Thursday, November 26, 2015

Interview with Alex Tornberg - painting Hyboria with a brush..

Please tell us a bit about yourself and the work you did for Funcom.

I’m a concept artist and art director from Sweden. I started out working in the games industry as a Concept Artist in 2005 and in 2006 I joined Funcom working on Age of Conan. I spent 5 years working there. When I started out I designed mostly characters, armors and weapons but after a while I started doing environments and architecture as well. I worked as the Assistant Art Director on the Rise of the Godslayer where I had a big part in setting the style and art direction of playfields like Pai Kang and Gateway to Khitai as well as overseeing the art production of other playfields and content. I also spent a couple of days creating all the tattoo textures for Rise of the godslayer and I did a lot of the tattoos in Hyborian Adventures as well.

After I left Funcom I worked as an Art Director for an Electronic Arts studio for a while. Nowadays I work as a freelancer mostly for movies and TV, but I’ve done some work on games as well like for example on Path of Exile.

Please do tell us how the concept artist participates in the development. For most of the gamers concept art are just pretty pictures that we drool over druing the long wait for the game's release.
What was your role exacly and how your typical day working for Funcom was looking like?

A concept artist is the person who visualizes the art directors vision through sketches and illustrations. Every asset and every building in a fantasy game needs to be designed, every location needs sketches that sets the mood of the area. So on a game like AoC there a lot of work for a concept artist. We had somewhere between 4-6 concept artist working the game during the time I was there, but nowadays big fantasy games like that would probably have around 10-15 concept artists working on them. A lot of the work isn’t the type of illustrations you drool over though, there’s a lot of rough sketches or painting over screenshots from the game to show the environment artists how it is supposed to look and so on.

A normal work day would probably be something like this. I come in around 9 and have a coffee with the guys. After that I would look through my task list and see what concepts where a priority to finish first and then start drawing and painting. As I was the Assistant Art Director and Lead of the Concept Art team I would get interrupted routinely during the day for regular meetings and reviews or just questions or requests from other departments, I would also have to prioritize the work for the rest of the concept art team for every milestone. Then I’d head home sometime after six in the evening, depending on the workload at the moment

How are you collaborating with other developers and writers? Is your art something that others create around (hence the words „concept art”) or is it more of a team effort where for example writer tells you about the main story line and you are trying to get the tone and the mood of that story into the concept art?

On RotGS we worked very closely with Joel Bylos who was the Lead Designer then. The Concept Art team was working on the expansion before anybody else than Joel was really working on it. So there was a lot of brainstorming and sketching without any real story connected to them, some made it in others didn’t. We had a really great Concept Art team on that expansion. Stian Dahlslett as the Art Director, we had Grant Regan and Torstein Norstrand who had been working on AoC for years already, some great new guys in Ville Kinnunen and Per Haagensen and I was the Lead Concept Artist, and then Didrik came back and helped out with the final touches of the game. Both Grant and Ville are Howard fanatics. It was really a joy to work with these guys and probably the best team I’ve worked with.

Joel was really great with using the Concept Art team to help out on RotGS, we usually worked very close with the World Builders and Level Designers. Sitting next to them at times when the playfields or levels were built giving advice directly to them or doing quick paintovers showing how we envisioned the look and feel, probably the best team work I’ve seen during my years in the industry.

What does your creative process look like? Are you flipping through Conan comics? Are you taking the inspiration from real world architecture?

Most of the inspirations comes from the real world, it’s really the only way to get a fantasy setting to feel believable even though you try to get some of that old comic stuff in at times. Then you just let your design sense take over and you do your own twist on it. Didrik had a really great vision for AoC and how to get inspired by history but not copy it and the Art Bible he set up for AoC was comprehensive, detailing out each culture and what fitted them and not. It’s quite complex really, creating a good fantasy setting. You can mix stuff from different timelines, but you have to be wary so you don’t make it feel unrealistic. Howard could be really crazy and mixing stuff from the 19th century in some stories with things from ancient Rome in others for example, his stories didn’t always make sense in a historic fashion. So you really had to think about what can we use in AoC and what would just feel out of place.

So when I was designing some building or artifact I would first make a design board with photos from different things I thought would work for that. Then I would get inspired by that and design something new from it.

