Conan Exiles' director talks Early Access development, the future of the survival genre and dong sliders

Conan Exiles entered Steam's Early Access initiative at the end of January last year, and has spent the last 12 months working and reworking its sprawling survival world. In December last year, developer Funcom earmarked May 8, 2018 for full release—and with this in mind I caught up with game director Joel Bylos to learn about Exiles' journey so far, and what it has planned for the future.   

PC Gamer: You've been in Early Access for just over a year now. How are things going?

Joel Bylos:
[Laughs] You want the long answer or the short answer? We're pushing for launch now, we've announced the launch date for May 8 this year, on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and PC at the same time in 11 different languages. The short answer is: It's a lot of work at the moment. We're basically in that mode where we have to kill our babies, and that's basically what we're doing—we're cutting things and making it work and trying to get everything polished up for release. 

How have you found the Early Access process over the course?

I've like it. I think it's interesting to get the feedback immediately from players. It's very interesting to see the difference between development team priorities and player priorities. You see some clans that've been playing for, you know, 700 hours, and people in clans have different priority to someone who's just getting into the game. The development team falls somewhere in between that. We don't necessarily see the things that affect someone who's been playing for 700 hours as important, maybe, as the first things you see when you first enter the game. So it's been a nice tightrope of balancing our loyal players, the guys who've put in the time and are screaming about the things that bother them, and new players coming in and screaming about  the things that are affecting their experience. 

I think it's been really good. The only thing that I would say I find difficult is the fact that I don't really like the way Steam allows people to review from all regions in Early Access. I think it sometimes leads to problems that [are misrepresented]. For example, we had some bugs in China at one point, with their servers, and then we got a massive Chinese review bomb. Which is fine, but the guy who's going to buy the game in Germany doesn't have that problem, nor will he have that problem. I feel like [Steam] could possibly region lock the reviews, or something like that. It's difficult, because Early Access is a work-in-progress, there are going to be bugs and we put that right up there in the front of the screen. I think the Steam review system gets a bit nasty on Early Access games. 

PUBG changed the scope of Early Access in many ways. Conan Exiles is a different style of game entirely, but has promoting a pre-release game been difficult against PUBG's runaway success?

I dunno. It's interesting. PlayerUnknown's is something we're looking at and asking: What went so right there? You can pull out some elements, but it's hard to say exactly what clicked. Keep in mind this is the third game of that type that's been developed by that developer. He's ironed out the kinks and has built up a player base along the way. There's elements there that make it so successful, but in terms of us I think it's just a matter of us focusing on what we're doing. PUBG is first and foremost more competition to a different type of game, and I think people compare us more with Ark, for example, which is also a huge game. I think that's the harder comparison. It's been around a while, it's got a load of cool features, it's got a big following. 

When we were making Age of Conan, the MMO, we were getting compared to World of Warcraft—and that was just a sky-high success story and still is. You just do your thing and make things that are unique and interesting. In terms of press attention, it's always hard to get press attention when there's a pretty girl at the ball. PUBG is definitely the pretty girl at the ball this year. 

Last thing about PUBG. Given how popular the battle royale genre has become, do you think Conan Exiles will ever apply a similar mode?  

We're 100 percent focused on what we're going to launch the game as and with. I won't rule out, for example, that for DLC we could make a battle royale-style mode. We could even do a standalone game using the assets of Conan Exiles and some of the network code that we've developed for it. I won't rule it out, but it's not on the table at the moment. I'll say this: The session-based nature of PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, the jump in with your mates, that sort of thing is appealing. When you get to my age and you have a couple of kids, it's hard to find time. If you can get in, play a game, three or four rounds, and back out—that session-based nature of that game is one of the things that's really added to PUBG's appeal. 

With session-based games in particular I've sort of noticed that, yeah, a lot of those games are becoming extremely popular. Whether or not we do something session-based with Exiles or whether or next game has some elements like that, for sure, we're looking at it and talking about it. 

Talk me through the last 12 months of Conan Exiles in Early Access—what's been the most enjoyable elements, the most exciting, the most challenging?

The work that we've had to do that I wasn't expecting us to have to do involves the combat system, which we've completely redone that from scratch. Basically because players reacted quite negatively to it, so we said: Okay, we really need to focus on this. The core of the game is this building, fighting and exploring experience and so when we saw that the fighting part wasn't meeting people's expectations, we went back to the drawing board. We've been working on that for quite some time now and, hopefully, when we launch the new combat—which should come out before we launch the game—people will be very happy with the changes. I'm certainly really happy with what we've done but we're still polishing and tweaking it. 

