After my enjoyable time with the game, I questioned content designer Jason Stone on a variety of subjects, including Funcom's approach to the traditional MMO grind, how the game distinguishes itself from World of Warcraft, nudity, and the upcoming Xbox 360 version.
Shack: How does a traditional quest in Age of Conan differ from, say, World of Warcraft?
Jason Stone: I think that the big difference in the quests in Age of Conan is not necessarily in the content. I mean, you're still going to result in having quests where you have to go get an item. The big difference is we have the global storyline, and then basically each region has its own storyline and each quest in a region generally builds on the region's storyline.
So you might be killing something, but you're killing something because this is the story of the area that you're in and that is related to the overall story of the world. As often as possible, all of those things are then tired directly to stories or characters or experiences come from the writings of Robert E. Howard.
Shack: How long will it take to level up?
Jason Stone: The general path for advancement is gonna take people around ten days of play. We really tried to build Conan so that we had the content necessary to keep the people who have a lot more time to play interested while making it approachable for people who don't have a lot of time to play, maybe four or five hours a week.
We anticipate for the more casual gamer, two and a half to three months to max out a single character.
Shack: What's the level cap?
Jason Stone: The level cap is 80. That's our max level.
Shack: For those that devote themselves endlessly to the game, what's to keep them playing after they hit that point?
Jason Stone: PvP is one of the things we think is extremely important to bringing the proper representation of Hyborian world to life, because Conan's world is a brutal world.
We're putting in raids, we're putting in dungeons, and we have in-game encounters, but my personal opinion is that the siege PvP is what's gonna keep me wanting to play this game for an extended period of time.
Shack: How do you plan to resolve the typical MMO grind?
We want to do Howard's world justice. That means blood, that means sex, that means some nudity.
Jason Stone: I think a big part of MMOs these days, after the transition from Everquest to World of Warcraft, is that now players want a lot more direction concerning hunting. They like those quests that guide them to different areas of the world.
In general, people don't like to just grind. They don't want to just sit there and kill things.
I think another big and important part of that, at least for me when it comes to MMOs, has been making the actual act of playing. For me, the best thing about Conan is, with the action combat system, when I'm killing guys, I'm actually having fun. I don't feel like I'm just like "la-di-da-di-da"--
Shack: Clicking the same button over and over again.
Jason Stone: Exactly. Because I feel more involved, I feel more engaged by the act of playing, I don't get bored as quickly.
Shack: What are your plans for new content?
Jason Stone: We have a release schedule. We already have plans for the next big expansion we'd like to do, new races, new whole countries, stuff like that. In addition to that, every month we plan on adding additional things to the base game.
Shack: As far as the expansion packs go, yearly releases?
Jason Stone: I don't know. I don't think we've put the expansions into a production schedule. We're waiting to see how the base game is received, we have only started designs and have ideas about what we'd like to make.
Shack: Switching gears, there are a lot of unanswered questions about the Xbox 360 version.
Jason Stone: For a long time now, we've had concurrent development in the sense that we do have a working Xbox 360 version. The big things that we're waiting to solve are with Microsoft. Are we having hybrid servers? Do people choose to go on these hybrid servers? Can you choose one or the other? Do we have voice chat on the PC version and the Xbox 360 version? Do we have the people on the Xbox use a keyboard?
There's all these decisions that have to be made with Microsoft that we don't have the answer to yet. It will follow the PC version, but the game has always been designed to be console friendly. Game pads are being used for combat testing, control testing.
Shack: You just wiped out about half of my questions. Has Microsoft been helpful? Approachable?
Jason Stone: I've been in the industry for quite a while, I started in 2000, so I've been in for almost eight years now. I've been at Funcom for the past three years.
I think Funcom's relationship with its partners--Nvidia, Eidos, Microsoft, and of course, Paradox and Conan Properties--have been some of the best relationships I've ever seen in the industry as far as interaction goes. It really feels to me--I'm just a designer, I don't work directly with the code of the Xbox 360 version and stuff like that--but the fact that they've trusted me to do things with this and talk with people, I've been really impressed by it.
