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It felt quite good to get back into the swing of things with last fortnight’s edition of Mitra’s Method, with it being my first serious editorial for the year. It was also particularly satisfying to see that so many readers had followed the link to the article and receive so many emails containing readers’ thoughts, opinions, conjectures, and general feedback about it, so thank you to all those that emailed me; your feedback and comments are always appreciated.

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The last couple weeks have been quite eventful, even after the information bombardment that was the Funcom Community Event, which even still remains a solid highlight for the year thus far. The Friday update last week delved into what’s been going on with beta recently, and the community learned that “de women” had finally arrived in Hyboria, and they were bringin’ sexy back with a fair dose of that femme fatale flair that we had been promised from way, way back.

Beta testers apparently have also managed to keep their modems warms as they have downloaded a series of patches for their beta clients, with a recent patch weighing in at 2.5 gigabytes.

“Just to give you an idea, we’ve patched on the 24th, 29th, and 31st of January, as well as the 7th and 13th of February. Wednesday’s update alone clocked in at well over 2.5 gigs!”

There, in last week’s Friday update, was also mention of a PvP realm/server being opened in the very near future:

“…we’re excited to tell you that we are not far away opening the very first Age of Conan PvP dimension for the General Beta testers, all to make sure the PvP experience in Age of Conan is the experience you’ve been eagerly anticipating.”

So one gets the feeling that with these major and very important events taking place in the beta, that things are progressing very well and that that May 20 release date may actually hold, although the skepticism of an absolute minority regarding the release date is somewhat understood. I’m quite happy to say that I even put my copy of the ‘Age of Conan’ Collector’s Edition on pre-order today at my local retailer, so confidence is growing in the player-base, you might say.

Monday, February 12, however, saw Funcom publish a much anticipated “state of the game” report (you can find that here), written by Game Director, Gaute Godager. While it’s understood a minority would have dismissed this report as sheer PR spin, but even those people cannot deny the importance of these sorts of reports despite the timing and the way things have been worded. If, for example (and I put a huge amount of emphasis on the “if”), a game in its development has hit a slump or the game seemingly seems doomed for failure, a game director or manager would not easily or eagerly come out and say openly, “We’re in trouble”. I happen to think that this “trouble” concept is purely opinionative since it’s only those of us not working on the game that are analysing (or perhaps over-analysing) the bits that we do find out about the game (the bits that make it public, barring NDA) and compare these to similar instances experienced as a fan waiting on another game in development. Sure, you might hear game developers say the same type of things time and time over, but does it necessarily mean the same thing for each individual game?

Without mentioning any game in particular or mentioning the “think-tank” behind it, there have been those developers or managers that have lacked the transparency in the developer to public relationship. Again, not naming a particular game or a certain manager specifically, I’m sure we can all remember a time when one thing has been said when in actual truth the facts have said something quite different, a bit like when your wife or significant other asks you, “Does my bum look big in this?” and you reply, without hesitation, “No dear, you look fine” knowing full well that your wife or significant other is about as bantam as your average beached whale. The one thing I think most of us can come to appreciate is how transparent Funcom have been with us.

We’ve heard murmurs of things being cut from ‘Age of Conan’, or changed so dramatically that it is only a shadow of what it resembled at its first inception. So this has been a major concern of the ‘Age of Conan’ community: what has been cut from the game, and why? The disappointment with any sort of cut or change is implicitly comprehensible, but I think what is easily forgotten is that what at first sounds like a good or “cool” idea at first, on review, doesn’t always seem to work out, seem practical, or just ends up contradicting a vision, and we all know how important it is for Funcom to “stay true” to Howard’s vision of Hyboria, and their own vision for ‘Age of Conan’.

“At the end of the day someone has to say, ‘This was a much better idea on paper than in the game. Let us focus on what is there – for the good of the whole game.'”

First on the chopping block – I guess you could call it – was “Global Forced Player Formations”:

“The player formations were implemented and tested, we even have tools to set up positions and add their effects. The problem was it never excited people to lose control over their characters. Having your character move when someone else moves sort of undermines the idea of a game don’t you think? The coordination of a voluntary formation was just too much for most players, especially with the collision system we have. It simply wasn’t fun!”