Updates-wise, we've used Early Access to test some ideas, to see where people wanted us to focus on the game. With this in mind, we released a more traditional PvE MMO-style dungeon with a boss fight at the end. We released siege engines to see how those impacted PvP. We released a brand new area, the Frozen North, which had hundreds of new building items, different tiers of buildings, all elements which built on what the game already was. The freeform climbing system—we really liked the system in Zelda Breath of the Wild and thought our game was lacking something similar. We've obviously added tonnes of other features, monsters, items, the Thrall system, dye-your-clothes features, there are hundreds of things. 

In the push towards launch, we're releasing two new large areas on the map which will complete the map. We're releasing the new combat system, and a couple of features that we haven't spoken about yet.   

How would you describe the modding scene in Conan Exiles?

We have quite a personal relationship with our most prolific modders. We have a Discord with the modders and a lot of our devs are in that channel. The mods that are being worked on at any given time are really interesting—someone implemented the feature I always wanted to add, which is knocking people's heads off and being able to put their heads on spikes around your base and all this sort of stuff. We just didn't have time to add that in and someone has done so in a mod that looks great. 

There's a bunch of really interesting mods around, and we try to support them as best we can and give them everything that they need and what they ask for. Moving towards launch we're doing more of the mod improvements so that when we launch we have a really solid mod kit as well. 

Will Conan Exiles, at any stage, implement loot boxes?

I have no plans to. But that's a never say never situation, just because there are other people in the company besides me who are involved in these decisions—marketing people and so on. I can 100 percent say that there's zero plans for it right now. There are a lot of technical challenges around that unless you plan to add it from the beginning. We certainly have no plans to add it, there's no code work done to make anything like that work in our game anyway. In a game where you can basically give away any item that you have, I'm not sure a loot box system would work very well. I dunno. In any case, I don't have any plans for it, and we certainly haven't discussed it at work. 

I understand Conan Exiles was partly inspired by the European migrant crisis?

Yeah, when we started with Conan Exiles, the migrant crisis was dominating all of the news headlines. Part of my job as creative director of the project is world building. Conan has a lot of world building, but here I had to make up a history for this place, the exiled lands. I thought to myself: What about these people that are entrenched here, and then these waves of refugees started coming in. Both sides of the story are really interesting here—that's what I wanted to play upon—I wanted to be able to tell the story of these characters through the lore of the game. 

You know, the Giant Kings, these people who were here first, and how at first they opened their arms. Over time, as more and more people came in and started to take away their resources and use up their space, they became bitter and they turned against them. You saw it happen in Europe to a certain extent as well. More I like to stand outside of it, I don't want to make a call about whether one stance is right or the other, but I like to stand out and try to write perspectives from both sides. 

The player in the game is not necessarily part of a wave of refugees, but they are someone who's been abandoned in this desert wasteland and it's about trying to have the player have that feeling of: Okay, you start with nothing, you've come to a place that's unfamiliar. It's to give that sense. For me it's not overt, but I like to think about them because it help me feel how the game should frame it for its players.

How important is it that games aren't afraid to reflect real-world politics? 

I think it's important, I think that's where all writers draw their experience from, the world where they live. What I think perhaps players object to, and this is just a feeling, I don't know for sure, but I think that when you're a writer, you have a responsibility to serve the characters that you create. It feels that, sometimes, when a character is spouting off about something political in a game, it's not because it's their opinion—it's because it's the opinion of the person writing that character. I think people are sometimes a little too overt about that.

Sometimes when I play games I'm like: Huh, the writer really wanted to say that thing, not necessarily the character in the world and the situation that they're in. If I'm writing a story about refugees coming into a land, I need to tell the story through lore and characters and whatever—but I also try to put myself in the boots of the people who were there first and consider how they would feel. 

The conflict [between both sides] then rises naturally from there, from two opposing viewpoints. Neither person or side is necessarily wrong, and I think that nuance is what makes interesting characters. I guess that I kind of understand that players sometimes feel that it's just a bit too overt at times, and that's maybe why they react to it. But I also think it's inescapable that people will write about characters that interest them—and politics and things like that are a part of the world we live in.

What does the future hold for the survival genre?

That's an interesting question. I don't know. I feel like these things are all relevant. The MMO genre was really strong for a while, and then it became sort of fractured, and were broken down into MOBAs, battle royale-style things etc. MMOs at one point tried to do everything at once. We now have games that cater to just PvP or just crafting, these very specialised splinter games that do those small percentages of things very well. 

In terms of survival, I think it's going strong and is evolving in different ways. You have things like The Long Dark single-player, you have Ark which is constantly piling on maps and player customisation and more and more monsters and abilities. And then you have Conan Exiles that's very much focused on a core combat building experience, where we're encouraging PvP conflict while trying to make the world feel realistic. It's heading in all different places. 

Joel, of his own volition, rounded off our conversation by explaining the inspiration of Conan Exiles' dong physics slider. I'll point you in the direction of our news story for more on that. 

Conan Exiles is due to launch in full on May 8, 2018.