Some might say they saw it coming, but no one was really quite certain. But just in case you’ve been living under a rock or passed out for the last week or so in a tavern in Broken Leg Glen, Funcom have officially announced that their game, ‘Age of Conan’, was being pushed back until March 25, 2008. Not surprisingly, many of us were disappointed with the announcement, but knew it was for good reason(s) as community manager, Pharamond, pointed out in his letter to the ‘Age of Conan’ community. Game Director, Gaute Godager, also threw his hat into the ring as he explained in very great detail the reasons behind the game’s delay in his address to the community as part of last week’s Friday Update. To summarise, the main reason behind the delay is a shaping up of Funcom’s already trademarked real-time combat system to make it more accessible to new players in the first few hours of gameplay, and more flexible as a player progresses their character throughout the game.

“The [beta] feedback has especially been on the entry barriers to the game, and how people are learning and coping with the combat system in the first few hours of gameplay.” – Pharamond, August 10, 2007

“We give people the opportunity to not only have two, four, six or eight combos available, but as many as they want! To do this, they have to start the combo with a clickable, but the GUI around this is much more uniform. You still have to do up-right, left, etc. to execute the combo though. Today there are eight slots for spells, four slots for clickables, and eight slots (that you cannot click on) for combos. It will be now hotkey bars where you put what you want where you want.” – Gaute Godager, August 10, 2007

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We all have our different coping mechanisms for dealing with the game’s delay, be it a post in the few “You suck, Funcom!” or “This is the last straw…” type threads on the official ‘Age of Conan’ forums, or conversely, posting in the “You’ve made the right decision, Funcom” and “We’re behind you all the way” threads that have consisted of a surprising amount of support behind the March 25, 2008 push-back. We’ve been assured by Funcom that this delay will be for the better and that on March 25, 2008, we won’t be receiving a good MMORPG, but a great one.

As Gaute Godager himself conceded, people are will be disappointed with this decision. We know that it is in human nature to move on to the “next best thing” if we are simply made to wait around too long. However, I’m not here this fortnight to write about those people moving on to “better” things, and nor am I writing this fortnight to encourage anyone even remotely interested in ‘Age of Conan’ to stick around and fill your mind with clichés like “the best is yet to come” or “we’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg”. Moreover, I am not attempting to get those people having already made a decision to “leave” the game’s community to prolong their presence by saying “You’ll be sorry if you leave” or “Fine, you’ll be the one missing out anyway” (that’s fanboy-speak). No, this edition of Mitra’s Method is all about you, those in for the long haul where it’s “‘Age of Conan’ or bust!”, those who plan on sticking around during these next few months of development highly anticipating the moment where you first plant your feet in Hyboria – it’s all about the waiting game.

The waiting is the hardest part, and with seven months to fill between now and March 25, 2008, we might be asking ourselves, “What on earth am I going to do during that time?” Well, I think this is a perfect opportunity to revisit a few suggestions I made in my very first edition of Mitra’s Method exactly five months ago. To summarise: read/purchase Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories; scour the internet, i.e. do a bit of reading into Conan lore on various fansites (I recommend this site and this one as a good places to start); and of course, get yourself involved in the online ‘Age of Conan’ community, namely on the official ‘Age of Conan’ forums and by signing up for Funcom’s Clan of Conan newsletter over at the official ‘Age of Conan’ website. So in essence, get to know Howard, get to know Conan, get to know Hyboria, get to know Funcom, and get to know ‘Age of Conan’ (in that order)!

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Next, there’s leaving and discussing feedback regarding the game itself. If there’s something you’d like to see implemented in-game, there’s a way of suggestion, and if there’s something you’ve seen that you don’t like, there’s a way of critique as well. This is something very important to keep in mind especially when remembering that next week in Leipzig, Germany, Funcom will be showing off ‘Age of Conan’ at the annual Games Convention (August 23 to 26) and holding an exclusive Siege Combat demonstration. There’s bound to be a strong press presence at the event, so naturally, the ever critical eye of the gaming public will no doubt feast themselves upon morsels of ‘Age of Conan’. We can only hope that the demonstration goes well for Funcom and without a hitch to speak of, but regardless of how it goes, there’s a way to leave feedback and suggestions as recommended by a few of the developers of ‘Age of Conan’ themselves (and yes, if you recognise these tips, they are from a previous edition of Mitra’s Method).

