Age of Conan will celebrate its 1st birthday next month (Edit: this month in fact!), and while the game sold exceptionally on release, it’s hard to imagine Funcom’s celebrations not being a little muted due to those initial sales not translating into equally impressive subscription numbers. Common wisdom places AoC’s active subscribers significantly lower than the other disappointing big release of last year, Warhammer Online, and lower than the other big-western-MMORPG-that-isn’t-WoW, Lord of the Rings Online, which seems to have experienced somewhat of a renaissance following its Mines of Moria expansion.
My story with AoC is probably similar to many. I played at launch, but was frustrated by bugs and lack of levelling content to the point where I chose not to continue playing. Having heard that the bugs and content issues had been ironed out, I recently resubscribed to check it out. I’m only level 25, but I can tentatively confirm that the game feels a heck of a lot more polished than it did when I left, and I remain optimistic that the added content will help bridge the levelling gaps evident at launch.
What follows is my assessment of how AoC stands right now, with an eye towards what I feel MMO developers should take or leave when designing their shiny new AAA MMORPGs, including Funcom themselves with their in-development MMO, The Secret World.
Things that AoC does well:
1. The starting zone of Tortage. The balance between night-time solo questing and daytime group questing is perfect. The inclusion of voice acting and other single-player RPG conventions such as dialogue trees, helps to add a veneer of freshness to the fairly traditional MMORPG questing underneath. The whole area is tightly focussed and interesting, with the various zones always seemingly well-populated with other players. As good an introduction to an MMO as I have experienced.
2. Presentation. The graphics are beautiful and the music is of a very high quality. The UI, while not spectacular, is solid and fully functional, and certainly above average for the MMORPG genre. Also, the character creation options are extensive in comparison to most other MMORPGs.
3. Combat. In comparison to more traditional MMORPG combat, it’s fast-paced, dynamic, and has a satisfying physicality about it. A huge step forward for a style of gameplay that is in serious danger of terminal stagnation.
4. Patching. The patches arrive simultaneously in the US and EU, localisation performed, with healthy download speeds. It puts Blizzard, Turbine/Codemasters and Mythic/GOA to shame. This should be the standard for patch delivery.
Things that AoC does badly:
1. Hyboria does not feel like a world. Dozens of box shaped questing zones, separated by loading screens, and often instanced, do not constitute a virtual world. A coherent and mostly seamless world is pretty much half the appeal of an MMO for me, and when I’m prevented from exploring by a seemingly arbitrary invisible boundary, much of the magic is lost.
2. Performance requirements. All that beauty comes at a cost, and even a year after release, that cost is still too high for the average player. Only now, with my brand-spanking-new 4890, can I run the game in anywhere close to full settings. This is hard to justify when your main competitor ‘runs on a toaster’, while still managing to look very pretty.
3. Group questing. Quest objectives should ALWAYS update for the whole group. Waiting around for items to respawn, or having a long escort quest only update for the player that started it, is NOT FUN.
4. Only one starting zone. Tortage is great, but the thought of repeating it for every single alt is withering. To be fair, you can skip most of it with subsequent characters, but the prospect of a different starting experience is a great way to encourage players to try new classes, and ultimately, get them to subscribe to your game for longer.
5. The bait and switch. After Tortage, the voice acting dries up, the destiny quests become sparse, and the whole game loses its focus somewhat. It’s easy to understand why so many players became disillusioned when realising that the best bits seemed to be behind them, not ahead of them.
6. Women need not apply. Funcom made the conscious decision to aim the game squarely at the 18-40 male demographic. Instead of my risking offence with what would inevitably come across as lazy stereotyping, I’ll point you in the direction of Spinks’ excellent discussion of the issue. Basically, is it wise to alienate at least 2 out of every 5 of your potential players?
In summary, even if AoC had launched in its current state, there are enough dubious design decisions in there to ensure that the initial box sales would not translate into subscribers. However, I’m almost certain that if you asked the lost players what would have kept them playing, a majority would have wanted the game to remain as good as Tortage in its subsequent 60 levels. If Funcom are able to learn from that and reproduce an extended Tortage-like-experience for the entirety of The Secret World, they may well be onto a winner.