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AoC Launch Event Interview: Joel Bylos

Age of Conan has seen one of the smoothest launches in MMO gaming, with Early Access being a complete success. Just over a week ago, I went out to Oslo to cover the Age of Conan Launch Party, which saw the title in with style.

In part 1 of our AoC Launch Event coverage, I detailed all of the juicy information we had been told at the launch event presentation. In part 2 of our AoC Launch Event coverage, I detailed the epic launch party that Funcom threw to see the game in, with sources claiming that over $500,000 was spent on the party.

In our final part of our AoC Launch Event coverage, Joel Bylos – Quest Designer and Writer for Age of Conan – sat down with a group of press to answer their questions about the game.

I'd like to thank Joel and the press who asked the questions for an interesting and long interview!

Interview With Joel Bylos

Q: Where did you go for reference when you were designing the quests?

JB: First point of reference is ALWAYS the original works. That's all the Conan stories by Howard. The second point of reference is the comic books and other novels which have about equal weight. Generally, we go to the original books for source and everything gets checked in source. If Howard hasn't written about it in Conan stories, we then look into other stories. We also look at Howard's influences; we try to get some Lovecraft into parts of the game as Lovecraft and Howard were good friends and influenced each others work quite a bit. You'll find a bit of H. P. Lovecraft in there and some of the quests you'll find definite Conan the Barbarian sounding dialog. That's where we get our stuff. Basically, Howard.

Q: Did you read everything?

JB: Well we have a library at work of Howard's stuff. I mean, it's required reading. With the dialog, we try to capture his particular style. He writes in a very poetic style and we try to stick with that in some of our dialog and descriptions. I mean, it is a mature game; we were writing for a mature audience. We weren't writing for 14 year olds. We were writing for people with a bit of vocabulary.

Q: The story of Conan is pretty much about blood and sex. We've heard that there are quest rewards where you can spend the night with some women. So, how much sex is in the game?

JB: It's a delicate issue you have to handle. Despite the fact that, yeah, Conan often crushes girls into having orgasms, you can't go around doing that these days.

Q: But... it's a game.

JB: Yeah – it's a game and we try to stay true to the lore but we don't want to demean anyone. For example, there are times in quests where, if a male NPC hits on a female player, you can actually use that to your advantage as a female player and complete the quests by following his advances and getting what you want out of him but I don't think there is any point where you get sex as a quest reward. There's innuendo. There's a lot of innuendo in the game, but you never actually get to have sex in the game. You have the sexual overtone; that's Conan. Without it, it wouldn't be Conan. You have it there all the time but we try not to force it on the players. If you want to play the game and not be forced into having sex with people as quest rewards...

Q: You have a lot of nudity in the game. Are there prostitutes or something?

JB: Of course – there are prostitutes in the game. There are gigolos. There's male prostitutes...

Q: Can I hire them as a female player?

JB: No... no. You get propositioned by them though but, you know, you're too busy. One of the city life elements is that, as you are running around, you'll have prostitutes and gigolos come up to you and do their dance thing but we don't have a pay-for-sex system.

Q: When will the game be released for Xbox 360?

JB: That I have no idea about. I think they talked about a year after release – something like that? I think that was the last I heard said by Gaute publicly but I have no idea internally.

Q: Will the Xbox players be able to play with PC players?

JB: That's another questions that isn't in my area of expertise. I don't touch the tech stuff. Let me put it this way – I hope so. At the moment the Xbox version is being worked on separately.

Q: If you could describe the game in three words, what would they be?

JB: Let me see. Brutal, majestic and mature; I guess those would be the three.

Q: If you could compare Age of Conan to another MMO, like Lord of the Rings Online...?

JB: Let's see. I've played Age of Conan a little. If I had to put it in terms of another MMO, what we've done is we've got a fusion of things, elements, that I think other MMOs have lacked. So for example, Tortage is much more of a single player experience than any other MMO has at that low level of the game. The cinematic dialog, the feeling you get. I don't feel we treat people like children playing the game. I think we treat people like adults playing the game. Comparing it to other MMOs, I've played other MMOs quite a bit and I don't want to rip on the competition. People do a fantastic job and we are all sharing this industry together but I would say that the thing that sets us apart is that other MMOs tend to go for a much broader audience whereas we've gone for the mature audience and I think we've hit that not too far from the mark.

