Mitra's Method: Stephen "weezer" Spiteri's Age of Conan Column

Mitra’s Method: Unwritten Lore in Age of Conan



“It’s Mabo, it’s the Constitution, it’s just… it’s… it’s the vibe”. My brother-in-law is in the film industry, and last week he and I were talking about the so-called “vision” of film producers. He went on to tell me a story about a script he had submitted to a potential investor, and having after read the script at a point myself, I can tell you it was pure gold, but the investors felt that to make the movie more marketable a few “changes” should be made. The recommendations my brother-in-law received were nothing short of jaw-dropping, and not in a good way, I can assure you. Had my brother-in-law gone ahead with these changes to his script, his story, what would have resulted is a far cry from what we had originally penned when writing his first draft. I even remember my brother-in-law telling me that he felt he would have experienced an overwhelming sense of disconnectedness with the project and only be selling himself out if these investors had their way.


My brother-in-law’s story made me think of the ongoing gameplay/lore debate on the official ‘Age of Conan’ forums. Most of us by now should know that the game is based on the works of pulp-fiction writer, Robert E. Howard, and 70 years’ worth of Conan lore rooted in the short stories themselves, comics, and to a lesser extent, pastiche novels and books. As ‘Age of Conan’ is a game based on a very unique license, it’s important for Funcom to realise they have the said lore to stay true to, but the opinion of most unfamiliar with the works of Howard is that you should sacrifice staying true to the lore in order to create and maintain an enjoyable gameplay experience. But of course, it’s very easy for someone unfamiliar with the lore to say such a thing and as if to highlight a “gameplay versus lore” dichotomy (yes, Svengali, I used that word again).

Personally, I’m of the opinion that in a game like ‘Age of Conan’, and any other game with such a deep, rich, and unique history behind it, it’s not a matter of “gameplay versus lore”, but rather “gameplay and lore”. It’s ridiculous to even suggest that you can take 70 years’ worth of Conan tradition and water it down completely to something unrecognisable purely for the sake of marketability. Can consumers not appreciate a good story? Do we have the inability to digest something rooted in tradition and, dare I say it, so classical? No, I’m sure we are all quite capable of absorbing something of the like, and especially all things Conan, so what’s the problem?

The problem is in fact marketability itself, and Funcom, no doubt, would have asked themselves the question: “Could this game be both fun to play and a success commercially if done ‘by the book’?” In other words, it would need to be considered what kind of game ‘Age of Conan’ would turn out to be if created by Howard himself down to the very finest detail – could a game like that be appealing to those unfamiliar the average MMO gamer and those unfamiliar with Howard’s works and Conan lore?

Now, I’ve said it a few times before in previous editions of Mitra’s Method, that I’m not an expert on Conan lore or that I claim to be one, but I acknowledge that there is a Conan lore, and like anything carrying such a cult following, it’s not something that you can so flippantly toy with and manipulate. On the flip side, we have to understand we’re talking about the gaming industry and the MMO market here, so it is with some reservation that certain liberties have to be taken by Funcom in creating a game that can be enjoyed by all MMO gamers and bring new gamers to the MMO market. It’s with these things in mind that I decided to go in to the lion’s den itself and ask these sorts of questions of Funcom Product Director, Jørgen Tharaldsen, who took some time out of his very busy schedule (namely, only returning from the United States a few days ago after taking ‘Age of Conan’ on the road) to help me give you guys some of the answers you’re after.

My first question to Jørgen: When developing a game that has 70 years’ worth of lore/tradition behind it, what measures are taken to ensure that an accurate depiction of a world with its characters is created? And his response:

“We have taken incredible steps to ensure a “true to Conan” experience in the game. This was actually one of the very first things which were discussed, “Where do we take our main inspiration from?” It was quickly decided that the original works from Robert E. Howard should be the main reference, while at the same time trying to use the comics, books and movies as an inspiration. To ensure consistency we have thus built up everything from internal lore databases, to having internal (and external) lore people. On top of that incredible amounts of research have gone into the real world to ensure a “true to life” experience. I.e. I don’t know how many encyclopedias, history books, art books, weapon books and whatnot which has been scanned and stored as “reference”, in addition to all the Conan material. After all, Howard based much of his work on a twisted version of our world, so this is a reference for us too. At the same time we are also trying to create our own version of Conan. As we are dealing with 3D space, and not comics or books, we have to ensure a great consistency and MMO experience inside the Hyborian world.