Robert E.Howard wrote some very vivid descriptions of buildings in Hyboria, were you using those descriptions for inspiration?

Yeah, absolutely. Though we tried to bring some sanity into it. Howard could be really descriptive about certain details and didn’t really bother with the big picture at times. But it was always a pleasure trying create something from the inspiration of Howards writing, I always took a pleasure in trying to get the details in there. Like for example purple minarets in Paikang, though they turned into purple roofed pagodas.

Tell us a bit about creating the art for Khitai expansion in general. There are hardly any descriptions of Khitai in REH books and very few Conan comics so Funcom had to create whole country from scratch.

Doing Khitai was a business decision. We had heard rumors from management that the next expansion was going east. We all hoped to be doing Turan, Shem or something like that, maybe basing the work on the Tower of the elephant. It felt like the most logical thing to do. But upper management wanted to break into the asian market. Around the time we started the work on Khitai our Art Director, Didrik Tollefsen, got the chance to work as a consultant on the Conan movie that was in the works at the time, that ended up being the horrible one with Karl Drogo as Conan, and left for that. Just after that the subscription numbers on AoC was starting to drop really  fast due to the lack of  quality content on later levels, so our director Gaute resigned from Funcom. Craig Morrison took over the management of AoC and Stian Dahlslett came in as Art Director, both of them had been working on Anarchy Online prior to that and I was promoted to Assistant Art Director and Lead Concept Artist. So the production of Rise of the Godslayer or Road to Khitai as it was called back then got off to a really rocky start. But it ended up being one of the smoothes productions in the history of Funcom.

That being said, Khitai is easily my least favourite region we designed for AoC. Our Khitai is very much based on ancient China, if you travel to the Forbidden City in Beijing and walk around there you will feel like you’re walking around in some city in Khitai, and a lot of the temple ruins were based on Khmer ruins. The clothing and armor designs have a much more modern feeling than that we had done earlier, and we have things like wolf mounts and tiger mounts which belongs in the high fantasy type of setting we tried to avoid with AoC. The quality of the art is a lot better in RotGS though, but all in all when we did Khitai it never really felt like we we’re doing a setting in the Hyborian Age. But I think it did turn out looking really good anyway and Joel managed to get a nice twist to the story which felt very in line with Howards writing.

House of Crom is  the most unique area in Age of Conan when it comes to the visuals. Tell us more about your ideas and inspirations that went into HOC.

Directly after the concept art team had finished work on Hyborian Adventures we started working on dungeons for upcoming patches, this was around March-April 2008. The first one we did was an Acheronian Dungeon in Thunder River, which was later named Xibaluku. When that was finished we moved over to a dungeon that had been in the works ever since the project had started back in 2004-2005, House of Crom. This was a mammoth of a dungeon, the size of it was like a whole playfield of it’s own. There was a lot of old design documents to build upon and I think the dungeon was supposed to be released around the same time as Ymir’s Pass, so it was sort of tied into that.

We had hinted a lot of atlantean designs throughout the Cimmerian playfields but House of Crom was where we really got the chance to explore that. The Atlantean design was an expansion of what Ron Cobb, the production designer of the film Conan the Barbrian (1982), had developed for the movie. Mixing historic designs from both the Mayan and Norse cultures it made for a really compelling and unique look. We really took off with that and visualized an enormous underground city that had been frozen for centuries. It had lots of secret rooms and interesting puzzles for the players to solve. We we’re going for an Indiana Jones sort of feeling with a lot of adventure and booby traps. We also used the connection between Howard and Lovecraft for this dungeon and had a giant squid like creature designed to be the final boss.

Last but not least: the Dark Cathedral. It was supposed to be a map for PVP minigames and even after 7 years of games release people are still asking about it (more info: Could you possibly tell us what was that map all about?

I think this was supposed to be a Capture the flag type of map. This was done during the end of the production of Hyborian Adventures. There was a lot of dungeons that just was created without any proper art direction then, it was sort of like the wild west. The concept art team got these handed to us to try and salvage them. Me and another concept artist, Fred Rambaud, got the job of trying and fix these. I was handed Dark Cathedral and 2 or 3 more dungeons to work on. Dark Catherdral was supposed to be something Aquilionian, but the geometry the level designer had used for it wasn’t really close to how  the Art Bible said Aquilonian architecture should look, he had just made up his own stuff. It had lots of rounded arches for example, which was a big no no. It couldn’t really be salvaged without too much rework but I tried my best. I think most us was quite happy that these never was released.

