Welcome to the Anvil of Crom, folks, and to the new year. I kicked around a lot of ideas for this initial column, including some raid and endgame commentary, an analysis of Craig Morrison's latest development update, and a look at the new Jhebbal Sag PvP minigame. While all that stuff is worth talking about, it will have to wait, as I stumbled across a thought-provoking thread on the official forums last week that demands attention.

The thread addresses, both directly and indirectly, the two most important Age of Conan issues that Funcom needs to fix in the coming year (those being the game's population and its grind).

The title of the thread? Time for F2P.

But Jef, I hear some folks asking, aren't you Massively's anti-F2P guy? Well, no, not exactly. While it's true that the something-for-nothing business model isn't my first choice and I have an intense dislike for being nickel-and-dimed to death on cosmetic items (which I consider an integral part of gameplay), F2P done right is actually pretty cool.

And by done right, I mean done like Hi-Rez Studios' Global Agenda.

Hi-Rez's model is beautiful in its simplicity, and it's apparently working too. The game is alive with players, and new blood is checking it out on a daily basis (I base this observation on the number of newb questions in city chat and the number of completely unfamiliar names I see in mercenary matches). And no, that's not people simply creating alts, as the game forces all characters on a single account to share the same name.

Anyway, here's how the Hi-Rez F2P model works. Freebie folks get access to the entire game without restriction, as do the players paying the bills. Everyone has to initially pay for the client (unless you fancy a low level cap), which alternates between cheap ($14.95) and stupid cheap ($7.95). The dev team has done away with traditional subscriptions, and in place of those are booster offerings that basically double your XP, your credit and token gain rate, and your loot drop rate. And that's it. There's no item store with pages upon pages of outfits, consumables, and mission packs. There's no zone or game-type purchases. Everyone gets access to everything, all the time, with the option for a simple and customizable flat rate plan to speed your progress.

Soul ChamberThe customization comes in the form of several flavors of boosters to choose from, each representing a different time period. I usually pick the 30-day pack, which, at $14.95, is basically my Global Agenda subscription. I get to support Hi-Rez, and I get to kick the XP grind squarely in the jimmy, which brings me to the second (and really, most important) issue plaguing Age of Conan.

Traditional leveling in Age of Conan is a relative breeze. The 1 to 80 grind, even prior to the introduction of offline levels, wasn't that much of a grind in comparison to leveling in much of the MMORPG market. I mean, come on, if yours truly -- one of the all-time slowest levelers -- can have multiple 80s and still have time to gamehop with regularity, how bad can it be? Where Age of Conan becomes a bit sadistic (and I would argue, disingenuous) is in the Rise of Godslayer level grind and the faction and alternate advancement/gear treadmill that it layers on top of a very different 1 to 80 game.

I'm not going to sugarcoat this. I like Age of Conan overall, but I absolutely despise the post-80 progression. It's almost like the devs borrowed it from another game entirely. Maxing out a character with 250 AAs and purple faction gear is easily one of the most time-intensive grinds (if not the most time-intensive grind) currently in existence. It's on par with the high-level slow-as-molasses misery that is Aion and Lineage II (two of the grindiest, most frustrating exercises in pokey progression to ever hit the western market).

Clearly Funcom went this route to prolong subscription periods, but if the official forums and the number of "I quit" posts over the last few months are any indication, the Khitai grind is actually doing the opposite. For my part, Khitai frustrates me to the point that I basically ignore it. Whenever I ding 80 on my latest alt, I'll run around and PvP (an exercise in futility without AAs and purples) and maybe do a few T1 raids. After that, it's on to another character.

Adopting a F2P model in the vein of Global Agenda would take a bit of the sting out of Age of Conan's endgame, something that is desperately needed (and would be needed even more if the lack of a sub fee brought in a bunch of casuals who would never be able to complete the content due to time constraints).

Let's go back to the thread on the official forums for a moment. It's suggested by a couple of players that Funcom monetize the game by selling booster packs that effectively allow a newly minted level 80 to be competitive without any effort. This could theoretically take the form of T1 raid and PvP gear that could be purchased from a cash shop rather than ground out over months of play time. While the intent here is sound (there is an absolutely massive difference between a new 80 and a geared/AA'd 80, and rectifying this imbalance is one of Funcom's challenges), it's basically putting a band-aid on the larger problem, which is that the grind just takes too frickin' long.

I'd much rather see Funcom cut the grind in half (an intentionally broad statement; I don't really care how it's done at this point), and if the devs can't do that, then implement the aforementioned F2P XP boosts. This would simultaneously allow newer players to become competitive in a reasonable time frame, and it would mitigate (but not eradicate) the inevitable cries of foul play from veteran grinders who "worked" for their purples.

Anyhow, Funcom is surely considering F2P at this point, just like every other MMO manufacturer under the sun. It's my hope that if and when the company chooses to go that route, it can avoid the distasteful path trod by Turbine and SOE (i.e., turning the game into a flea market) and instead can focus on delivering all of the game content to all of the players while monetizing the grind. This way everyone wins. People who play MMORPGs to grind are free to continue doing so (literally for free, I might add). People who detest grinds can pay the equivalent of a sub fee (or less) to bypass the foolishness and get on with the fun part.

And that's about all I've got for you this week. Thanks for reading and feel free to enjoy my favorite concept art.



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.