Read on for more about the Xbox 360 version, including control and subscription details, word on the upcoming open beta, nudity, and the reasons behind the delay. _PAGE_BREAK_
Shack: How does the combat adapt to the Xbox 360 controller?
Jason Stone: That's up in the air, we're on the eighth revision of combat now. I've been working on combat for three years and we just continue to iterate on it. We've locked down what we feel our tools are, what we want to provide to the player. We want tactical, strategic, and twitch elements. Easy to get into, hard to master.
The same thing with where our default control scheme is. We've talked extensively about trying to have multiple control schemes that people can hop through, like standard MMORPG, FPS, stuff like that.
For the Xbox controls, some people tended to prefer having a button that they press for attack and then press a directional button, other people liked using the analog sticks, similar to what you'd see in Fight Night. It really varies.
Shack: Will the PC and Xbox 360 editions have the same subscription fee?
Jason Stone: I do not think that we've determined the pricing model for the Xbox 360 version, but it will most likely have a subscription separate from Xbox Live.
Shack: Will you be able to share that subscription beteween the PC and 360 versions?
Jason Stone: I think that's something that really won't be answered until move closer to having both of them running, so to speak.
Shack: Obviously no release date for the Xbox 360 version yet.
Jason Stone: Yea, the only thing that we can say at this point in time is that, before the delay of the PC version at least, we anticipated a 2008 launch of the Xbox 360 version. It will be in 2008, it will follow the PC release.
Shack: Speaking of the delay, what prompted the decision to push the game back instead of just patching in features and content post-release, as some other games have done?
Jason Stone: Historically, the Anarchy Online launch, gamers with a long memory recall and still tout it as the worst MMO launch ever. Funcom has learned a lot, AO definitely recovered. It really was an impressive game, has held up over time and is still pretty successful.
The fact is, right now we're in a position where we're not being forced to push the game out the door. We could have launched a good game in October, but we feel we want to launch a great game in March.
Shack: With the violence, are you concerned about possible ESRB issues?
When I'm killing guys, I'm actually having fun. I don't feel like I'm just like "la-di-da-di-da."
Jason Stone: From the very beginning, we decided an M rating would be what the game would end up [with]. We have not shied from that, we fully expect to get an M rating. We try not to make sure we don't put anything in the game that would give us an AO, but we want to do Howard's world justice. That means blood, that means sex, that means some nudity.
Shack: You're not at all concerned that the nudity and sex could get you an AO?
Jason Stone: The way that it is presented in Conan is very similar to the way it is presented in the books. Howard never wrote in graphic detail about what Conan was doing with the wenches, he basically wrote about the fact that, yea, he was getting busy and always getting the chicks.
We try to take the same way of doing things. I don't think we're going to have a problem with it.
Shack: You're in beta now, correct?
Jason Stone: Yea, we just finished our technical beta phase and now we've started our general beta phase. We don't have dates where we plan the transition, we have milestones. We're like, general beta part one, this is what we need to have accomplished beta part two, and this is where we need to be before general beta part three, and this is what we need to have before open beta.
Shack: Any expectations for when you'll hit open beta?
Jason Stone: We don't have a date. We have milestones we want to see accomplished before we do that.
Shack: How many milestones before open beta?
Jason Stone: I do not recall the exact number of phases we will have in general beta, but [player population] will be growing. It's still closed and under NDA, but we're adding people to the beta as time goes on.
Shack: Earlier you mentioned the in-studio motion capture work?
Jason Stone: One of the really cool things about having worked on this game is the fact that, on the first floor of our studio in Norway, we have a motion capture studio. All of the animations in Conan that possibly can be motion captured are motion captured. The walking, running, fighting, jumping, everything is motion captured.
We had an actual fighting arts expert, basically, who I've now hired as a designer and who I trained as an apprentice before I moved back from Norway. Now when we need an animation, we just go to his desk and say, "hey, go get your suit." We have all the swords and everything there in the office.
Shack: Anything else you want to say?
Jason Stone: I'd like to thank the fans for caring about the game. It's good to see people finally getting their hands on it now.
Age Of Conan: Hyborian Adventures arrives on PC in March 2008, with the Xbox 360 edition following later in the year.