All images are property of Funcom.
photo of Alex Tornberg by Shashank Uchil (

Thursday, October 1, 2015

65.000 kills - season finale (on Crom)

 While this wasn't really posted on the blog some of you that follow me on twitter/facebook know that I have moved to Crom about a month or so and also joined one of the most renown raiding guilds in AOC's history: Destiny. Upon my arrival to Crom I had to kiss my name goodbye and rebrand my assassin as "Sliith". That  was a pisser but such is a prices for moving to a different server (on top of 20 EURO price tag). I have had nothing but positive experience with Destiny folks and they were kind enough to offer me spot on their T5 raiding team. The vibe was great and the raid team was as skilled as you can get so T5 boss killing was, as expected from any established raiding guild, a farm. Yet somehow I couldn't really get into raiding mindset and with each raid I felt more and more like I am doing a chore rather than enjoying a privilege of  T5 access. While epiphany of "shit, I might not be into raiding after all" was neither sudden nor really an epiphany it became painfully evident that I have zero business changing out on Crom for PVE reasons. Looking back at my raiding experience so far it's pretty obvious that whenever I was really doing any regular raids it was in order to get PVE gear for PVP. It was at that time when PVE weapons were superior to PVP weapons and it was common for people to raid T4 (or at least farm cloud) in order to get them weaps. I am very much a min/maxer kind of guy so I will grab an upgrade to my character if I can. Also it's not like I need an edge over other players but I hate being at disadvantage and that was the case with PVE weapons at that time: those were just so much better.  In my humble opinion raiding as a whole just went to shit-town on Fury. Of course pure PVPers dropping from raiding all of sudden had a snowball effect with more and more people leaving for Crom. Since there is nothing in PVE that I would really want being at PVE server discouraged me more and more from logging on. I quickly realized that I am missing a vital part of AOC: open world pvp. It's not like open world pvp is all that wide spread on Fury, but I like the idea of it: at any given moment you might get jumped (aka ganked). For me removing that feeling/idea by transferring to Crom has made AOC experience bland and tasteless, it was no longer brutal Hyboria but rather some kind of la la land. This isn't a jab at Crom players, its just my honest assessment of what I like in AOC and what it felt like to lose it. Of course "the grass is greener on the other side" was also a factor in my server transfer. Crom, at least in my mind, was a shiny beacon of evermore good stuff. More players. More content. More activities. That turned out to be a lie (or to be more frank: I was delusional about it). Crom has more PVE activity for sure, but that is it. It is NOT Fury server II with everything better. It's just different and that doesn't translate into "its just better". Prime example? World Bosses. I am not a huge fan of thing content, but at least on Fury you had to group up into a raid and then mind the gankers trying to strip your out of your boss rewards. That was part of the fun. On Crom? You just wack the boss into oblivion and the excitement lies in rushing into another instance to tackle another boss and doing it before the said instance gets filled with people.
Minigames on Crom are just about the same like on Fury. So if you are like me and you like: PVP as main activity, soloing achievements (quests, panoramas, treasures) and doing occasional dungeon run then Crom has nothing to offer you. If anything the experience will be worsts on Crom, at least I found that true for me.

 So I have buckled up, ponied up another 20 EURO and went back to Fury where I have re-claimed name "Slith" and my spot in Clan of The Free City guild. In effect, if it wasn't for 40 EURO billed to my credit card, no one could have ever suspected that at one point I have walked  the lush PVE fields of Crom server.

But this episode was supposed to be about 65.000 kills mark. So yeah, that's a thing now. I have heard a rumor that some were around 67 k the kill counter restarts to 0. Is it true? Well, I am about to find out soon enough.

Welcome back Fury, I missed you. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Deconstructing hyboria - interview analysis

After talking to Cirith in recent interview I feel like doing some post-mortem on it and giving you my piece of mind on the shape and the direction that Hyboria is taking.

