Let no one accuse Funcom of a lack of determination. Despite a troubled launch and doom and gloom surrounding its mature fantasy MMORPG Age of Conan - Hyborian Adventures, the Norwegian developer has soldiered on with a raft of improvements and updates since the turn of the year. But none are as important as the game's first expansion: Rise of the Godslayer, which brings adventurers to the eastern Asia-inspired Empire of Khitai. At gamescom last month we sat down with game director and executive producer Craig Morrison to get more detail on what new challenges Rise of the Godslayer will bring, and how it will impact what's gone before.
VideoGamer.com: One thing I noticed in your press release for the expansion is you say players will "embark on the most savage, sexy and brutal Conan adventure yet". Why is it sexy?
Craig Morrison: We have a very mature setting for the game. The writers and the designers, we very much focus on getting them to embrace that. The mature setting isn't just about blood, violence and sex. It's about being able to tell adult stories and mature storytelling that's complex and with consequences. Sex is as much a part of that as the violence is. For example, you have things even in the live game with Tarantia Commons that we put out recently, there's a whole series of quest lines based around the prostitutes in Tarantia Commons, and their story. It's getting the writers to embrace the M rating we have with the game and be able to tell an adult story.
For many people those oriental style weapons and new armours, that's what gamers consider sexy in many ways as well. You've got the real appeal of being able to feel cool with the new armours and get to look much better. The artists have really outdone themselves this time with some of the armour sets that they've created.
VideoGamer.com: Is it your intention with Conan to engage the player on an emotional level?
CM: Oh for sure. We're very proud of our storytelling. The setting is one thing but the storytelling is one of the things our writers and designers are very, very good at, using that mature setting to set the story in Conan apart. What we've done is there are two layers to the story in the expansion. The top layer is the evil that threatens Khitai and getting to the bottom of the mystery, finding out how this relates to Conan, how it relates to his kingdom now? What is the evil that is threatening Khitai? But then there are these ethnic and clan-based disputes, these faction systems that are fighting with each other.
With the storytelling we've taken an interesting approach where when you're talking there is no good and evil. Howard's world was morally ambiguous. It's all about shades of grey. To take some examples, in one of the play group regions there is a sect, the Priests of Yacosha [check], and when the player meets them they're obviously very honourable, benevolent priests. They take care of their community. They are clearly honourable characters, but their goal and their mission is to destroy Conan, because he killed their god. And so the player has this strange, I can see that these are good people but they are asking me to betray my loyalty to my king. Taking that dynamic and allowing the player to not... when they see a dialogue option it's not going to be like you see in some games where, okay, that's the good option and that's the evil option. You're not going to be sure. They might make decisions that they then come to regret later on. That's a great gameplay mechanic, that when a player gets to a later quest and something happens and they're like, oh crap, I'm responsible for that. I didn't really mean it. That wasn't what I thought would happen.
We've got all these very interesting characters and factions throughout the game. There's another faction the player can meet through the game where the faction has the rightful heir to the Empire that's being denied taking power. So they have the valid claim. If you're going on good and evil, these people would be the right people. Theirs is the valid claim. But they're also an incredibly despicable group of people. They believe in human sacrifice. They're a very dark faction. And so again the player is left with this ambiguity of, I'm not sure what the right choice is. These people have a valid claim to power but should I help them? Do my morals allow me to help them, or should I look to the other factions?
So in the storytelling elements there are some cool interesting storyline hooks, even through to the player themselves. Players who play through our game finish their Destiny Quest. They understand that the player has been granted immortality by Ancient Atlanteans. The player is effectively immortal. That also, rather than just being a gameplay mechanic, because in an MMO players get to respawn, it's not just a device we use to explain why, actually in the expansion it ties into the gameplay. Taking the title, Rise of the Godlslayer, if you're immortal, are you a god? What constitutes being a god? That's a question a lot of the characters in the expansion ask the player. You have this power and responsibility of being an immortal, does that make you more of a god than the king that you follow? Conan is mortal. His power comes from his great survivability and his ability to avoid death, but he could die. He is a mortal character, but you serve him. So you've got these strains directly relating to the character. The writers have done a great job of being able to incorporate that into the storylines. For those players who really enjoy diving into the story and learning about the land, there's a very interesting story to be told throughout Khitai.
