.
VideoGamer.com: Does the keep go to the guild which won it?
JT: Yes. We have to have a million rules and systems running the system. It's something for the elite players when you get to level 80. There's a lot of rules we have to do to avoid exploits, to avoid waking up in the morning and your city is gone. So there's a complex system running this and in terms of who wins the battle. Of course you can get some of the benefits even though you're not in that guild you will get the power, the XP, the PVP levels and of course the joy. It's not just about rewards, it's about having fun too, so hopefully players will have lots of fun with this, and then you have the mercenary system on that.
VideoGamer.com: We saw in the presentation a character doing spellweaving. How will it work exactly? Will you be able to cast spells while spellweaving?
JT: Yes. It's based upon which class you're playing. It's also reactive in that you can control the power of it as you move through, a bit like the combo system or DDR, with the arrows and you have to control the way the system works. In the presentation it was a GM so there was no kick back, otherwise you would have seen the health go down first and when there's no more stamina the health starts going down. It's either a heroic way of going out or it's how much you control the energies you are weaving. But you don't have 100 spells in spellweaving. It's a state and it's a frenzy. After the spell starts it evolves. It goes from being a single target spell to doing a cone to doing a full AOE. By being in that state of course you're saying to the world, hey, come kill me! There's a strategic element because you have to protect the person doing it, but you can also do it effectively, let's say in a siege you can stand on the barracks and do it. But at the same time it's also a warning signal so there are also repercussions by doing it wrong.
VideoGamer.com: So you can still attack players while you're spellweaving.
JT: Yeah. The whole essence of everything we do is attacking players and mobs and boss mobs and everything else in the world.
VideoGamer.com: So the attacks will be automatic while you're spellweaving? You won't have to do other spells at the same time?
JT: No. There's a limited amount of how many spells you can do. Simply because since the power grows so much it would have been a nightmare to balance if you had all the entire spell range. It's like layers. You start with single spells and then you evolve until you become really good at the spellweaving aspect. Like with everything else we do it's an evolution. It's our way of giving more to the spell casters. We have an active combat system for the melee fighters and the range for the ranger and we have this for the magic classes, and the healers have their own way of doing it as well. It's trying to bring some innovation while not alienating too much from what people know from before.
VideoGamer.com: There's a patch announced for the release date. Are you able to say what it contains?
JT: No I won't because I don't want to make any promises on what the patch notes will be before we're done with them. Doing patch notes is a long process because there's always more in development than what you have putting into the patch. We're now moving into what we call a trunk, which is the main trunk of the code, and then we stabilise and weed out the bugs. Our core focus for the launch is technical aspect, stability and polish. Those are the three pillars that we are focusing and that's where we put all our people and have been doing in some cases for many months and in some cases for many weeks.
VideoGamer.com: Are you able to say how big the patch will be?
JT: No. We set an internal cap but I'm not going to say that either. Simply because we try to put a maximum cap on how large it will be but at the end of the day it's quality that determines it. There will be a patch on launch day for sure. And there's probably going to be a patch after launch day and after that again. It's a big world and there's many things we don't know until we get even more people in, even though we had tens of thousands in the beta playing. It will be interesting times. It's interesting times now for sure. Only a few days to go now.
VideoGamer.com: Do you anticipate any server performance issues when the game launches?
JT: Actually no, not on the server side. We've been doing this for quite a few years now. We're one of the companies in the world that's been doing this the longest. When we launched open beta we also put tens of thousands into the closed beta at the same time to stress our systems as much as possible, and a couple of hot fixes. After that we've been rock stable on the server side. Very few server crashes.
