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I have to admit that I was quite humbled when I opened my email one morning to discover a message in there from Funcom inviting me to attend their ‘Age of Conan’ community event in mid-January. I was well and truly gob-smacked at the thought of being physically present in the Funcom offices, and even now, not even a week after being there, I’m still finding it quite difficult to sedate the little geek inside of me (okay, I lie; the geek all over me) after seeing what I saw in the Funcom offices on Friday, January 19.

Meeting the developers and management staff was an excellent experience, as those of us invited to the community event were able to meet people like Gaute Godager, Jørgen Tharaldsen, Erling Ellingsen, and the other famous faces familiar to us ‘Age of Conan’ fans. Not only did we meet with these people in a professional setting, but a social one too as Funcom treated us to dinner at a “Stygian” restaurant and took us on what we Australians call a “pub crawl” then after. Good times, good times. But let me just make it clear now that what ever happened after leaving the Funcom offices stays in Oslo (“the first rule of Fight Club is: You do not talk about Fight Club!”), but I will assure the Australian readers out there that I represented our country well (*grin*).

Anyway, I’ll bet that you, the Mitra’s Method faithful, are dying to read on and find out what I have learned about ‘Age of Conan’ and its progress through the beta stage. You have no doubt already read bits and pieces on other reputable MMO gaming and ‘Age of Conan’ fansites, so I will try not to repeat too much of what they have put on there, but I can promise you that you will get an idea of things as I saw them. It’s why you guys (and gals) have kept on coming back here after all; 21 times over the last 10 months you’ve seen things as I have seen them (and on occasion have disagreed with me) and tolerated my occasional long-windedness. What’s my point here? Without you, the Mitra’s Method faithful, I probably would never have made it to Oslo in the first place. It was your enthusiasm for the work I put out that was my ticket to Norway, so how do I thank you for getting me there? Well, I’ll save thankyous and acceptance speeches for much later on, but for now it’s what you came here to see in the first place. Enjoy!

imageThe day began with us press and fansite representatives being taken by minivan just outside the Funcom office building where we were first greeted by Erling Ellingsen and lead up towards the building via a short walk. It was here where we got our first taste of things to come for the day: a man dressed in Nordic/Viking garb wielding a sword on horseback. “Welcome to Funcom!” he uttered as we were then escorted to the parking lot just outside the front door of the office building, only to be beset upon by another man on horseback wielding a sword obviously trying to prevent us from entering the premises. After a topsy-turvy battle between the two, it was our escort’s female Ranger companion that saved the day and helped us gain entry into the building. If you ask me, it wasn’t exactly the Ranger’s archery skills that stopped the would-be attacker in his tracks; I’ve never seen so many camera flashes go off just for one young woman doing a bit live-action role-playing.

We were ushered to the boardroom where we were first briefed by Gaute Godager, game director for ‘Age of Conan’, and he explained where Funcom have come from in developing the game and why they decided to use the Conan license for their next MMORPG title. Gaute explained that especially within Norway and other northern European countries, there was a massive fan-following of Robert E. Howard’s Conan and a deep appreciation of the world of Hyboria. John Milius’ Conan movie, Gaute went on to explain, gave the Conan license global exposure, revealing Conan the Barbarian to the rest of the world and where Howard’s works were only esteemed by strong cult followings. What was observed by Gaute, however, was that the Conan movies had somewhat “cheesed up” the Conan franchise and as a result the name “Conan” became only synonymous with the “Governator” himself, Arnold Schwarzenegger. This in itself was not entirely a bad thing, but it was certainly a stigma that Gaute and Funcom endeavoured to detach themselves from when taking on the Conan license and developing a game set in Conan’s Hyboria; the world that Robert E. Howard had brought to life in the 1930s.

