Funcom just announced that their gritty MMO, Age of Conan, will be adopting a hybrid free-to-play business model (meaning there will be an optional subscription and cash shop available, much like LOTRO and DDO). The upcoming update will also add a lot of new content at the same time, including new areas, items, and storylines. We sat down with Age of Conan's Executive Producer, Craig Morrison to talk about how their hybrid business model will work, what they'll be charging for, and why AoC's mature content and siege-focused combat systems still has a lot to offer MMO players!
For full details, be sure to read the official announcement and FAQ on Age of Conan's forums .
PC Gamer: What was it that made the team decide that now is the right time to go free to play?
Craig Morrison: To be honest, the possibility [of going free-to-play] is something we been keeping under consideration for several years now. As a company, we've never been afraid of mixing up the business model if it serves the product well. BLC [Funcom's recent F2P MOBA title] is certainly another good example of that. This isn't new ground for us. We've always felt that [going free-to-play] is a natural progression for an MMO title at a certain stage in it's life cycle.
PCG: What motivated you to go with the hybrid F2P model in particular, as opposed to a F2P-only game?
CM: Most of the business models that borrow the 'Free to Play' mantle, in particular in western gaming, like Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Everquest 2 Extended, or our own Anarchy Online, are really a hybrid offering, as they retain an element of subscription in addition to a micro-transaction store. We were really pioneers with this format back when we did it in 2005 with Anarchy Online, so it was natural for us that we would adopt a similar approach for Age of Conan.
PCG: Do you see this hybrid F2P model as the future of MMO business models?
CM: To be honest, I think it already is established. The future is now as it were. All it means is that you can create revenue streams on these games by both subscription and micro-transactions, while allowing players to play portions of the game for free. Even those games that are still full subscription titles are incorporating item sales (like the special mounts in World of Warcraft, or the vanity items in the NCSoft store for Aion)
PCG: What sorts of things will you be selling in the cash shop? Specifically, can you address the following: XP boosts, weapons/armor, additional content, gameplay features such as guilds/chat functionality/character limits, and cosmetic items?
CM: Pretty much all of the above, either at launch, or in the future. The inventory has been designed around covering all those kinds of bases. There will be some items from all of those categories in the launch inventory for the store. The store inventory has been balanced with the good of the game in mind, not just trying to make a quick buck or gouge people! It was very important for us that people do not view the store as being required to mitigate some kind of arbitary roadblock. We want people to want to pay, not feel they have to.
For example, to help eliminate that concern, we made very sure that we reduced the grind in the previous game update that came out last month, by fixing and improving the progression speed through game-play. So people already enjoy the progression before any convenience items came along.
PCG: Will everything be available for purchase piece-by-piece, or will some things be reserved ONLY for subscribers?
CM: Most of the elements can be purchased in some form from the item store, but often only for a limited time, so there are still clear benefits for being a premium subscriber.
PCG: What would you say to someone that played AoC in the past, but hasn't for awhile? How would you convince him to spend his time checking AoC out again?
CM: I'd tell them to come back and try it for themselves: it will cost you nothing to see what you think. Don't take anyone else's word for it, whether that is me being positive or the various internet trolls being negative. Nothing beats trying it out for yourself and making up your own mind.
The game is really one of the most unique settings out there for an MMO, with a mature focus for our storytelling, and a really brutal and bloody combat system that's more visceral than most of the other games in this genre. Hyboria is an unforgiving place...with over three years of content... With the vicious mix of adventure, betrayal, corruption and combat that so identifies the world created by Robert E Howard all those decades ago. I don't think there's anything quite like it on the market at the moment.
PCG: What will returning players be surprised to find in AoC?
CM: Since launch, we've added an entire new continent in the Rise of the Godslayer expansion, added whole new zones in Cimmeria (Ymir's Pass) and Acquilonia (Tarantia Commons), added over a dozen new dungeons, introduced a PVP levelling system, a PVP consequence system, new PVP minigames, introduced a Guild Renown system that allows guilds to level up, and decorate and expand their player city with new NPCs, functions and even quests. We've added the alternate advancement system for high level players to provide extra depth and horizontal progression at maximum level.
PCG: Aside from the shift in business model, what's the biggest change coming as a part of this next big update?
CM: The new dungeons are really fun to play through. They scale between levels 40 and 80, so almost anyone can use them on a daily basis. We've been strengthening the solo content available for people, first with a level 80 solo instance, The Refuge of the Apostate (released earlier this year), and these two instances build on that. They're called The Breach and The Forgotten City and take the player on fun, story-driven, solo experiences that are engaging and interesting to play through, and feature some really cool locations (I particularly love the view from the Forgotten City).