Age of Conan Editorial: The Year That Was?

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You know it’s that time of the year when news programs on television and radio begin to do those “The year that was…” specials. Really, it’s a paltry attempt in rousing people’s sense of nostalgia in order to think back on the last 365 days since the last “The year that was…” special, and really, how much have things differed in those last 365 days to the 365 days before those? But despite what others might think of such things, I’ve decided to make this edition of Mitra’s Method one of those said “The year that was…” specials, mainly because it’s last regular edition for the year, I’m sentimental at heart and I’m positively sure we’d all like to see on some sort of contrived timeline of how ‘Age of Conan’ has come along this calendar year.

imageAs 2007 rolled on it was business as usual over at Funcom, only very soon into the year hype was at its apex as ‘Age of Conan’ fans across the globe got a first glimpse of the game utilising Windows Vista and DX10 technology. At CES on January 8 of this year Funcom released a teaser-trailer of the game in its DX10 manifestation, and needless to say the game looked spectacular (you can download a copy of the video here – look for the files named “cesTRAILER” – if you haven’t had the chance to look at the video already)!

“The groundbreaking new DirectX 10 technology brings a wide range of improvements for PC games, and it has highly positive implications on the performance and looks of ‘Age of Conan’. It offers the opportunity to increase the overall performance of the game, as well as enabling better view distance, more realistic-looking characters, more special effects, more detailed environments and better lighting models. DirectX 10 delivers an incredible advancement in the evolution of computer gaming graphics.” – ‘Age of Conan’ DirectX 10 version world premiering at CES

But as most of us were salivating at the mouth and relishing the opportunity to play ‘Age of Conan’ on plan-to-purchase Windows Vista and DX10 “beast” computers, a lot of us were left wondering if the game would make its tentative March/May 2007 release date. Surely bringing the game to Vista and DX10 would have implications on the game’s development, and this is keeping in mind that the initial slated release date for ‘Age of Conan’ was a tentative September/October 2006. Of course, we had a right to be sceptical, but many were confident that even with ‘Age of Conan’ in development for Vista and DX10, a March/May release was still very plausible. I mean, a lot can happen in three to five months of development, right?

On January 25 sceptics were vindicated and many were left with a bitter taste in their mouth as Funcom announced a “final launch date” for ‘Age of Conan’. The new launched date was set to October 30, 2007:

“‘Age of Conan brings something brand new and highly innovative to the MMO genre’ says CEO Trond Arne Aas. ‘Age of Conan’ today looks and plays fantastically, as countless press previews and industry feedback attest to. Even so, we believe that by spending even more time and effort into polishing and enhancing the game we will ensure that the game reaches its full potential in terms of quality and subscriber base. We are confident that our fan base will appreciate this commitment to quality. The prolonged development time reflects our ambition to meet and exceed the expectations of our fans for this game.'” – Final launch date set for ‘Age of Conan’

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The game’s delay was received with mixed reactions, as many felt Funcom were not being totally honest with their plans for the game and the reasons behind the delay itself. The question was asked time and time over, “How much polishing can you possibly do in 10 months?” Personally, I’m of the opinion that if you polish something too much, you run the risk of scratching the once pristine and chromed surface, but since we’re talking about people that know what they’re doing and have willingly and knowingly taken a risk in delaying the game, making such a move consolidated with many an ingrained sense of belief and trust in Funcom and their ability to deliver a quality product. So, and perhaps with a bit of apprehension and an ember of what is bittersweet, we nodded our heads and said to Funcom, “Take all the time you need; we look forward to October 30, 2007”.

imageIt was at this time just as I was immersing myself into the ‘Age of Conan’ online community, that I felt I want to do more than just read up on a game that’s coming out in 10 months. To help pass the time, I got stuck in to Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories on the internet, purchasing books, reading fan sites, and so on. It was in February I expressed my interest in helping with ‘Age of Conan’ on the WarCry Network, and so I was recruited by Mike “Svengali” Bitton to write ever-insightful pieces and commentary about the game’s progress, news, and development (link to the very first edition I wrote and published). The rest is history, as they say, but I kicked things off here at the WarCry Network giving my own advice on how to pass the time and get to know Howard’s Conan and Hyboria much better. With your support, Mitra’s Method has become a joy to write and publish each fortnight and dare I say has even become much loved by those over at Funcom as well (although they mightn’t admit it).

