Behind the 'Cheetah 2' performance increase in Age of Conan



While there weren't many MMO companies at CES, you could find a few doing their thing at the edges of the show. Sony Online Entertainment was certainly there, and we came away with a few choice tidbits from their games. Age of Conan was a big presence at the Games for Windows area of Microsoft's booth, and Dan O' Halloran has been reporting on what they had to offer.

I stood and chatted with Conan designer Jason Stone for a specific purpose: to get to the bottom of the newly announced 'Cheetah 2' package of upgrades. Essentially a large number of engine tweaks that are all coming together at the same time, Funcom chose CES as the perfect time to unveil their nerdy workings.

"Yesterday in our Cheetah 2 build we were able to fly over this valley with 800+ NPCs loaded, every NPC in the zone loaded, and I never dropped below about 25 frames per second. Without loading all those NPCs, I was going over 64/84 frames per second. Now, the Cheetah build we brought to show, a lot of people have been asking "Can I run the game on my computer?" and "What's it going to look like on DX9?". We've made sure we focused on what we brought here as far as Cheetah 2, is all DX9/Windows XP. We're talking about 1920 by 1200, and getting upwards of 30 to 60 frames per second – very solid Windows XP graphics. Massive, massive increase in performance, and we're really proud to be able to show that to people. We want people to know we're not going for a repeat of our Anarchy Online launch."

Read on for more on their effort to bring the shiny to the players, what it's like to work on a game non-stop for three years straight, and a view on the 'boobs and blood' debate from his side of the screen. And if you're still not all that familiar with the game, go back and read Akela's great chat with Jørgen Tharaldsen from last year.

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Massively: So, I hear that there was a big announcement yesterday! What can you tell us about Cheetah 2?

Jason Stone: Well, Cheetah 2 may sound like a bit of a misnomer. We don't want people thinking that we've gone and put in a new graphics engine at this stage of the process, because that would be rather insane. What Cheetah 2 is, is the second rendition of our proprietary Dreamworld engine that we use for Age of Conan. What we've found is that a lot of engines out there just don't work for MMOs. There are unique challenges to the genre, and so we've developed our own engine to help us.

What Cheetah 2 is, is a massive performance increase with a bunch of optimizations for the engine. Obviously, CES is a very technology-oriented show, so we felt this was a great place to unveil that and talk about a bunch of other stuff that has come in at the same time. It was also a great chance to show people who are in Beta and who have been following the game, "Hey look, we told you that we've been polishing the game, and here's the proof in the pudding."

Here on the show floor, this is our older engine. I'm at 30 frames per second on our Beta server right now. Yesterday in our Cheetah 2 build we were able to fly over this valley with 800+ NPCs loaded, every NPC in the zone loaded, and I never dropped below about 25 frames per second. Without loading all those NPCs, I was going over 64/84 frames per second. Now, the Cheetah build we brought to show, a lot of people have been asking "Can I run the game on my computer?" and "What's it going to look like on DX9?". We've made sure we focused on what we brought here as far as Cheetah 2, is all DX9/Windows XP. We're talking about 1920 by 1200, and getting upwards of 30 to 60 frames per second – very solid Windows XP graphics. Massive, massive increase in performance, and we're really proud to be able to show that to people. We want people to know we're not going for a repeat of our Anarchy Online launch.

Massively: You mentioned that working on an all-new engine would have been a bit 'insane'; was the Cheetah 2 project an ongoing work or did you decide to take some development time away from the game proper to work on it?

Jason Stone: We call it Cheetah 2 just because it's sort of the culmination of a larger set of technologies that are sort of merging into the main branch of the game. As you're working on a game you're sort of developing in parallel along a few different branches. The engine developers have been slaving away on these optimizations and now we're packing that stuff in. It's a number of different things, like the dynamic weather system, the technology with flowing rivers and waterfalls, it's not here on the floor today, but it is in the Cheetah 2 build. A lot of things are just culminating, and we felt like it was a huge step forward.

Massively: For Vista users, are they going to see similar performance increases?

Jason Stone: They're going to see similar increases across the board. Last year at CES we were just about the only company that had DX10 running. We've been developing side-by-side the DirectX 9 version and our DirectX 10 version – we'll have 32bit and 64bit executables so that people can run it however their operating system prefers. Cheetah 2 is going to be a good 30-40% increase in performance across the board, that's what we're seeing.

Massively: It's interesting that you folks are driving for such higher performance; the game already looks pretty good as it is.

Jason Stone: We just know that it's important to people that we give them everything they can use when it comes to performance. We know we are going to have a number of people interested in PvP in our game, and for those people we need the highest possible framerates to participate in our large battles. It's not just a raw framerate thing, either; you can turn everything off in our engine to get a higher framerate, but we want them to have a smoothly playable framerate while still enjoying the look of the game.

Massively: I asked this of the folks who were giving me a rundown on the combat yesterday too, and you're obviously even closer to the game: Are you still having fun playing the game? It's been some time since the game's been in development ...

