It's been year of ups and downs for Age of Conan developer Funcom. The title eventually launched in May 2008 after delays, with an impressive one million units shipped to retail, as 800,000 signed-up for the MMO, and 400,000 committed to monthly subscriptions by August.
However, it's not been without technical and gameplay issues, so much so that Funcom co-founder Gaute Godager stepped down as game director in September, and left the company. Later the same month, the company took the decision to merge servers in the US and Europe.
Although MMO developers are notoriously cagey when discussing exact figures, Funcom was willing to discuss the problems, evolution and future of the company with GamesIndustry.biz in this exclusive interview with CEO Trond Arne Aas.
Here, he discusses the recent redundancies, the changes to Age of Conan, the development of the Xbox 360 version of the game, plans to dip a toe into the casual market, and upcoming MMO The Secret World.
Q: How is Funcom restructuring the US division after the recent redundancies?
Trond Arne Aas: Funcom will not do major changes to the structure of the US operations. We do have a strong core team in our US division that have long industry experience and works very well with the rest of the organisation.
The reductions have primarily been made in our Quality Assurance and Customer Service teams. The need for QA is normally reduced when the first six months of a live product is over and this is the case for Funcom as well. The changes in the US Customer Service operations are partly a result of certain functions being moved to Europe as well as adjustments to reflect the current subscriber levels. Improvements in the game have also led to less demand for Customer Service personnel, something we are of course very happy about.
Q: Are there any plans to reduce headcount in the European business in 2009?
Trond Arne Aas: No, there are no specific plans for this. We are actually staffing up many positions in Oslo – specifically in development, as well as in Beijing.
Q: What are the current priorities for the Funcom business overall?
Trond Arne Aas: There will definitely be a lot happening to Age of Conan in 2009. We will continue to put out free updates that improve the game in various ways, and the first update we are doing early in 2009 includes two new dungeons for high level players. We will also escalate the development of the expansion, and we look forward to unveiling more details on that.
We are very excited about launching fully localised versions of the game in Russia and Poland early in 2009, and we will also put focus on bringing the game to Korea and other Asian markets. Other than that we will continue working on our next fully fledged MMO, The Secret World, as well as various smaller, casual-oriented projects.
Q: How has Funcom changed since the launch of Age of Conan and the departure of Gaute Godager in September?
Trond Arne Aas: Funcom as a company is constantly evolving, and naturally we have made several structural changes since the launch of Age of Conan. Most of the development team is still working on the live version of Age of Conan, so we are still committing a lot of resources to the game in order to improve it, introduce new features and add more content.
We have also established an expansion team. We are very happy about the work Craig Morrison is doing as the new game director, and I think players will agree that things have taken a very positive turn the past few updates we have done to the game.
Q: Are you starting to see a significant return in subscribers since Craig Morrison took over production duties?
Trond Arne Aas: We are seeing positive trends thanks to our recent initiatives, but I cannot comment any further on that. Player feedback has been very positive after the recent updates we have done to the game, and we look forward to pushing out even more content and more improvements after New Year. Everyone in the company has great faith in Age of Conan, and we are going full steam ahead on this project in every way we can.
Q: Exactly how many active subscribers do you currently have for Age of Conan?
Trond Arne Aas: Similar to most other MMO companies operating in the market we are not disclosing this number. However, we did do so in August when we confirmed a subscription base of over 400,000 players. Age of Conan had a tremendously successful launch sales wise, shipping over one million units to retailers and reaching well over 800,000 registrations.
Q: How has the launch of Warhammer Online and Wrath of the Lich King affected Age of Conan and the Funcom business?
Trond Arne Aas: We have seen little or no effect on our player base that can be tracked back to the launch of these games. Naturally there is always a slight dip whenever a major MMO comes out as MMO players traditionally wants to try out whatever new is appearing on the market. After some time, however, players usually go back to what they call "home". I think one of the strengths Age of Conan has is that it is quite different from the other MMOs out there in terms of graphics, setting and general gameplay, and I believe many are playing Age of Conan because it’s different from what they usually play.
