The Anvil of Crom: Can AoC Unrated keep up with the Joneses?

Sooooo, City of Heroes and LEGO Universe caught the free-to-play bug this week. Fallen Earth did so the week before. What does this have to do with Age of Conan? Quite a lot, if you think about it, and that's what I'm given to doing every week around this time as I sit down to hum a few bars relating to Funcom's Hyboria.

In case you've forgotten (and it's easy to do thanks to the rash of announcements lately), Age of Conan is gearing up for its own version of freemium MMORPG madness. At this point it's anyone's guess as to when the big day will actually roll around, though, and the longer Funcom waits, the more it concerns me.

The net effect of all these F2P conversions is pretty fantastic for the MMORPG consumer. Aside from the problem of too much choice, there really isn't a lot of downside to the ability to sample dozens of high-quality titles that were originally designed for subscription communities. One possible hiccup is the transient MMO population that F2P enables, but since we're still fairly early in the freemium life of many of these games, the lack of a dedicated community is a problem that likely won't become apparent for months or even years.

Shocking demoAnyway, yay for F2P from the customer's perspective. What about the developer/publisher perspective, though? Is it all kittens, calorie-free chocolates, and rolling around in piles of money? I'd venture to say no at this point, particularly for a game like Age of Conan that is still finding its identity as it evolves through a somewhat painful adolescence.

What the heck are you talking about, Jef?

What I'm talking about is simply this: Why should someone play Age of Conan instead of, oh, say Lord of the Rings Online? Yes, they're both free-to-play fantasy themeparks based on beloved intellectual properties. They've both earned high praise for their visuals, soundtracks, and general PvE gameplay experience.

When you compare feature lists, though, LotRO simply gives you a lot more bang for your (lack of a) buck. Fairly deep crafting, a functional player economy, amenities like housing and an awesome player music system, and endless variety in character customization options (both visually and stat-wise) are on offer from Turbine's product.

Age of Conan, on the other hand, is still squarely focused on combat. One might argue that Age of Conan's combat is superior, and I'm inclined to agree on that point. Certainly AoC's avatar animations are orders of magnitude better looking those on display from Turbine, and the (melee) combat takes a degree of hand/eye/brain coordination -- in addition to the usual mastery of skill rotations and situational awareness -- that is absent from every other non-TERA AAA MMORPG.

Is there anything else to Age of Conan, though? Anything that might sway a free-to-play tire-kicker toward Hyboria as opposed to Middle-earth, Norrath, or Taborea? To its credit, Funcom is adding appearance slots in short order, and that will likely go a long way toward mollifying AoC folk who don't yearn for blood around the clock (and there are more of these folks than you'd think). So what else is there? PvP?

To the chagrin of AoC die-hards from the Godager days, Craig Morrison has spent the better part of the last two years illustrating that PvP is pretty far down the list of priorities. Yeah, Blood and Glory is coming, but I'm starting to suspect that it is more of an attempt to put the PvP folks in their own padded room than it is an attempt to restore the days of unrestricted bloodletting to Hyboria.

Uh oh demoThe crux of this week's discussion boils down to the fact that it's no longer enough to just announce F2P and throw open your doors. Due to the increasing number of games going the freemium route, you need to have considerable staying power and compelling content, and you need to have a lot of it lest the grinders blow through to your endgame and realize it's more of the same old.

Thankfully, Age of Conan does have quite a few interesting PvE and dungeon-related activities throughout the level range. Having played both AoC and LotRO at endgame, I'd say that the former is up to par when it comes to PvE, as there are a lot of encounters (and all of them are beautifully produced and reasonably challenging).

Glaring deficiencies abound in non-combat areas, though, and AoC's shortcomings are even more apparent when matched against older freemium converts like EverQuest II and City of Heroes (both of which have a significant development headstart on AoC and a clear mandate to give players something to do besides fight).

In short, the novelty of F2P eventually wears off, and it is well on its way to doing so now that we're getting multiple announcements every other week. Back when Dungeons and Dragons Online started this whole craze, it was the only game in town (and that's the only reason it survived when pitted against its deeper and more compelling fantasy MMO brethren, in my opinion).

Now, thanks to CoH, Fallen Earth, and who knows what else next week, AoC has a ton of competition. For example, I'd wager that, had Funcom gone free-to-play last summer, the interest would've been substantially higher than it is right now. The only way to combat this potential slide into obscurity -- and to keep up with the MMO Joneses -- is via significant additions to your feature set.

Chop chop, fellas.

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
This article was originally published on Massively.