The biggest issue is the unknown. What happens when you have let's say 500,000 people trying to go into the same door? We went through this before with Anarchy Online back in 2001 and that was a gruelling experience. We thought we knew a lot but we didn't know anything when the systems really started to burn. Now we have a back up on the back up on the back up. If this happens we do this, these are the people responsible, this is how you do it, this is the hardware. If the forums go down we have four servers, smack, bang. If our websites gets issues, shut it down, this is the temporary, emergency website. If this server gets filled up it gets cycled back to the bottom. If there's too many people, this is the queue system, etc etc etc. We've been about a year working on the launch. We have our own launch groups, our own beta meetings, we meet pretty much every day. We go through, OK what's important, how do we do it, how do we prep our systems? We've been burnt before and we're trying to ensure that if there are mistakes and holes that we didn't see coming they are most likely stopped. But hopefully we have guarded ourselves and cast such a wide net that we will be able to pick up stuff quite fast.
VideoGamer.com: We saw some footage of the siege weapons. Will players be able to build them?
JT: Yes. We have crafting for pretty much everything. For the cities it's resources that you have to gather, the base resources. We tried to make a unique crafting system but easy to learn as well. It's all based around quests. You do quests, you get recipes and then you gather aspects and you don't have to stand over it hammering for hours. If you find the recipes, if you do the quests you'll be able to complete them and they go up in the tiers. I wouldn't say it's casual friendly but it's something a lot of people should be able to get into and this is important to us. A lot of people should be able to enjoy crafting while the higher tiers of it should be difficult to get through. We use a gem system where you can upgrade and modify the items that you create. In terms of how strong is a crafting item versus a drop item, we try to not make them stronger but a bit more dynamic. Let's say you have a sword, you can choose to put everything on one skill or one strength or one aspect. If you have some armour you are making you can choose to be very specific on it. You can get crafting gear according to your needs and wants and also to the needs of the world. Hopefully between 5-10% of our gamers will be crafting focussed. So we have tried to build a lot around them so they always have something to do. They are important. But, it's a Conan game, and a Conan game means that by the nature of the license it is the fighting that comes first. But there should be a lot for the crafters.
VideoGamer.com: Do you have to find a job?
JT: You have different tasks and you can also specialise in crafting. There are various branches where you can specialise in your chosen profession. Some will become essential for their guild. Other people can be freelancers and stand free and just focus on going solo in groups to gather resources needed to make the stuff they want to sell. How this pans out is going to be interesting for us, in a live environment, how the economy evolves. All of this is unknown. You can beta test all you want, but how is your economy three months after launch? We think we know how it is, but it's probably going to be different, and this plays into the crafting. So well see. Interesting times.
VideoGamer.com: The game has very good graphics for an MMO but also has high minimum specs. Is there a worry that there are going to be some performance issues with players who are playing it with minimum specs and do you think that the higher graphical demand will limit sales?
JT: Yes, it will. That was a given. That was a conscious choice that you make before you start development. We have invested more than $20m in our proprietary graphics engine, been getting a lot of help from Microsoft and Nvidia. But we knew we were making a game for mature gamers. We come from the West, our core market is Europe and the US. We made a bet that, OK, if you're going to make a Conan game you have to make it mature, visceral, lush detail and animation, and in some in that evolution you just have to stake your claim like any PC game does. So you can choose the cartooney approach or you can choose our approach, which is the watershed. We chose our approach because we think ultimately it benefits us. We think our players will like it more because everybody loves good graphics. Yes it does mean that you're going to need a better PC than playing WoW for instance. But that was a conscious choice we made.
VideoGamer.com: Internally what kind of subscription numbers are you looking at that will make you consider the game a success?
JT: I'm not even going to say those numbers! We sent out a press release where we passed one million beta sign ups for the game which to our knowledge is the biggest for any game in the West ever. We had more than five million people visiting our websites so far this year. If anybody told me a few years ago that we would be seeing these numbers I wouldn't have believed it. I don't even want to predict the future. Right now everything is looking good. Everybody loves us, we haven't launched yet. There's still the illusion until people put their fangs into it and give us feedback. But we have scaled our servers for 600,000 players on day one. That's the amount of people our server can handle. If we get that amount of players we will be a great success. That will be a really big success for us. We just want to make really good games hopefully lots of people play and hopefully we will be able to make more games and more content.
