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September 26, 2007
AGDC 2007 - Funcom Round-up
 

By Linda "Brasse" Carlson

At AGDC, I had the chance to sit with Jorgen Tharaldsen, Funcom's Product Director for Conan, Anarchy Online and Secret World. I was curious about the company itself, and where it stood, now that it has a number of established products in the marketplace, as well as some highly anticipated titles in the works.

We talked first about Funcom's original flagship offering, Anarchy Online. "It is six years in live now, and it still does great. Who would have known?" smiled Jorgen.

It remains a unique and vital game with a strong following. Funcom is about to introduce something new to the players. "What we are doing this period is introducing virtual item sales into the mix. This is not secondary market trading. You can buy points in the game, and for those points you can buy flying bicycles, apartments, elite social clothing…. basically, "non-power" items in the game. If you are a paid subscriber, you get a set amount of points every month, so you'll be able to buy a lot of things with subscriptions. If you are a free player, you can buy a bracket of points."

I've been waiting for one of the established MMOs to mess around with this, but most are too entrenched in traditional subscription models and afraid of change. Not so the folks at Funcom. "This is our foray… I would say we will introduce the model during this (fiscal) period." says Jorgen, "We've always been one of the first movers in the western games, and this is our opportunity to get some data prior to the launch of our new games." They are very careful not to allow the microtransactions to impact serious gameplay though. As Tharaldsen explains, "As long as you don't deal with power items, like swords with x amount of hits, damage modifiers, etc, we feel it is a sustainable model. So we are moving on it and we will learn."

AO has subscribers all around the world, so Funcom should gain some very valuable feedback. A great many online games already use the micropayment model, but almost of these are Asian-based. One of the better-known North American products to use micropayments is Magic the Gathering Online, where players buy boosters and decks just like the physical version of the card game. It was a very natural progression for them and raised no eyebrows. Another is "Puzzle Pirates", in which you can earn money through your adventures on the high seas or supplement your income with affordable in-game cash, purchased from the company. Neither of these can be compared directly with the current crop of "mainstream MMOGs", which has traditionally been very shy of experimenting with business models.

Funcom has been contemplating the move for some time, and now, Jorgen says, "We'll have data instead of guesstimates, and we can learn what the acceptable levels are."
I asked if the company has had any initial feedback from the playerbase to what many would see as a major shift in the product.

We announced it two months ago, and there were no negative comments that I could see, because we made it very clear that we were not doing this to upset the power and balance in the game," responded Tharaldsen, "Not to destroy our model of gameplay, and we also make sure that paying subscribers get in on it."

It's all about choices. "It is like the (in-game) advertisements in AO, which also did not get negative comments. In that case, if you play for free, you get the ads, and if you subscribe, you can turn them off." I always thought the ads in Anarchy Online fit in with the environment. The art team at Funcom spent a lot of time with the graphics, making them look like a natural part of the semi-urban, sci-fi environments.

I asked if Funcom was considering micro-transactions to other games on their roster. "That is the natural assumption and we will consider it," Jorgen replied, "But you have to underline the word "consider". It needs to fit the setting and anything we do will be with the players in mind, because they will keep us in business. We do not want to upset them and throw a wrench into our success."

Moving on to Age of Conan... When I last saw it at GDC, the female player models were not yet complete. They are in now. "We had a big demo at DragonCon; police came to the demo to clear the crowds." said Jorgen, "Several hundred people were turned away by the police due to fire regulations. It was the most popular demo at the show."

He continued, "We showed lots of different armor, and there was lot of focus on the female (player models), and the fact that we've been able to make them strong, yet sexual at the same time; female, but not bimbos."

He laughed, "You can undress and go around half naked of course, and a lot of guys will do that." The armor is highly varied and designed to suit the female form as well as it suits the males. They will have their own specific armors.

I asked about whether or not Conan groups were going to be highly class dependent in order to succeed. In other words, will groups require specific class combinations to succeed, or would a group of all fighters, or comprised of a number of DPS classes and a healer be as effective. "The nature of the genre is that a variety of skills will be needed. That is not to say that it will be impossible, but there is always strength in balanced groups. If you use our matchmaking system you will find you get the people you need."

"Our matchmaking system allows you to search for all kinds of levels, search for guilds, and any number of people. Groups are not inherently bad, what is bad is the amount of time getting hold of group members." says Jorgen, "Especially on raids, the amount of time spent organizing people for groups is bad, like when you lose your healer partway through a siege. How can you get access to new people fast? How can you find them? Can you teleport them in from other parts of the world? That is what we've done."

"If you sign up for a PvP match, as soon as it is filled, you will be matched with different classes and you will be teleported in. A group leader can have 6 magic classes, but there are certain cases where you will want a tank. I think it is important that we do not step away from the model too much, though there is flexibility." Jorgen explained.

I asked about the death penalty and bindpoints. "We have numerous bindpoints, and we try to tie it in with the lore so that it makes sense. We try to avoid the strict penalties of death that some games have used. Current design has two minutes of reduction in skills, and maybe you lose some blood money. We don't want to punish you too much for dying, because you will die a lot in this game." he laughs, "I promise. If you die during a siege, you will be teleported back to the scene. If you die very often, you might incur more penalties, to prevent 'Zerg' rushing."

Jorgen mused, "I see interesting individuals who have asked for "permadeath", but it's just not feasible as an MMOG mechanic."

