QJ.NET Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures interview with Jorgen Tharaldsen

Thumb - Image 1 QJ.NET was able to get in touch with Funcom Product Director Jorgen Tharaldsen who answered some questions about their upcoming MMORPG Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (Xbox 360, PC).

The interview contains information on the different features of the game like its combat system and player-NPC interaction. There was also mention of the game’s future expansions, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures spin-offs, the Xbox 360 demo and gameplay, as well as the different artists who’ve influenced the visual style of the game.

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QJ.NET was able to get in touch with Funcom Product Director Jorgen Tharaldsen who answered some questions about their upcoming MMORPG Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures (Xbox 360, PC).

The interview contains information on the different features of the game, like its combat system and player-NPC interaction. There was also mention of the game’s future expansions, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures spin-offs, the Xbox 360 demo and gameplay, as well as the different artists who’ve influenced the visual style of the game.

We will not keep you any longer from our interview with Jorgen Tharaldsen lest we upset the more impatient barbarians in our readership. Here it is, enjoy!

QJ: Just about every MMO out there is guilty of creating a “one size fits all” experience for gamers, there’s very little personalization in terms of story, and individual players are rarely made to feel important in the grand scheme of things. Age of Conan starts out as a single player game before eventually opening up to a massively multiplayer scale, during the single player segment of the game, how much emphasis is placed on story and the players character?

Tharaldsen: Funcom as a company is incredibly focused on storytelling, and good storytelling. In our games, getting the story right in Conan has been of tremendous importance to us. In my personal opinion this makes most all games much better. This means that we are not limiting “the story” in Age of Conan to the first few levels, but having it is a central part of your experience all the way to level 80.

As an example we have more than 100 spoken actors in the game (so key quests are presented in the manner you know from normal RPG games and adventure games), and we have for years worked on the stories in the game. You can only tailor so much around each individual player in a MMO story though. The potential of you as one player radically changing the entire world is at best limited.

After all, we are creating a gigantic virtual universe, and if everyone could truly transform the world, all of the time, it would require a radically different approach to the design of the game.

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QJ: You mentioned a desire in the single player portion of the game to teach players how the game is played in a “more fun and structured fashion”, can you elaborate on how this will be accomplished?

Tharaldsen: It was always the goal for us to introduce the player into the world and the setting in a focused way. This means that you start out in your own instance of the world where you donÂ’t have to rely on other players, only yourself and your experience.

We are then instantly able to give you a good introduction, where the focus becomes you and your journey. Through being able to be alone in an area we can also introduce “world changing events (you will have to play to find out what those are;), which wouldnÂ’t normally have been” possible in a pure MMO environment (like mentioned above). All in all, we have really tried to push the boundaries with Age of Conan, and I think people will love and what we have created for them!

I also think itÂ’s important to state here that we have changed a bit on the concept of the single-player aspect throughout our beta, as many MMO gamers gave us feedback that they wanted access to other players sooner. So now you will play alone all the way to the first city, but there you can meet other players for the first time and do “limited” multiplayer group gameplay with them.

However, if you go to an inn in the city of Tortage, and go to sleep, you will wake up at night, where you again are playing alone. You can also solo the game all the way to level 80. We have tried to make the entire experience so that you can play alone whenever you want to, but the biggest fun in an MMO of course is the interaction with other people.

When you have reached level 20 in the game on the Tortage Islands you will then be able to go by boat to the three main countries in the game; Cimmeria, Aquilonia and Stygia. Then a lot more features will open up, like getting access to siege PvP, mounts and lots and lots of other content.

QJ: Is the single player segment of the game linear in structure or are players free to go about missions in their own manner?

Tharaldsen: It is both. We are taking you along on this great and exciting journey, but you will have liberties as you move forward. Age of Conan is an MMO, and freedom and choice is an essential part of that.

QJ: You mentioned that you were considering allowing players to skip the introductory single player segment of the game on a second or third play through, have you come to a decision on this?

