Age of Conan: Unchained
Age of Conan was published in 2008. The F2P edition launched in 2011.
Platform: PC (MMO)
Published by: Funcom,
Eidos (2008 Edition)
Developed by: Funcom
(Oslo, Montreal)
Format: DVD + Download
Size: 25GB
Dev Time: 4+ years
Age of Conan was originally released in 2008 under the subtitle “Hyborian Adventures”. It was a much hyped MMO that made its claim to fame using the strengths of the Conan franchise: violence and barbarians. Occasionally topless women and combo-heavy combat were used to give the game a flavor that seperated it from World of Warcraft, which already had become the Coca-Cola of the genre.

By 2011, the industry was continuously changing. Re-released as “Unchained”, Age of Conan unleashed new expansion content while simultaneously switching to a Free-to-Play (F2P) business model that was quickly becoming industry standard. This had some positive and negative effects, as you will see later.

Development

Conan was a monolith of a game, in development for four years prior to launch and with no shortage of cut corners to even make that date. (Hardly unusual for big-name MMOs, believe it or not…) The F2P change was a huge investment, requiring massive updates to all game systems, an in-game web browser and store, unified use of Funcom’s internal currency, and a gentle-touch to the game balance so as not to offend the existing subscribers that were paying the bills. Many seemingly obvious fixes to the game were simply too dangerous to attempt given the implications to the in-game economy or server downtime.

I moved to Montreal to join the team primarily to help with the F2P upgrade. Funcom was making an aggressive online push to boost the user base and adapt the company to the social gaming age, and that meant everything from what items do we sell using real money to how do we leverage tools like Facebook and Twitter to promote it.

Once those tools were in the pipeline, my primary focus was to revamp the Tradeskills (Crafting and Gathering) system, which was notoriously shallow and simple compared to much of the rest of the game. Working closely with expert system designers and engineers, we painstakingly rebuild Tradeskills from the ground up, crafting designs and contingencies for levels, items, trading, and even the simple server requirements to store the data. Every step was passed through the lens of how our players would receive it, as well as the server performance implications.

(I can think of several games I’ve worked on where the entire design was simpler than this system was. MMOs are truly vast.)

Aftermath

I’m told Age of Conan was clearly profitable even after the F2P conversion.¬†But Funcom, having just spend an equally large amount of time and money on its sister MMO, “The Secret World”, was burning through cash too quickly, and just couldn’t get the kind of sales needed to support the company as the size it had become. A large percentage of the company was laid off in September 2012, with the rest being laid off in 2013 following some strategic moves to their Raleigh and Oslo offices. Funcom still exists in Montreal, though the games and work they do is much different than it was only a year before.