Age of Conan Editorial: She’s All That

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It’s been an interesting fortnight. I’ve been on holidays for the last couple of weeks, but I’m very sorry to admit that it hasn’t been the total slack-off period that I was planning it to be. My dear wife left me a list of things to get done around the house over the two-week break; garden stuff mainly, but it was a welcomed change to what I had become accustomed to during the last school term: dirty whiteboards, essay marking, whinges and dramas by the hands of overly emotional mid-pubescent teenagers, and the bitching sessions that ensue in the teachers’ lounge during recesses and lunchtimes. Let’s just say I’m looking forward to the end of the school year.

imageAfter I patted myself on the back for being a good spouse and fulfilling my husbandly duties, I did manage to get around to a bit of gaming over my break and indulge myself in the odd all-nighter during that time. Over the weekend I reactivated my ‘City of Heroes/Villains’ account and got myself straight in to the new features that I had missed out on since hanging up my cape back in early January this year. Needless to say, the game has come a long, long way since it went live back in late April 2004. Come to think of it, if you were to compare ‘City of Heroes’ now to what it was back in it’s first year, you could argue that it’s an entirely different game. But I was even more pleased with myself reactivating my account as it was roughly the same week as the announcement for Issue #11. The upcoming issue will deliver to players what they have long been begging for since the game was released just over three years ago. I won’t go into detail as to what these features are exactly, but in my own personal opinion, these are features that should have been in the game from day one.

Yes, I’m fully aware, ‘City of Heroes’ wasn’t a big game back in 2004, and nor were Cryptic Studios a big games development company back then either. But what, I believe, has worked for ‘City of Heroes’, NCSoft and Cryptic, is that they have released new game features, sometimes one by one, at a pace fast enough to keep players interested and coming back for more as time goes on. Just when, for some, things are getting a bit repetitive there’s an new feature just on the horizon to entice you and keep you in Paragon City for just a bit longer, in fact, most MMOs tend to work like this anyway.

Before you start wondering whether this is a ‘City of Heroes’ editorial or an ‘Age of Conan’ editorial, I’ll set your minds at ease now and tell you where I’m going with this. ‘Age of Conan’, for many, will be the game we’ve all been waiting for, our “dream” MMO, and so on. When people ask, “What’s ‘Age of Conan’ like?” players will proudly say, “She’s all that!” Why? Because right off the bat, the features that have been missing and begged for in other MMOs will be found in ‘Age of Conan’, plus a few familiar ones with a sexy and lush new look. But while most of us are salivating at the mouth and eagerly anticipating our own chance to have a go at these features ourselves, my recent encounter with ‘City of Heroes’ and looking at its increasing success over the last three years made me think: With all of these features, as a game, is it possible that ‘Age of Conan’ could peak too soon?

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It has been revealed that once ‘Age of Conan’ is released, the development team currently working on the game will split into two teams: a “live” team, and an “expansion” team. The “live” team will work with the current build, releasing patch fixes for certain bugs, etc. while the “expansion” team (if the title is not self-explanatory) will work on future content and features and expanding the already existing ‘Age of Conan’ world. But such is the nature of the MMO gamer today that features, as many as they may in a game at release, are very quickly explored, tried, tested, and judged not even three or four months out of release. The crunch comes down to this sort of player’s opinion of the content offered at release where he/she might ask themselves: is there enough here to keep me occupied for a few more months? Or if the quantity of features is not a concern, is the quality of the content and features good enough to make me want to replay it all over, over, and over again?

Gamers, in general, are fickle and have an attention span that is ever-reducing due to technological advances in the gaming industry and games coming out with more and more, and better and better for their potential customers. If a game simply fails at holding their attention for a period of time, a gamer will move on to something that will, and at the same time, if a gamer gets to the point where they say, “I’ve done this so many times before – I can’t be bothered doing it again” they move on in an attempt to find something new; something fresh. Think of it like watching TV. There are things that get very old, very quick on the tube these days: cop shows with acronyms for titles, and so many of these shows that there is glaringly little distinction between them; repeats (there’s only so much we can take of The Brady Bunch or Three’s Company); or shows with a promised “new concept” that end up being much of the same old, same old. These are things that will incline a viewer to switch stations until they come to something they like, because after all, the choice is theirs.

imageSo with a game that offers so much, what more could ‘Age of Conan’ give us once we’ve explored, tried, tested, and judged the content provided for us at release? Some community members have done excellent jobs in surveying the ‘Age of Conan’ public in what they would most like to see in content updates and expansions. More playable races has proven to be a popular request as with the race you are likely to gain another nation of Hyboria to explore and quest in. As it stands, Aquilonians (an ancient Roman-like race), Cimmerians (an ancient Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic-type race) and Stygians (an ancient Egyptian and north African-type race) are the only playable races available at launch. Roleplayers in particular are keen on the idea of having additional playable races especially those familiar with Conan lore (the Vanir and Aesir have shown to be most popular amongst those surveyed).

