Can you feel it coming? With less than a month until Conan's release, the pressure cooker of excitement building for the new MMOG by Funcom is about to blow its load. At least part of this excitement stems from the fact that Age of Conan deals with mature themes. Unlike the cartoony World of Warcraft and cutesy Hello Kitty Online, Age of Conan is embracing what they call a "dark, decadent, twisted and corrupt version of Euro-Asian history." Aside from the prominent head lopping and blood letting we're also getting a side dish of sex; something we haven't really seen before in a prominent, commercial MMOG.
The idea of sex in video games is not new. You can go as far back as text based adventures like Farmer's Daughter on the Commodore 64, crude, arcade-style games like Custer's Revenge for the Atari 2600, or the multi-platform adventure game series Leisure Suit Larry that first kicked off back in 1987. Many early titles were so graphically crude that they left absolutely everything to the imagination. But as technology has evolved, so have the dirty minds of developers. And where dirty minded developers have come up short, many gamers have created modifications to fulfill their fantasies. Would you like some hot coffee while you wait to download the Lara Croft nude patch?
Given the heavy censorship present in the games industry it's actually surprising that Age of Conan will ship with a few lewd features in tact. With an M rating, Conan is one of the first MMOGs that's pre-screening its playerbase and tossing out the kiddies (along with the associated revenue stream from their parents). So what are the risqué features in Age of Conan and what will their implementation mean for future MMOGs? If Age of Conan is successful can we expect other developers to push the envelope further, or has someone already beaten them to the punch? If you're easily offended you may wish to skip what follows after the break.
Sex in MMOGs has progressed in a manner similar to single player games. Most early MUDs and MUSHes were essentially fantasy-themed chatrooms. Consensual cybersex between gamers in these environments, while perhaps not overly common, was also not unheard of. A few MUSHes, like Shangrila, actually focused on sexuality (especially bondage) and encouraged users to participate in cybersex in Out of Character (OOC) chat channels. Modern, graphical sex-game MMOGs naturally evolved from early MUDs and MUSHes. These games are often referred to as MMOVSGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Virtual Sex Games) or MMOEGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Erotic Games). Although their graphics and "gameplay" are often less polished and sophisticated than commercially produced games, many nevertheless require paid subscriptions for the privilege of leaving very little to the imagination. One website that serves as a portal to these games is Massively Multiplayer Online Virtual Sex Games. Games featured on the site include Sociolotron, Red Light Center, XoX City and Second Life. Please be aware that this site contains lots of potentially offensive material.
With a few exceptions, (Sociolotron actually has combat and crafting elements) the games mentioned above are more virtual worlds than games and they're also developed by small, independent groups rather than giant, game-making corporations. You're not going to find Red Light Center on the shelves of Wal-Mart or Best Buy. Since most MMOG making companies peddle their wares to a broad audience they try to keep an Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating that's tame enough to include as many gamers as possible. They probably figure that this strategy pays off because welcoming gamers of all ages means welcoming cash from all age groups. But because most gaming companies aren't willing to rock the boat, the few that do are bound to reap the rewards. MMOG gamers clamoring for mature content can now look to Funcom's Age of Conan for their fix.
The primary reason for Age of Conan's mature rating deals with the violent aspect of the game. Most MMOGs sport cartoon like violence against monsters or other characters (think of the red claw marks a WoW druid in cat form makes when shredding a target). Age of Conan's combat, on the other hand, is appropriately barbaric and brutal. Spurts of blood shoot out of opponents and it's possible to even cleave heads from bodies. But in addition to the blood and gore there's also a whole lot of shaking going on ... of the nudey variety. Age of Conan will not only feature topless women; but the topless women will actually sport ... wait for it ... nipples! For those who are unfamiliar, nipples are those pointy things found under the infamous star graphics on girls in the Girls Gone Wild commercials. In addition, many gamers will be happy to learn that boobs in Conan will be fully "supported" by the Dreamworld game engine. What does this mean? Why realistic jiggle of course! But it isn't just the NPCs that will have all the fun. Players can create their very own topless female avatars and play them topless throughout the course of the game.
In addition to the titillating excitement of wobbling through the wilds of Hyboria sans shirt, Age of Conan also presents gamers with sexually themed scenarios. Prostitutes, prostitution and the payment of heroic deed by sexual gratification are common elements of Robert Howard's Conan universe, and it appears as though they will be represented in the game. Posters on the Age of Conan message boards are reporting that early in the tutorial stage of Conan players will be able to save a prostitute from some grim fate. The prostitute offers to repay the player with sex, but apparently is distracted by a paying customer before she can work off her debt. There is also rumor circulating as to whether players will be able to obtain "buffs" from prostitutes by ... well, getting buffed. Whether buffing for buffs in the buff actually makes it into the game is not certain. What is certain is that with an M rating you can guarantee there will be no "on camera" explicit sexual activity. Once a game crosses that line it's squarely in the Adult Only (AO) ESRB category. Apparently Funcom isn't willing to push the envelope that far. Nevertheless, the fact that the game suggests these themes or that it presents them in a less explicit manner is still something no other big, commercial MMOGs have done up to this point.
Player communities already seem to be gravitating to the sexual nature of Age of Conan and eager to enhance or expand upon the foundation built by Funcom. Apparently a player by the handle of Candiya is planning to start a future guild entirely composed of virtual prostitutes. Although the guild's avatars will all be female, there will be no requirement that the players themselves be female. The idea is to create a community brothel in a player built city that services patrons in the way a modern day strip club would; with dancing and "being nice" to their customers. According to Candiya, cybersex will not be a required task of guild members, nor will it be frowned upon.
It will be interesting to see how well Age of Conan does given that it is aimed at an adult market. Given the sex, blood and gore as well as the somewhat steep (expensive) system requirements, it's probably going to keep the young kiddies playing in cheaper, safer virtual playpens. The blood, gore and sex will also make the game an easy target for the morally righteous and their dreaded soapboxes. At the same time, Funcom may have nailed a previously untapped market in the MMOG space. Given that there are no other commercial MMOGs in existence with such adult oriented content, Funcom may end up with a big slice of that pie. Of course, this all assumes that Age of Conan is actually a decent game. As all gamers know, content is nice, but gameplay is king. If Age of Conan is an awful game no amount of neon-light-advertising on the interstates of the Information Super Highway will get gamers to pull over for more than a few minutes.
MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke.