Wait a minute. Stop the presses. W. T. F?!

Do I detect some optimism here? From the Age of Conan community (and while we're getting all incredulous, from me)? What's next, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, and mass hysteria? As strange as it sounds, I do believe the tide is turning ever so slightly when it comes to Funcom's fantasy MMORPG. Things are, as they say, looking up, in no small part due to some fresh content and the promise of more to come.

Join me after the cut for a stroll down why-it's-a-good-time-to-be-an-AoC-fan lane.

"Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet." -Robert E. Howard, The Phoenix on the Sword

OK, time for true confessions. I'll never be mistaken for Conan -- the barbarian or the talk show host. I'm also not given to scampering about in a loincloth with a broadsword the size of a school bus draped across my back and a random bimbo under each arm (unless I'm playing TERA, where you really don't have any choice regarding the former). I do have one thing in common with the pulp hero, though, and that's something of an ornery attitude, particularly as it relates to MMORPGs.

Apostate prisonerWhereas many of my colleagues are wont to look on the sunny side of our favorite genre, I'm that guy. You know, the one who thinks Age of Conan (or any MMO, really) would be the game to end all games if it'd only do this and this and a bit of that. Sure, I'll occasionally go off on a love-struck tangent, but more often than not, my MMO demeanor is a perfect match for the grim, gray Cimmerian at the heart of Howard's grim, gray universe (minus the gigantic mirth bit quoted above).

Imagine my surprise, then, when I started to feel somewhat giddy at the prospect of new AoC content. You're right -- giddy is a strong term. Optimistic, however, is not, and the source of said optimism is two-fold. One is the large amount of fun to be had in the new Refuge of the Apostate dungeon. Sure, it takes visual cues from other games and has an annoying lockout timer, but despite a couple of gnat-bites, it's really quite well-done.

Secondly, it's the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to new stuff, and when taken as the first salvo in a forthcoming content offensive, well, let's just say it can warm the cockles of the most hardened themepark heart.

Oh, and there's also the small matter of Funcom adding a gaggle of new devs to the AoC team.

Say what?

Details are sketchy at this point, and Funcom isn't likely to provide specifics on its internal hiring, firing, and promotion practices, but suffice it to say that a few new faces are hard at work on Hyboria these days. It's also no coincidence that the Refuge of the Apostate dungeon (aka, the first really fun piece of content since before the Godslayer expansion) was the result of their labors.

I'll let AoC game director Craig Morrison explain:
"People do move on, and yes, some folk did move on to help build The Secret World. (The more eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted the expansion's lead designer, Joel, in the latest TSW videos). That, though, allowed us to both promote or bring in some great folk who have proved their worth before, and also to hire in some great new blood, who while they might be new, also have enthusiasm, dedication, a willingness to prove their worth, and pick things up very quickly.

"(And for the fear mongers there are not many 'dying games' that are allowed to hire over a dozen people inside a few months as we have done recently). You folk are starting to see that with the content released today. The Refuge was done almost entirely by some of the new members of the team under the guidance of the seniors. The team here is great and working away every day to improve the game.
"
This little nugget, despite appearing in the bowels of a complaint thread, has infused both the community and yours truly with a fair bit of hope for the near future. When you combine new blood devs, true blood fans who have been sticking it out through all the ups and downs since the game's 2008 release, and the exciting prospect of the Blood and Glory PvP ruleset coming next month (not to mention additional dungeon content and some much-needed grind reduction), you've got a recipe for happy Hyborians.

Now, that's not to gloss over the game's remaining issues (of which there are many). Class balance is still a problem, stamina issues persist, and world PvP is still non-existent -- as are long-term quality-of-life features like appearance slots, housing, and crafting fixes. As much as I'd like to make Age of Conan my one and only themepark MMO destination, I'm resigned to continue moonlighting in EverQuest II, Vanguard, and Lord of the Rings Online until Funcom decides to add some real non-combat activities (sorry guys, horse racing ain't gonna cut it).

How Funcom deals with the long-standing issues will likely determine whether the current wave of good feeling is the start of an AoC renaissance or an anomaly on the long road to obscurity. Join me in hoping for the former, and while you're at it, join me in Hyboria (but not before you have a look at this 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.