Tharaldsen: Yes, but we want even more beta feedback on this prior to announcing the final on it. Player satisfaction is our key concern so regardless of the outcome the decision is made to make sure our players have a great re-playability experience.

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QJ: How’s the beta going at the moment?

Tharaldsen: I am so happy about the evolution of the game these days! It rocks! We are now really starting to see how amazing this game will become once we launch! It will be something completely unique, and a lot of brutal fun.

We are still focusing our beta around having core testers, but we are now opening up for more and more players. As we move towards launch tens and tens of thousands will be able to aid in shaping the game and testing the game! If you want to become a tester I advice you to sign up at www.ageofconan.com

QJ: Have there been any revelations in the beta that had you rethink or change the way parts of the game work?

Tharaldsen: Yes, of course, that is the way it must be for an MMO I think. Things are bound to change during four years of development, and the beta becomes a crucial tool for us in order to hear what the players think of our creation.

There are naturally things like balancing, general fun factor and various bugs we are listening too, or mining data from, but it’s also stuff like features that need to be altered to make them better, or different, within a live environment. All in all running a great beta, and listening to the feedback of our players, is something we put a lot of focus on!

QJ: You’ve hinted at a rather intriguing need-based AI system that governs in-game artificial intelligence, and that characters won’t necessarily be standing idly around in the middle of the road, can you go into a little more detail and perhaps illustrate what sort of needs would make the difference between, say, a rich Aquilonian merchant and a Stygian thief?

Tharaldsen: I wouldnÂ’t want to be that detailed, as we can set multiple parameters even within the same monster/ NPC etc. And you will meet both merchants and thieves in the game, of course!

The essence of it all is that we are looking to give the players a dynamic experience, where the enemies are changing according to your behavior, time of day, amount of players / enemies, your class and whatnot. Getting the AI right is essential in a MMO to make the experience great, and that is what we are implementing.

QJ: Following this, we understand that Conan himself will in fact be at the game, and that players might even get the chance to sit at his table. Does the Barbarian King play any part in the single player storyline? Does he play a relevant part in the multiplayer segment of the game?

Tharaldsen: Seeing that this is a Conan licensed game, we have made sure that Conan plays an essential part in the game! And you are a major part of it too! I can safely say that you will for sure get to know more about him throughout the entire game.

QJ: If (and bear with me here), in true barbarian fashion, one should decide to let loose his sword from his scabbard, and attempt to cleave the Barbarian King’s skull to the teeth, what are the chances such a foolhardy assassin would succeed?

Tharaldsen: (Laughs), no one can kill Conan, and thousands and thousands have tried. You, too, would die screaming and bleeding at his feet.

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QJ: Right out of the gate, players will have access to the nations of Aquilona, Cimmeria, and Stygia, there’s enough variety there to last a life-time, but every Conan fan knows there’s more to explore in Howard’s world. You’ve hinted that you might look to other lands in Hyboria in future expansions, now what we’d like to know is, right now what lands are the front runners, the guys on the drawing board that you’re already looking at and doubtless already have concept art drawn up for?

Tharaldsen: (Laughs) I wouldn’t want to reveal the content in an expansion at this stage, but of course we have plans. We are dedicated to a long-run effort on Conan, and will do our very best to ensure that it becomes a game which just gets better and better, and better.

What I can say though is that once we launch we will divide the developers into a live team, and an expansion team. This means that one team can focus on the general going of the game, based upon player feedback, while a whole different team can work on great content for future expansions. We have so many great ideas for the future of the game, but our only focus from now until launch is to get an amazing, fun and stable game out there J

QJ: How will you reward explorers in Age of Conan, and just how extensively hand-crafted is the Hyborea you’ve created for the game?

Tharaldsen: Yes, all of it is hand-crafted! Since we have also gone for a very detailed gameworld, mixed with great audio, it means we can really immerse you into ConanÂ’s world. We know that a lot of MMO gamers really love to explore, and we have built a vast world they can do so in.

