It’s finally here! After months, and months of waiting, Pandora’s Box has been opened and the euphoric pandemonium that is invitational (external) beta testing has been presented to us, and we are oh so willing to respond in a cacophonous decorum (Okay, no more oxymorons or poetic contradiction from this point on).

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Oh the elation! Within weeks or months we’ll be downloading our ‘Age of Conan’ clients and getting a hands-on look at what the work-horses over at Funcom have been developing for the last few years. We’ve been wowed and impressed with what the Funcom team has had to show us in videos, screenshots, previews, and blogs, and yes, we get to experience it all for ourselves now. But of course, we need to be selected for beta testing in the first place.

I could very well spend the next few paragraphs or so explaining to you guys what to expect in a beta test, who should get in, and so on, but that would be wasting the time of most of you since, no doubt, you’ve all had some experience in beta testing an MMORPG. Funcom, in their application pages, have already given some indication of what to expect in the different phases of their invitational beta testing (“Technical”, and “General”), so I don’t think I need to rehash any of that information, but what I would like to do instead is offer some advice to you all, you adventuring ‘Age of Conan’ beta testers, all conscripted and awaiting your call of duty.

Firstly I would like to discuss NDA, the ‘Non-Disclosure Agreement’. Funcom will have drafted their own NDA for ‘Age of Conan’ beta testing, which would outline that anyone testing the software during the time in which the NDA is valid, agrees not to disclose (“leak”, “blab” or reveal) any information about the game covered by the agreement. If you’re accepted into beta, expect to receive one of these with the invitation in your email, and read it carefully! An NDA is a legal contract, so by accepting to actually take part in beta testing (and who wouldn’t accept the invitation?), you are agreeing to the terms and conditions outlined in the NDA. In layman’s terms, you “cross your heart and hope to die” that you will not tattle about ‘Age of Conan’ until Funcom says so… or else (or else the dreaded Fnarlclop will hunt you in your sleep)!

My advice to the beta tester in response to NDA is this: if you get in to the early stages of beta, don’t tell anyone, not even your guildmates, and not even your pet dog/cat/snake/tarantula. If you need to tell someone that badly that you’re beta testing ‘Age of Conan’, tell yourself! No, I’m not suggesting you adopt schizophrenic behaviours, but rather perhaps starting a journal or log of your experiences in-game (I’ve used a Dictaphone and note-pad and pen in the past). This way, by the time NDA is lifted you have a wealth of knowledge to share about the game – enough to impress and “wow” your friends and gaming buddies. Aside from becoming the Confucius of Hyboria, you would also be arming yourself with detailed and specific information to provide Funcom ‘Age of Conan’ developers adequate feedback in order to make those all-important tweaks and tinkers in the game.

It’s normal practice for MMO developers to establish a beta discussion forum or chat room so that beta testers are able to post not only their thoughts and comments about what they have experienced thus far, but also to inform developers of those bugs and glitches a player may come across. Bug reporting and content feedback is crucial to development. As Funcom Community Manager, “Silirrion” explained in a recent post:

“…beta testing is much more than fun and games (excuse the pun) and those who are admitted into the beta are expected to provide useful feedback to the developers. It’s an important job, and though we do hope you will have fun during the beta process, we’re also depending on you to help us bring the game up to the level of quality we all want.”

So by all means, have fun, but don’t forget: you, the beta tester, now have a responsibility to help make ‘Age of Conan’ a better game for the many thousands of eager gamers ready to bust down store doors to get a copy of a well-polished and finely-tuned game.

Okay, so there’s your mission briefing: test, log, inform and feedback; now let’s talk about what we’re all really concerned about: making the most of your beta experience!

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There’s no doubt most of us would relish to try ‘Age of Conan’ before purchasing it, and yes, while beta testing is a good opportunity to do that, as mentioned above there does lie within that duty of testing and providing feedback, but it doesn’t always have to be such a mechanical process. In the “General” phase of beta testing, players will be given the opportunity to test the game content itself, so as a tester, you’ll be putting character development (levelling up… uhh, “grinding”), feats, crafting, PvP (general), questing, city building, sieges, trading, drunken brawling, and so on, all through the proverbial ringer. Depending on when you get into to beta, it can all seem like a lot to get through in a limited amount of time. Understandably, you’d want to try everything as soon as you get in [to beta], but in order to make the most of the opportunity, my advice to you would be to make the experience as methodical as possible.

