Thursday, 28 February 2013

That GD Craig Morrison

This week it was announced that Funcom was placing Joel “Nusquam” Bylos in charge of its 3 MMOs.  The rumors were out and, while not surprised, I received this info with mixed emotions.  A new perspective and a fresh approach are not a bad thing.  Funcom is doing more with less - the economics dictate that they must.  Clearly for now, TSW is going to be the center-piece MMO, but Age of Conan still apparently has a stable population and is profitable on a smaller scale.  Funcom would be foolhardy not to try to grow the game somewhat, given the considerable time and resources they’ve put into it.   The appearance of Age Of Conan on Steam this week, suggests that such an approach has been recognized.   Players are excited to see what Bylos will accomplish … and yes, many are impatient to see the remaining Dragon’s Spine content come soon, (especially the crafting revamp!!). Bylos's first GD letters across the 3 games' forums were neither generic nor redundant (which is a nice early indicator that he respects all three communities as distinct customer groups).  AoC's 5th anniversary in May will be an more appropriate time to write more extensively about the new GD's early impact.

For the record, I genuinely respect Craig Morrison (present tense … he’s not dead) and I very much appreciate the vast majority of the things that he accomplished in Age of Conan.  When Morrison came to the MMO, the game was a staggering amalgam of captivating ideas, technical innovations, exceptional music, and peerless visual design.  Nonetheless, these were mixed with frustrating content gaps, glaring bugs, disappointing feeble systems (e.g. crafting); and worst of all, a game mechanic that didn’t really motivate many players. 

The loot itemization system had been conceptualized to be shallow precisely to keep the PvP skill-oriented combat from being imbalanced by PvE item stats: an idea fascinating in theory but untested in practice.  Players quickly complained that there was no compelling incentive to pursue loot (i.e. "Why bother raiding or doing instances, if we don't really need the rewards?)  Despite reporting great sales at launch, the game was not ready and many frustrated players departed.  Age of Conan: Uncooked has become something of a cautionary tale in the MMO industry.

Precisely why Funcom released what was essentially a beta-version in May 2008 remains unclear.  The game was visually stunning but essentially was premature.  At that time, the Game Director, Gaute Godager, had a very different vision for Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. His original vision emphasized a game with both PvP and PvE in equal measure, with an endgame focused on PvP siege competition.  Presumably PvE elements were supposed to supply gear that gave a slight edge and PvP play to cultivate player-skills and ultimately earn guild prestige.  Elements of this plan were frequently reflected in the marketing.  Brawling in taverns, for example, was generally promoted as an exciting in-game option. Well, it was there ...  briefly ... and now exists in a minor way as a quest completion item, not as a major PvP system. The game was simply not what what had been hyped. (IMHO: Very likely Godager's AoC might been destined to be a more a niche game. It probably would never have become aWoW killer, a destiny that most promising new MMOs seem briefly to acquire in the popular imagination.)

In May 2008, Tortage Beach was a hot spot!

By late summer of 2008, subs were declining.  In September of that year, Godager left in frustration. The popular inclination ever since has been to blame Godager for leaving players with a flawed masterpiece.  But this is somewhat unfair, Godager had actually worked on the project for about 6 years and should also be credited by those of us, who love the game, for actually establishing a starting point.  It must have been hard to leave a company he helped create over a decade before, seeing his dream project not quite meet his hopes.  That being said, seldom do current players seem to grasp that Funcom’s shareholders (many of whom probably don’t care exceedingly about MMOs being ideal) were legally entitled to demand a return on their investment after a long development period.  Regrettably, many players still have difficulty accepting that Godager’s ideal AoC, while intriguing and appealing to many; was not what we got; it's sure not what we have; and as things stand now, it's not what we're likely get.

Community Director, Craig “Silirrion” Morrison, who had also spent considerable time working on AoC and Funcom’s previous MMO, Anarchy Online, stepped into the breach.  There can be no doubt that Game Director Morrison’s first assignment was to make the game relevant to the majority of players and stop it from seeming like a beta.  Under Morrison’s watch the 1.05 patch began a re-imagining of AoC and a re-shaping of the game to be more appealing to mainstream MMO players. 

