Take one of our recent early-morning conversation starters in which Funcom's title is described as a PvP-focused game. Despite being a throw-away reference, the wording here struck a strange chord. Age of Conan does feature both open world and instanced PvP, but said PvP is -- in my experience -- a red-headed step-child in terms of content updates, system tweaks, and player preference.
The key here is "in my experience," and it's amazing how a simple turn of phrase like "PvP-focused game" can send the mind drifting on all manner of perceptual tangents. Analytically, though, is Age of Conan a PvP-focused game as of May 2011? Head past the cut to find out.
I happened upon that particular Daily Grind at an opportune moment, given that I'd just logged out of Age of Conan with a bunch of screen captures of the regional player-finder interface tucked under my arm. I'd been looking for an exhaustive list of in-game zones in the service of some future Anvil of Crom zone guides, and it was a lot easier to simply go to the source instead of scouring the half-baked hodge-podge of incompleteness that makes up AoC's internet guide presence.
While skimming through my shots, I came to the not-so-startling realization that Age of Conan features over 160 PvE zones (and by zones, I mean everything from large countries like Aquilonia all the way down to small dungeon instances like the Old Smuggler Route). By contrast, the game features seven PvP-enabled zones, which include five instanced minigame maps and two FFA PvP zones (the Border Kingdoms) in the game world proper.
This imbalance points to something that close followers of Funcom's Hyboria have known for quite a while now, namely, the game is developing into one of the genre's premier PvE themeparks. In my opinion, it's already there, and the only thing that separates it from older, more established titles like EverQuest II and Lord of the Rings Online is that they're older and more established.
Of course, those two titles also completely obliterate AoC when it comes to avatar customization, crafting, and non-combat activities, but I'll leave that soapbox moment for another column and keep today's focus squarely on traditional PvE quest and dungeon content.
While AoC was initially marketed as a PvP title in 2008, its development history since 2009 indicates a sizable shift in the opposite direction. The Rise of the Godslayer expansion (May 2010) added a huge amount of explorable area to the game world, all of it in service to PvE. Thousands of quests and dozens of dungeons were added to the original areas (which already boasted some of the more highly praised PvE dungeons around -- Sanctum of the Burning Souls, Kylliki's Crypt, and the Cradle of Decay, to name a small fraction).
More recently, the Refuge of the Apostate solo dungeon and the Ai and Tian'an group dungeons made their way to the live servers, and the next update is bringing several new 40 - 80 auto-content generation dungeons for solo players as an alternative to the Tarantia Noble District instances that are based on similar mechanics.
By way of comparison, Age of Conan's PvP updates since the Godslayer expansion can be summed up in a single phrase: The Call of Jhebbal Sag. Yep, aside from one minigame map added last winter, there have been exactly zero PvP-centric content updates in the last year (and Funcom has also been a bit slow to address existing PvP class balance issues). Prior to that, PvP was already showing signs of becoming an also-ran, first with the sweeping (and PvE-centric) changes wrought by the 1.05 update in the summer of 2009 and later with Craig Morrison's public forum debates with hardcore PvP types dissatisfied by the game's about-face (not to mention the fallout over the Shrines of Bori rock-grinding fiasco).
There are still, of course, dedicated FFA PvP servers where my aforementioned PvE/PvP zone numbers go out the window (and perhaps the existence of these servers is what compels casual observers to label Age of Conan a PvP-centric MMO). The American cluster boasts Cimmeria and Tyranny, both FFA servers from launch, both bleeding players at an alarming rate, and both complete ghost towns when compared with PvE Wiccana, the game's most populous shard.
Funcom also took steps to soften the Cimmeria/Tyranny rulesets last year, ostensibly to make the PvP shards more appealing to newer and/or more PvP-averse players. The ability to engage in FFA PvP was removed from the Underhalls and White Sands instances in Tortage, essentially designating the whole of the pre-20 newbie experience as a PvP-free zone despite the existence of FFA shards.
For the pro-PvP camp, Funcom has announced the new Blood and Glory FFA ruleset servers, and they will likely be popular with the remaining PvP hardcores who populate the forums and the minigame queues on Wiccana. That said, I suspect that B&G will also be the death of both Cimmeria and Tyranny, as there simply aren't that many players for whom all-PvP-all-the-time is an appealing prospect.
Given that Funcom has blunted the PvP implementation on FFA servers, introduced an oft-exploited system for obtaining PvP gear without PvPing (Bori), announced a new ruleset designed to segregate serious PvPers from the rest of the game's population, and consistently added loads of PvE content to the game over the past two years, I have a hard time labeling Age of Conan as a PvP-focused game.
Sure, it has PvP, and some of it is pretty enjoyable (particularly the minigames). But a quick glance at the game's update history and its current world layout indicates that PvP is an afterthought, and one that could be swept further under the rug courtesy of the coming updates. Luckily, there's still plenty of player-vs.-player action to be had in my favorite concept art.