Mirth and Melancholy: The Age of Conan Launch Party

Jordan Deam | 19 May 2008 21:25
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

Stepping off the plane, I was a novice to the phenomenon of the "developer party." Every game journalist I met seemed to have a story from the E3s of yore, where, for a few brief days, dozens of companies fiercely competed for the attention of an otherwise uncaring public. Developers and publishers spared no expense in courting media and industry insiders to associate their games with the feeling of uninhibited pleasure that only a truly kick-ass party provides.

Those days have passed. The contest was rigged, and the industry knew it. Why spend tens - potentially hundreds - of thousands of dollars on an event when the guy next door could spend twice that? Why fly in a chart-topping hip-hop act when your competitor can afford to reunite Led Zeppelin for a one-night-only performance of their first four albums? Why hire a troupe of buxom exotic dancers when your rivals can import a truckload of acrobatic Puerto Rican dwarves? Why, indeed?

There was no answer. Since 2006, E3 has disintegrated from a three-day period of bacchanalian revelry under a thin veil of professional responsibility - where holding someone's hair back while they puked counted as "networking" - to a reason for game journalists to grumble about "the good ol' days." The equation hasn't fundamentally changed - a game plus a party still equals a better game - but the timing has become more dispersed. Like a disillusioned Midwestern fraternity, confronted with the gratuitous hangovers of another absurd "beach" party without a beach, the game developer community suddenly realized that E3 itself wasn't a reason to break out the rum and pineapple juice.

Seven days before the release of a game that stewed for more than four years in development, however, there are plenty of reasons to party. Foremost among them? Because it took me three flights to get here. I had less than 30 hours to experience something worth traveling 4,000 miles across the globe for, and because, at more than $11 for a bottle of beer, I couldn't afford to drink otherwise.

Before the difficult business of "networking," however, there was work to be done. Along with a hundred or so journalists from around the globe, I made my way to Aker Brygge, a quaint harbor district a few clicks west of our hotel in central Oslo, to view a two-hour presentation about Age of Conan by Funcom Product Manager Erling Ellingsen and Game Director Gaute Godager. Approaching the red-carpet press entrance to the theater where the afternoon's conference would take place, I was intercepted by a Norwegian radio reporter who seemed to view the attendance of an American journalist as proof positive that the launch of Age of Conan was as important as he imagined. After introducing me to his audience in Norwegian, he asked a simple, entirely unanswerable question: Would Age of Conan be a success? Disoriented and unnerved, I knew my scant three-months of experience in "the industry" were irrelevant. I stammered out some evasive answer about "defining success"; and before I knew it, I had become an unwitting PR representative for a game I had barely read about.

Inside the theater, investors, Funcom employees, journalists and fans milled about in a repurposed tavern, filled with non-alcoholic beverages and computer kiosks showcasing Funcom's pride and joy. Norwegian television crews with massive shoulder-mounted cameras snaked through the crowd, hoping to score a few minutes with Funcom brass. A couple of months ago, I sat in a cubicle farm in a non-descript Minneapolis suburb, writing generic marketing copy for the websites of small-town Oklahoman law firms. Now, I was in Norway, surrounded by suits, A/V equipment, incalculable sums of money. A pervasive sense of "what the fuck" overcame me.

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