imageIt was a “back to basics” approach that Funcom had decided to pursue when first putting ‘Age of Conan’ to the concept stage of the game’s development. Not to discredit the Hollywood Conan movies completely, Gaute did concede that the films did serve as a sort of visual inspiration for the game’s dark and rugged look, but it was decided that Funcom would produce a Conan game that went right to the roots, and draw most of its inspiration from the original Robert E. Howard stories and the very popular Dark Horse and Marvel Conan comics. From there, it was now not only a matter of developing a game that broke the mould conceptually, but technically, as Funcom endeavoured to bring “action” to the combat and character interactivity with ‘Age of Conan’. Given the setting and mood of the game, Gaute stated that they felt ‘Age of Conan’ was the perfect opportunity to revolutionise the level of interactivity players would have with their characters in the game and with combat in general, and at initially Funcom were told “it couldn’t be done”, to which Gaute would reply “Bull@#$%!” It was this vision that has carried Funcom through over the last four and a half years, and to the surprise of their many critics, they seem to be pulling it off. The briefing was concluded with Gaute finishing on, “So that’s where we’ve come from… this game is going to kick ass!”

The game was then loaded up for as and we were shown some features of the game that had not previously been showcased to the public: crafting and keep/city building (PvP). Associate Producer, Morten Byom, took us through one of three crafting and city-building zones, the Lacheish Plains. In ‘Age of Conan’, players and guilds will be able to choose where they would like to do their crafting and build their keep and are given three options: the afore-mentioned Lacheish Plains in Cimmeria; the Purple Lotus Swamp in Stygia; and Poitain located in Aquilonia. Players will begin developing their crafting and tradeskills when they enter a friendly NPC village within the zone and begin collecting crafting quests or tasks. Funcom has made the decision to avoid crafting models found in other MMORPGs, namely “make ‘x’ amount to reach the next crafting tier”, and gone with a quest-based and story-driven approach even with their crafting system. As a player progresses through the crafting quests they will be given new recipes and the ability to harvest resources of a better quality and ultimately create better and stronger items. You will not be able to attain crafting quests anywhere apart from these three crafting playfields (Lacheish Plains, the Purple Lotus Swamp, and Poitain), but you will be able to craft anywhere as long as you have the recipe(s) and ingredients/resources you need. So no having to run miles and miles to the nearest forge or working station, you are your own working station. Of course, as a role-playing element, players can always find themselves an area with a forge or a working bench if they feel that hammering on an invisible anvil does little for the sake of immersion and a decent role-playing experience.

The different primary tradeskills that will be featured in ‘Age of Conan’ will be the armour smith, weapon smith, alchemist, architect, and the gem cutter. Secondary tradeskills will consist of acquiring the skills needed to harvest the resources required for your given primary tradeskill. For example, an armour smith will need to harvest iron and leather in order to make certain armour types. As a player progresses through the crafting quests, as earlier mentioned, they will be given access to recipes that will create better and stronger items, which of course will require better ingredients and resource types to create them. So basic resources means basic items, and rare ingredients and resources means rare items, to put it in a nutshell, but all these resources you need can be found in the crafting playfields, so it’s not like you will have to explore for hours and hours or walk for miles and miles to find one piece of the resource that you require.

In terms of resource gathering and inventory storage, ‘Age of Conan’ will feature a separate inventory page for resources containing 100 slots, along with a separate page for normal inventory items (loot, potions, food, etc.) and a separate page for quest items. So a player will very rarely have to worry about making room or deciding between a resource or loot item when placing things in their inventory slots.

imageCrafted items will also bear a gem slot once being made, but slotted items can only be crafted and cannot be found any other way in the game. Going on from that, using the same recipe for a certain item, if better or rarer ingredients or resources are used, not only will a better item be made, but the crafted item will bear more gem slots, up to four slots. Gems will be items that you will be able to find in the world, either dropped by monsters or other mobs, or harvested and crafted by players with the gem cutter tradeskill. Gems will provide you with some sort of bonus when placed into a crafted item, like bonuses to health, damage, and so on. Basically, if you craft an item or are given a crafted item with a few gem slots, you can add the gems you want with their associated bonuses to make it as versatile as you desire it to be.

