What is the status of Age of Conan, as of right now?
The game is eight months on since launch, and much has changed. We have been focusing a lot on different areas based on feedback given by the players after release. Currently, we are at the stage where we are adding a lot of content and a lot more systems. We are trying, in many ways, to flush out the game world with more interesting content and more interesting systems for the players to enjoy.
Now we are moving towards our 5th major game update, which will be heading to the public test servers shortly. This means we have already had a lot of content added since last year, including new PvP systems, a PvP consequence system, huge, new playfields and several new dungeons. In addition to this you have all the normal tweaking, fixing and polishing of the product. I believe that every game update has been very large. The updates certainly seem like it when I review them as written documents. I think the smallest update we had consisted of around 20 pages, and the largest was around 40. This includes a lot of internal notes however, such as engine specific things.
Back in fall 08, when you took on your new role, the community forums were filled with angry mobs. This is no longer the case, so what have you done?
I think there are several factors tied to that. Obviously we fixed a lot of the issues. This had great influence on the angry mobs and pitchfork-wielding locals that were at the gates. First and foremost, the teams worked very, very hard to resolve many of the issues players had immediately after launch. I think we have approached the community interaction in a slightly different way, simply inherently with my background and skill set. Prior to working on production, I worked on community and PR for FunCom, and this is something I have always been active in. I believe strongly in that feedback channel, so I think this result is a combination of things.
There will always be disagreements in an Internet community. I can't get a dozen developers in a room to agree on the exactly right way to do things. You can't get hundreds of thousands players to agree, so there will always be different opinions, particularly in a global society with players from many different cultures and from different parts of the world. You will often find that the American players react very differently from the European customers.
Do you have any examples on that?
Recently we changed the war declaration system for PvP combat in the border kingdoms. We added an element to it that allows guilds to declare war on each other prior to the siege happenings. When it went live, we put it where people could declare war on players who owned a siege, which meant that they were more open to PvP than before. It was almost a 50/50 split between people who hated it and people who loved it. Most of the players who thought it was a good game mechanic were based on the American servers, and those who thought it wasn't were based on the European servers. Of course you had people on both camps on all servers, but you could clearly see a difference in the different territories.
When we were talking of launching in Korea - we have the Russian and Polish servers as well now - there were many different cultural elements that we had to bear in mind when regarding how a player will approach the game. Single player- developed titles are easier to agree on, because there is a right and a wrong.
With an MMO there are hundreds of thousands of people with hundreds of thousands of opinions, and there is no right or wrong. Someone is going to dislike the way we do everything. Our job is to find the right balance in how we can please most people. Sometimes you have to make an arbitrary decision by following your gut feeling. There is clearly a 50/50 split on feedback, so we have to literally say "Right, which one has the least implications in the long run? And which will be the best feature down the line?" This involves being engaged and discussing things, so that's why I like talking and giving out our reasons. Of course, the customers won't necessarily agree. A good example would be when we came out with the solution on that specific example. There were quickly 5-6 pages of posts on the European forums saying "Well done, great decision. You have done the right conclusion." There were also an equal number of posts on the American forum saying "Oh, No! That is a wrong decision! Change it back." Thus, you have that very different reaction to the same piece of information.
That's interesting. Normally Americans would be more conservative and Europeans more liberal.
The funny thing is - it was the total opposite. The Americans were open to that particular change, and the Europeans were not. They wanted to maintain the element of consent for all PVP.
It's an interesting dynamic. You have to realize that as an MMO developer, you have to work with all of these elements and there is very rarely any right way to do things. The feedback would be the sort of thing that contributes after the launch, because when you are developing an MMO, you're never sure if you have done it the right way. People didn't agree with the creative decisions that were made at launch. I think it's easy in hindsight to look back and say "We should have known. That was always going to fail." And you can only find out when hundreds of thousands of players get access to the content. Once we know, we can start making changes. But again, it's easy to go back and go "That was such a bad decision."
With MMOs you may know that you are making a contentious decision or a risky decision. But you don't know if you're making it right or wrong. I think its rarely that black and white.
The tricky part with the games community is that only a very small portion communicates with you. You are only communicating with 15-20% if you're lucky, and they might not even be representative. So you have to be aware of that and the statistics you get. Are players leaving or re-subscribing? You have to base your decision on a combination of what the players are telling you, what the press writing about, what the statistics say, etc.
Sometimes the things you actually see have no relations to what players might think. Sometimes there might be a certain buzz on the forums and it might just be down to small groups of vocal people who might decide that the class that they play is underpowered. Over time you'll see that other people listen to them, and because they are so ferocious in their opinion and post so much, this opinion will suddenly start to creep into other people's posts. They will say "That class is horrible, no one wants to play it!", while we're actually looking at the statistics and can say "This is in fact the 5th most played class of the 12." I mean, there will always be a difference of opinion when it comes to class balance, but you have the statistics in one hand and the player's feedback in the other, the truth is invariably somewhere in-between.
I think our class balance is a perfect example. You have twelve classes that are generally pretty evenly populated. Players don't think like that, they think more in absolutes. It must be good or it must be bad, nothing is ever relatively just ok in forum speak when in reality it can be.
There are so many factors that play in to why someone chooses a specific class. It isn't just about game-play strength. It might be the role as a healer in a guild, or their desire to do this for raiding or this for PvP. So it's always interesting to see the difference between statistics and players' opinions.
The class population balance is actually much more balanced than what players believe. They always like to believe that there is this huge imbalance between classes. However, in all the games I have worked on and spoke about to other developers, the gap is much smaller than you think.
Players comment on why there aren't any drastic changes with balance, and that's because there usually isn't anything drastically wrong with it. There are however always adjustments and tweaks to be made based on power in different areas such as PvP and PvE. You do find that there is a clear difference between PvP and PvE servers as players will prefer certain classes in PVP. It is still though within the confines of all the classes being relatively close to each other.
That's not to say that there aren't things that we have to adjust, and things that we don't get quite right from time to time, of course there is. I think it's just that it's rarely as dramatic as the forums can sometimes suggest, and that is often a hell of a challenge for the designers as we have to sort the good feedback from the bad.
I like to look at it this way: When a movie director is working on a movie, they only have to worry about one camera angle. Everything else is scripted. For us it is like creating a future film but we film from every possible angle simultaneously, as this is the way players will approach it. It would be impossible for a movie. Where do you put the camera, for a start? The camera will always be in someone's shot! That is how designing a MMO is. You have to consider every angle, all the time. Still the proverbial camera is going to be in someone's shot, which means the conditions will not be perfect for someone while others have a great view!