Ranging from the mountains and valleys of Cimmeria, to jungles to swamps, to highlands to dungeons to cities to pyramids toÂ….on and on it goes. I can promise you that Hyboria will be something special to explore. In terms of rewards, they are so varied (it depends on how you play the game, and what you are looking for as well) that I am not sure I can cover it all here. Suffice to say you will be rewarded greatly as you journey through the game.

QJ: From Barry Windsor-Smith to Frank Frazetta, John Buscema, Mark Schultz and more recently P. Craig Russel and Cary Nord, everyone’s got their own distinctive visual interpretation of Conan and Hyborea, who did you look at and say, that’s it, that’s the definitive look, or did you cherry pick the very best from a multitude of sources?

Tharaldsen: All of the above actually have been inspirational sources for the game, but also so many other inspiration sources, ranging from other games (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and God of War, for instance) to the real world around us.

What has been important for us though is not to copy someone else, but to be inspired by it. We are creating a 3D MMO world, which means we have gone for creating something unique, something which is our own, while at the same time taking the best of the long history of Conan artists.

QJ: You’ve mentioned some sort of working relationship with other Conan licensees such as Mongoose Publishing, Penguin Books and Dark Horse Comics in order to maintain a consistent universe, there are already Age of Conan novels available, but what are the odds that this relationship might bear fruit in the form of something like an Age of Conan, Dark Horse one shot or mini-series?

Tharaldsen: Hmm, the chances are pretty good I would say Dark Horse has confirmed that they are working on an Age of Conan series, but I canÂ’t say much more than that at this stage.

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QJ: Tell us a little bit about character creation, how much depth will there be and to what degree will players be able to customize the appearance of their in-game avatars?

Tharaldsen: It will be deeper and more extensive than what you have seen in any MMOs before! We know how much people like a unique and great look, and we are indeed giving our players tools to make that happen.

To that extent there are more than 40 sliders in the character creation (eyes, face, arms, legs etc. etc. etc.), in addition to a ton of hairstyles, beard styles (but not for the females), piercings, and tattoos. You can truly look unique in this game! If you don’t want to spend a lot of time on this aspect you also have the “random divine whim” button.

QJ: Something that hasn’t been talked about very much is the music. What we’ve heard on the official website thus far has been suitably epic, big and brassy. Can you give us an idea of just how much music you’re recording and how it’s being done?

Tharaldsen: Music is essential for us, the right music makes a game so much better. Right now we have five people working on the audio in the game, and one composer. As we need to fill audio landscapes for hundreds and hundreds of hours of gameplay we have already spent years on creating this.

We got an MTV award nomination for our last game (Dreamfall: The Longest Journey), and this is the kind of quality we are striving for. In terms of how much music is hard to nail down exactly as much of it triggers dynamically, but years of creation has led to a great soundscape.

QJ: How’s voice over recording going for the game? Will every NPC character have spoken dialogue?

Tharaldsen: No, not every single one, but over 100 will. It just wouldnÂ’t be feasible or economical to give everyone voice. We are hiring professional actors for all of this, and I hope we can truly push the MMO barriers on this compared to all previous released online games.

We got an award last year for “Best voice acting” (for Dreamfall, at Gamespot), which says something about how serious we are about this aspect in all of our games. Just getting the right accents for the different cultures, and all the details that go with it is handled by people just focusing on that, so this does not come as an afterthought but an integrated part of the Conan experience.

QJ: In most of the screenshots and movies we’ve seen thus far, we haven’t seen much of a HUD or a UI, can you tell us about how you’re approaching this and how you plan on balancing functionality and ease of use with a design that isn’t daunting?

Tharaldsen: Yes, of course. We have avoided showing the GUI in most of the screens because the format of a screenshot is often best when it is “clean”. In my opinion anyways, it has been on hundreds and hundreds of videos though, so itÂ’s not like we are hiding something.

We have been working on MMO GUIÂ’s ever since 1995, when we started development on Anarchy Online, and we know how incredibly important it is to get it “right” and intuitive. I think what we have now is exactly that, while we are also giving our players a chance to customize parts of it to their own liking.

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QJ: On that subject, how “noob friendly” is Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures?

