State of the Game: February 2008
Age of Conan Game Director Gaute Godager recently wrote an article describing the current state of the game of AoC. He elaborates on his role in the game's development, and he describes the reasons behind the recently announced release date push back, the melding of certain classes, and other changes that have occurred throughout Age of Conan's development. We're pleased to present the entire article here.
I know that all of you are anxious to learn more about what's up with Age of Conan, especially after our recent announcement. I will use this opportunity to try to, in a rather detailed manner, go through the very essence of the game – what we have accomplished, what we have changed, where we stand, and also touch on the great future ahead.
As all of you know we are deep in Beta at the moment, and so far way more than ten thousand people have been invited. Naturally not all people are playing all the time (reminder from me: check your email;), but we have some really awesome testers, hacking away at our systems and design. As you all also know we have been in various stages of beta for a long time, but it's over the last months we have really been able to get the feedback we need.
Let me take side-step here to tell you a bit how we look at various aspects of the game. You probably don’t know this, there are more than 500 or so code-features that we have in the game. Each of these features are tracked with a status description defined by QA, beta testers, the core team etc. They also have a level of importance. We do this for all the content as well, every region/zone, monster, mesh and item. We do this to try to make sure nothing slips through the cracks – that everything gets enough testing, polish and rework. We, as most developers, call each round of creation, testing and polish “iterations”. The higher the iteration count, the better the result.
Most of the content and most of the features have been deployed to the beta, or are waiting for deployment in QA. Let me give you an example on some things we have a special focus on right now. Things like core hands-on combat (iteration nine now), items and quest rewards (iteration 3), feat system (was redesigned after last delay. It is now in a new iteration and feels truly awesome), PvP mini-games (iteration three, soon going live on Beta, with more areas on the way) and GUI (iteration 5, 3, 2 or one depending on the area) are all things we have a special eye on.
Some places in our development things are coming slowly to the beta version, in other places it is blindingly fast. As an example; when the new rendering engine was patched to beta recently, the engine we had on the beta was almost three months old. On other stuff we patch it out almost instantly, and what it all boils down to is quality and iteration. Is it good enough to test yet, are we happy about it? That is why we have features in the beta which can only be triggered by GM commands (like building a battle keep). The entire foundation and code is there though– it just needs cleanup before it is enabled. Through the rest of February and March (and beyond) we will implement what we have, make it available to test, and then polish, and polish. Once we move towards our initial March deadline we will then focus harder on shifting to a launch mind-set, but still continue the polish as we move towards May 20th. Seeing from my side of things, and seeing that I can play or peek at ALL parts of the game, I therefore actually feel very good these days. It’s busy, for sure, but what we have coming for you is something special.
So then; what about the cuts you might have heard about after the community event? First of all; we wanted to tell our community sites this first as they are so important to us. That some cuts had to come is a natural part of creating an MMO, and I will tell you why. As you all know it is my responsibility as a Game Director to guide the vision, tinkering at every little part of the game to make the WHOLE much better than each of the parts. That means that my job is not only about creating but also about changing stuff, or cutting them – or as in the case of classes pool them up. At the end of the day someone has to say «this was a much better idea on paper than in the game. Let us focus on what is there – for the good of the whole game.» I do this all the time, through the whole development cycle. I do this on hundreds of things you have never heard about. I do this with regret more often than not, but I always know it is the right thing to do. With more than 500 features, tons of content and endless combinations of features and content to balance - each and every one a building block in the great MMO world of Hyboria, it must be done.
For each and every single one it is my job to go in and say «go go go», or, «cut», or «this must change». I don't do alone of course, thousands of beta testers, the Funcom team and our close partners are also part of this. For let's face it. When we announced Conan in 2005 we had to go out with a feature list. We had to communicate what our game was about. When announcing a feature list we also made a promise to you! And our promises are very, very important to us as a company as well as to me as a person. When it comes down to the essence of this promise to you it is however clear that the most important is the one about giving you a good game as a whole when played, not as a list of features on a piece of paper or in a message on a board. I wish I had the fantastic ability to communicate an idea, a vision, an feeling – not as a list of features in mere words ,p Sadly, it is not possible. List of features are what the players expect and will get. I will go through the list of features changed or cut compared to what it sounded like three years ago. And, honestly, these cuts DO actually make our game better, I know you might not want to see this from my point of view, but it’s true.