Q: So, what are the plans for the Funcom business in 2009, and what are the main priorities?
Trond Arne Aas: Our number one priority continues to be the Age of Conan live product. The work with improving and expanding Age of Conan continues with relentless force, and we look forward to introducing a number of great updates in the months ahead. We are also putting a lot of effort into our launches in Russia and Poland, and we look forward to working more with the Asian markets.
We are pursuing various opportunities within the casual games genre, and have teams working on this now. This is exciting to us as we are able to produce games that may acquire a large audience, without having to put the same amount of time and resources into it as you need to do with large-scale productions such as Age of Conan. Other than that we will continue our work on The Secret World, and from a PR point of view you will most likely see a lot exciting things surrounding that game in the year ahead.
Q: Is work still progressing on the 360 version of Age of Conan and the first expansion pack - or is the team totally focused on live updates for now?
Trond Arne Aas: Yes, we are still working on the Xbox 360 version of the game but we are not ready to commit to any dates at this point. Even though Age of Conan is an MMO that is especially suited to the console platform, there is a lot of work to be done in terms of tailoring it for the Xbox 360 console.
As for the expansion, from January the team will expand significantly. The live game is always our number one priority, but as the game improves we are naturally able to put more effort into the expansion. The expansion is also important, as it gives our current players something to look forward to, and it will be a tremendous product in terms of expanded content and new features.
Q: Has your expectations of an MMO on the 360 changed since it was first announced?
Trond Arne Aas: No, our expectations have not changed. We had high expectations when we first set out to do a console version of Age of Conan, and these remain high. Age of Conan is perfect for a console platform, especially due to the way combat is handled, which is vastly different from similar games out there. It’s quicker, more furious and more focused on action, so it lends itself quite well to a gamepad.
Q: How has the reception of Age of Conan on PC influenced the progress on the console version of the game?
Trond Arne Aas: The feedback we have gathered in the wake of Age of Conan’s PC launch is very useful to the development of the console version. Obviously we have the opportunity to polish the game even further now, and some of the lessons learned from the launch will most certainly be useful to us when launching the console version.
The Xbox 360 game will also contain most, if not all of the content and improvements that have been made to the PC version of the game.
Q: What lessons have you learned from releasing Age of Conan that you can apply to your next MMO project, The Secret World?
Trond Arne Aas: There were many things we did right when we launched Age of Conan, but there were also things that should have been handled differently. When it comes to sales we did extremely well, and we are also very proud of the fact that the launch itself was without any major technical difficulties.
People had fun when they first started playing, and the feedback we got around launch was very positive all around - both from gamers and press. However, as gamers got deeper into the game we realised there were shortcomings, shortcomings that we have worked very hard on improving after launch.
The game has matured significantly since launch, and we have managed to address many of the key concerns players voiced about the game. We have added more content, we have improved core gameplay mechanics, gotten rid of a lot of bugs, and we have improved stability and performance. Of course there are many changes yet to come, so the game will only improve from here. There are also certain design decisions that we have learned a lot from, and that we will take with us as we develop The Secret World.
Q: Is The Secret World still a priority for Funcom? When can we expect to hear some more solid information on the game?
Trond Arne Aas: Absolutely, the development of The Secret World continues and we are expanding the development team at a steady pace. This is a very exciting project for us, and the team working on it has been able to draw on the innovations of Age of Conan for quite some time now – especially from a technological standpoint.
With such a solid engine already in place, the team is able to focus even more on content and gameplay functionalities. We will, of course, continue to improve the engine as well, but we now have a platform for developing a game that we really didn’t have when we first started working on Age of Conan. Next year you will definitely see a lot more information on The Secret World.
Trond Arne Aas is CEO of Funcom. Interview by Matt Martin.