Continuing our week-long series of MMO-themed features, GamesIndustry.biz spent some time talking to Funcom's Erling Ellingsen, product manager for the soon-to-be-launched Age of Conan title.
Here he talks about the changing market for MMOs, what the company learned from Anarchy Online, and how expectations must be managed.
Q: Age of Conan is a game designed for the mature market - do you see that as a progression of the MMO genre?
Erling Ellingsen: Yes, I think so. There are so many MMOs coming out, more and more every year, and they're all 12-rated games. Age of Conan is really the first mature MMO title to hit the market, and I think that if it does really well, that's definitely going to open up that market for the competition.
Q: It's been speculated in the past that the MMO market will subdivide into lots of little niches to cater for all kinds of different tastes - do you feel you're at the forefront of that? Do you see it as a gamble?
Erling Ellingsen: We're very confident. Research shows that the average MMO player is in the mid-twenties, so we feel there's an untapped market there. The feedback that we're getting from players and press says the same. There are so many choices right now in terms of other MMOs that people want something new and get a new experience, and I think Age of Conan is going to be able to give them that.
I'd also say that MMO gamers are also growing up - the millions of World of Warcraft players have perhaps been playing for four years now. Perhaps they were 14 then, but they're 18 now, and ready for something new. I think the market is maturing, and I think you'll see more mature MMOs.
Q: For many people Age of Conan will be the first Funcom title they'll have experienced.
Erling Ellingsen: Absolutely - Age of Conan is a huge game, even before it's launched. We're one of the top, if not the top, MMO that's coming out now - one of the two or three, with Warhammer Online, but everybody seems to know what it is.
It's more commercial than something like Dreamfall, and it will have a much wider audience. It's the biggest project Funcom has ever done in terms of expectation levels, production costs and everything.
Q: Is that exciting or nerve-wracking?
Erling Ellingsen: Oh, it's a beautiful mix of both, I think. Of course launching an MMO is a huge task, it's sort of like launching a space shuttle really. There are lots of things that can go wrong, but we consider ourselves skilled at what we do.
We've already launched an MMO before, and while it wasn't the most perfect launch in history, it's given us the insight into how we should do it.
For us it's really exciting to launch Age of Conan, we can't wait to get it out of the door, but it's definitely a mix of excitement and being a little bit scary.
Q: What were your main learning experiences from the previous MMO?
Erling Ellingsen: We definitely learned a lot about technology, in terms of how big a deal it is launching an MMO. I think we learned a lot about how player numbers work out at launch, in terms of technical specifications and adapting to more computer set-ups to succeed.
I think Anarchy Online was perhaps a bit ahead of its time really, not too many people could play it when it launched - and I think Age of Conan is doing a much better job at that.
The game engine that Age of Conan is built on is called the Dreamworld engine, and that's basically the same engine that we used in Anarchy Online - so that engine has matured quite a lot, and we're looking at all the mistakes from before, and trying hard not to make them again.
Q: Some fairly high profile launches in the past 18 months haven't gone quite as their developers would have wished - what can you learn from those experiences?
Erling Ellingsen: Good question. I think it all comes down to the quality of the game. Perhaps that's a bit of a simple answer, but that's how it is. World of Warcraft is so popular because it's a fantastic game, and it's a social phenomenon and it had the snowball effect...but it is a great game. It draws you in and keeps you playing for a long time - I don't think there are too many MMOs that have managed to capture that feeling after WoW launched.
I also think it comes down to marketing, that's a big point. Age of Conan has been very visible in the media, probably more so than any other MMOs that have come before it. Except WoW, of course.
Q: Expectation can be a double-edged sword though - beta tests are less about testing and more about being a performing art now, so how do you approach that?
Erling Ellingsen: We've been beta testing for months, over a year, bringing more and more people in, and it's been very important for us to treat the beta testers as customers. Of course there are always problems, we can't give them the same service as we will when the game launches in terms of server uptime, patches and so on, but it's very important for us to give them as good an experience as we can.
At least now that we're moving into open beta it is as much of a demo as a beta test. It is a test, of course things can go wrong - if the servers go down we will be fixing things, introducing new features and code, so of course it's not the finished product.
But when you let more than 50,000 people come into the open beta they're going to be expecting as close to a finished game as possible.
Q: Have you had to be careful about the hype level?
Erling Ellingsen: Yes - expectation management is a big thing for us, actually. We're very focused on letting people know that it is a beta, we're keeping the lines of communication with the beta testers open, we're constantly telling them what's happening. If we're patching something onto the beta server and we know that there's code in there that's going to break something, we tell them - so expectation management is important.
Q: Do you think players approach beta tests differently today than, say with something like the original Everquest, when that level of expectation wasn't there?
Erling Ellingsen: Definitely, I think that the level of expectation grows with each MMO that's released, and I think people coming into the Age of Conan open beta will expect World of Warcraft four years after launch in terms of a polish level - and of course it won't be.
There are still issues leading up to launch, and we hope to iron those out as soon as we can.
Q: How important is the launch period? Other games have suffered because of problems in the first few weeks.
Erling Ellingsen: We don't consider the first 30 days as a grace period - quite the contrary actually. I'm not going to comment on sales figures, but we're probably going to sell a lot of copies of this game, according to indications.
Our main task for the 30 days after launch is to keep those players in the game and to give them as good an experience as we possibly can, so they will continue to subscribe - that's probably the most important thing for an MMO, to keep the subscriber numbers up, because that's where you make the money.
So we don't consider the first 30 days as any kind of extended beta period to fix issues. Of course, we are going to fix issues, but we're very set on having the game as perfect as we can have it when the game launches.
Erling Ellingsen is Funcom's product manager for Age of Conan. Interview by Phil Elliott.