Lead Designer, Ole Herbjørnsen, says:

“One thing to keep in mind is that there are a lot of lurkers from the dev team on the official forums. They read what you write and discuss with their peers. Sometimes we agree with the input from the fans and make changes; one example being the revamp of the class names. Other times the suggestions are good but there may be inherent technical limitations which prevents us from incorporating them no matter how good they are. Another source of information are the polls which some of the dedicated fans have setup for the community. These are great and allow us to get a feel for what the community thinks is important!

When it comes to specific advice on providing input I think first of all it is essential to clearly explain why something will or will not work. How does the suggestion fit in to the bigger picture and how do you think it will impact gameplay and result in a positive gaming experience. Citing good examples will help people to visualise and connect with the idea you are proposing as well. This will make it easier to follow your line of thought, and it shows that you know what you are talking about.”

Jason Stone, known to many as “Athelan”, consolidates Ole’s advice by speaking about the four “Be’s”:

“The most simple rule of thumb or piece of advice I can give as far as feedback goes is this ‘Ideas are plentiful, solutions are rare’ it’s not the brainstorming a basic premise or cool idea that creates the challenge, it’s finding a way to make it happen. All games and MMOs to an extreme are so complex and things are so tied together in mysterious ways that might not be apparent to an end-user.

Be precise – Most of the time developers will not have a lot of time to read what it is you have to say, especially if it is buried deep in a thread;
Be objective – Try to keep your post objective about what it is you are discussing and not cover a bunch of non related issues into a single post;
Be patient – We can’t change everything, instantly. Try to think of how the changes or ideas you are supporting would have to be implemented and the additional cost in time that might require; and
Be respectful – While you may feel that a design decision is wrong, or not in line what you would like to see there are many, many factors that go into game design decisions many of which you might not be aware of. We all make mistakes, but try to give us the benefit of the doubt.

If people follow these guidelines in general I quite enjoy reading their feedback and do take it seriously. Even if it is not something that ends up being changed we are always interested in the input.”

A time and place where feedback and suggestions count and their absolute most is during beta testing, and with General Beta becoming an even closer reality for some (namely the ~150 individuals who received guaranteed beta spots in the Beta for Veterans “in-house” promotion), precision and succinctness in your feedback and suggestions are crucial to the on-going development of the game, as has been the case with the word of the reshaping to the combat system (Funcom System Designer, “Jayde”, explains a bit further). Ørjan Mathis Tvedt, Senior QA and Customer Service Manager, explains what mediums beta testers have on offer when leaving their feedback and suggestions:

“One of the most important reasons to have a beta is to gather feedback from the test community. Now, getting the feedback is a different matter. You can always use different channels such as forums, in-game tools and server tools which basically gather whatever data you want or need. We use a good mix of everything.

Closed beta forums where our test community has access
Here you’ll find dedicated Funcom employees who gather feedback from the testers via the forums. A selection of the development team can also ask direct questions to the testers if needed. A nice way to get a general grasp on what the testers like and what they don’t like. The community also bring up very valuable suggestions during the whole beta phase that is brought to the development teams attention.

In-game tools
By using tools which the tester access from within the game you’ll also get more feedback. As soon as the tester meets a problem or get a good idea they’ll be able to access report tools from within the game while their ideas is still fresh in their memory. Here we also have dedicated people who go through all the feedback we get from the community. If it’s a bug we have an internal team trying to reproduce the problem before sending it to the production team. In that way our Quality Assurance team can add additional information if needed. If they have problems reproducing the problem they’ll be able to contact the tester directly for further testing.

Server tools
Basically a datamining system which logs trends in the game. This is a good way to notice unbalanced content without actually getting the feedback directly from the testers. It’s not always that tester A knows that tester B, C, D etc. has been getting the same sort of problems.

Most important don’ts are: Don’t assume that someone else already reported the problem; we can never get enough feedback or bug reports from our test community.”

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Fortunately a lot of us have real-life commitments to wrangle with to help make the next seven months float on by. I, myself, will be kept extra busy over the next few months with making preparations for my wife’s and my first child due in mid-April (yes, we found out very recently). But like any loving parent would do, Funcom wants the best for their baby, ‘Age of Conan’ (was that tie-in too cheesy?), and so they are investing a lot of time into their game, so that we, its benefactors, are able to get out of it what Funcom are promising. Can we expect to be kept in the loop about everything that’s going on with the game’s development at the moment? Probably not. Do you want a polished and finely-tuned game at release? I’d put my life on it! Does this take time to accomplish? Yes it does. Is the waiting the hardest part? Yes, but it doesn’t need to be if even you, the committed ‘Age of Conan’ fan, can do what ever it takes to get yourself into Howard’s and Funcom’s Hyboria. Without involvement, there’s no commitment.

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

Out.

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

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