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The Anvil of Crom: Of stealth nerfs and feature removal

Jef Reahard


I guess I shouldn't be surprised at the spectacularly epic fail that Funcom pushed to the live servers last week. If you subscribe to any sort of yin/yang theory, whether it be balance in the Force or simply the law of averages, you had to expect some sort of mini-debacle, given the amount of good news flowing from the Age of Conan developers regarding new content as of late.

In case you haven't heard, last week Funcom decided to remove the ability to PvP in the Underhalls and White Sands portion of Tortage. If this isn't enough to irritate you in and of itself, how does the fact that the nerf "managed to sneak itself into [an] update" grab you? While my initial thought on the stealth removal was basically an eye-roll at the thought of more PvP-focused whining, upon further reflection it occurred to me that in this case said whining is entirely justified.

Turn the page for pigs flying, honest politicians, and yours truly taking up for PvPers.

"As some of you have noticed, after today's update (, PvP is no longer possible in White Sands Isle and Tortage Underhalls. This is actually a change that was planned to go live with the 2.1 update but managed to sneak itself into today's update instead," wrote senior community manager Oliver "Tarib" Kunz on the official forums.

You have to feel for Tarib here, as it can't be fun serving as the messenger with this kind of news (particularly on a board as volatile and PvP-centric as Age of Conan's). His post goes on to outline Funcom's thinking, even going so far as to say that the change was requested by players. "Recent feedback and surveys also show that a clear majority want Tortage to be PvE only," he writes. Now, I'm not saying he's making that last bit up, but I've been following AoC for quite some time and have participated in several surveys (most recently the massive summer survey this past July)... and nowhere have I seen any mention of removing PvP from Tortage aside from the after-the-fact announcement post.

But Jef, I hear some of you saying, aren't you a fan of Age of Conan's PvE? Don't you routinely poke fun at the PvP QQers on Age of Conan's official forums? Well, yes and yes. That said, I'm also a fan of transparent development and game updates that make sense, neither of which applies to this particular situation. As I see it, there are two primary issues at work here, and Funcom has done itself and a portion of its playerbase a disservice that is flat out distasteful. I can't label it disastrous, as the game has clearly shifted away from a PvP focus some time ago (and this update will likely be a blip on the radar of the playerbase that Funcom is actively targeting). Even so, the methodology leaves quite a sour taste in my mouth, and while I'm not necessarily advocating on behalf of any particular player group, I do think it's in Funcom's best interest to avoid this kind of tomfoolery in the future.

Issue one

"Stealth nerfs of this kind are sobering examples of how our MMO enjoyment is subject to the unknowable whims of our virtual landlords. Despite the long hours and considerable sums of money that many of us sink into this hobby, the reality is that we're all renters here."

Issue number one is of course the mechanics and the necessity of the whole enterprise. If the majority of Funcom's customers actually did indicate a dislike for Tortage PvP, the sensible thing for them to do would be to roll on one of the game's PvE servers. I know, it's a tired defense used by griefers the world over, but in this rare case the don't-roll-on-a-PvP-shard-unless-you-want-PvP argument actually makes sense. It can also be applied at a zone-specific level. In the event that unsuspecting players actually did roll a toon on Cimmeria (or Crom forbid, Tyranny), wouldn't a loading message along the lines of "you're entering a FFA PvP zone" be preferable to completely removing a gameplay mechanic that has existed for well over two years?

The fact is that you can level through Tortage without ever setting foot in White Sands or the Underhalls. I know because I've done it on my last three Wiccana alts due to the fact that I hate the quests in both locales (the only reason to even go in the Underhalls is PvP, and White Sands, while beautiful, is very inefficient in terms of fast leveling due to its large size). Tortage as a whole is so fully fleshed out and so crammed with quest content that the PvP-averse need never enter the FFA zones at all, assuming they weren't able to do the sensible thing and roll on Wiccana in the first place.

Another consideration here is that Tortage PvP was some of the best in the game, simply because it wasn't subject to PvP gear, AAs, and the rest of the treadmill gates that prevent PvP involvement at higher levels. In fact, most of my AoC PvP time over the last year has been courtesy of a series of low-level Cimmeria alts. There was quite a bit of fun to be had in logging into a disposable Tortage character and hunting PKers through the Underhalls. White Sands had its moments as well, and both zones provided me with more than a few lulz-worthy sessions courtesy of rage tells. Yes, there are (or now, were) times when a level 20 would grief a level 6, but coming out of stealth behind said 20 and introducing him to the business end of my daggers never got old.

Issue two

Issue number two is Funcom's emulation of the U.S. Congress, or more specifically, the latter's affinity for ramming unpopular legislation down the throats of a populace that clearly doesn't want it. The fact that this nerf happened in the dead of night while constituents were blissfully sleeping and unaware (i.e., in a self-described stealth earmark) reeks of pork-barrel politics and ill-considered decision making. At the end of the day, Funcom is a business as opposed to a collection of theoretical public servants and can therefore conduct its operations in whatever way it deems most profitable. That said, there are more elegant and customer-friendly ways to go about it.

Ultimately I don't see this move hurting AoC over time. Aside from the loss of the subs of the few remaining PvP die-hards (who were on their way out already), this debacle probably won't amount to much more than a footnote when the game's final history is written. However, stealth nerfs of this kind are sobering examples of how our MMO enjoyment is subject to the unknowable whims of our virtual landlords. Despite the long hours and considerable sums of money that many of us sink into this hobby, the reality is that we're all renters here, with little to no voice when it comes to what happens to our favorite worlds and characters.

Maybe removing Tortage PvP is in the game's best interests over the long-term. I'm certainly in no position to make such a judgment. What I can tell you is that the way this was handled leaves a lot to be desired. I don't normally put a lot of stock in words like faith and trust as they are applied to MMOs and MMO companies, but in this case, I believe Funcom lost a bit of both. Until next time, I leave you with an image of what used to be Underhalls PvP.

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

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