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WarCry Editor’s Note: This Age of Conan Editorial is in response to a March 28th developer journal from Darkfall Producer Tasos Flambouras, published here on WarCry. Flambouras never mentions Age of Conan in his article.

Weezer’s Disclaimer: The thoughts and opinions expressed in this editorial are my own and are not representative of Funcom or any other company or enterprise affiliated or associated with them.

Tall poppy syndrome. This is not a social condition very well known to those living outside of Australia or the UK, but basically it is a tendency of others to criticise an individual or group of individuals on their success. Australian professional golfer, Greg Norman, tall poppy syndrome to him meant “a jealousy of success”. Norman exemplified by saying that if someone in America bought a sports car, then other Americans would say “Nice car!” If someone in Australia bought a sports car, however, other Australians would scratch it. “Okay, Stephen’s lost the plot” I hear you saying, “Yeah, what are you babbling about now, dude?” Well, this fortnight I spring to the defence of ‘Age of Conan’, as I examine some of the criticisms the game has received from “other” and competing MMORPG developers.

If you’re wondering that I’m referring to, it’s this, a journal entry written by ‘Darkfall’ Associate Producer, Tasos Flambouras. If you, a fan and follower of ‘Age of Conan’ have read the article, you would instantly recognise the amount of swipes Mr. Flambouras takes at the Funcom-produced game, due for release on May 20, 2008, only 46 days away. Okay, I’m all for a bit of competition and what-not, and I myself don’t mind a bit of banter back and forth to keep things interesting, but if there’s anything you need when in competition, it’s the ability to back yourself up: what you say, and especially what you do.

Exhibit ‘A’:

“I see official screenshots from other games that look amazing, then I see some in-game screens and they’re an insult. We don’t have a ‘screenshot setting only’ to sell you the game…”

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Yes, we’ve all seen screenshots of in-game action from ‘Age of Conan’, and it looks amazing, but pardon me Mr. Flambouras, what technological and graphical leaps and bounds are you guys making with ‘Darkfall’? Even I’ve been poking my head in the ‘Darkfall’ pages and perusing the screenshots of the game published, and putting all my fan-boy mannerisms aside for this editorial only, are these screenshots actually meant to impress us? I understand: you’re developing a graphics engine for a massive and seamless world, but how do you expect to sell a game if it is not at least visually pleasing to the eye? Granted, graphics aren’t everything, but they certainly help with the experience, and I don’t know about the rest of you, but I would much prefer to be in a virtual environment that makes my jaw drop as opposed to an environment that will only coax as much as a “meh” from my mouth.

“Our number one priority is gameplay, and this is why the graphics have just recently started coming along in a big way.”

Only just started coming along? How much longer do you guys intend to continue working at it to make it visually appealing? Furthermore, where’s the proof? Where are the fruits of your labour? I mean, throw us a fricken’ bone here!

“…your game screen will look far better than anything we’ve shown you so far.”

How exactly are your potential customers meant to believe that if only what you are giving them at the moment, by today’s standards, completely and utterly sub-par? To be perfectly honest, I think given the time you’ve been working on this game thus far, we’re expecting a lot more, and I don’t mean oodles of screenshots released on a fortnightly basis, but something that sells.

Be honest with yourself: screenshots are going to help sell your game, not just promises, because in the end the gamer is fickle and needs tangible evidence that what they’re seeing is what they’re going to get. From what I have seen of ‘Age of Conan’ through my own personal experiences and what I saw at the Funcom offices in Oslo in mid-January this year, allow me to sum it up in one, simple compound word: eye-gasm! And the devs over at Funcom have by no means skimped on the gameplay to manifest such stunning graphics.

“Something’s gotta give” you might say:

“In Darkfall our world is full of content, we keep adding more every day and it’s all usable: Movement is not restricted, you don’t have to stick to road travel, there are no invisible walls, no impassable mountains.”

Okay, that sounds nice, but then you go on and say things like this:

“To run from one end to another at regular running speed could take more than eight hours.”

Eight hours? Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t you mention just a bit earlier that your number one priority is gameplay? If I’m paying 15 bucks a month to play an MMORPG, I do not want to be spending hours upon hours of my time during the month just getting from place to place. Again, the gamer is fickle, and attention spans are getting shorter and shorter these days (sadly). With the miracle of gaming technology players can be in a fight and or battleground at the click of a button. If I wanted to go on an eight-hour hike, I’d put my trusty pair of Adidas runners, walk out the front door and burn the fat off my own pasty-white gamer arse.

