These are just a few of the choice morsels Funcom has dangled in front of the snapping jaws of its ravenous PvP crowd. Join me after the cut for a bit of discussion on the potential impact of these new shards.
Let me get this out of the way, obvious or not: additional servers! I don't know of any "failed" games that expand their hardware and add more player capacity two and a half years after they've supposedly failed, and that's all that really needs to be said about that.
It's also somewhat heart-warming to see Funcom throwing a bone to the poor starving PvP pups licking their wounds in yonder corner and yelping about the injustice of 1.05. Even more encouraging is the fact that the devs are open to suggestions, as evidenced by Silirrion's solicitation of feedback all over the forums and the opening of several polls related to specific Blood and Glory ruleset implementations.
As for the implementations themselves, well, they're fairly exciting, even to someone who generally only PvPs when there's nothing else to do. First off, I can't stress enough how surprised and delighted I was to read about the one-character-per-shard limitation. Not only will single characters add a bit of weight to a player's reputation (particularly if reinforced by AoC's hefty and lengthy competitive progression curve), but the mechanic also has the potential to make an impact on the economic side of the game should Funcom ever decide to do something about the sub-standard crafting mechanics. In a nutshell, players on the new shards will be part of a system, and no longer will one account enable a player to be entirely self-sufficient.
Some players will no doubt purchase additional accounts to circumvent that limitation or to cure class-related boredom issues, and Funcom no doubt considered this as additional potential revenue while the game retains its subscription model. Either way, it's a smart move.
PvP will also be returning to the White Sands and Underhalls portions of Tortage on the new servers. While I'd just as soon that be a game-wide rollback, I'll be content with being able to fire up a lowbie and get my FFA PvP fix without having to endure 14 months of hard post-80 grinding.
Player looting and the removal of protective NPC guards are obviously big draws for some folks as well, but more important will be the way that Funcom deals with the existing class imbalances and the Bori-related PvP advancement problems. As it stands now, opening a PvP-focused server will result in said server being almost completely empty of Priests of Mitra, Tempests of Set, and Heralds of Xotli, while featuring a glut of Guardians, Rangers, and Bear Shamans as well as more than a few Assassins and Barbarians. It's all well and good to distract the playerbase with cool-sounding rulesets, but Funcom sorely needs to address some basic gameplay issues if it wants PvPers to continue logging into the new servers once the new and shiny wears off.
As with most things in Age of Conan, the bad begins and ends with the grind (and there's also the related question of population). As we've talked about many times before in this column, AoC's grind is one of the more horrendous in the genre, particularly the post-80 alternate advancement and gear grind that is required to stand any sort of chance in PvP.
While a fresh-start server is quite appealing, the thought of going through another PvP gear grind, AA grind, or raid gear grind is enough to turn me off to the thought of making the new server my permanent home. I've simply spent too much time on my current characters, and short of Funcom doing away with post-80 progression in its entirety, I'll never see the endgame on a new server. This is a tricky issue, as allowing transfers would simply carry over a lot of the PvP problems you experience on the current shards (namely, geared-out Bori rock grinders and uber zerg guilds with game-breaking BK buffs).
This leads into the real issue with these new shards. As good as they sound in theory, the reality is that they may fragment the game's PvP population even more unless some concessions are made regarding the gear grind (or the necessity of gear in PvP). As badly as many players say they want all PvP all the time, virtually none of them wants to go through the hell that is PvP 10, maxed out AAs, and purples. It wasn't fun the first time.
What's the answer to this conundrum? That's a really tough one, and frankly I'm glad it's up to Funcom and not to me. While I do think the gear grind should be tweaked on the new shards, eliminating it entirely (as many are suggesting on the forums) is pretty laughable. It's amusing to read some of the suggestions espoused by those who clearly should be playing Team Fortress or Age of Chivalry instead of an MMO. Eliminate crafting (and crafted gear), they say. Remove special abilities and let us hack away at each other, say a few others. At this point I have to ask: Why are you folks playing MMOs? If non-stop twitch PvP is truly all you want out of an MMORPG, you're simply doing it wrong, and doing it in the wrong place.
In what is perhaps a telling gauge of just how much some fans feel burned by Funcom and its AoC decision-making history (or another example of no good developer deed going unpunished), there are idle bits of speculation on the o-boards to the effect that the Blood and Glory experiment is actually an attempt to further annoy the game's few remaining PvP fans and complete the transition to a fully focused PvE title.
This line of thinking holds that Funcom should implement the hardcore PvP ruleset on the remaining PvP shards rather than open up new ones, and some theorists are convinced that the new servers (and their daunting start-from-scratch competitive grind) are nothing more than a way to ensure that the hardcore PvP crowd moves on to another game.
Similarly, many feel that the new ruleset should simply be implemented on the existing shards simply to avoid destroying existing populations, as the new Blood and Glory mechanics could result in ghost towns on Cimmeria and Tyranny if the majority of PvP players decide to regrind their toons on the hardcore server.
Ultimately, this is a very interesting time to be an Age of Conan player. Whether you're partial to PvP or not, the Blood and Glory experiment is going to have ramifications for both your server and your playstyle. The good news is that Funcom seems to be quite flexible in its implementation of the new ruleset. The bad news is that, as Craig Morrison has been saying repeatedly over the last few weeks, someone's going to be upset regardless of what happens. Until next week, have a look at this nifty concept art.
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 email@example.com.