A visit with Funcom Designer Jason Stone and Product Director Jorgen Tharaldsen is always a great experience. Jorgen has the most amazing head for numbers and is able tell me things like there are currently over 2,700 animations for female avatars in game. They haven't quite finished them all yet, which is the reason they have not shown female avatars, nor included them in the beta builds as the game play experience is the same with avatars of either gender. On the other hand, Jason Stone will take me through GM tools to show me female avatars and show me an animated emote he created which had Jorgen trying to hide the screen with his hands, crying "Noooo! I can't believe you showed her THAT!"
I am happy to report though, that female avatars are definitely in the game. The GM tool Jason ran me through is what they call a "play field" where I saw literally, hundreds upon hundreds of male and female avatars dressed and undressed in hundreds of different outfits and armor. "We've got more than just the chain mail bikini," he said. "We've got some actual armor in game."
"We learned a lot from Anarchy Online," said Jorgen as he asked Jason to show me the social clothing choices. "We know that players enjoy having more than one set of clothing, more than just wearing armor." They are coordinating the pieces however, and unlike Anarchy Online, we won't be seeing white wedding dresses on hulking male bodies - or in the context of Age of Conan, itty-bitty chain mail bikinis on hulking Cimmerians.
CES 2008 is a technology and buyers show. Hence, for this show, Funcom was showing off the latest Age of Conan build, on their proprietary Dreamworld Engine, an engine they've been developing since 1995. Twelve years after, I am here to report that it is absolutely gorgeous. Jorgen attributes the absolutely smashing graphics and animation to the genius of their Art Director Didrik Tollefsen who also worked on their "Longest Journey" PC game. He also gave credit to a mime who graduated from France's premier pantomime school who they used to do motion capture photography to aid their animation artists.
I am greatly impressed with what Funcom has achieved in their art. It has been six months since I last saw the game at E3, but the game play footage trailer and what I saw in-game as Jason ran me around, literally took my breath away. Mounts in-game are still "pocket" mounts as they are summoned, however, your avatar does not simply appear mounted when your steed shows up. Your avatar actually mounts - puts one foot into the stirrup, swings up and settles into the saddle. The animations are smooth and natural. Man and horse actually moved together. The man's body and limbs reacting to the movement of the horse. We looked at water lapping on shore and water rippling in progressive rings as we swam. Rivers and streams that flowed, excellent running, walking, combat and social animations.
I wanted to look at the horse and how well it was detailed again, so while I marveled at the in-game animation. Jason told me that mounts can be knocked out and damaged, but not killed, I was told, and they will heal up in time. Regular mounts are horses and camels and your siege mounts are Mammoths and Rhinos.
My first reaction to this eye-candy bonanza was not unexpected by Jorgen . "You are asking the exact same questions that everybody asks!" he said, answering proudly that this was indeed rendered in DirectX 9, not 10, and that the computer used was beefy, but not cutting edge. They were demonstrating the game on Dell XPS computers with Core 2 Duo CPUs and 800MHz Graphics cards with 512Mg RAM. Indeed, they were so confident of this latest optimization that they had turned the FPS counter ON.
We "flew" through Conalls Valley - an area just outside Conan's birth place, where many available quests will take us into the valley and beyond. Frames Per Second (FPS) ranged from over 20 in areas crowded with NPCs and environmental features to over 50. Then we ran through it with a character, whacking a few NPCs along the way. Jason spun around and panned the camera across the landscape to show how the FPS never fell under 20. Indeed, it remained above 30 most of the time. If readers will recall, back at E3, I reported that Funcom artists had very creatively used colors and color shading to create the illusion of a texture rich 3-D world in order to keep FPS high to allow for real time combat. With this new engine, it looks even better. Jorgen confirmed that they felt that color was very important to convey the feel of a region; such as Conalls Valley being in Autumnal colors conveying the dying of the year. As it stands currently, the 24 hour day and night cycles are compressed into eight; four real-time hours of light and four hours of darkness. I commented that it seemed a little long to me and both Jorgen and Jason simultaneously mentioned that they are looking at shortening that further.
Avatars, I was told, eat up a lot of resources, and this was an aspect of optimization they were still working on. Jorgen mentioned an insane number of animations and animated emotes in-game. "We wanted to put many, many more in, but had to reluctantly acknowledge that it would take too much time and money." Those animations he mentioned included climbing ropes and giving other characters a hand - literally - by assisting them up a wall for example. Still, Jason illustrated this as Jorgen talked, by scrolling through a seemingly endless list of animations, then showed me the many different drunken emotes, including a friendly drunk, one with his character casting up his accounts and social emotes such as a man rolling dice. Some animations will be gender specific. Curtsey for example, can be performed by both genders, but the male does not actually "curtsey" but performs a nice reverence, bowing from the waist with open arms.
"If you are in the right area, you can start a bar fight," Jorgen reminded us. "You can do drunken brawling." With that, we segued into the retail launch as Jorgen told me about the Drinking Cape, an item included in the collector's edition of the retail box. Jorgen showed me a prototype mock-up of the box. Not a small tin or just a differently presented box, the Age of Conan Collector's Edition looks like (and is the size of) a large, hefty leather bound book with reinforced corners and center medallion embossed to look like metal. Priced at $89.95, it will include: a book of art with selected poems by Robert E. Howard, the creator of the world of Conan, the sound track, a bonus DVD with trailers, behind-the-scene videos, etc. a faux leather map of Hyboria by a famed cartographer and some in-game items. These are all no-drop items: The Ring of Acheronia which is a 2% XP and 3% Stamina modifier and a Drinking Cape which gives you free booze in any tavern in Hyboria. Further, the Rhino siege mount is in the BestBuy box and the Mammoth in the Gamestop box. I was also told that this is not only a special edition, this is a limited edition. Each box will have a numbered holographic sticker. When these are gone, they are gone. Period.
We chatted about many different things in Age of Conan, with quite a bit of "I won't tell you, it will spoil the fun." The new player experience will be the same for all races - you start off on the slave ship - but in Tortage, the PvE experience where you spend your first 20 levels, quests are class but not race specific. At level 20, the player will then go to the home city of their chosen race, in a big finish that Jorgen did not want to spoil.
The UI remains minimalist and although it can be reskinned, no hooks will be allowed. Funcom has deliberately locked their UI down securely to prevent hacking and 3rd party macro programs. I was lucky to get more than a half hour with Funcom as I arrived early and the next appointment arrived late. There was much, much more I wanted to talk about and to ask, but this was all the time we had and all that they were ready to reveal.
Age of Conan will have extreme performance scalability to account for the vast differences in computers out there, but will ship simultaneously with 32 and 64 bit executables and in using either DX9 or 10. Graphics options will also allow you to turn off the blood and gore, although heads will still fall off if you manage a blow that cuts off your opponent's head.
Launch is scheduled for March 25, 2008 and for those hoping for open beta, there won't be one. As Jason said, when they opened beta applications, they got 100,000 applications in a very short time. Right now, they have 15,000 invitations extended and they will simply invite many more players in the next few rounds. So if you want to take a look at this game prior to launch, and haven't put in your beta application, you can still put one in now. This is one beautiful looking game.