Jason Stone: You know, I'm one of the designers and I've worked on combat a lot. When I came to Funcom originally I started working with NPCs. Then I was working on the state machine – what they could do standing, what they could do while sitting down, that sort of thing. From that I started working on animations. I started working on animations from a design perspective, and became more and more involved in what was going on there. I and the others I was working with began to hammer out milestone after milestone doing our best to bring to life the vision the project director had given us. As we proceeded the team grew, and we merged with other groups that had been working with other parts of combat and design.

The biggest thing I can say, after all this time, is that I've probably killed hundreds of thousands of NPCs in Age of Conan. I still love to try to take on more guys than I'm supposed to! I love that I can hit more than one guy. I love that I can get fatalities, watch guys' heads get chopped off. Any time you can feel good and enjoy the act of playing after three years, I think that says something. Now, I know that the game isn't going to be for everyone, but I think that for the people who are going to enjoy it the game will provide a lot of fun.

I think that's something of a testament to our focus. As a game developer, it's easy to let things spiral out of control as you say 'we're going to do this' and 'we're going to do that' ... eventually you have to trim back. Eventually when you trim back from your lofty ideas you find that core to your game that really makes things stand out. For us that's obviously the combat, and then the social structure (player villages, siege, PvP). There's lots of extra stuff that we wanted to have, obviously ... for example, the AI.

Early on we found during load-testing that AI was very expensive. So we went back and looked at the design for PvP – originally I wanted the player controlling a group of archers, or cavalry units, and you'd be able to dress them up to look differently than other units. That was a bit over our heads, from what we could do. We scaled the involvement of NPCs way down in PvP areas, because we found that we could have a couple of hundred PCs in a PvP area, or just a few dozen NPCs. Talking about the Cheetah 2 improvements, that's the difference between running like 120 frames per second vs. 20 to 40 frames per second. That's an extreme example, obviously, because normally players aren't going to be loading every NPC in a zone at one time. It's still really gratifying, to us, in development. There's always the chance you won't keep up with your best intentions, with your best ideas.

Massively: That's a question I had yesterday that the folks here couldn't fully address for me. The PvP/Siege elements, and the city-building elements – those are very ambitious designs. Is all of that going to be in the game at launch?

Jason Stone: We're definitely going to have them in at launch. It's more or less like the little features that tie-in to those systems that will get left off for later. We'll have those and the auction house, for example, but maybe you won't have an interior in your guild house that goes right to the guild bank at launch. Mostly we're making sure the big elements are going to be there. The structure capturing things are probably going to be there, the war games, but you're going to see changes to the reward system as we go forward. It's been very important to us that we've been trying to support those things. Those are some of the key things that we felt we had to get right.

It's very important, the need to focus. Anyone who thinks they can reproduce World of Warcraft is probably out of their mind at this point, right? What World of Warcraft did was to explode the genre, to make these kinds of games socially acceptable. I've been doing this a lot longer than it's been socially acceptable, and it's kind of nice to have something to relate to other folks with.

I think all these players are now getting to the point where they might be looking for something new, and I think Conan is going to address some of those niches. If you're looking for a world that has a bit more realism to it, a bit more darkness to it, I think that's something that will speak to people.

Massively: Just one last question for you: some commentators have noted that in the states the Mature rating and the focus on darker topics (blood and boobies) may in fact attract a less mature audience. Do you have any reaction to that?

Jason Stone: It's sort of an interesting conundrum. Through the design process we wanted the world of Hyborea the way we'd imagined it. The reason that we have those darker elements in, the blood and boobies, the reason you can chop a guy's arm off, is because of the fantastical ways the fights are described in the Conan books. It literally is like chopping a guy's leg off, putting a sword through another guy's neck, that's the way it's been presented. It's never been about "hey if we had a Hot Coffee mode in Age of Conan, we're going to get more attention." We've never really thought "we need boobs". It's hard, though.

In general we think the world is going to be more interest to grown-ups. Especially when it comes to the story – it's not really a story that will be all that interesting to kids. But when it comes to "dude, I can totally chop a guy's head off", that's hard ... especially as it is here in the US. It is almost staggering how little parents care about violence and things. With the 18 rating, it should be out of the hands of children. It's never been a goal at Funcom to have kids playing the game.

It's interesting too, because it flip-flops depending on where you are. In Europe the nudity is not a big deal, but the violence ... especially in places like Germany. While we're here, though, we'll have someone standing here with a twelve-year-old kid and they'll ask, "Why is it a Mature game?" I'll say, it has mature themes, suggestive content, foul language, some nudity, lots of blood, chopping heads off ... and the only thing they'll care about is the nudity. That's all they care about. If your kid is 16/17/18 they can probably handle this, but if you're talking about your twelve-year-old, that's a different story. I had a guy come up to the booth yesterday and I actually told him "Please don't buy this for your kid." That's one subscription we don't need. I don't want to sound callous or anything, but I recognize that what we're doing is not targeted at everyone in the audience.

Massively: Thanks so much, that's refreshingly honest to hear. We really appreciate your time, sir.
This article was originally published on Massively.