Age of Conan – Hyborian Adventures Interview

While I'm not usually a big fan of MMOs, anything having to do with hearing lamentations from my enemies' women will usually catch my eye. Part single player, part MMORPG, Age of Conan – Hyborian Adventures is set in the dark world of author Robert E. Howard. With a strong emphasis on several different combat types, Age of Conan looked mighty impressive at this year's E3, so I decided to catch up with Gaute Godager, Game Director for AoC to learn a bit more about Conan's upcoming PC adventure.

Shack: What is the storyline behind Age of Conan?

Gaute Godager: The storyline in Age of Conan (or Conan for short) is set in the time after the novel "Hour of the Dragon" by Conan author Robert E. Howard. The story [begins] with you, the player ... as a slave on a Stygian (Stygians are one of the 3 races playable in the game; more on those below) slave galley ship. Your memory has been wiped, and you have an ugly mark on your chest bearing a cruel burnt in hand.

As you progress through the game, you will gradually regain the memory of who you were, and what you were – your skills, abilities and knowledge will be regained through the act of gaining levels and solving quests (the so called "Destiny Quests"). If you have read the "Hour of the Dragon", you will know that Conan is the king of Aquillonia – the pinnacle of Hyborian civilization. In Hour of the Dragon he is betrayed, and dethroned for some time by a conspiracy of enemies. In our game he is back on the throne, newlywed but still with unrest brewing in the land.

Through the game the player will learn that his fate is intimately tied to that of the King. Through the story, quests, dialogue etc the player will find himself / herself interacting more and more with the king in order to save his kingship, your life and the world from one of Conan's arch enemies.

Shack: So Conan begins as a single player campaign? Interesting. Tell us more about this: at what level do you branch off into the multiplayer portion of the game; can you play the single player campaign for as long as you wish; etc.

Gaute Godager: When you purchase Age of Conan you will find you have bought not only a full-fledged MMORPG, but also a solo Online Action RPG for the first 20 levels, or as you put it – a single player campaign. This part of the game will be accessible for you as long as you want, and should take 10-15 hours to complete.

At all times you are actually playing against our servers, and you will be able to send/receive tells to and from friends playing in the MMO part of the game. You will have to enter your credit card, and also gain access to the full month of free play time in the MMO part of the game.

The players will be able to enter the MMO at level 20, were you also choose your specialized class. Even without paying any monthly subscription you will be able to play the solo campaign as long as you want, and as many times as you like – as long as you have a valid CD key and have registered a Credit card.

Shack: Tell us all about the character creation system: what races and classes are available (and a bit about them); how distinguishable will my, for example, human barbarian be from all the others; etc.

Gaute Godager: The character creation is easy to get into, but [a] very deep system that should be recognizable to most RPG fans across the globe. You start at level 1 without choosing anything but your race. Each of the three races, Aquilonian (Roman like race), Cimmerian (Germanic, Celtic race – Conan's race) or Stygian (as I mentioned – Egyptian) have a distinct look and abilities. First of all there is a limit to the classes you can choose as a race. For instance, only Stygians can become mages but they can not become Soldiers. In addition each race have some different abilities in the amount of out-of-combat health, mana and stamina regain.

You choose your arch class at level 5, as you enter the city of Tortage. Here you can chose from 4 different paths: Mage, Priest, Rogue or Soldier. Their abilities should be somewhat self explanatory to most RPG fans, but it is worth noticing that the different classes that spin off the arch classes will be different from race and religion.

At level 20, when you enter the multiplayer part , you chose your class. Here you can chose from around 25 different classes, depending on your arch class.

You customize your character mostly with Feats , binary abilities that let you access various powers or abilities. They can unlock your ability wear armor, cast spells or do special moves. There are more than 14k different feats in the game, all sorted by Class, race, featline and level – so there is no doubt a massive and deep system for the player to be able to customize his character. We have a clear goal to let all characters look, feel and play differently from another. Our visual character customization will go hand-in-hand with our RPG character generation and hopefully make many, many distinct classes and characters. Funcom is known to let players really customize their characters, and have a real choice in how they build their characters.

Conan is also offering a special social class (or Prestige Class if you like) to define how your character will work in a social setting. They are called Lord, Command, Crafter or Master. The Lord will be expert at building cities, the Commander at formations and group size, the Crafter at making objects and the Master at commanding followers. All will be very useful in guilds and give special guild bonuses and abilities used in City Building, PvP and Crafting (tradeskills).

Shack: Tell us about the "need" system used for the AI in Age of Conan. How does it work, and how will it affect the gameplay? Also, do certain needs take precedence over others?

Gaute Godager: The need system in Conan AI is loosely based around famous American psychologist Abraham Maslow's pyramid of needs where NPC AI is categorized into several distinct categories – like the need to eat, sleep, survive, fulfill your dreams and so on. Each of the levels of our pyramid contains a steady grow in need, and will need to be fulfilled by the AI. So in the night, the character will grow tired and close up his shop, and might walk home. On his way home he might be attacked, the need to survive will be kicked into high-gear, letting him defend himself. And so on.

We have made this neat AI not to create something we think will revolutionize gaming, making the world "real". I think all such claims are Utopian. We have done this to be able to let the NPCs be a little bit more intelligent than just "quest vendors" or "battle-monkeys" or whatever you will call the behavior of monsters / NPCs in todays MMOs. The NPCÂ’s will approach a player and try to sell stuff, talk to him or interact if appropriate. The NPCÂ’s will have loyalty to their leaders, and various degrees of social abilities.