Q: Conan has split up EU and US players with the server territories. There are quite a lot of MMOs who offer you the choice to play on this server or play on that server. What I have heard is that as a European player, you are not even allowed to play on a US server.

JB: I don't know the specifics there but I would suspect that if you had an American key, you can access an American server. I think there are certain versions of the game that have to be censored due to rating boards. The German version, for example. Certain versions of the game will ship with certain options to tone it down; I believe Germany has a lot of fatalities removed. Is the blood green in Germany? That's the way things go. Governments restrict things for other people.

Q: How does it feel for you as a developer, to have to cut your own game down?

JB: You want the game to reach the most portion of people. Rating boards can make it very hard for us if we don't comply to what they want. As a developer, you want to show everyone everything. As a quest designer, I've had quests that management have said, "No you can't do that. That's just too risky." I think it's just a fact of life with development. I think it's the same as all arts to a certain extent. People have to accept a certain amount of censorship.

Q: I would understand if that game were for 16 year olds but it is for 18+ so we are all mature. It shouldn't be that development should cut out some things.

JB: I kind of agree. It's not my decision. It's the rating boards' decision and we have to cut out what the rating boards want. We negotiate with them. It's not like we actually worry so we cut things. We give them what we have and then they say, "ok, this is too much," and there was one point where I went around my levels taking screen shots and making notes so they could see what I thought were the most confronting and threatening in the game. They'd then teleport around and have a look and then say, "well we are going to give you an adult only rating if you don't change this in some way or remove this."

Q: What was one of the things that had to be cut?

JB: Ok <laughs>. One of my personal blunders that had to be cut was, I had a quest where somebody was asked to put seeds in a girls ale because he was trying to sleep with her. That was a bit risky because you have date rape and stuff. I didn't think about it when I wrote the quest so when somebody pointed it out and I was like, "oh yeah..." Another thing that had to go was... some of you who have played beta will remember the guy pissing off the docks in Tortage? So, later on, we had this guy who had been tortured and every now and then, the boss who you kill at the end of the area who's, you know, a bad guy so we wanted to re-enforce that he is a bad guy, so every now and then he would walk over and punch the chained up prisoner and then piss on him. So we were told, "cut the beating and the pissing of the guy who's chained up." That's an example. We didn't design it to be... we don't always design and go, "what's the most brutal thing we can do here?" What we really do is look at it from an artistic point of view, "we really want the players to hate this boss so how can we make them hate him?" and that was the behavior we thought would make players go, "I've really got to go and kill this guy."

Q: Age of Conan is a mature game, aimed at the 18+ age range. Aren't you afraid that Age of Conan won't be such a huge success like, for example, World of Warcraft?

JB: GTA 4. Look at GTA 4. Statistics say that the age of an average gamer is 28 so I'm not actually concerned about that at all. If you think about it, that is the demographic that has throw away cash. Those are the people who have money. I don't expect, I mean when I was 15 or 16, I couldn't afford to buy a $50 game every month so I'm not really worried, I don't think it cuts down our audience too much. I'm not really worried to be honest.

Q: You have a patch on the first day. What is the size of the patches going to be? 14Gb or something?

JB: No, no, no. So you've been in the beta and you've seen some of the patch sizes in the beta? Right, what that is is we re-export all of the textures with each patch in the beta because, what I have found is that a lot of the bugs in the beta have been invalid because people's databases don't update properly in the beta so what we've been doing in the beta with big patches and stuff is, we've been re-exporting a lot of textures and stuff so that the database keeps building. That's all going to be on the disk now with gold. You don't have to patch that any more so I guarantee that it will be under a gig. It should be much less than a gig. I'd hope... We don't have to patch like that anymore, not like we had to in beta.

Q: Is there anything in the game that you would not have had in there if you had complete control of the game?