Dungeon/Raid finder vs Crafting revamp: I haven't actually seen anyone being absolutely appalled by the development decision of giving D/R finder a priority over the long over-due crafting revamp. What is D/R finder? Its a sign up system that works pretty much like a minigame queue: you just pick dungeon/raid, select your role (deeps, heals, tank) sign up and wait to be teleported with your newly found group into the dungeon (at least I assume THAT'S what it is). It's a MMO industry standard that both AOC and TSW need to adhere to remain viable and somewhat current. Of course since it's in World of Warcraft it is pretty much in every game. I have had my taste of it when dabbled with WoW and I liked it. Current, very very dated model of just spamming LFG chat with "LF KK run, exp/gear/perks" is not only super old, but also a major content-wall that keeps new players form experiencing all the dungeons that are out there (hell, I still need to do a lot of dungeons). Besides I don't think crafting revamp would be all that successful since AOC stats system is all fucked. Current model rewards stacking very few select stats (crit and combat/magic rating) and I am pretty sure crafting revamp would result in either cranking out only sub par items that were only usable to modestly geared characters or an arms race in which people would create items en mass in order to hit that perfect stack of crit/combat/magic rating that would go beyond the T4 budget stats wise. Both scenarios would be a let down. AOC team needs to make a spot on decision for the content just like they did with achievements. Pouring resources into crafting and not having it be anything less than the second coming of Jesus would be a proverbial nail in AOC coffin (and them nails just keep on coming as prophesied by forum posters...since 2008).

When it comes to Tales of Hyboria which are new adventure packs its no secret that I am less than enthustastic about it's first installment. I really didn't want to ask questions like "how come Shadows of Vanaheim aka Shadows of Cimmeria Reloaded suck?"and to my surprise I got a reply exactly to that unasked question. SOV was a rushed and overpriced content. What I was afraid of seeing is something straight out of American Psycho where main character commits heinous crimes and gets away with it for no apparent reason. I am not against Tales of Hyboria per se, hell if its done right then bring it on! The interview gave me hope for the future that we won't see another blunder like SOV. And I have to agree that with AOC being strapped for cash (Khitai sized expansion is out of the question) the only way that we can see those cool locations pulled straight out of the lore are bite-sized adventures like SOV (I mean not like that, but also like that). I would love to see Aquilonia and Nemedia go at each other throats (Border Range in Wild Lands could be used for that) with Conan joining the battle along with the players (get that lazy bastard of out that castle!). What else? Well obviously Hyperborea is overdue! Just fix price..and quality..and replayability..and story and I am all over that next adventure pack!

I am bummed out by two things: both PvP additions and progression systems are probably years away. I mean placing them on a the development timeline next to "sometime after crafting revamp" is pretty much saying "it will be ready when Moses comes back". Solo arena, when and if its ready, won't fill any need that solo group pvp minigames are not already providing (those are providing mostly misery for all involved). I don't see good things in AOC pvp and onslaught of people coming from Fury to Crom (yours truly included) only show that PvPers are in "abandon all hope" mode.
Well, at least we will get that one server tech soon enough, eh? *wink* (and if you don't get my wink I will be blunt: everyone will eventually transfer to Crom and two remaining pvp servers will be an empty shells).

So we all just might as well jump with both feets into raiding because this is where AOC will be at for the years to come.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Interview with Matt 'Cirith Gorgor” Bennett - July of 2015

CirithGorgor joined me at The Hideout for a second time to talk all things Hyboria. 

CirithGorgor brings his no nonsense approach on few major issues... but I will let you be the judge of that.

1/ Lets start with proverbial elephant in the room: with Joel Bylos stepping down as Game Director who is in charge of AOC? Who makes the high level decisions about priorities and content? And most importantly: this "directorless" state is permanent or are we in some sort of transition?

So, since I rejoined the team around 3 years ago now, setting the direction of the game in terms of content and system releases had always been a 3-way thing between me, the producer and the former director. Now of course that is a 2-way thing between me and the producer, for me that is the direction of anything related to my sphere of influence, specifically content and the majority of the game systems, while the producer is more involved with setting the direction on a business model side.
So really not much has changed except there is nobody with the title game director, “setting the direction of the game” is part of my job description. I know as there are no formal 'game director letters' it might seem from a player perspective that there is no direction, but I simply don't have time for these as they are more time consuming than you might think (I have done a few in the past as you may know) and I believe my time is better spent on developing said content instead, so rather I pass on information on what I have been doing to Sezmra and she takes it from there.