Picture it: you and your posse are in one part of the world when some of your guildmates alert you to your guild keep or city being attacked right across the realm. I don’t know about you, but my own idea of good gameplay does not consist of traversing sweeping plains or mountainous terrain for hours on end to eventually arrive at your destination, only to find that your lands have been taken, your women have bore the offspring of your enemy, the guy that used to run the local blacksmith is now speaking a foreign tongue, your dog or favourite pet has forgotten who you are, and someone has discovered your secret stash of “Orcboy” magazines. Wouldn’t players rather assemble an army and assemble it quickly? If my guild keep or city was being attacked, I’d want to be in the vicinity as quickly as possible to fend-off the would-be assailants and give them a good fight while I’m at it too.

Exhibit ‘B’:

“We never tried to exploit the M rating, and we never felt there was a need to tease our players with promises of ultra violence or sexist sexual innuendo.”

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Who, exactly, is trying to exploit the M rating? Again, I think you’ve completely missed the point: a Mature rating is another selling point! We’re tired of playing “games for everyone”, and the mature gamer is looking for a mature game. Funcom is setting the benchmark in mature gaming with ‘Age of Conan’, and again, referring to my own personal experiences with the game, they have achieved this. Hyboria is the perfect setting for a Mature-rated environment, and no, ‘Age of Conan’ does not need to exploit the bizarre fetishisation a majority of fantasy gamers have with buxom elves, sultry gnomes, or “knock me off for two-dollar” halflings. Funcom is keeping things contextual, and not “going there” for the sake of “going there”. Yes, you’d better believe this is marketable (I’m definitely bought!), because Funcom have identified a gap in the market: a need/want expressed by the general gaming community; a desire to sate our fanciful and primordial urges to completely obliterate our opponents in a harsh and unforgiving virtual world.

What of this talk of “sexist sexual innuendo”? It doesn’t appear, Mr. Flambouras, that you are even remotely familiar with the works of Robert E. Howard. Even one of my Year 8 (eighth grade) English-literature students could tell you that Howard’s Conan stories were riddled with these already said fanciful and primordial urges, and most of which is due to the time in history in which Howard was writing these stories. It’s fiction! It’s meant to take us away from the bounds of reality, or at the very least take us places where we couldn’t even imagine in our own minds! And did you ever even bother to realise that the reason why Funcom are “teasing” us with all of this is because they know this is what gamers really want? They do so because they know they can deliver, and any gamer, regardless of whether they’re in to ‘Age of Conan’ or not can attest to this game appealing to the mature gamer. What is best in life?

“When we were talking about this concept and about full PvP, about a dark and realistic world, about blood splatter, decapitation etc. a few years ago, everyone else was playing it safe and using terms like “Quakefest” and “dudefest” to describe our concept while simultaneously discounting the PvP community as a whole. Now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon and suddenly it’s all good because they found out there’s a market there. They’ve hacked in the PvP but that doesn’t even come close to offering freedom, so they have to sell the byproducts of PvP.”

Where is your dark and realistic world? Where is your blood splatter? Where are your decapitations? What have you done to sate your mature audience? How much longer are gamers going to be able to take orcs, goblins, trolls, gnomes, dwarves, halflings, and cat-people seriously in an online setting? ‘Darkfall’ makes quite a lot of promises itself, you realise, and yes, even I’ll admit that it all sounds good, but where is it all working in front of us? What I really mean to say is this: you guys aren’t exactly innocent of dangling your own carrots or teasing players with your own promises. At least Funcom have something to show for it after the years of work they have been putting into ‘Age of Conan’; the gaming community is actually seeing the fruits of their labour – it’s actually happening!

“You can’t have a true real-time game when you can select your targets, and ‘set up’ your attacks allowing the system to attack for you… Other games may try to imitate real-time action by giving you the illusion of control through options.”

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Semantics. What is “real-time”? Even in a game where you select your targets, the player is still making a real-time decision on what spell or attack to use. ‘Darkfall’ promises gameplay that is akin to the first-person shooter; a bit like the combat and character interaction in ‘The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind’ or ‘The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion’. Even in this “real-time action”, the player is limited, and is still bound by their own real-time decisions (what attack or spell to use and when?), but after a while the player realises that it is most effective to go in gangbusters, i.e. “hack ‘n’ slash”, or to bunny-hop around to prevent an opponent from targeting you properly at range. In the end, players are still going to be mashing buttons, strafing, kiting, and slashing their weapons in your “real-time action” setting, how is ‘Darkfall’ going to be different? I believe we’ve seen it all in other games before; how is it unique?