It is important to note, though, that combat AI is quite a bit more linear. This is because for battles it is most likely more fun to interact with a predictable enemy than someone that seems "random".

Shack: How does simple combat work? For example, let's say that immediately after waking up on the beach, I find a large piece of lumber. Is it just a matter of point, click, WHACK!, or can I perform combos (or something else unique)?

Gaute Godager: Both are true. You can WHACK and, with time, learn combos. The basis for this type of fighting is the so called "Multipoint melee system". This allows you to attack in six directions / locations towards your opponent. (Up, up-left etc...) This is what will be used to create combos and special attacks. With time you can have several combos to do, enabling you to stun, maim or behead your opponent – all in the good spirit of Conan's brutal fighting system.

Shack: Will different weapons have different combat functions? In other words, can I perform certain functions with swords that I cannot with, say, an axe?

Gaute Godager: Yes you can. Each weapon type has unique attacks, unique combos and unique fighting style. In addition to that, the different classes have unique combos that look different from other classes (hm, note – there is some sharing here and there, just to add this disclaimer) and do unique damage.

We have motion captured all of these moves using melee combat experts and directed them to focus on realistic, brutal fighting – a clear alternative to a light-weight [cartoonish] look on the animations.

Shack: Fighting on horseback is a pretty cool concept, but I have to admit that in games such as World of WarCraft, it didn't really change combat all that much. How does mounted combat in Age of Conan work?

Gaute Godager: In Conan, I need to say for the first time in any MMO, mounted fighting actually means something. A mount is not only a way to move from A-B quickly, in Conan you do more damage with your weapons as you move faster. As you mount your horse (it can also be a camel or a mammoth) and then enter combat, you can hold your weapon over the side and swing as you are close to your enemy. It is then not only the skill with your weapon or the type of weapon you wield, but also the speed of your mount that determines how much damage you do...

Different weapons will also behave differently as you ride. You can use a lance or spear to destroy your opponent, ride them down or simply sit with your horse and swing from left to right. Mounted combat is not as easy as it sounds though. Hitting your opponent is harder and the horse is not so easy to control. It requires both character and player skill.

Shack: Tell us about Formation Combat.

Gaute Godager: Formation combat is the Age of Conan teams venture into redefining group combat. In the game it does not only matter which classes you have in your team, but also how they stand in relation to each other. For instance, the pen-and-paper RPG most beloved ability; that of blocking doorways to hold opponents at bay, protecting the "softer" targets in the group is finally a reality. You get different bonuses to your group if you stand close enough to each other, in a certain formation. The formations can also give you special attacks to attack your opponents, especially opponent formations.

The most important feature in the Formation is that you can add NPCÂ’s (for example Master Followers) in your formation to bolster its effectiveness. This is especially important as they will always stand in their correct spot and do as theyÂ’re told to increase the effectiveness of the group.

Shack: Massive Combat sounds like RTS-meets-MMORPG. Tell us all about this unique take on fighting.

Gaute Godager: We simply call this Siege Combat. It is compromised of 3 things, basically. First of it is an RTS building cycle in some tailor made ares. Here Guilds can build their own villages, complete with keeps, towers, walls and utility buildings (crafting stations etc). To be able to do this, the players must cooperate greatly, extracting resources, use their Prestige Classes etc. This sounds like earthly paradise, does it not? Well, not exactly. The major problem is that "monsters" (bandits, picts etc.) compete for the same resource, attack aggressively on sight and actually build their own villages too."

Sooner or later this leads to an attack. Either from the players towards the monsters, or vice versa. This is where you have to lay siege to your enemies. The building of these monster villages normally take 2-3 weeks before they reach "critical mass" and attack you. To lay siege, you must actively use magic, siege weapons, mounts and formations to crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentation of ... well you know the drill.

The third part of this, is Siege PvP. Here you can build so called Battle Keeps. These will be attackable by other guilds, and come in addition to the Player Villages. Both types of structures offer bonuses to the guild and characters.

Shack: Massive Combat sounds really involved--perhaps too involved? My concern is that, with city and army construction taking so much time, players might lose interest and either drop the notion of MC altogether, or perhaps just attack another city haphazardly, thereby eliminating a need for strategy. How has MC been "balanced," for lack of a better term, in order to keep players interested in its progress?

Gaute Godager: It is an interesting question, but the data we have, especially from Anarchy Online (our existing MMO from 2001) show us that this isnÂ’t true. In that game we offer the same type of experiences, albeit less evolved. What we see is that players engage frequently in conflicts. Either against monsters (for XP, bonuses, drops or simply for the fun-factor) or against players in PvP.

To get through, into a city, you must take down its walls first. You cannot fly, teleport or jump into it. The only, and I mean only, way to get in is through the walls / gates using siege engines. These are player made, expensive and slow moving and quite easy to destroy themselves. To attack you must plan, find a hard-to-defend gate or part of the wall, bring enough siege engines to get through and finally protect the engines as hard as you can.

Here the formations are especially useful. No siege engine can withstand a formation of charging cavalry. On the other hand, place a formation of pike-men in front of the siege engine to dig in as the cavalry charges, and we shall see many a rider less horse trotting nervously around on the battlefield. Well, unless you blast the pike men with spells or a formation of archers.

Speaking of spells, entering mage-only formations, or summoning circles, can be very useful in these battles too. A really hungry 8 meter high Demon summoned from Hell by 8 Demonologists surely will be able to gobble quite a lot of Mitra Priest before it is banished...

I have no fear of PvP massive combat or PvE massive combat will ever be stale. What we need to do is to find the right cost in making these structures, so that players enjoy getting beaten as well as beating ;)