Is this likely to change, no, and I don't think it needs to, the only thing I possibly see changing is myself being more influential on the business side of things too, which is something we have talked about internally.

2/ Crafting update. There is no way around asking about it since it’s in the development for 3 years now. Is there a major setback that makes the update too complicated? Is it less of a priority than, shall we say Cetriss? This is the only time I will ask about release timeframe: is there one?

So the crafting update was started at a time when the team was much, much larger than it is right now and it was possible for there to be a focus on multiple systems/areas of content at the same time. This has not been the case for a while now and realistically we can only work on 1 thing at a time, before moving on to focusing on something else.
Crafting requires code work, quite a lot of code work, before it is final and this is at an absolute premium even more so as it is shared across the live team. Now the next task for the code team will be to add dungeon/raid finder system which will be usable for both AoC and TSW. I know people will say that the crafting system should be the priority, but here I will strongly disagree, a dungeon finder with linked systems and rewards for daily dungeons/raids I believe is more important to the long term longevity of the game. Bringing more people together into social situations where guilds can form/recruit and allowing more players to access our dungeons and raids which I believe stand up there with the absolute best in any MMO. This is a feature which is overdue and creates a lot of opportunities for the game and it is rightfully a top priority.
However, once this system is in place the current plan is then to move the code resources to finishing the crafting system. After the code is finished it will allow the final few steps to be completed on the content side, such as the placement of new resource nodes and the removal of the old quest based crafting.
However, one of the biggest problems with this revamp is that it has been promised and hinted at for so long and those promises have never turned into reality due to numerous complications, cuts and factors both controllable and uncontrollable. Therefore I do not want to promise anything in regards to crafting and will not give a date for this feature as it is ultimately outside of my control (specialization).

3/ Achievement system is without doubt very successful, but very inconsistent when it comes to rewards: first points milestones grant exciting stuff like runes and pets and then its all about titles & unlocks. Is there a plan to include more said rewards or the system encourages getting achievements for the sake of achieving stuff? Will the system be expanded in some way in the future or will it be just adding volume (more of already existing achievements types as we get more content).

This is the way the rewards for the system were designed. The utility items are set to lower ranks (which still require some work and dedication to the game) but which are perceived as 'achievable' by anyone, be that a 7 year veteran or someone rolling their first character. The worst thing to do with this sort of system would be to hide all the useful rewards away so that only a minority of the player base will get them and so a new player looks at the system and says forget it. This is also why the utility rewards are tied into points rather than specific achievements, so that players are not forced to play the game a certain way.
This is therefore why pure vanity (titles, mounts etc...) are set to higher achievement point ranks or much harder achievements/meta-achievements, there is a visual confirmation of your accomplishment but beyond that it’s there for the sake of being an 'achievement'.
Is there the potential for adding more rewards, yes of course, but utility rewards will follow the direction of 'being achievable by anyone' and not heavily gated. Possible exceptions here might be a reward which is only useful in end game raids or dungeons and in this case there is the possibility of tying it into more restrictive criteria, but for now that remains a possibility with no design beyond that and such rewards are more likely to be tied directly to that gated content directly.

The system will be expanded in volume, of course; when any new content or system release comes out it will have relevant achievements made, so there will be new things on each major patch. There will be a whole new sub section added along with the arenas for example.
Something we have also been looking into is linking the achievement system with the dungeon/raid finder which is in the works. This would allow us to not only offer daily dungeons but also the potential for daily achievements, such as completing the Adept trial timer for a given dungeon on a given day, repeating a certain solo dungeon or quest, or additional daily pvp goals.

Whether these sorts of things would be rewarded with achievement points or some other existing or new reward is too early to say.

4/ Lets talk PvP: while pvp got some much needed focus in recent times it still doesn't provide any means of progression as new content just gives XP to get to pvp lvl 10 faster. PvP Tier 4 gear got mentioned in one of the letters, is it still on the table? What about grouping with friends for minigames? Minigames are most popular pvp content and it's a solo experience that you can't enjoy with friends, are there plans to change/adjust that (much requested ability to be able to sign up with 2-3 people). What about that minigame that was supposed to come along with Dragon Spine? It was supposed to be tied in some way to the DS content, do you have any new info on it?

