The Anvil of Crom: Deconstructing the development update

Crom bless Craig Morrison. Not just because Age of Conan is developing into a terrific MMO under his watch, but also because he's one of the rare developers who communicate with both the fans and the press on a regular basis. From a fan's perspective, it's gratifying to see the head honcho hob-knobbing with the customers and keeping folks reasonably well-informed. From a journalist's perspective, the monthly development updates (as well as the frequent forum postings) make the job of finding something to write about Age of Conan a veritable walk in the park.

Speaking of development updates, Silirrion released the latest this past week, and with it a preliminary glimpse at Age of Conan's fall patch schedule. Join us after the cut as we break down what's coming, and what we hope is coming.

Warmonk monastery
PvE, PvE, and more PvE

Let's jump right in, shall we? First up on Morrison's list of upcoming 2.1 features is the long-awaited DreamWorld Technology Integration. Much has been written about Age of Conan's graphical prowess (and the resulting headaches it causes for mid- to low-end computers). Rather than licensing a third-party tool such as Unreal or the CryEngine like many MMO development teams, Funcom opted to keep everything in-house and expand the engine originally used to power Anarchy Online.

The result was a game that sets the visual standard for MMORPGs, but also gates its content behind a technical and cost barrier that many gamers have difficulty crossing. Morrison only touches on the engine improvements briefly in the most recent development update letter, as many of finer points were discussed previously. That said, the engine tweaks are clearly at the top of the list for the fall update schedule.

In addition to the DreamWorld upgrade, 2.1 looks to bring a fair amount of new PvE content to Hyboria. Not only are new zones opening up in the imperial capital city of Pai Kang, but new Tier 4 raid encounters will also be added. Morrison's letter mentions "a whole new instance with the next three encounters. There is also a final instance with the last climactic set of encounters for Khitai planned," though the latter may end up being delayed until 2.2.

War mammothAlso falling under the PvE banner are updates to social and guild-specific content. Guild cities will feature new NPCs that can jump-start various events including treasure hunts, demon hunts, and storytelling competitions. There's also an interesting aside in the form of a Tarantia horse-racing track coming down the pipe. Our hope here at The Anvil of Crom is twofold: one, we'd really like these guild additions to be available at the lower end of the renown scale. As it stands in the current game, only the hundred-member mega-guilds get to experience much beyond the basics of the extensive renown rewards system, and Age of Conan's player community features many smaller groups that would likely get a lot of mileage out of accessible new social content. Secondly -- and this is pure fantasy on our part -- we'd love to see the "storytelling competitions" morph into an actual player-GM mechanic, much like Star Wars Galaxies' storyteller system. Morrison doesn't go into details on any of these new mechanics in the development letter, but rest assured that we'll be pressing him for details in the weeks to come.

Moar PvP QQ?

Finally, the letter throws a small bone to Age of Conan's equally small (but extremely vocal) PvP-only crowd. Morrison talks of a new 12v12 minigame map in the works, ostensibly as a result of the recently concluded summer player survey (more on this in a minute). If you've spent any time on the AoC forums lately, you're probably aware than Morrison has been roasted alive by the people going boohoo over the game's descent (ascent?) into PvE territory following the 1.05 update in the summer of 2009. While we sympathize with folks who feel as if their game has been taken away from them, it's also quite clear that AoC is aiming to be one of the genre's premiere PvE titles. It's still lacking in content when compared to behemoths such as World of Warcraft and EverQuest II, but it has also existed for a only fraction of those games' six-year life spans. It will be interesting to see what becomes of Funcom's Hyboria after an equivalent gestation period.

Survey says...

Finally, Morrison's letter reveals the results of the summer survey from a few weeks back. Well actually, the letter itself mentions it in passing; the gory details come courtesy of a gargantuan PDF attached to the post and featuring all manner of charts, graphs, and statistics. All of the pretty pictures essentially boil down to a couple of facts: Age of Conan players (at least, the 5000 or so that took part in the survey) prefer PvE. A whopping 74% of participants feel that the major systems and statistics revamp improved the overall game, and an equally whopping 72% chose something other than PvP as their primary gameplay preference (the other choices being raiding, roleplaying, group PvE, and solo PvE).

Clearly, a new minigame is the extent of the attention that PvP warrants at this point in the game's life, and yet a certain subset of AoC's population continually lights the forums on fire with anti-Morrison rants, raves, and tear-filled rivers of rage. Honestly, if you've followed the genre for more than five minutes, you know that PvP is basically background noise, and games that focus on it either wise up and go in a different direction (Ultima Online) or suffer the consequences (Shadowbane). Rock-grinding notwithstanding, Age of Conan's PvP is actually fun in small doses, and it's the perfect complement to the expanding PvE options. It's definitely not the way to grow the title though, and Funcom appears to realize this.

Pretty please

As much as the development letter excited us, we wouldn't be good gamers if we didn't (respectfully) demand more. While all the new PvE sounds great, the game also stands to benefit from an adjustment to the Khitai faction and AA grind, an exercise in tedium that fails to camouflage the standard "keep paying" carrots that all MMOs employ. We'd also love to see crafting become something other than a time-wasting resource sink, and an overhaul of the mechanics to make them a bit more than "press button, get armor" would be met with enthusiastic exclamations such as "by Crom, huzzah, and freaking finally!" Oh, and appearance armor slots -- we pretty much needed them yesterday.

Anyhow, we're out of time and space for this week. We leave you with a snapshot of the development update comment thread.



Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via jef@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.