VideoGamer.com: What will be the role of Conan? Will he only give quests?
JT: Quests, yes.
VideoGamer.com: Will you be able to play with him?
JT: Not at launch, no, but you will be involved with him. Actually there's a reason why we haven't shown Conan until today and there's a reason why we haven't spoken much about him. He is sort of like an enigma, a shadowy figure. You know he is the king but you don't quite know his role. But you will be interacting with Conan. The whole Destiny quest which starts at level one through to level 80, it interacts with Conan and Thoth-Amon, his arch nemesis. You as a player will find out, but we have put a lot of resources into making him accessible. We thought about in the beginning, what if you had a dream, you could play Conan and have his power for an hour, but at the end of the day we had to distance ourselves a bit from Conan. Everybody couldn't be Conan. So we had to find a way that makes him believable and we think that the place in the story right now is the right place to have him.
VideoGamer.com: Ever consider giving him an Austrian accent?
JT: Never! Never! A lot of people have asked us, and pushed us, and wanted us to do it and make him look like Arnold. When we looked at Conan we never looked at the Conan movies. They have done some amazing things, you know? The music is fantastic, some of the art direction is brilliant, some of the actors really stand out, at least in the first movie, but for us it was always back to Howard, back to the 1930s, back to the short, punctuated way of telling a story. You see this in everything we do. Even how everybody in the game speaks. Everybody speaks very direct, very Hyborian, or Conan-esque as we call it. Just the way that Howard created it. We just take away all the soap aspects of Conan and wanted to bring you this savage, dark and brutal world. That's what we've done.
VideoGamer.com: When will the Xbox 360 version coming out?
JT: Next year. When we launch we are splitting up into three. We have been working on the Xbox for a long time actually. But as we hit the last six months we were like, let's focus on the PC version. That's where we know the market is. We're trailing about a year. No longer than a year. As soon as we launch, stabilise and have everything up and running, all the systems going, we're going to have the live team fixing stuff, speaking with the players, what do you guys want? We have the expansion pack team and then we have an Xbox team. But we're pretty much Guinea pigging our way into the Xbox, just like Microsoft is. We are exploring frontiers on how to deal with the consoles and online games.
VideoGamer.com: Any ideas how it might be different?
JT: It will be the same essence and the same experience. We want for the people who want to do it, we want them to be able to play with their PC friends if they like to. It's not a force thing but we would like that to happen. But obviously the control mechanism, the communication, all this is stuff we are solving on a daily basis. The patching, the install, the footprint, the payment, the servers, the customer service... it's a challenge. But we will get there eventually.
VideoGamer.com: But you intend for it to come out max a year after the PC version?
JT: Yeah, maximum a year. But I don't feel comfortable about promising a date. We've been promising quite a few dates on this one. But you know things happen.
VideoGamer.com: No PS3 version?
JT: No. When we started development of Conan there was no PS3, there was no online plans for PS3, there was no environment for it. Xbox and Microsoft had a very clear strategy, they had a very clear goal, what they wanted to do, and shared our belief of what you could do with the console. So we'll see I guess. We're not ruling out anything except a Wii version. That would be hard with these graphics and technology. But right now the PC is the focus, then the Xbox and then we'll see what happens. It's hard to say now how this will pan out. We'll know in a few months and then we'll see.
VideoGamer.com: What were the specs of the PC running the game today?
JT: This was an 8800 graphics card from Nvidia. I would guess that it had 4gigs of RAM and that it was a dual core. OK famous last words, but I think people will be surprised about how good the game runs. If you have the lowest minimum specs you'll still be able to get a good performance out of it. I've seen it on minimum specs. If you have all your drivers updated, if you have your service pack, if you run Vista, if you have all that ready I think you will get a fantastic performance on it. And it will grow. We're going to run this game hopefully for many, many years.
VideoGamer.com: Thanks very much for your time.
Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventure is due out 23 May.