The Age of Conan siege system holds much promise. Catapaults, Ballistas, War Mammoths and more will be brought to bear in the ongoing PvP struggle. I was curious if the siege weapons were something players would carry with them, or build on site? "Oh you have to drag them slowly through the wilderness" Jorgen chortled, indicating that he was kidding. "The siege implements can be bought or made. They are in your inventory, and you spawn them at the battlegrounds at preset points (we may change how this is controlled). You place them, and then there is a real-time targeting system. Each section of the wall becomes a target. Eight engines of war are possible in a big siege." War mammoths can be used to batter walls as well, and killer rhinos may be pressed into service to bash down gates.

"As a defender, you have a better chance of hitting and doing more damage at range, as you are firing down as opposed to firing upwards." That certainly made sense in terms of real-life physics. "We also have a mercenary system, so that you can send out calls to the world, ' Hey, we're hiring level 80 mercenaries for 100 gold!' and then bring them into the area. It is all based on what we've learned, what we've been doing for many years in Anarchy Online with the Notum Wars."

Funcom watches what other game companies do as well. "Guild Wars did a good job. We learned from Shadowbane that the power of the very few can ruin the game. One guild will eventually dominate the server in that situation." In Age of Conan, the devs plan to have nine Battle Keeps (the largest contested locations), and fifteen Battle Forts, (a smaller objective suited for smaller guilds) as well as eighteen controllable resource areas. To counter the problem found in Shadowbane, each guild can only control ONE fort or battle-keep at a time. Jorgen explains, "Each guild can hold one resource area, one city (which has your guild hall, tradeskill area and social focus) and then your PvP area."

Is PvP going to take place everywhere? Tharaldsen responded, "We will have free-for-all PvP servers, but the normal servers will use much the same model as in Anarchy Online, where we pioneered the use of "suppression gas" mechanics to control aggressive actions. When you get to a PvP area, you'll see 'You are now entering...' You will be warned, and if you continue... that's your problem." he smiled. On the other hand, "If you go into a siege and sign up for battle, of course you will immediately be in the fight!"

To even up disparities in level and to prevent ganking of lower levels, there are six tiers to the PvP system. As Jorgen says, "If you are 21 and have a friend who is 27, when entering an area you are both buffed up to the highest level of that tier. That way everyone operates on the same level, and makes it more accessible." He continued, "We looked at GuildWars and the sidekicking of City of Heroes, and found a way to adapt it to our systems. Most of us have kids, we have families, we love online gaming, and you can't always spend 40 hours getting levels. We have a lot of people to think about and cater for."

I asked about the numbers involved in the AoC project, and what the main focus was. "At this stage we are split into task forces and we're working on everything at once." said Tharaldsen, "MMO development today is not the same as it was five or ten years ago. We are getting close to 150 developers on the team. It means that we have different task forces assigned to different areas of the game. For instance we have the combat group, the 20-40 group, the 40-60 group, 60-80, end game group... within those groups they have designers and programmers. We are pushing the combat system now, to make it really fun, while polishing the core mechanics."

We discussed the decisions made to delay the launch of Age of Conan, to the laments of fans everywhere. "There is no room for a bad launch these days. You cannot say, 'Please pay for our beta, we still have 6 months to go!'" grinned Jorgen, "And I think that we are sort of the poster child for that sort of thing," referring to the rocky launch and post-launch experience of Anarchy Online. I consider Funcom to be a prime example of how to recover from a bad launch as well. They worked hard and the game became a solid, viable project.

"Even now, in this day and age, without naming names, there are still people who are putting themselves into a bad launch position. In those days it was possible to turn around, but now, people expect a much higher degree of quality in the release product, and are far less willing to give second chances." said Tharaldsen, "We could have launched in October, but that is the difference between 'ok' and 'great,' and it reflects our goals as developers to postpone release to March. We want a great game."

When Conan launches, the development team will be split into a live team and expansion team, moving into two teams that will be scaled according to the needs of the project. "We are at about 300 in Funcom, spread across AO, Conan, Secret World, other projects and of course support staff and customer relations." says Jorgen.

"We now have Anarchy for the science fiction market, Conan for the fantasy market, and now Secret World for the near-present market. We have also announced our interest in casual games. We do not rule out anything. We've been one of the most innovative in the west, including our free subs, ads, micropayments, instanced zones. As long as we don't sacrifice our relationships with our players, we'll try it."

Secret Worlds is the latest name on Funcom's title list, although little is known of it yet. "We announced Secret Worlds through a viral process, because we wanted to see how open the market is to this sort of approach." Jorgen recalled, "We sat there, having made all these letters from the 'British Museum of the Occult'... and it was Monday, start of the week. Nothing. Oh &#% we said, this isn't working. Then come Wednesday, there was suddenly this incredible amount of interest."

"It says something about the essence of what this game is about. The mysteries, the conspiracies, the real world, the references and links to what you know what is out there. The essence is that if you dig into the reality around you, Internet, newspapers, you'll find stories. Is there something to it?" he leans in conspiratorially and grins, "Of course there is!"

Secret World is the creation of Funcom's Ragnar Tornquist, and he serves as Producer and Director on the project. "He made Longest Journey and Dreamfall... he came up with it some ten years ago, and it's been in development since last summer." A great creative concept is now the point of immersion for many of Funcom's artists and programmers. I am looking forward to seeing how the concept is translated into gameplay.

"We are a 'community centric' company. We are always most concerned with what our playerbase wants and how they respond to our ideas." I believe this commitment to community, along with their urge to innovate and experiment, are the key reasons that Funcom continues to thrive in the choppy waters of the MMOG market.

Funcom: http://www.funcom.com
Anarchy Online: http://www.ao.com
Age of Conan: http://www.ageofconan.com
Secret World: http://www.darkdaysarecoming.com/

 
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