At the moment, players can only begin the crafting quests and kick-start their tradeskill paths at level 40, but we were informed that the developers want to bring this down to level 20, so I guess we’ll hear more about that at a later date.

Because of a busy schedule laid out in front of us, we could only spend a little bit of time looking at keep/city building, but building a city is simply a matter of choosing an area to build your city using the guild GUI. The locations are the same as the crafting playfields: Lacheish Plains, the Purple Lotus Swamp, and Poitain. Using the guild city GUI can teleport you directly to the city site where you can immediately begin construct a keep and other city buildings. We assumed that a guild would have to have quite a lot of money and resources to begin building a city, but that’s not to say you need a massive amount of guild members to begin building a guild city. You will need at least 30 members in your guild to begin building a keep, which appears to be a very casual player-friendly number. We were also informed that there is currently no limit to the size of your guild, that is, you can have as many people in there as you want. Yes, I did say “currently”, but it didn’t sound like a detail that’s going to change any time soon; this sort of freedom is met with well by players in general as it will provide guild leaders will a relative ease in managing large-sized guilds.

Around the keep/city-building playfield are location markers where you can construct certain building types. It was noted that a keep had to be constructed first before anything else could be laid down. The rest of the guild city is built around the keep; it’s essentially the “hub” of the player city. Each city instance will allow up to three guild to build their cities, but it’s important to keep in mind that is completely separate to sieging and Border Kingdoms combat where there will be nine physical locations to build and control resources; these will be the areas that will be fought over when a guild wants to lay siege against another guild (I’ll come back to talk more about sieging in a bit more detail a bit later).

From here we were divided up into two groups and my group was taken on a tour through different parts of the Funcom offices lead by Erling Ellingsen. This was an opportunity to see the groundwork of this game; the developers hard at work making this game what it is set out to be on May 20, 2008.

imageOur first stop was the motion-capture studio where we were introduced to designer, Ketil Støren, otherwise known as “the motion-capture guy”, who was dressed in a black lycra suit with photo-sensitive baubles tacked on which made him look more like a Christmas tree than a “dancing machine of death” (my photos didn’t do him much justice either, I must admit), but it was very impressive to see him in action and gain an insight into his knowledge of medieval fighting techniques and swordplay. The motion-capture studio is set up in a fashion very similar to this, which gives Ketil plenty of room to swing swords and often play the victim to his own fatality moves. It was at this point some of remembered that it was mentioned that horse and other mount movement was also motion-captured, and suddenly the manifestations of a horse dressed up in a black lycra suit with photo-sensitive baubles tacked on entered our minds. We were told that all the motion-capturing for horses and other mounts took place in a large warehouse in London, but with no lycra suit involved (the RSPCA might have had a few words to say if this had been the case).

Ketil demonstrated a few fatality moves and explained to us briefly the sort of work he puts into capturing these animations, and to give you some sort of idea how hard this guy has been working, he has motion-captured several hundred combat animations and scores of fatality moves. Where fatality moves are concerned, Ketil plays the attacks and the victim, so things need to be quite theatrical as you can imagine. He certainly impressed us with his exceeding level of professionalism and the amount of heart he puts in to every blow and swing of his sword. All of these equates to a realistic and fluid look when players themselves become a dancing machine of death.