Speaking of new nations, the world of Hyboria is huge, if you didn’t already know. For those unfamiliar with Conan, Robert E. Howard’s Hyboria is a twisted, inverted version of our own world set in 10,000 B.C. Just to give you an idea of what Hyboria looks like, here’s a map. It has been said by ‘Age of Conan’ developers that there will be enough PvE content in one nation alone (e.g. Aquilonia, Cimmeria, or Stygia) to keep you busy for a long time, but we’re different types of gamers after all, and all explore environments are our own paces. But as you can see, Howard’s Hyboria is massive, and this provides Funcom massive opportunities to expand their online Hyboria. Hopefully we’ll be able to see all of Hyboria.

Player-housing is a feature that won’t be in-game at release, and with other MMOs is a popular feature among players. Is it essential? Probably not, I’m sure most of us could live with the fact that a character of ours could potentially be sleeping outside while we’re logged off and enjoying real life, but it’s a “nice to have” feature – not game-breaking by any means. For those keen on player housing, one could spend hours building and furnishing their in-game abode, so I guess for the sake of game “freshness” and longevity, player housing is a feature that I’m sure would be warmly welcomed by those following ‘Age of Conan’.

If you’re familiar with the Conan stories, then you’ll know that pirates, sea-faring, booty and plunder, mutiny, and the high-seas are romanticised in Howard’s work. You start off in the game on a slave-galley (as a slave), so we know there are going to be boats and ships in the game, but what about player-made, player-owned, and player-commandeered boats and ships? Again, this is a feature that will not be in ‘Age of Conan’ at release, but something else that, in general, the ‘Age of Conan’ community would like to one day see implemented to further their Conan experience and feel more one with the Hyborian age.

imageTo set the record straight, this is not a criticism of Funcom, that is, I’m not attempting to point out where Funcom may be failing in their negligence to include content and features that are in high demand and very popular with their potential customers. No, ‘Age of Conan’ will have lots to keep up busy right off the bat. But apart from all this, and this is where my initial query is relevant, Funcom would need to ask themselves: What’s the right balance? Are we giving too much too soon – will there be anything left to explore for players only a few months down the track? How much can we give at launch without leaving players feeling like there’s “not enough” and without any repetition value. Can we cater to the non-casual gamers – for them, will content updates and expansions feel too few and far in between. Are we providing enough to maintain general interest? And what of those coming into Hyboria late (new customers) – if our launch content and features weren’t “good enough” for them, what can we offer that will win them over?

Back to ‘City of Heroes’ for a moment; only now, and this is my own personal opinion, this game is starting feel like the game it should have been at release, and if not then, maybe six months to a year later down the track. Then again, maybe my expectations are too high, but at the same time (and again, this is my own opinion), the benchmark that was set by ‘City of Heroes’ at the very start was rather modest. But don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed the game and have enjoyed coming back to it.

The point I’m trying to make with ‘Age of Conan’ now is that, like already said, this game will be the one we’ve been waiting on for a long time because it promises so much at the very start. Quite clearly, Funcom are attempting to set the benchmark very high for MMO gaming in terms of what you will experience and be able to do in an online environment. Okay, they’re ambitious, and that’s very commendable, but will they be able to consolidate on that? Three years down the track will we ourselves be saying, “This is what the game should have been like at release”? Of course, time will tell.

Regardless of what thoughts these questions stir in your own minds, what we do know for certain is ‘Age of Conan’ is not highly-anticipated for nothing; it offers so much, something unique, and does so very, very boldly. Will ‘Age of Conan’ truly be a “next-gen” MMO? That is yet to be determined, but a hope all fans of the game have is that Funcom will continue to set new benchmarks and create a new standard in MMO gaming. Here’s hoping ‘Age of Conan’ will be “all that”.

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

Out.

Want to contact me? Then email me here.
© Stephen Spiteri, October 2007

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