Formations, in a way, was something that drew me to ‘Age of Conan’ in the first place, mainly because I’m a sucker for sticking my nose into battle plans, strategies, tactics, and changing things on the fly as battle conditions change. I wasn’t completely fussed with not being in control of my character when “locked” into a battle formation, but Gaute is right when he says that this design, essentially, is not fun for the player.

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The idea behind any game is for the player to be in control of what ever it is they’re doing, and no exception is made for MMORPGs. The question had to be asked as well, “If I’m not in control of my character whilst in a battle formation, then who is?” Ultimately I think the player in control was going to be whoever it was playing the “Commander” prestige class (the “battle master”, if you will), one player alone. In this player’s hands, the fate of his teammates and potentially his or her entire guild lay. You might be in the situation where the Commander chooses a formation that you don’t necessarily agree that the team or guild should take, but because he’s (Sic.) in control you really have no say in the matter. With a bit of luck, the formation might prove effective, but you’ve had no impact on the outcome of the battle (that’s not fun), or on the flipside, you chosen formation and decision of the Commander could lead the entire team or guild to grisly death (well, about as grisly as deaths can get in MMORPGs anyway).

I’m of the mind that the team or guild with a bit of savvy will be able to draw up their own battle plans and formations and implement them manually, that is, a raid or team/guild leader will communicate to teammates and teammates/guildmates will get themselves into position. Of course this will require a great deal of organisation and excellent communication skills, but the fun therein lies with the team/guild itself drawing up their own plans and formations, or borrowing the ones that have worked for the armies and legions of old. But if that’s not your style, I guess you could settle for a good old-fashioned barbarian rush (Rarrggh!).

While not a “cut” per se, there have been two more classes merged. While not as dramatic as the class mergers that were made around this time last year, this time around it was more or less taking the good from certain classes and spreading the good stuff over already-existing classes or coming up with a new concept all together. The classes that I refer to are the Lich and Scion of Set.

What we were told in Oslo back in January, was that feedback from internal beta testing reflected that the Scion of Set was the least popular priest class, or at least wasn’t that interesting to play. The Scion of Set, as a result, was merged with the then known Druid of the Storm (or “Stormcaller” as it later became known) to become the Tempest of Set. This so far has proven to be a critical move as it now makes one priest class per race type. The Tempest of Set will only be playable by Stygian characters, Bear Shamans by Cimmerians, and the Priest of Mitra by Aquilonians. Since the races in ‘Age of Conan’ are not factions (that is unless you are role-playing things that way), there is little concern or worry about teams feeling as though they have to have a certain priest class on their time. From what I’ve seen, each priest class will play very differently from each other (the Bear Shaman is more effective when in melee combat, for example), so it really depends on the play-style of the team or if you’re simply looking for a certain type of class for a certain situation.

“I use the word “merge” here instead of “cut”, as we have not really cut what those classes could do. We have rather taken the best of what they had, to make our other classes even more unique. At the end of the day we chose ‘unique, varied, fun, solid.'”

The Lich, as the other class to be merged, amalgamated with the Necromancer. I always thought that the Lich sounded way too similar to the Herald of Xotli anyway, and so the “undead” theme could easily be maintained by taking the good from the Lich and giving it to the Necromancer. Will this mean that the Necromancer will gain the Lich’s ability to transmogrify into an undead behemoth? Who knows? But I think Funcom’s aim with this merge, as mentioned above, was to first make the Herald of Xotli truly unique as a mage class, and vary the playability between the Necromancer and Demonologist classes (both being pet-summoning classes).

“When it comes to our classes it has been more important for us to look at the whole instead of each single piece.”

So as it stands, ‘Age of Conan’ will offer players the chance to play 12 different classes from four different archetypes, each very unique to each other and without any of that blurring of the lines that you might find with class distributions in other MMORPGs. Each class in ‘Age of Conan’ will offer players, even within the same archetype, a different gaming experience, and with each class’s different feat lines, even players of the same class will play differently to each other.

The “Prestige Classes” were another drawing card for me when first looking into ‘Age of Conan’, but from what it sounds, or at least from what Gaute said in his report, even the Prestige Classes were creating funnels in terms of character development and player versatility.

“…the prestige classes were doing the opposite of what we wanted them to do when they got into the mix. It didn’t give more variety or more solid character progression, it rather cornered the player. We wanted character progression to be about choice, and not about running down a small corridor to a given end.”