Currently with the resources assigned to the project we are focusing on one thing at a time.
Yes T4 PvP gear is still something we want to do, but there are a number of challenges. Progression in PvP is a double edged sword. Players want to progress so they have a reason to compete, I get that, but at the same time any vertical progression increases the gap between entry level PvP and the top of the progression pyramid. What I would like to do is for T4 to become horizontal, by giving more utility through set bonuses or new abilities but that is not a simple thing to achieve. Sure I could throw out a new vertical progression set in not too long, but that would not be the best thing to do for the game.

As I mentioned before, I don't like to make any promises that I know I can not deliver myself if I have to. Changes to the mini-game signup up are 100% locked to the code base, and I am not a coder, therefore it comes down to prioritizing those code changes against all other code tasks.
There are pending tasks for looking into the sign up system when it comes to the small scale team arena which has been previously talked about. The team version can't work the same way as the solo one due to there simply being too many variable conditions to handle inside a script. When this signup system is looked at for the team arena that would be a great time to also look into making any changes to the minigame signup system. Whether or not any such changes are simple or not will become apparent at that time.
As for a minigame set in Dragon's Spine, this is something which was promised along time ago, by a team which has considerably more resources available than now. If a new pvp map is added the setting could be Dragon's Spine, but it’s equally likely to be an Acheronian ruin a Khitan temple or somewhere in the Northern wilds.

5/ AAs and new weapon types for existing archetypes sound very exciting: will it be a major shift in the way we are playing the game or is it more of a cosmetic thing where, for example, assassin will perform same combos only with swords? Will new AAs be tied to some new content or will it work like AAs we already have? A lot of people are fully unlocked AAs on more than one character and are getting more free AA points daily (there is no AA points cap) won't they be able to just buy ALL new AAs on the day they are launched?

This was hinted at in one of the previous letters I believe, but the current design (which is still subject to potential change) is to require both the use of AA points (existing ones) and also utilize new systems and content as they are released. So for an example if we were adding a new combo for the assassin, you would first need to add the combo to your AA tree. Think of this part like a drop or a vendor item (similar to the upgraded combos which came which Khitai) except instead of instantly getting the combo a-la Khitai this would then add it to your AA tree as something you can spend your AA points on.
The logic behind this is that we still want AA points to be relevant and not punish players who capped them out long ago; however, we don't want everyone to just instantly have everything the second any additions go live without having to massively inflate the price and completely shut out new players from the system. This is still very much a work in progress and I don't see it happening until some time after the crafting revamp.
The current design has progression going in three ways. Firstly, new weapon types and spell schools are intended to add new ways to play the class, e.g. adding a Javelin to Guardians, throwing axes to the Barbarian, 1 handed blunts for the Bear Shaman or opening up melee to a Priest of Mitra with a blunt/shield combo or unholy spells to a ToS with a dagger/trinket combo, I'm still talking very high level here though so don't quote any of this as the guaranteed additions. Secondly, we want to add horizontal options to existing play styles such as an additional soldier stance for guarding a pvp objective, more options to replace those slotted general perks which could be a bit more interesting (like a big boost to critigation at the expense of damage) , or making slotting for different situations a bit more common.
Then finally upgrading existing abilities with significantly higher resource costs (this element is likely to be limited to PvE).
Obviously these changes are pretty ambitious and will take quite a while to implement.

6/ Palace of Cetriss will have two modes, can you elaborate more on that? Where are you putting Palace on the "gear check" scale: will fully geared character with Khitai epic be able to contribute to the raid group in a manfully way or will full T4 or even T5 be required for "hard mode" version of T6? What about T6 gear? Will we see already existing "Dragon Spine" designs or will we get totally new models? Will T6 gear have same set bonuses like T5 or will we get something totally new?