Where was I? Oh yes, February/March 2007.

In the time between the game’s delay announcement and March of this year, that many inquisitive and eager minds were dropping the “b-bomb” on Funcom, “When is beta?” Infamous leaked beta footage had been seen on Youtube by many at this stage and so you couldn’t help but understand why so many wanted to get in on the action themselves. After all, a 10 month delay in the game’s release meant plenty of more time to beta test. And so the week leading up to Easter saw Funcom’s ‘Age of Conan’ beta program launched where fans from all over the world could apply to test the highly-anticipated MMORPG set for release on October 30, 2007.

“‘We have been waiting for this day since we started development on ‘Age of Conan’, and it will be an epic moment as we see large waves of players charging into Hyboria,'” said Gaute Godager, founder of Funcom and Game Director on ‘Age of Conan’. “As we get ready to unleash the most brutal MMO ever created we will let an increasing amount of players test our creation. With extended Beta testing for months to come we can hone and polish based on large-scale feedback, allowing us to fulfil the potential of the game.'” – Funcom and Eidos launch ‘Age of Conan’ Beta program

It was a week later that we found out that the ‘Age of Conan’ beta program had received an overwhelming response, with 50 000 applicants signing up in the first 24 hours (I can boast signing up within the first 10 minutes of the applications opening – yes, I’m a nerd!), and a total of 100 000 signing up over the Easter holiday.

“We’re naturally very pleased to see that so many dedicated gamers are signing up for the ‘Age of Conan’ Beta at such a rapid pace,” says Trond Arne Aas, CEO of Funcom. “With more than 100,000 gamers signed up in such a short time-frame our confidence in the game’s potential and its ability to be a major contender in the MMO genre continues to be strengthened.” – 100,000 gamers signed up for ‘Age of Conan’ Beta during Easter

It would be interesting to find out how many have signed up for the beta since then, but needless to say the interest expressed in ‘Age of Conan’ back then probably exceeded Funcom’s initial expectations, and was a good sign for them with the direction they were taking with the game (by the way, you can still sign up for the beta here, so get in before it’s too late!).

On June 27, Funcom managed to secure additional funding to the mark of approximately 30 million USD to further the game’s development as it approached its launch date.

“The game has recently received strong early sales indications from partners and retail channels both in the U.S. and in Europe and press and gamer expectations for ‘Age of Conan’ continue to grow strongly. To ensure an optimal launch of ‘Age of Conan’, Funcom and its key partners has through this round of funding strengthened Funcom’s marketing and operational capacity prior to launch.” – Funcom secures additional funding of approx. 30 million USD

imageThis was the boost Funcom and ‘Age of Conan’ needed heading in to a new-look E3 this year, and it was on July 11 Funcom unveiled a very cool CG trailer for the game created by the Blur Studio (you can download a hi-res or low-res copy of the video here if you haven’t seen it yet already). From July 11 to 13, Funcom was at E3 with ‘Age of Conan’, and it was here we saw a more polished, smoother-running, and better-looking ‘Age of Conan’. After months of only seeing tid-bits and morsels of the game’s progress since the game’s delay announcement back in January, we were starting to see the fruits of Funcom’s hard work and toil. In their presentation, we managed to get a look at a high-level zone of the game, Atzel’s Approach, and a high-level dungeon instance, The Black Ring Citadel, where Jørgen Tharaldsen, Funcom Product Director, gave us some insight in to how a few of the unique classes in ‘Age of Conan’ would function and what raiding/dungeon-running would be like at the high-end level. It was in this presentation as well we were introduced to a massive scary-looking demon with a peculiar “obtrusion” between its legs. Funcom’s presentation of ‘Age of Conan’ at E3 was only marred by a questionable internet connection at the hotel where the presentation took place.

With only three months to go until release, more questions were being asked of Funcom’s progress with the game. Clearly the game had come leaps and bounds as it was evident in the E3 presentation, but with a sneaking suspicion that General Beta had barely any participants to really make it worthwhile, was the October release date still attainable for Funcom? On August 10, “I told you so!” was the call of the day and ultimately the flavour of the month, as Funcom announced yet another delay to the game’s launch with the new launch date being set to March 25, 2008.