It was on to sound and audio engineering next, where we were introduced to Morten Sørlie who took us through what it takes to make sound and music sound extra special in ‘Age of Conan’. First, we were shown the audio development tool that was made in-house and how it is used to script different individual sounds together to make a sound effect for a spell. If I remember correctly, the spell sounds effects were for a Demonologist’s spell, and step by step we were shown the individual sounds used to make the finished product. It basically begins with a concept, and this is where Morten and his team attempt to envisage how the overall spell should sound. For this spell in particular, it was like putting in a blender the sounds of murmuring and groans played backwards, some claustrophobic screams, the crackling of fire, and a firebolt shooting off in a direction. When you put it all together you’ve got a very hellish, dark, tormenting, and murky sound that by itself will probably make you ask yourself if you remember to wear your brown underpants.

imageIf it’s not the sounds themselves that will make you soil yourself, perhaps you’ll hit the “brown note” with Funcom making ‘Age of Conan’ 5.1 surround sound standard for the game. Morten played for us a musical piece from the game, a Cimmerian theme, first in stereo, and then we were able to hear it in 5.1 surround sound. Morten put particular emphasis on the point that they wanted to make the game sound fantastic even on stereo sound, but to blow the minds of people running things on a 5.1 sound card audio device. It’s difficult to make out the difference on the video that I will be posting in a couple of days, but let me tell you first-hand there was a significant difference in the quality, but that, of course, is not taking anything away from the way the music sounded in stereo; absolutely stunning. The game will of course support 7.1 sound cards and audio devices.

We next caught a glimpse of Funcom’s famed “Dreamworld” engine at work, and we got to see right in front of us just how powerful this tool was. At the time, a developer was doing some touch-ups on the Tortage areas, but he was able to raise and lower terrain with the press of a button, or add sand, create a channel for water, and even age terrain to give the impression that this land had been there for several million year; real Discovery Channel stuff, I guess. Erling explained to us at this point that one of the goals of Funcom for ‘Age of Conan’ was to create a very deep and immersive world, but in order to give the game this benchmark-setting detail, it meant they couldn’t go with a “seamless” like you’d find in ‘World of Warcraft’ or ‘Lord of the Rings Online’. This is a point of contention for many fans out there hoping to try the game soon, but as someone that has played games like ‘City of Heroes/Villains’, the design decision makes sense and works well. A seamless world might have made sense for ‘Age of Conan’ if every nation, city, and region had been included in the game at launch, but one gets the feeling that that would mean skimping on the details that make Hyboria as we see it in the game now, and quite likely reduce it something you might find stuck on with a magnet to a fridge: a very mundane, repetitive, bland, child’s drawing rather than a deep, rich, and lush environment.

imageQuality Consultant, Trond Ivar Hansen, was our next stop, and he showed off a playfield containing the 1500 armour types that players will be able to see and wear in-game. We were told that armour sets were first divided into cultures (Aquilonian, Cimmerian, Stygian, Shemite, etc.) and then divided into armour types (cloth, medium armour, heavy armour, and full-plate armour). The completed sets on each of the NPCs in the playfield looked very impressive, but the part that impressed me the most was understanding that a player would be able to wear different pieces from different sets and generate for themself a very unique look. On top of that, social clothing can be worn on top of or underneath armour to further generate that sense of individuality that players tend to look for in a social gaming environment. We were assured that while you might find someone wearing one or two identical armour pieces to what you are wearing, the chance of them wearing exactly the same as you is quite low. But hopefully this sense of style and individuality will not remove from functionality, that is, looking good but sacrificing bonuses that a particular piece of armour might have to offer simply because it does not adhere to personal superficiality.

We met back with Morten Byom to learn about sieging. Now, the information that was most important to me any I guess anyone living outside of Europe and the United States, was lockout times, vulnerability windows and server time schedules. Coming into this community event, a major concern shared by said players and those playing on alternate play-schedules, were these three factors. Our fear was that during our peak play time Oceanic and other guilds playing on alternate play-schedules would be when these lockout times occur, forcing vulnerability windows to open when most of us would be either at work or studying. Thankfully, this was not the case as we were informed by Morten. Guilds will be able to set their own vulnerability window, but they need to be attacked/defend their keep regardless. A guild can hold a keep for two days before setting a vulnerability window (the two days is the lock-out time); this allows time to gather held resource nodes and so forth. The game client will recognise your own local time even if you are playing on an EU or US server, so it’s my understanding that lock-out times and so forth will not be running on a US-based time schedule per se, but will completely depend on when other guilds set their vulnerability windows. In order for a defending guild to win, they need to fend off the challenging guild for 90 minutes. If the challenging guild has not taken the keep within that time, the defending keep retains the keep.