Lets talk balance first, the regular (hard mode) version of Palace of Cetriss will have its earlier encounters initially balanced around the T4 range, where I would expect that at least for DPS and Healing purposes you ought to be able to at least be useful in Khitai epics too. The Palace encounters at least for the T6 progression version does have a lot of raid wide damage by design, so survivability should be a consideration. The later encounters will be balanced to be tougher though (bosses 4-6), as you would expect, and if you are not in the best gear at this point you are likely to struggle.
Though if you are not in one of the top progression guilds don't be too disheartened at that. It is really important to me that when we make new content it reaches the maximum number of players, that's how we can justify spending the right amount of time and resources on it. Therefore a few changes will be coming in. Firstly, there are going to be balance changes made to all raids in T3, T3.5 and T4. These changes are intended to make these instances much more Pick Up Group friendly and overall much more forgiving. That does mean certain mechanics are being removed, but I only see this as a positive thing in order to open them up to more players. I stand by the belief that our raid encounters are as good as or better than those in any MMO out there and the more people who can enjoy that the better the game population will be. The consequence of this is that more and more players will be geared to the point where they can attempt progress within T5 (which will likely see some balance changes of its own at a later date) and T6.
Secondly, as you mentioned, we are looking at adding a more casual version of Palace of Cetriss, so that we really can bring the story and encounters to as many players as possible.
So the main question is how are we going to do that? I've already mentioned earlier the fact that we are working on a dungeon/raid finder system, and my goal is to bring Palace of Cetriss' more casual mode into that system for its launch. This is likely to be a little while after release of the Hard Mode, giving progression raids opportunity to compete for world firsts etc...
The raid finder will offer more casual and forgiving mechanics, but of course the loot will not be quite as good. My goal will also be to bring T3 – T4 into the raid finder at the same time as Palace of Cetriss, so that all players can experience the climaxes of our main storylines.
Gear: are we going to have 12 or more completely unique armor sets? Unfortunately we do not currently have the resources for that, 12 completely unique gear sets each comprising of 8 pieces really do take a lot of time and effort to produce. Will there be new and interesting looking gear appropriate for the Dragon's Spines primal location? Yes for sure. There will be 4 new base styles of armor (as there are in the dungeons of Dragon's Spine, though not the same visuals), there will then be between 2 to 4 color variations of each of those base styles, offering some difference between shared armor styles.
For set bonuses, if I evaluate honestly the set bonuses from T5, then they achieved some of their goals but fell short on others. They offer different and more interesting ways in which character progression is offered and potential trade offs which give meaningful choices and avoiding a major impact on PvP. However, they were extremely time consuming and difficult to set up and balance.
We do want to keep set bonuses but realistically with efficiency being very important they can't be sustained in the same fashion. A more likely outcome will be more generic set bonuses which will set characters up for T7 by adding and accumulating new PvE stats like armor and spell penetration, tenacity and perhaps critigation chance. The goal will still be to offer some meaningful choices on some gear slots. T6 gear, unlike T5, is going to see an increase to the stat budget, but with PvP consequences coming as part of those set bonuses too.
Weapons and accessories will probably see their own mini set bonuses like in T5 too, with some of these accessories coming from the final Dragon's Spine dungeon, more on that later.

7/Servers: is the company dead set on keeping 3 rule sets (pvp, pve and rage) or will Rage be folded as some point due to lack of population?

If I were able to make the decision right now, yes I would merge Rage into Fury (likewise enable those transfers). It’s not a positive thing for a new player to start on a server with a very low population like this.
However, this isn't a decision I can make, but I hope this will be the outcome at some point.

8/ Notification system would be a much welcomed addition to rather clunky text based messages for things like PvP events. Is this something you are still in active development or is it pushed further down the line?

With the resources to work on only one thing at a time it is hard to prioritize this, for now it is pushed back. New features like the Palace of Cetriss, the dungeon finder and solo arenas will take priority as they add new content.

9/Adventure pack was rather surprising addition as there were no hints that the company is working on it. Are the more coming in the future? Will those packs have same structure meaning: existing zones re-worked as new instances? Could you give us more information about planned release schedule? Is it something we will see regularly or will it be a once in a while thing?