“We naturally regret that we have to push back ‘Age of Conan’. However, after careful consideration, and analysis of recent Beta feedback, we believe that the new release date is in the best interest of the gamers, our company and our owners,” said Trond Arne Aas, CEO of Funcom. “We are fully committed to delivering games with absolute qualities, and in the current MMO marketplace we know that only the best is good enough to truly succeed. With the new release date we have therefore given ourselves more time to meet and deliver on the massive expectations for the game. We are certain that our choice will ultimately pay off, and that all ‘Age of Conan’ players will get a special online experience.” – Funcom announces new release date for ‘Age of Conan’

Very understandingly, the response to this announcement was disappointing, but it was a very gutsy, humble, yet reassuring Gaute Godager (“Santa Gaute” as I now like to call him, and Funcom too, from what I hear) that addressed the community personally to explain the reasons behind the delay in his letter to the community. I expressed my thoughts on the matter in my August 17 edition of Mitra’s Method, but once again, after dealing with the shock of yet another delay to the game’s launch, we all took a deep breath, nodded and said to Funcom, “Take all the time you need; we look forward to March 25, 2008”. It was at this point that only a select-few had decided they had had enough with Funcom’s “flippancy”, and decided to cut their personal ties to ‘Age of Conan’ because apparently Funcom had been lying and keeping secrets from us all this time. Bollocks to them, I say.

imageIn what now looked like a move to ensure that strong media interest remained on ‘Age of Conan’, Funcom took the game on the road in the month of August, and unveiled one of the game’s much anticipated features, siege warfare. On August 17 at GC Leipzig, Germany, fans for the first time saw siege warfare in action and attendees of GC got some hands-on time with the game as they got down and dirty with some brutal PvP action. The response was very positive but clearly, given Funcom’s new take and direction with the combat system, more work needed to be done, but things certainly looked good. For their efforts, ‘Age of Conan’ won “Best Online Game” for GC 2007. Despite the criticism after the game’s delay, ‘Age of Conan’ was still managing to “Wow!” its critics and prove itself to be a real contender in the MMORPG market.

Since August Funcom has managed to keep us all fed with more morsels of ‘Age of Conan’ as we prepare ourselves for the new year and we all look forward to hearing more about those features that have only been touched on in interviews and so forth. There’s still quite a bit yet to be seen, but something tells me January 2008 will see the floodgates open. Call it “intuition”, but I’m going to call it: the chefs in the Funcom kitchen have decided it’s time to stop serving the hors d’?uvres or antipasto and bring out first course, but I digress…

If you could describe the year Funcom has had with ‘Age of Conan’ this year in one word, it would have to be, at the very least, “bumpy” or something synonymous with that. Yes, the delays have been disappointing, but as we saw in July at E3, the fruits of Funcom’s labour were starting to become very clear to a very sceptical and perhaps somewhat untrusting gaming public. The one thing I’m sure we can all agree on is the way in which Funcom management has handled themselves with these very difficult business decisions and their ability to maintain their integrity and vision for their game. Some might think that Funcom has lost credibility as a result of their actions (I certainly don’t), but they have moved forward, and naturally, this the way things must go, and you could use every analogy under the sun to describe it, but like I’ve said already, this is business and difficult decisions needs to be made. Unfortunately, toes do get stepped on, egg shells do get broken, and you just have to deal with the fact that in order to discover new oceans you have to lose sight of the jetty.

imageWhere are we now? Well, we know more and more testers are in General Beta, into the thousands, according to community manager, Shannon “Pharamond” Drake, and that the months since the announcement of the delay have flown by. Where to from here? If this year is any reflection on it, then 2008 is going to be absolutely massive. I’m certainly looking forward to stepping up my own efforts over the next few months to bring you quality commentary, news, and information about ‘Age of Conan’, and you’ll see the first of such in a fortnight’s time, but I’m quite sure it goes without saying that Funcom and “Santa Gaute” are preparing even themselves to bring you more and more as we say “goodbye” to the year that was 2007. If this year had bumps, then bring on the dips and loop-the-loops, by Crom!

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

Out.

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© Stephen Spiteri, December 2007


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