As a part of this, Conan Inc. has also been a valuable partner to play ball with, and they also have approval rights on everything we do. They too are just as eager as us to make this the “true” Conan experience. I mean, we wouldn’t want anything else, would we!”

Question two: Is “taking certain liberties” (e.g. pushing some boundaries with the lore for the sake of gameplay) with a game like ‘Age of Conan’ absolutely necessary in the gaming/MMO market? Can it ever be avoided?

“Yes, for better or worse, it is. And no, it cannot be avoided as the fun factor must always go first as we have a responsibility to ensure a best possible end-experience. Saying that, and I would like to put three lines under this, this does NOT mean that we are taking light on the lore in the game, in any shape or form. It is a constant focus for us to make this right, but sometimes we need to bend some borders, even take the lore and update it somewhat to make it fit better with gameplay. I.e. perma-death would be kinda boring, or if we couldn’t bring back any of Conan’s former (dead) enemies, and i.e. we also need strong female fighters all over. This is but a few examples, but I guess you catch my drift. We always try to wrap all we can within lore parameters though, and make it believable.”


And my final question to Jørgen: They’ve been referred to as “loremongers” on the official forums, and we have a saying here in Australia: “keep the bastards honest”. Does it put you under any sort of pressure knowing that there are fans out there that live and breathe Conan? How important is it to Funcom to keep the true fans of the Conan franchise happy with ‘Age of Conan’ and what part do such community members play in the development of the game?

“One of the great things about the Conan license is the many people following the license, in fact, this is one of our core reasons for ever developing this game. That there is a pressure following this is only natural, and something we welcome. I mean, that people are passionate about what we do is the best thing we could have hoped for! That said, we too register that there are many debates on the forums in regards to us being true to lore. Sometimes those discussion are well founded, it is hard for us to always be 100% true to lore (but we try our best!), but often it also seems that many speculate without having all the facts. What I would like everyone to know though is that Funcom has a long tradition for being a Story company. We are once again doing this with Conan. We care about stories, we care about giving our players a good experience, and we care about Conan. I am not sure how much clearer we CAN be to be honest when it comes to telling our sincere attempt to make THE Conan experience. Hopefully in the end we will not only please the most passionate followers, but also make Conan fans out of many new ones. There are so many which really doesn’t know about the depth of this universe (as all they have seen is the movies). I therefore hope that even the most cynic of lore aficionados will see that our attempt to broaden the knowledge of Conan’s universe will ultimately benefit us all.”

Thanks again go out to Jørgen for providing me with those very insightful answers.

So in short three things can be said: Funcom are committed to a “true to Conan” experience and are taking measures to ensure this happens; the fun factor and gameplay comes first, but it does not mean Funcom are taking light on the lore of the game, but as conceded, some liberties have to be taken (it’s unavoidable); and Funcom aim to please those most passionate followers of Conan but also hope to make new ones.

It will certainly be interesting to see as the game’s release draws closer and closer exactly what these “liberties” will entail and precisely how true Funcom remains to Conan lore.


Story makes the game, there’s no arguing with that as especially, in a game like ‘Age of Conan’, there needs to be a purpose, a drive, and a motivation – a “Why?” – behind the things you do in-game. A good story will immerse you and make you part of the world created before you, and while this is not the total gameplay experience, it’s certainly a very important and vital component of it. The more you feel part of something, the more you take ownership of it, and this is where the fun begins!

Have we opened up a can of worms this fortnight? I certainly hope so, because it’s over the coming week I would like to hear/read your thoughts on the gameplay/lore issue, so please, do not hesitate to contact me via the email link below and throw your hat on the rack.

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


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© Stephen Spiteri, September 2007

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