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The Road to Most Improved - Background

John Humphrey Posted:
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Fighting demons is not an uncommon experience in Hyboria from the Barrachan Isles to shadow-haunted Stygia, and soon to the far-eastern realms of Khitai. The remains of Acheron are rising across the continent. The skeleton of ancient Atlantis is clawing forth from its tombs to aid the players against their corrupt foes.

Players are not, by far, the only ones that have to fight their demons. Funcom has been plagued with the demons of an early release, incomplete content, uncooperative technology, and the angry backlash of players who don't look past the affront of undelivered promises and a perceived lack of communication. The managers and developers of Age of Conan recognize this. The guard was quickly changed in 2008, and the focus was shifted to delivering what the players wanted if at all possible. Some items have been clearly stated as to not being deliverable despite the good intentions of developers. Though, the XBOX 360 version still has a small dedicated team, and it is still being developed though likely for a NextGen system; we learned this year that Age of Conan is, simply put, a beast that will not fit on an Xbox360 platform. The graphics demands are much too high to run on existing console systems. Despite successes over the last year in eliminating memory leak issues in the game client, eliminating graphical slowdowns, resolving difficulty getting endgame Battle Keep Sieges not to crash, and honing the engine to run on somewhat less technologically enhanced PC Platforms, it still requires quite a deal of meat in the hardware category to pull off a smooth experience.

The developers of Age of Conan have met their demons head-first with sword, axe, and hammer in hand. As Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "That which does not kill us makes us stronger..." In my opinion, I feel this game was released before its time for good and ill; the advanced technical requirements should give it staying power as newer systems will be better able to meet the demands of the game, and other games will eventually show their age requiring substantial engine overhauls to be competitive.

To truly highlight the progress of Age of Conan over the last year, I have to step back to November 2008, as this was when Ymir's Pass was introduced to the player-base. We, as players, often have a short memory. We tend to focus on the most recent announcements and forget much of what else has come before. An early complaint of Age of Conan players was the lack of mid-level content. Developers of the content have a keen appreciation of the original works of Robert E. Howard, and, in this case, they tapped the short story "The Frost Giants Daughter" for inspiration.

Early in your search, you will run across the Wheel of Pain, introduced in "Conan the Barbarian" (1984). While crossing the snow fields, you may run across Atali, the Frost Giant's daughter herself. Atali's charms can entice any man, and you may be surprised at what happens if you can catch her. We finally get to meet Keaira, from the opening cinematic, marketing images, and the racey December 2007 Playboy centerfold, in the Amphitheater where she sends us to find and free the Frost Father.

Afterward, you move past these events and into the real meat of the playfield. Dripping with lore, this new zone is quite broad and it introduces an epic overarching quest chain that carries the players through the story arch and introduces you to many of the characters from Howard's creation. The Frost Father has been captured by demon worshippers. We have to find a way to release him to restore balance in the nearby regions. We must explore a huge volcanic temple complex, fight its denizens, close the portals allowing demons to enter our realm, and find a creative way to release the Frost Father.

The solution is not quite as simple as it appears, and the development team has started to introduce complications into the quest process. Ymir's Pass introduced 1000s of NPCs and dozens of new quests. We asked for more challenging encounters after the first couple months of release, and these quests, dungeons, and bosses should keep us engaged for many hours while we try to figure it out.

We have heard about the drain of players. We have wondered why does Funcom continue to pour money into a system that many think is broken. First of all, many of the initial system issues that drove players away were patched and repaired by October 2008. In 2008 interviews, Funcom spoke about their 700,000+ subscribers in their early months of service. By the end of the year, official subscription counts began to level off around 400,000. After that point, as a result of being a "Public Company", they were no longer allowed to reveal player counts. We have no "official" numbers after that point.

Throughout 2008 and 2009, Funcom had significant market competition in the form of Wrath of the Lich King (2008), Warhammer Age of Reckoning (2008), Borderlands, Fallen Earth, Aion Tower of Eternity, and the dearth of Free-to-Play games, including a resurrected Dungeons & Dragons Online. By the end of 2009, we also had a Closed Beta for Star Trek Online and lots of hype related to Star Wars: The Old Republic.

There is a lot of competition for our gaming dollar in this oppressive year of recession. Many players had to drop back their concurrent subscriptions to make ends meet. So, as a result, it is highly likely that player counts dipped much lower than what has been revealed. After huge buy-ins for many newly-released games, these virtual worlds for all developers dropped to a much smaller supporting population.

The success to be mentioned is that Age of Conan continues to support itself through its current subscriptions. New development is being maintained for itself and other new MMOs to be released by Funcom. As the market improves, and other marketing techniques are experimented with, we shall see resurgence in our Virtual Communities.

Age of Conan also has another less visible target on the horizon. It has another "strong" reason to maintain. Paradox Entertainment bought the rights to produce movies for many of Robert E. Howard's characters. "Conan" is in pre-production, and is slated for a summer 2011 release; for much of 2009, it was reported to have a June 2010 release date. This new version of the Conan saga has been inspired by the artistic design team of Age of Conan and the six years of research that Funcom put into developing her visuals; the WETA Workshop team liked the direction taken from Age of Conan. The script is written, and it will continue to be modified throughout the development process. The story does not follow the timeline of the films from 1984 and 1987.

For the Conan role, they were not looking for a muscle-builder of the Arnold variety; they were looking for a panther-esque athlete that could be found on a rugby or soccer field. The writers, Josh Oppenheimer and Tom Donnelly, are committed to follow the inspiration of Robert E. Howard and have leaned heavily into his printed short stories, and they have read many of the comics, including the latest Dark Horse adaptations.

This Intellectual Property is being groomed to become a franchise, and it is being produced by Fredrik Malmberg, CEO of Paradox Entertainment, directed by Marcus Nispel, and distributed through Dreamworks. Shooting locations have been scouted primarily in Bulgaria, and there will be some footage shot in China. Do I sense a tie-in with "Rise of the Godslayer", or at least a scenario of a young Conan challenging the Tower of the Elephant? Over 2009, freshly re-envisioned projects involving Red Sonja and Kull the Conqueror have been announced, and preproduction has been started though currently on hold for both IPs. We also saw the December 2009 release of a Solomon Kane movie in Europe. The Howard characters are being fleshed out for today's audiences, and I can see "Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures" reaping the benefits of collaboration and cooperation.


John Humphrey