“As a result Darkfall is more action packed than anything out there and this is supported by its features as well as by the lack of gameplay restrictive features: no target selection, aimed attacks, full physics, no radar, no floating names, no floating damage, no fuchsia, or chartreuse colored circles at your feet, no invisibility, ‘true stealth’, visual and audio cues, full mounted combat, naval combat etc.”

Again, more promises and carrot-dangling; where is the proof? Where is something current? I just find it a bit rich that someone could sit behind their computer monitor and fluff themselves up so much with what their game promises, when in actual fact they haven’t got much to show for it.

How long has ‘Darkfall’ been in development? Eight years? [Editor’s Note: Darkfall developer Aventurine SA was founded in October 2002, although Darkfall interviews date back to August 2001 as part of a company called Razorwax.] Now, I’m not going to use the “v-word” here (vaporware), but I believe I share the sentiments of the gaming community when I say about ‘Darkfall’: Yes, it all sounds good, but where’s the beef? Where is your public beta? Where is your release date? How long do you expect to keep your faithful around with mere promises? How many developers do you have working on ‘Darkfall’ at the moment, and how are you working so hard to get this game out soon to be the next big thing? How will you make good on your promises if you haven’t got the man-power to do so?

Effectively, what you’re saying about ‘Age of Conan’ is that it will not deliver what it’s promising. How can you, Mr. Flambouras, sit behind your computer monitor and take swipes at a game that is actually coming out [this year]? How can you take swipes at a game that is currently being tested by several thousand members of the public? How can you take swipes at a game that is actually making good on its promises, and has stayed true to its vision from day one?

Here’s how it is, Mr. Flambouras: ‘Age of Conan’ is coming out, and you don’t like that fact one bit, so rather than be a good sport and wish Funcom all the best with their project, you would rather sit behind your computer monitor and pick-out its apparent flaws, that is, take a few swipes at it because it is not your precious baby. Someone else in the gaming industry did this whilst their own game was still in development, and things didn’t turn out very well for him or his game either: he promised much, but failed to deliver (I don’t think I need mention his name). Mr. Flambouras, might it actually pain you to concede that Funcom will experience success with the formula they have used in developing ‘Age of Conan’? Does it pain you to come to grips with the fact that a game development company with vision, balls, and ambition, will actually come out with their game before yours when you had a two to three year head-start on them?

What I find amazing in all this is how Funcom have composed themselves in light of all of this criticism they have been receiving from sceptics alike, but also from other game developers and those in direct competition with them. Even they concede that ‘Age of Conan’ will not be for everyone, much in the same way ‘Warhammer: Online’ will not be for everyone and that eventually people will move on (not all, let’s face it) from ‘World of Warcraft’. Why have Funcom remained so composed? It’s because they are secure and confident enough in their own product not to point out the chinks in the armour of other MMORPGs in development; their competition. It’s a bit like when people tell you, “You either put-up, or shut-up” I think Funcom’s action have definitely spoken for them over these last three to four years, and they have certainly “put-up”.

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Now I’m not encouraging anyone to begin themselves taking swipes at ‘Darkfall’ now, but I would urge any reader to examine exactly what it is we have in front of us: ‘Age of Conan’ is being released on May 20 this year, only 46 days away; ‘Age of Conan’ is currently in its public beta and will very soon move to its open beta (to be announced); Funcom has made realistic promises and has stayed true to its vision; Funcom is making a mature game for mature gamers, and is not afraid to push the envelope in this respect; ‘Age of Conan’, while not setting out to be a “WoW killer”, is at least offering something very different and very unique, and will set the benchmark in terms of its graphics, gameplay, and overall online experience; and a massive and dedicated team is working on ‘Age of Conan’, and have worked tirelessly to make this game great, but more importantly, a reality.

Put all of this side-by-side with what you have seen from ‘Darkfall’ to date, make up your own mind, and once you’ve done that, make the decision: invest in something real or just promises?

Until next fortnight (with another beta journal entry, hopefully), this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,

Out.

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

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