There are a few things that will always make for a great party: an abundance of free booze, an even ratio of guys to girls, music that’s just on the threshold of too loud and an enclosed space that’s nearly too crowded. Battle axes and serving wenches were never on that list for me – until last week.
Tomorrow, Norwegian developer Funcom will go live with Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures, a fantasy MMOG set in the fictional universe of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. Though it’s poised as the next World of Warcraft killer, it’s up against the most polished MMOG ever released, held aloft by millions of subscribers worldwide and one of the largest publishers in the world. The odds of Funcom wresting the top spot from Blizzard are about as likely as a fleet of Viking longships rolling into the port of Los Angeles and laying waste to Orange County – but that doesn’t mean one can’t hope.
It also doesn’t mean that Funcom can’t celebrate. With a development budget of more than $25 million, Age of Conan is reputedly the largest-scale entertainment property ever produced in Norway. In a country of less than five million pious Lutheran souls, many Funcom employees are prominent public figures, recognized and lauded in gathering places from supermarkets to mead halls. The company has even received government funding to partially finance a future project – Dreamfall Chapters, the third installment of Funcom’s The Longest Journey series. It’s clear that many Norwegians have a vested interest in the continued success of Funcom, and early numbers indicate that while Age of Conan might not be able to put more than a few cracks in the WoW monolith, it could soon find a few hundred thousand dedicated WoW players seeking asylum in Hyboria.
Which is what led me to hop on a plane from Durham, North Carolina, to Oslo, Norway. It wasn’t the lure of an all-expenses-paid trip to a beautiful European city, nor the promise of more free beer than I could possibly drink in my 36-hour stay; but the opportunity to view first-hand how the Norwegian public, gamer and non-gamer alike, viewed the release of the first MMOG to challenge the deep-seated dominance of Irvine, California’s own World of Warcraft. I found a mixture of curiosity, beautiful blond women, cautious optimism, cobblestone streets, excitement, Ringnes Pilsner, anxiety and fireworks.
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.
Before I could find a corner to curl up into, we were herded into the main auditorium, where Godager and Ellingsen whisked the audience through a one-hour tour of Hyboria, from their avatar’s miraculous escape from a shipwrecked slave galley to a chance encounter with Conan himself. Norwegian super-fans, bedecked in animal pelts and wielding plastic swords, sat in enraptured silence, while journalists from Canada to Portugal blithely pointed hand-held cameras and digital voice recorders in the general direction of the stage. On-screen, the demonstration character – affectionately named “Akerbrygge” – grew from a level one weakling, wielding only a broken oar salvaged from the scattered detritus of the sunken vessel, to a level 80 raider absorbed in the neatly unhinged chaos of high-level dungeoneering. The puppet-master behind “Akerbrygge” used his GM powers to dispense of any unnecessary trash mobs between bosses while more heavily armored characters scurried around the bursts of multicolored light. Everyone was invincible, and nothing hurt.
Bright colors and big numbers notwithstanding, a great number in the audience were hopelessly lost. Perhaps under the weight of their vacant gazes, Godager took a moment to provide some much-needed context. “The organization and practice … it’s like, you need to rehearse it many times, and then you need to perform, and it needs to be perfect. And then the boss dies, and he has a massive chest, and in that chest are two pieces of tremendously cool-looking gear. And then every 24 people in that team has killed and gotten that piece of gear, that piece of equipment, weapon or whatever – then you’re ready for the next tier.” Ellingsen, for his part, was borderline apologetic to the mainstream press in the room. “Of course, we’re moving into very hardcore territory here. Raiding is a hardcore thing, isn’t it?” he prompted Godager. It’s a feeling every gamer has experienced: attempting to vocalize your enthusiasm for a niche title to a non-gamer, only to sheepishly watch as it evaporates before you mid-thought.
The bosses felled, the meaningless loot collected (since everyone was impervious to damage, a pair of level one oarsmen with a few days to kill could have accomplished the feat), the event came to a close, and we were ushered back to the hotel with a few hours to compose our thoughts. Just as the combination of jet-lag and sleep deprivation began to sink in, we were corralled into another bus bound for an undisclosed location. A note to would-be kidnappers: Game journalists are extremely vulnerable to busses. Park a bus in front of their hotel, bound for a “secret destination” of your choice, and you have the beginnings of a very profitable human trafficking ring.