It's not something that MMOs always do so well, and I'm sure there are many players who skip through - yeah, okay, give me my choice, I want to pick my reward. But we don't let that stop us putting an interesting story in anyway. We wanted the story to be much more coherent this time around. In the original game Conan's kingdom is at war with various factions. There are lots of individual little stories but it wasn't very focused on an overall story arc. Whereas in Khitai there will be this overall story arc, but what's happening in Khitai and the player finding their own path. These are level 80 players who have played the game. We don't want to hand hold them. You don't arrive in Khitai and you set forth, you go, right, I'm on this path - this is the good path or I've chosen the evil path and I'm going through. You don't have that. Across the 10 play fields with the two factions on each, you can think of it as a zigzag path, or any path the player chooses to take, because they will be able to make these choices in every play field region they come to. You and I, we might both get to the end and we might both get to discover the evil that's behind what's happening in Khitai, but we'll have taken very different paths to get there and maybe have different events happening depending on what choices we've made with the different factions and who we've chosen to side with. Have we gone against our loyalty to Conan and sided with the Priests of Yacoshia? There are also factions in Khitai that recognise the evil that's threatening it and actually welcome Conan's presence in their kingdom, because they think maybe they'll overthrow the Empire and get rid of the evil.
It is sometimes hard, because the MMO players, they expect the reward mechanics of going through and doing quests. But I never see any harm in having the depth of the story there, because I do also believe there are lots of players who do enjoy it and like to have a much more meaningful story based experience as they go through.
VideoGamer.com: You've talked about making decisions that affect how different factions treat you. Once you've made a decision is that it, or can you reverse your alignment?
CM: There will be betrayal quests where you can actually betray the current faction that you're on. That'll make things difficult for you for a short period of time because you've not quite earned enough respect with your old enemies for them to go, oh we've forgot all about it! You know, open arms? So the player would have to go through gameplay and do quests to build up their faction then with the opposite side. And I'm sure there are some players who will do that purely because they want to get all the rewards - right I've got all the armour from these guys, okay, betrayal quest time! I'm going over to these. And that's fine. You have to recognise the genre you work in. We're an MMO and it's fine that some players react in that way, and some players will take their choices more seriously and see it as, I want to play through this story. But if they get to a certain point and they've made a decision that suddenly they realise oh, these guys are evil now, I was mistaken before, okay I'm going to switch, I'm actually going to take a storyline choice to switch and see what the other faction has to say. There will also be completists in the story sense who want to experience the story in each of the factions. In many ways you get told aren't you making content then that some of the players won't see? I'm reading Peter Molyneux talking about Fable, that only 15 per cent of his players played the evil side, and the development team spent all that time making that content. In MMOs it gives you the benefit that you're able to allow players to go back and forth. Over time if they want to they can go back and explore that other side of the story as well, so in actual fact over time they get access to even more content.
VideoGamer.com: Finally, can you tell me when Rise of the Godslayer will be released?
CM: It is to be announced. It's a personal thing for me. I very much believe in getting some testing done first. We literally haven't set even an approximate release date yet. We are fairly far along. You can see from the footage. We have it playable on the show floor. This isn't something that's just in our minds. Since the turn of the year the guys have been working. We've split the teams in Oslo. There are still over a hundred people working on Conan. Some of the resources are shared, but we have 30 people working exclusively on the expansion and the design and the implementation of the play fields. So we are relatively far along in the process. People are playing. Online people are actually playing Chosain Province play field at the moment, but I very much want to start the testing process first before we start talking about when the release dates might be. And then we'll make decisions once we're done.
We have the advantage that we have our testing community for our live game. We have test servers and we have a loyal testing community I really can't thank enough. They spend their own time playing on test versions of our game to give us feedback and see where it's going. People who have been helping us there with the live product, they'll very much start helping us with testing the expansion as well. So once the first testing phase is done then we'll have a pretty good idea about time frames and when we'll be looking to launch it.
Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer is due out exclusively for PC.