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With Prestige Classes effectively scrapped, where does that leave the player in pursuing a particular craft or ancillary skill? Just by going from what Gaute said in the report, it now sounds like players will be able to choose the crafting or ancillary skills that they want and that they feel will benefit themselves as a player, and as a member in a guild contributing to a player-made city and by establishing a genuine player-run in-game economy. Gaute conceded that the Prestige Classes was another one of those [very few] “it sounded good at the time” ideas. So much like the formations cut, this change was about giving the control to the player and not being trapped in a box, so to speak. If I’m guessing correctly, then sure, there will be those players that will want to learn every single trade, craft, and ancillary skill, a bit like those annoying kids at school who just want to give everything a go, and end up being good at them all, the buggers. Anyway, so if you’re a player that’s most comfortable with learning only one trade, craft, or ancillary skill, then that’s fine too, because you’ve got the power to decide so, and if you should be in a guild that needs a certain type of crafter, then you’ve got the freedom to fill that need rather than trying to recruit someone with that certain prestige skill or having to roll a new character for that sole purpose; flexibility and adaptability.

The last item on the chopping block concerned soul corruption, but as I discovered in the Funcom offices while over there in January, spell-weaving and soul-corruption is still in, but being sent/damned to Hell as a result of being too “corrupted” is no longer.

When I first heard about being sent to Hell as a punishment for becoming too corrupted, the first question that entered my mind was, “Will you have to fight your way out of hell every time you’re sent there?” Naturally, such an outcome would become tedious and monotonous, especially if it was the same instance of Hell every time, and as a result, because of Hell potentially becoming so “hum-drum” after a few times, the punishment or penalty begins to lose its meaning, a lot like going to jail in Monopoly. In the end, what sounded like a very cool feature will simply become a chore.

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The angle that Funcom took on making this decision on removing Hell from ‘Age of Conan’, was that if you’re two or three very adept mages in your guild or team were weaving a particularly nasty spell against a gargantuan demon, for example, then being sent to hell and effectively punishing the whole team for doing so would simply become a matter of sheer impracticality. As for the poor mages that have condemned themselves, they leave their team or guild in waiting of their return so they can pick up from where they left of, or even worse, having to start from scratch! As soul corruption remains, it is merely a case of the mages being punished for “dabbling in the dark arts” too much or too often, but not a punishment in the sense that it would ruin their gameplay experience, as I’m sure many players playing the mage classes (or any other class that will be able to become “soul corrupted”) will feel that the soul corruption may well have been worth the chaos, death, and destruction they created with their own two hands.

“Going to hell as a result of screwing up your spell-weaving – Hmmm, two crucial magicians wiped from a raid test sort of left us asking if this idea was even good on paper ;p I rest my case.”

As for the rest of ‘Age of Conan’, Gaute went through a list longer than your arm of things that are still in-game and will be at release also, so I won’t bother listing those (you can read that yourself, if you like), but as I said earlier, a true “Conan” experience is being offered:

“When we gave you our feature list it was not an empty marketing promise to merely grab your attention, but our serious effort of telling you what we were trying to accomplish. We told you about our vision for the game. The vision has not changed at all! The true Conan experience awaits.”

Sure, people are going to be disappointed with the cuts and changes, but given the scope and reasoning for these changes in Gaute’s report, I’m sure these are things that even the minority will be able to forgive.

If anything, this report offers us a lesson in being innovative, that what sounds “cool” or a good idea at first does not necessarily mean it’s going to see considerable span of life. Could you imagine if it Funcom had gone ahead with these things and then later hear back from the player-base itself, “Hey, these things sounded cool at first, but after giving it a go a few times now, I’m sick of it!” Customers are lost this way.

It reminds me of something Gaute said to the community in his address regarding the game’s delay announcement back in August last year:

“I am still professional enough to realize that sometimes you must have the balls to pull your own pants off, standing there in all your glory, and admit your mistakes.”

Say what you will about what “mistakes” Funcom have made with ‘Age of Conan’, if any, but personally I think it’s better for Funcom to make these sorts of decisions on their own merit rather than hearing about it from the customers they’re aiming to sate. No one likes an angry mob.

“The great house of Hyboria has been erected, and we are now doing the final interior work.”

May 20 cannot come soon enough.

Until next fortnight, this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,

Out.

Want to contact me? Then email me here.
© Stephen Spiteri, February 2008

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