Subsequently, thanks to Morrison much was added, changed, and definitely improved:

  1. A PvP system was adopted
  2. Consequence system
  3. Leveling content was added (from Atzel’s Approach to Tarantia Commons etc.)
  4. Classes have been ‘vamped’ and re-vamped
  5. New leveling instances (Slaughter House, Iron Tower, etc.)
  6. T2 (Feb 2009) & T3 (Feb 2010) Raiding was completed
  7. Direct X 10 Client (March 2009)
  8. Innumerable polishes (e.g. adding inspect other’s gear in GUI; new mounts; Seasonal contents, Facebook, Lock-out window in GUI etc.)
  9. The Gem revamp (June 2009)
  10. Veteran points and vendors
  11. Guild play content  (Feb 2010)
  12. PvP tokens
  13. Shrines of Bori (sigh)
  14. Local Fast-Travel improvements
  15. Offline leveling
  16. Initial Rise of the Godslayer content (May 2010)
    1. AA
    2. Critigation gear
    3. Exotic Mounts
    4. Factions
    5. Numerous instances and some raiding / repeatable quests
    6. Silk Road
    7. New tokens
  17. Jhebbal Sag
  18. RP horse racing
  19. Dreamworld update (much of this is less obvious)
  20. Refuge of the Apostate (April 2011)
  21. Ai District and  T’ian’an District (May 2011)
  22. Free-to-play Age of Conan is 'unchained'
    1. In Game Shop
  23. Forgotten City and the Breach (July 2011)
  24. Blood & Glory
  25. Savage Coast of Turan
    1. Ardashir Coast
    2. Fort Ardashir
    3. Isle of Iron Statues
    4. Dead Man’s Hand
    5. Temple of Erlik Raid
  26. More Dreamworld updates  - e.g. server side PhysX (Nov. 2011)
  27. 2 House of Crom instances (Jan 2012)
  28. Jade Citadel Raid content begins (March 2012)
  29. Multi feat specs (June 2012)
  30. Unchained versions of Dead Man's Hand (solo), Forgotten City (solo) and The Breach (group) (June 2012)
  31. Jade Citadel Raid content is completed
  32. New Amphitheatre of Karutonia Unchained (Oct. 2012)
  33. New Sprint Mechanic and Mount re-vamp (August 2012)
  34. Secrets of Dragon'sSpine (Jan 2013)
    1. Sepulcher of the Wyrm
    2. (Crafting revamp underway - confirmed)
    3. (New raid content underway - suggested)
    4. New PvP mini-game
    5. New Yothian Mount (Feb 2013)

There’s a considerable amount of solid and great work here.  Additionally, it is fairly certain that a few more of Morrison’s initiatives are still on the table such as the long awaited stealth revamp and maybe some ideas for cross-server implementation.

This PoM remembers a time when entering the Iron Tower
 couldn't be done but Silirrion made it possible.

Although it seemed at times like the game was dragging and players were starving for new content; the fact remains that for a game that has a smaller but apparently stable player base, Age of Conan: Unchained is neither dead nor neglected.

For the majority of his tenure, Morrison was always in communication with the community and whether players agreed or not; he tried to professionally communicate his perspective.  Even when faced with occasionally personally oriented abuse, he frequently expressed his acceptance that it came from passionate players who, at heart, wanted the game to succeed (albeit in a manner most amenable to their play preferences).

Lest This Machine Age be accused of producing a  retrospective flattery-fest: Morrison’s era was not always smooth.  Though no doubt sincere, the communication of timelines and delays was often aggravating.   Some of the decisions made on his watch seemed to serve corporate imperatives (e.g. the initial Khitai grind; or free-to-play being limited initially to 4 classes).  How these benefit players is debatable.   And yeah, some bugs in the game persist (such as the minor invisible-mount bug or the more exasperating issues of lag spikes, and undependable siege-play performance).  Evidently, Godager’s PvP-oriented plan for AoC is ancient history. Nonetheless, the difficulty of managing the game's PvP content provides a instructive lesson. 