Global Forced Player Formations – This is a fantastic idea on paper, and we have even demoed it live. At E3 we had fifty people in a formation. The player formations were implemented and tested, we even have tools to set up positions and add their effects. The problem was, it never excited people to lose control over their characters. Having your character move when someone else moves sort of undermines the idea of a game don’t you think? The coordination of a voluntary formation was just too much for most players, especially with the collision system we have. It simply wasn’t fun! It has now melted down to location based effects only for some classes. (Stand in line with a Conqueror when he is running his formation, and you will have a great deal of resistance vs knockbacks for instance…)
Two more classes merged – The Lich into the Necromancer and the Stormcaller and Scion of Set merged into the Tempest of Set. I use the word merge here instead of cut, as we have not really cut what those classes could do. We have rather taken the best of what they had, to make our other classes even more unique. At the end of the day we chose «unique, varied, fun, solid». Remember that unbalanced classes are the number one topic of all released MMOs, or where you know EXACTLY what a class must do in the end-game. When it comes to our classes it has been more important for us to look at the whole instead of each single piece.
Prestige Classes - It was a great idea those many years ago before we got into the depth of our character progression, but as we moved deeper and deeper into development and our internal alpha testing we found that the prestige classes were not giving the experience they were supposed to. In fact, the prestige classes were doing the opposite of what we wanted them to do when they got into the mix. It didn't give more variety or more solid character progression, it rather cornered the player. We wanted character progression to be about choice, and not about running down a small corridor to a given end. The end result was something people weren’t used to and upset them too much.
Going to hell as a result of screwing up your spell-weaving - Hmmm, two crucial magicians wiped from a raid test sort of left us asking if this idea was even good on paper ;p I rest my case.
That was our cuts, and you might not ever see these things either. It’s not a lot, and it won’t make the game any lesser. In fact, most of our ideas and announced features have proven to be sound, well performing features, and the ones who haven’t been was better off left out.
That is not to say that everything stays the same as it was originally intended, seldom anything do, it only means that we have found that the vision was working as intended, and gone with that. This means that Age of Conan keeps on having a feature list which is groundbreaking for the launch of any MMO. I mean, the siege PvP is still in (and you will have an awesome time with it as you come to the end-game), mounted combat is still in (and it works, he he, I know some didn't believe we could pull that one of ;p), our great hands-on combat system is still in, PvP progression is still in, our raid dungeons are still in, player-made cities are still in (and they will still be in the resource and building regions) tradeskills are still in, thousands of items and great rewards are still in, all of our dungeons are still in (and they look and play great), all of our cities are still in, Conan is still in the game, Tarantia noble district is still there, our destiny quests are still there, our thousands of general quests are still there, our amazing landscapes are still there (and working great with the updated engine;), our 7.1 audio technology is still in (and what an audio landscape!), the dynamic camps are still there, the AI is still there, the hundreds of emotes are still there (yes, you can sit of course – even on chairs – just wait and see ;p), the ability to solo to level 80 is still in (but it won't be trivial), the feat tree is still in (and getting better all the time!), great solo game play in the beginning is thriving, you can behead, dismember, gut and gawk at the sexiest females in the MMO universe…
When we gave you our feature list it was not an empty marketing promise to merely grab your attention, but our serious effort of telling you what we were trying to accomplish. We told you about our vision for the game. The vision has not changed at all! The true Conan experience awaits.
So what about the open beta then, when can you get to play? We will continue to invite more and more people to our general beta and our tech events all the way up to the end of April. If that number goes up to 35000 I wouldn't be very surprised at all, perhaps even more. With these numbers we are able to test all we need to test – and to control the logistics of a simultaneous US and European launch in 4 languages! And then in May, well, we will soon tell you ;p!
So what about the times ahead then? In one of the first postings I did several years ago I talked about what I think we have a proud tradition of doing in Funcom – have a dialogue with our players. We ask, you tell - we listen, you ask, we tell - you listen. In the post launch road this is what we will have the highest focus on – dialogue. An MMO is a joint venture.
The first months will only be about instantly (or as fast as possible) deal with “issues”. After that, we shall have more foci: expansion packs, live content updates and working on an Xbox 360 version. Before launch I plan to commit on a roadmap for all content that we at that time want to add, change or investigate. I am not sure I will communicate this entire plan, but some of it will come as another statement, and will include loose dates with a solid order. I plan to make some of these features and areas actually come in the order as decided by a poll. We shall see what the future brings!
I have told the dev-team quite often – “I have never worked on a better team”. I can now say to you, “I have never worked on a game of which I have been more proud”. The other day the Combat and Control team and I visited a level 37ish “outdoor dungeon” called the “Sanctum of the Burning Souls”. It is a group instance. We were sweating through the dungeons barely managing to stay alive as the Guardian lost aggro because a Barbarian did too much dps or the Tempest of Set went out of mana and couldn’t keep his heals up - and I thought to myself: “I am playing a real, deep, fun and truly engaging MMO here, but with approaches and action like no other online game before!»
The great house of Hyboria has been erected, and we are now doing the final interior work. The red (blood stained;) carpet is ready to be rolled out . Soon! And I just know you will love most all of what we have ready for you. I know this now.