Thirty minutes to an hour later (amazingly, the “clock” function of my cell phone didn’t work without a signal), I awoke to find myself at Olso’s famous Holmenkollen, an Olympic-sized ski jump situated atop a large hill overlooking the city. Still half-asleep, I groggily imagined the implications the location had for the evening’s festivities. A Cimmerian slip ‘n slide? Mid-air rhinoceros jousting? Stygian dwarf acrobats? (Puerto Ricans would be cost prohibitive.) A few minutes of brisk Nordic air was all I needed to come to my senses. The towering structure was little more than a backdrop for the main event: a drunken Norwegian Renaissance fair. This, I quickly learned, was the best kind of Norwegian Renaissance fair.
After scaling a short flight of stairs, we found our queue – mostly everyday Norwegians and a handful of journalists – flanked on both sides by a crew of scantily clad, pike-bearing medievalists. With an almost theatrical flourish, the scene revealed itself to us: fire breathers, jousters, pigs roasting on spits. Norse warriors throwing bones, mugging for the cameras and coming to blows. Two buffets and as many open bars. I had seen enough; still smarting from a $27 sandwich the night before that nonetheless left me hungry, I made a bee-line for the caterers and didn’t look back. Soot-stained barbarians stood aghast at my lack of decorum.
Minutes later, Conan himself ascended to his throne overlooking the grounds, announced by a squire eager to rally the revelers behind the game that had, in some capacity, brought us all here. It was no use; comparatively few among us were dedicated MMO gamers, and the only roaring response from the crowd came after the subtle encouragement that we all drink as much as our stomachs could handle. For the rest of the night Conan sat, legs crossed nonchalantly, gazing with stony indifference at the crowd below him.
Then came the fireworks. Modest at first, they quickly crescendoed into a spectacle that made the Independence Days of my youth seem as exciting as a trip to the orthodontist. A rowdy Swede standing next to me – claiming to be from a “rival” developer – burst with unrestrained enthusiasm in sync with the illuminated sky above us. “Now that’s real power!” he bellowed, barely audible above the crackling din of a truly explosive finale.
From there, we were led into an underground bunker-turned “Stygian dungeon,” replete with caged belly dancers, yet another open bar, and the musical stylings of Turbonegro, a Norwegian “deathpunk” outfit that proved to be the main draw for many in attendance. Playing crowd-pleasers like “I Got Erection” and “City of Satan,” their unholy, tongue-in-cheek marriage of punk and hard rock seemed to bore into the concrete walls like a sonic jackhammer. It was the kind of music that made you want to hug someone and punch them in the mouth at the same time.
After Turbonegro closed their set, a stream of tour busses steadily transported their cargo back into the heart of the city. A few revelers retired to their hotel for the night; most continued to celebrate at the watering holes along Karl Johan’s Gate, between the Royal Palace and the city’s main transportation hub. I felt the mirth that only an unending supply of liquid courage and a roomful of strangers can provide, and the melancholy of leaving the city almost as soon as I found it.
Walking through the winding streets of Oslo at 6 A.M. (already broad daylight at this time of year), soaking up the muted colors of the cityscape before my early departure, I asked the same question that bygone E3 partygoers must have asked: Why? Intercontinental flights don’t come cheap; nor does tending bar for 500 thirsty Norsemen (and women). What could possibly justify this kind of extravagant expense?
I had only to think back to “Akerbrygge” to find an answer. No matter how big the crits, or how much virtual blood indelicately spatters onto the inside of your monitor, numbers and health bars only amount to a crude approximation of the kind of aggression that Conan embodies. The most precisely rendered finishing-move doesn’t communicate half the barbarism of watching a makeshift buckler splinter under a barrage of axeblows. Getting virtually drunk, while amusing, doesn’t typically lead to the exhilaration that a night out in meatspace can.
I’m convinced that the architects of that evening’s celebration were aware of the limitations of their source material. Robert E. Howard was certainly aware of his. As I arrived at Oslo’s Central Station with heavy eyes and sore feet, contemplating the distances I’d traveled to get a glimpse into a world that doesn’t exist, I was reminded of a line from Howard’s The Hour of the Dragon: “He grunted with satisfaction. The feel of the hilt cheered him and gave him a glow of confidence. Whatever webs of conspiracy were drawn about him, whatever trickery and treachery ensnared him, this knife was real.”
Jordan Deam has undergone more than a dozen MRI brain scans in the name of science. The results, while promising, were inconclusive.