imageThis sieging system, at least for us in Oceania, is a bit of a double-edged sword, but is certainly workable; it will just require a bit of negotiating with other guilds resident to the country the server is located in, and arranging a time that is suitable for both, so possibly a Friday night or a day on the weekend. It also means guilds in Oceania can set their own vulnerability window to a time that is completely and perceivably inconvenient to guilds resident to the country the server is located, and thus a keep and resource areas could be perpetually held, but on the flipside, it means that a guild resident to the country where the server is located could lay siege/challenge for a keep or resource area at a time that is not convenient for Oceanic guilds and others playing on alternate play-schedules. But like I said, the system is workable, and who knows? It might be tweaked further before or post-release. Apart from all of this, the siege machines looked very impressive and I can imagine battle-keep raids being on of those things in ‘Age of Conan’ that will add to the overall longevity and replayability of the game, even once players have reached level 80.

I’ve saved one of the best until last (that is until you hear from me again tomorrow), and this is where I share what I learned about mounts and mounted combat. Stein Erik Jenset, mount and mounted combat designers, used the analogy that mounts in ‘Age of Conan’ were much like the vehicles in ‘Grand Theft Auto’, and that is in the way each different type of mount had certain strengths and flaws and might be used in different situations. Stein described the horses in ‘Age of Conan’ as your typical sports car: very fast with great turning and handling; and the mammoth, as the second example, like the bus: slow to get moving, slow acceleration, a very large turning circle, but carried with it great momentum which makes it the ideal crushing and battering weapon. Players will of course be able to wield weapons on horseback, both ranged and melee, but the use of melee weapons on the mammoth is restricted due to being up so high in the first place. The mammoth itself is used as the weapon combining its speed and flaying of tusks to crush your opponents and fling them away like a used rag. Players will be able to used ranged weapons if on a mammoth. The horse doesn’t miss out on being used as a weapon itself, as the player is able to use it to kick opponents in front with the front legs and behind with the hind legs.

imageMounts will be available to players at level 40, but I asked the question of perhaps allowing players access to a very simply mount at level 20 just to get from place to place, not mounted combat what so ever. Stein then told us they were looking into doing this, but making the mount at this level simply a sheer convenience rather than a sign of the player’s prestige. It was suggested that a low-level mount like this would be a donkey or a pony, nothing spectacular, but as promised, just something to get a player from place to place, nothing more. Riding a donkey or pony into Tarantia certainly would not add to your character’s credibility as a dancing machine of death, but I suppose this would be the price one would pay for convenience, and it might be enough just to get one through to level 40 where they would start feeling more like a marauding warrior on a sleek yet dangerous horse, war mammoth, battle rhino, or camel. Mounts will come in a variety of colours and so forth, so again that sense of individuality stems from being able to choose what colour and mount type a player would want to venture out into Hyboria with. Mounted combat itself is certainly going to add a new dynamic to PvP and siege warfare, as it is something completely new to MMOs. From what Stein showed us, things are looking great and I get the feeling that riding and fighting a mount in ‘Age of Conan’ will provide many players with that “Awesome!” feeling in their minds.

This is where I’m going to leave things for today, but tomorrow I will be back with a hands-on report on the game itself, where I will be sharing my experience in a dungeon raid and capture-the-flag PvP, so stay tuned for that and more coming over the next couple of days. To keep you sated until then, be sure to check out the updated photo gallery located here.

Until tomorrow, this is Stephen “weezer” Spiteri,

Out.

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

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