The Shrines of Bori content is the obvious case.  Bori was a productive idea in theory; one designed to help PvP newbs gear up faster and so become more competitive with vets.  However, the PvP community largely felt it was more akin to PvE.  It was clear that at the time, Morrison acceded to PvP players’ demands for PvP content a.s.a.p. and Bori was released sooner than he wanted.  (Funcom probably has a policy geared towards avoiding that miscalculation … The Secret World’s smooth launch is a case in point.)  Morrison was between a rock and a hard place and got some toes squished.  Lesson learned … the subsequent  PvP idea for world bosses (something on a small scale but akin to Rift’s world events) was scrapped at length when the PvP guys protested.  

Wanting to avoid similar missteps, when determining player preferences, surveys were employed.  While a nice idea in practice, surveys have a few fatal weaknesses: 1) even sincere surveys are vulnerable to the perception of question bias; 2) similarly such stats can be perceived to be interpreted to suit bias; and 3) while superficially democratic, a survey of a community with a small but dedicated minority (e.g. PvP) will seldom produce an overwhelming case for that community’s needs especially when other groups (PvE raiders or crafters) who want their own wishes fulfilled and who are competing for the same dev resources, are completing the same survey.  Hence, angry and (however justly or unjustly) disgruntled sub-groups seldom acquiesce to survey results (unless miraculously, they find in their favour).  While the survey probably benefited a PvE player like me, it still remains a tool that's vulnerable to negative-perception and as a potential exercise used to dismiss PvP players: even if that wasn’t its actual intention.  When it comes to surveys: use with caution.   

One wonders whether Craig Morrison, in hindsight, just wishes he’d taken the same time and resources to deliver a tiered-arena system (and in-game coliseum) or a revamped siege system both of which have been the observable desires of many vocal PvP players. It's likely that by the time this solution was clear, he wasn't in a postilion to deliver it.

Not being Funcom employees, most players cannot really know what limitations affected Morrison.  Hence, I cannot fairly judge.  And despite my admittedly arm-chair expert views on the PvP matter, I genuinely do admire Craig Morrison’s efforts. 

Ya never know; that nameless faceless Sin you see chillin' in
Khemi next week,
could be Silirrion just enjoying the fruits of his labours.

In fact, Craig Morrison, I hope he's free now to join us as an AoC player! And this is meant this in the best spirit; I hope he gets to enjoy the game for what it is and reap the simple pleasures of his hard work.  I like the idea that, somewhere in a pug raid there’s a nondescript HoX or Sin who seems too shy to speak on voice coms; an otherwise typical player, but who is in fact GD ("Gamer Dude") Silirrion playing for kicks.   From what one can ascertain about him from his blog and on Twitter, he’s a talented, thoughtful, likeable guy, who loves his career in game development.  He always brings his A-game; and in his work-life, he gets to play in the major-leagues.


  1. Very well written!
    A good summary of what Sil has accomplished during his tenure.

  2. Thanks for the kind comment. According to a recent Twitter, Sil is now a "normal player" in AoC and TSW and enjoying it.

  3. "At that time, the Game Director, Gaute Godager, had a very different vision for Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. His original vision emphasized a game with both PvP and PvE in equal measure, with an endgame focused on PvP siege competition."
    Is it too late to return to that path?
    Personally i feel AoC is only focusing in expanding contents as in a vanity fair for veteran players.
    I want a place called Hyboria, where the player survival is threatened for real, where items are required not for looking yourself at the mirror but to save your village to be burned down, where allies are needed not to go shopping in the rares supermarket but to get the strengh needed to overrun merciless invasions.
    We just need a good reason to fight for.
    Here some ideas:
    Creating limitless guild battlekeeps of different size, controlling territories with essential crafting resources.
    Diplomacy laws, servitude and tributes between guilds, mercenary hiring, random pve events afecting kingdoms like plagues or npc invasions.
    Open field guild battles with use of leadership and strategy.

    In war everybody is required to give their best, no matter if veteran or newcomer, knight or squire, their blood has the same colour.