Firstly, I would spend a good hour or so (at least) on character creation: slide every slider; check through every skin tone, hair colour, eye colour, hair type, hair length, facial hair type, facial hair length; make yourself buff like Arnold Schwarzenegger, make yourself look as malnourished as Paris Hilton; you get the idea. And when you’ve had enough of a chance to get yourself used to the character customisation controls, make yourself a character so over the top just for the sheer novelty of it all – just because you can! I tend to make my own characters as close to my own appearance as possible (Yeah, yeah, yeah, “So they’re pretty ugly then?” I can already hear you thinking it!), so if given the opportunity I would go down the path of the ridiculous. I would do my best to create the likeness of a celebrity, and save my own likeness for when the game goes live. So if you happen to see the likeness of one of the following celebrities in beta: Patrick Stewart, Bill Gates, Dolly Parton (shouldn’t be too hard to spot), Borat, or Martha Stewart; don’t hesitate in saying “G’day!”

Once you’ve decided on your race and finished making your beta character you’ll be thrusted into the world to fight a few levels, where at level five you’ll need to decide on an archetype, a Priest, Soldier, Rogue, or Mage. With race restrictions in mind, I would play the archetype you wouldn’t normally play in any other MMORPG. I tend to play melee/tank classes (Soldier archetype in ‘Age of Conan’), myself, so I would be more inclined to try something contrary to that particular style of play, perhaps something a bit more “fragile” like a Priest or a Mage. The idea would be to play something that will make you think, “So this is what it’s like on the other side”. Beta is the perfect time to entertain curiosity and experimentation, and who knows? You might just roll that character once the game goes live.

The next part of your journey takes you on your way to level 20, getting used to the Hyborian environment, but more locally, the island of Tortage. Tortage is basically the “tutorial” island and will get you used to the combat engine, interacting with NPCs, questing alone, questing with a group (although limited at that stage), equipping your character, and utilising the game’s communication functionality and so on. When you hit level 20, it will be time to select your class, and continuing with the advice from above, you should pick something unfamiliar to you. I’ve got my heart set on playing a Guardian once the game goes live, so if I was going to play something contrary to the traditional “tank” role, in this game’s terms, I personally would play a Priest of Mitra simply because I spent so much time in other MMOs being healed by said healers, so it’s time I put the shoe on the other foot.

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So now you’re in the big, wide world of Hyboria, and in the nation of your character’s origin (Cimmerians start in Cimmera, Aquilonians in Aquilonia, and so on, at level 20). Here’s where things get more methodical. You’re going to want to now divide your time evenly between the various features of the game available at that particular time: PvP, Siege warfare, player-made cities, mounted combat, working out combo moves and fatalities, soloing, questing with a group, PvE levelling, PvP levelling, and so on (crafting/prestige classes are selected further beyond level 20). It really depends on your own style of play, but my recommendation would be to manage your time in each game content feature accordingly, almost as if you were to timetable your play to a daily routine. So divide your time – don’t spend too much of it doing just the one thing.

If the average player (and I mean those with jobs at least anyway) spends about three to five hours a day playing this game, you could rotate your play time so that you’re spending at least half of that time on PvE content (quests and the sort), and the rest divided between the other features afore mentioned. For example, you could spend an hour questing solo, the next hour questing with a group, an hour or so in the Border Kingdoms engaged in PvP, and the rest of your time devoted to building your player-made city or battle keep. The next day you might even want to spend most of your time on horseback exploring Hyboria so that once the game goes live you’re already familiar with the world.

‘Age of Conan’ promises each player a massive world to explore, and lots to do within that. If you get into beta, the best thing to do would be to get a taste of everything, put it through the ringer and so forth, but not so much that it’s going to be old-hat when you purchase the game and log on to the live servers for the first time. The idea would be to play differently to how you normally would in any other MMORPG (if ‘Age of Conan’ is not your first MMO), but keeping in mind that you are there to test, so don’t be afraid to experiment. An invitation to beta is a privilege, not a right, so remember: only you can prevent bugs and exploits making it to ‘Age of Conan’, and only you can help make this game better. So by Crom, let’s have some fun with it!

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

Out.

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

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