Age of Conan talk with Erling Ellingsen
Axe-swinging MMO Age of Conan is due out this year, and with a beta in full swing we thought it was time for a few words with Erling Ellingsen, Product Manager of Funcom's rather special-looking new online opus.
Age of Conan is a brand new MMO set in Robert E. Howard's fantasy universe. Tell us about the richness of this setting and the opportunities it presents to the persistent world developer.
Working with a world so vast, so rich and so infinitely exciting as Hyboria is any game developer's dream. Robert E. Howard did much more than write a few novels, he also created a world so full of details and history that it could almost rival our own. Hyboria is actually a twisted version of our own world in some age long gone, and the way Howard manage to weave in real-world history into Hyboria is simply amazing. You will find locations in Hyboria that is a reflection of a location in our own world, such as Zingara which is a nation shaped in the image of Spain. At launch we're featuring three nations -- Stygia, Cimmeria and Aquilonia -- but the lore surrounding Hyboria is so full of content that we can go on to create expansions until, well, the end of time.
Are graphics key to a rich MMO experience?
We know just as well as anyone that graphics does not make the game. If you have pretty graphics and the gameplay just isn't there, then the game will most likely fail. If you manage to combine the two, though, you end up with something really special and that's what we are really aiming to do with Age of Conan. Detailed, high resolution graphics can really draw you into a world and make you feel like you are a part of it, and for a role-playing game such as Age of Conan this is very important. In Age of Conan we focused on bring a lot of detail into the game world -- anything from the crows picking on the corpses lying on the battlefield, to being able to see what Hyboria's inhabitants is having for dinner by simply looking at their table (and many of them seem to enjoyed fried frogs)!
How will Howard's epic plots be woven into the fabric of the game?
Ultimately, this is a massive online game and that involves bringing thousands of players into the same game world. Not everyone can be heroes, and not everyone can create world-changing events. It's just the nature of these types of games -- we simply have to put in a few more rules and restrictions than you would normally find in an offline game. But there is still a lot of story here, and the game is basically filled to the brim with lore. There are hundreds upon hundreds of quests, and we're really trying to create small stories rather than tasks (which is typically "go get this for me" or "go kill this for me"). One example is the quest where you will need to sentence a man to death. We also have the destiny quests, a long quest line running through the entire game, an epic drama that has a huge impact on the game.
How ambitious an undertaking is your modeling of the game's nations and landscapes - and how will this compare to other MMOs?
We are actually putting a lot of effort into making the environments believable. We wanted landscapes in the game to look grand and real. We wanted mountains to look like they were millions of years old, and we wanted cities to have that lived-in feeling to them where it really looks like someone built everything by hand using only hammers and nails. The first thing you will see in Age of Conan is that the mountains really are tall and enormous -- you can walk up a mountain path, climb steep cliffs and spend a lot of time just walking up the the top. It's much more than just a mere backdrop, everything is very much explorable. It's the same with cities. They are simply so full of detail and complexity, to a degree never before seen in any massive online game before.
How does Conan's new combat system work and why is it better than what's gone before?
Combat in massive online games have typically been almost turn-based and very much non-reactionary. You run up to something, you target it, and you click an icon that makes your character automatically hit at your enemy for you. Already at the targeting part you realize that massive online games is not at all about having fun in an action-oriented environment. We wanted to change that for Age of Conan, and we wanted to bring in dynamic, action-oriented combat. You don't really target anything here, you just run up to whatever you want to kill and you start hitting it. And when you hit it, you need to actually swing your weapon manually, you need to block incoming blows, and you need to change the direction in which you hit according to how your opponent reacts. It's fun, it's exhilarating... it's real action!
While generally described as an MMO, we also hear talk of a singleplayer mode. How does this side of the game link-in with the broader picture?
We realized that you just can't give a player that feeling of being in the center of the story in a massive online game, but still we wanted to give players that feeling when they first set off in Age of Conan. What we've ended up with is a part singleplayer, part multiplayer mode that's present during the game's first twenty levels. On Tortage Island, where you start, you can change between night and day by simply sleeping at the local inn, and while daytime is a pure multiplayer thing, nighttime is all about you and your story as you will be playing in your own instance of the island. Here we are able to give you a world-changing experience similar to that you will find in a typical singleplayer role-playing game.
How will the game world evolve and how will the player be involved in this?
There are limitations to what sort of changes to the world you can allow players to do, seeing any changes made will obviously affect thousands of other players. However, I think Age of Conan is one of the first massive online games that really allows players to make a huge impact on the game world. This really shows in the city building and massive siege warfare aspects. Player guilds will be able to buy a piece of land where they can build an entire city, from the city walls to the blacksmith and the university, and the guild will reap the rewards of doing so. Guilds can also build battlekeeps in the frontier Border Kingdoms, but there can only be a set number of battlekeeps, so builds will actually be waging war against each other (with catapults and all!) in order to conquer each other keeps.
What will Conan offer to entice Guild fans?
I think I just covered that pretty well, but there is always tons more you can say about guilds in Age of Conan. I think the biggest difference is that guilds in this game is not just about having your guild's name over your head and a separate chat channel. There is very much a political scene in the game, and players will need to work to make their guild as prominent as possible. It will take effort from the entire guild to reach the goals of owning a player city and a battlekeep, and everyone must cooperate in gathering resources, fighting your enemies and much more. It's a true community experience.
Conan promises to be the most 'brutal' MMO - how violent is the game?
Age of Conan is a very brutal game, but we're keeping it within reason. We're not adding violence and gore just for the heck of it, we want it to be in line with the original Conan lore and especially the Robert E. Howard novels. Anyone who has read those stories knows that the Conan universe is extremely unforgiving, and it's all about sex, sweat, blood, heads rolling and people stabbing each other in the back. It's a Sodom and Gomorrah-like environment, where dog eats dog. Age of Conan is a mature-rated game and it's something we're making for adult role-players, and this will be reflected in the game's content. For instance you will find the ever popular fatality moves, where you get to chop off your opponent's limb and do some truly horrific things to their corpses. But hey, that's Hyboria for you!
Tell us about player-made cities.
There are entire regions in the game world -- such as Laceish Plains, Poitain and Purple Lotus Swamp -- that are sort of community areas. Here you can find resources such as wood, iron and stone, and guilds will be able to claim areas within these regions for themselves where they can build a guild city. You simply start by collecting the required resources -- something everyone in your guild can help with -- and you will then need to start constructing each individual building, and the city walls. For this you need a player crafter skilled in the ways of the architect. You will build structures such as the blacksmith, the alchemist's workshop, the university and much more. Each building gives your guild a bonus so it's definitely worth acquiring, but hey, it's also one heck of a status symbol!
Finally, what do you believe helps Age of Conan stand out in a crowded genre, and where do you see the MMO market heading in the future?
One of the reasons why I think Age of Conan will succeed is because we're not trying to do what everyone else is doing. We're not trying to be the next World of Warcraft, and while we have all the respect in the world for Blizzard and what they have created, we're trying to do something different with Age of Conan. First of all it has a mature setting, something you do not often see in role-playing games, much less massive online games. It has next-generation combat. It has a revolutionary graphics engine. It's got a lot more storytelling to it. Really, it's a whole new way of playing massive online games. I really think the market needs to embrace this way of thinking in order to succeed: think different, dare to break some genre boundaries. As long as you pull it off, players will reward you for giving them something new.
Thanks for your time.