Tharaldsen: Very, I would say. This is one of the core lessons from Anarchy Online, which we have run for more than six years; make the entry barriers as low as possible to begin with.

It should be like a cone, starting small and focused, and broadening out more and more as you learn the ropes. We therefore hope that those entering Conan will see our philosophy “easy to learn, difficult to master”. At first it should be easy and intuitive, as you get more familiar with the game it will start offering you an incredible MMO depth.

QJ: You’ve mentioned a more visceral approach to combat in Age of Conan‘s combat system, do attacks rely on mouse gestures? If so, how does this translate to the Xbox 360 controller?

Tharaldsen: Your approach to the combat system I think depends on where you are coming from, and which class you choose to play. If you are used to, for instance, World of Warcraft I would think some would start out by clicking with the mouse, but as soon as you understand how much more fun an MMO can be with more active control we anticipate people to shift to direct control as opposed to using the mouse. (for instance, in high level melee you would use 1,2,3.Q and E to direct your sword in different direction).

Seeing how things have turned out today, and the “leap of faith” our Game Director Gaute Godager took on the active combat system years ago, I am incredibly proud by working on a game which truly pushes the MMO barriers. I think that what we have now is much more than just an evolution of MMO combat, it is a revolution.

How it translates to an Xbox 360 controller? Great, of course (but I would say that anyways wouldn’t I). That was one of the initial ideas Gaute thought about; how to make a system working on both consoles and PC, while at the same time being true to the “hands-on crushing skulls” Conan license.

QJ: Can Xbox 360 players expect a demo, or a beta testing period?

Tharaldsen: Yes, of course, we must always beta our MMO releases. IF you wouldnÂ’t it could very easily led to disaster. The Xbox 360 version comes after the PC version though, so right now our main beta focus is on the PC version.

QJ: How have you found development on the 360 platform? You’ve mentioned that the Windows DirectX 10 version of the game will be visually superior, are there any DX10 specific features of the game you’ll be able to implement on 360 hardware?

Tharaldsen: Working with Microsoft I think is a great experience in general, but I also know that there isnÂ’t really anyone to learn from when it comes MMOÂ’s on a console. Final Fantasy XI really doesnÂ’t count that much in that regards as they were more of a port, so it means we have to learn ourselves a lot of new stuff. Seeing how complex a MMO is to create in the first place it is naturally not a walk in the park. That makes all the more interesting though, and I truly think that our active combat system is perfect for the consoles.

The Xbox 360 does not have a DX10 system, so sadly you wonÂ’t see those features there, but the game also looks stunning on DX9.

QJ: You’ve announced that development is currently underway for the Xbox 360 and PC, but if the product proves popular enough and there’s an obvious desire from that camp of gamers, is there any possibility of a PS3 version of the game coming out somewhere down the line at all?

Tharaldsen: I donÂ’t think you should ever rule that out as you donÂ’t know what the future holds, but it is not something we are working on at the moment. Right now our main focus is getting a fantastic PC version out next March, followed by a fantastic 360 version after that.

QJ: Visually, the game looks absolutely incredible, but we have to ask the question, and we know it’s a moving target, how scalable are you planning on making the game. Can you give a vague idea as to the specs needed to run the game?

Tharaldsen: Thank you, we have spent a great many years and money on our proprietary MMO engine, and it shows, I think. We are very proud of it, especially considering that we create online games and not, say, single-player shooters, which are a lot easier to control in terms of graphics.

The scalability goes both up and down. We set the game Oblivion as a target performance indicator as that game looked awesome, and had mass-market penetration, but with Conan you can also gear things up considerably more. We are not a showcase game for nVidia and MicrosoftÂ’s Vista without reason, so if you are tech-savvy you can really get a lot out of what you have! Seeing the game on screenshots and videos really doesnÂ’t do the game justice. Just wait until you can sit in front of your monitor. It will blow you away.

Judging from everything Tharaldsen said, gamers will be in for quite an experience indeed. If you plan to pick up a copy of this MMORPG, Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures is slated to be released on March 25 next year.

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