JB: Oh dear, that's making me criticize my boss. Well, I'm not a huge fan with server segregation where we separate the Europeans and the States. I'm not a huge fan of that but I also trust my boss, so I know they made a decision based on what they can do. One thing I'd like to see more, and hopefully... I'm pushing this for expansion, I'd like to see more consequences for your actions, more choices for your dialog. I've managed to get a little bit of it in the game but there's not as much as I'd like to see. That's coming and we have a really nice system for adding more things like that.

Q: We know that people play MMOs for hours and hours and hours. Is there anything to do for the gamer that only has 10 minutes or half an hour?

JB: Absolutely. A lot of the quests I've designed can be done very quickly. There are also a lot of short dungeons; there are very big dungeons and very short dungeons. People will learn over time which one is which. They'll learn. "OK. I've only got 20 minutes so I can go up and I can have a really fun time in this dungeon and still get out." If you leave the game while you are in the dungeon, it won't delete you, it won't kick you out. You'll still be able to go back in there and restart it. A lot of the content that I worked on was solo and we also have this epic mode which Gaute talked about which makes things into a group dungeon, so you can turn a normal dungeon into a group dungeon any time you like. We have the mini-games, which are a lot of fun. A lot of the hubs have very interesting opportunities. One thing that I've worked on, which I think people might like to do, is, if you go to the Taverns and sit down in the Taverns, there are bards and they actually recite the works of Robert E. Howard, his poetic works. So the bards in the game are speaking poetry written by Robert E. Howard. I think there are about 30 different poems and they go for about 6 minutes each, so there is plenty of time. You can sit down and spend a lot of time and not hear the same poem twice. We've tried to bring his world to life and it is his world so I think that his writing is the best in that case.

Q: How do you feel now after 4 years of development? Are you satisfied with your game?

JB: It's the mark of the artist that you are never satisfied. You always have to think that you could have gotten that little bit more or done something that little bit differently.

Q: Does it correspond to the original vision of the game?

JB: Yeah – I think it does. Gaute has the original mission documents for the game and he pulled it out the other day. It had 6 bullet points and 5 of them are still the way they were in 2003 and only one of them has been dropped. Me personally? I'm feeling relieved but I'm also excited about expansions because now I'll be in on the process from the beginning. As I said, I came in a year and a half ago so there was already quite a few people to work on things before me. Now I have a chance to maybe help with planning what we are going to do. There are a few of us Robert E. Howard buffs who know what we'd go for.

Q: How many writers are there?

JB: There's one Lead Writer – Aaron Dembski Bowden. He worked for Mongoose RPGs. Then there is myself and a guy called Elliot who are the other two and that's it; there's three. Over the years, there have been guys who come in and work for a few months, then leave and they work for this company called Mongoose. We had a contract with Mongoose who make the Conan D20 RPGs so they were coming to work with us for 3 months at a time, from England and then they were going back to Mongoose. We've had quite a few writers, probably about 6 or 7 but there are only 3 main writers.

Q: Is there any content in the game that currently is one way and in 6 months time may be slightly different, so that new players get to experience things that old players did not and vice versa?

JB: Absolutely. I think we will still be polishing for a while. I think there will be things we will always want to polish and I don't think we will see the development flag, if you know what I mean? We'll be patching, we'll be continually working on the game. I think there will be a few things like, I believe a new starting zone is a very high priority as a lot of people will get bored playing <through the same area>.

Q: I'm also talking about, in World of Warcraft for example, where NPCs move about from location to location and you have places that once were in ruins and now are being used as new quest hubs. Will there be any content like that?

JB: I don't want to talk too much but I have a few things that I think will be very interesting quest wise. That's one of the goals of the quest team and that's one thing that Andreas, he's the lead of the quest team, him and I have discussed all the time different ways to bring reactive world environments to an MMO without making other players miss out. We've been discussing that. PvP questing, things like that. A quick example of something we are thinking of is NPCs that need to be protected by a group of players and having another group of players trying to attack them, having this NPC move around. There's a fair bit of dynamic things we can do.

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