I do stand by the fact that I believe the concept of 'Tales of Hyboria' or scenarios, are a good addition to the game. There is a whole Hyborian world available out there and opening more of that up can only be a good thing. The short scenario style means the development cycle is fairly short ensuring it does not push back other important features too much.
However, while I think certain things went well; there are others which were disappointing and need to change if we go down this route again.
Firstly, we need to spend more time on the side quests to add more variety to the gameplay and not just sending players to different parts of the zone.
Secondly, new assets need to be used. This doesn't mean a whole zone full of architecture not seen elsewhere in the game, that's unrealistic for any game, but key features should be unique and indicative of the culture where they are located. Indoor locations are more likely to see reuse, though I’d like to be able to spend a bit more time decorating the interiors in a different way, which unfortunately I was not able to do in Vanaheim.
Thirdly, the price of the standard release needs to be adjusted or combined into a subscription offer.
Lastly, a larger amount of development time needs to be set asides for polish and bug finding/fixing. For Shadows of Vanaheim, we were racing against a fixed deadline (which itself was a mistake), which meant that there wasn't enough time left after everything was functional to polish the content to the extent it deserves.
This is an honest assessment of how I feel this release went, but what I do want to emphasize is that we are aware of what went wrong, what players didn't like and which design goals fell short and if we do introduce another Tale of Hyboria then we will focus on correcting these mistakes.
Currently we haven't started any development on another scenario, but there are a few story ideas we have floating around, including, tracing Conan and Belit's steps in the jungles of Kush/The Black Kingdoms, venturing into the city of ghouls on the Zingaran border, delving into the depths of the under city of Messantia or raiding the abandoned desert city of Ababenzzar in Shem.
We would certainly be interested in hearing from players what areas of Hyboria they would like to be able to visit too though.

10/ the Slithering Chaos is the last dungeon in the Dragon Spine series: is it still on the table or are the two separate modes for Cetriss filling that need for a content update for everyone?

Yeah, it’s still on the cards, and I appreciate that it can be frustrating not hearing any updates on it. Slithering Chaos is still unfortunately blocked due to animation dependencies though. Yes I have seen the video which was leaked showing certain animations functional, but a few animations working for the sake of a portfolio video is not the same thing as having all animations functional in a combat environment. I would like to have this dungeon complete shortly after the dungeon finder is made available and if necessary the encounters will be redesigned to accommodate the animations which are functional as a last resort. The boss is pretty epic for this location so it is not going to be cut.
One thing worth mentioning is that the Slithering Chaos has always been designed with a slightly modified reuse of the Sepulcher of the Wyrm location. You didn’t think your actions in there were without consequence did you?
There is also a distinct possibility of several more unchained dungeons being added to our existing dungeon pool. The most obvious one here is the Onyx Chambers which will receive a complete overhaul (hence its absence from the achievement system), but this is likely to be combined with another smaller dungeon, such as Toirdealbach's Tomb, or the Crow's Nest.

thank you CirithGorgor for taking the time to update the community on key stuff!

Friday, May 22, 2015

Shadow of Vanaheim review

Sitting down to write this post I feel overwhelmed. Sadly not by positive experience I have had with the new adventure pack (can you legally call it that?), but the amount of bullshit just keeps stacking up and seems like I am the man with a shovel.
I am writing this post for 3 reasons: I want YOU, the reader to make an informed decision when buying adventure pack, I want Funcom to understand that his is unacceptable and above all I'm mad as hell and i'm not going to take it anymore.

Before I dive deep into content itself I want to scold the company for making a catastrophe in terms of communicating with it's player base.

Monthly development update reads:

"Age of Conan celebrates its seventh anniversary later this month, and our team wants to make it a memorable one! We are introducing brand new Membership deals and will hold an anniversary celebration with great bonuses along with all new content" 

"This year's celebratory content is going to be epic, so don't miss out on it!  This new story line will be available to characters at level 20, scaling up to level 80.  Our plan is for this new content to be a good source of XP for characters that are currently leveling.  The max level characters will also benefit from the range of gear which will complement existing gear from other areas of the game.

We've got something for everyone during the anniversary!  Happy Birthday Hyboria, here's to another year of thrilling adventures!"

As you can see NOT A WORD on how the company is going to charge both premium subscribers and F2P crowd 1575 FP for regular content pack access and 2700 FP for collectors edition.

This was supposed to be an anniversary update! Now I might not be a senior community manager (or even a big fan of cookies), but I am a big believer in a common sense and a god damned courtesy and above all I am certain those still apply in a MMO space.

So a reality check: read the following and ask yourselves "is this even slightly acceptable in the real life"?

"happy anniversary baby! Now pay me 20$ if you want me to take your out for a dinner".

Don't answer that, its rhetorical. We all know that that after that what would happen next would be something straight out of "Hell Hath No Fury Like A WOMAN SCORNED" (don't ask me how I know that reference).

So 22 pages thread  poped up and people got furious (and apparently fast too!).

This resulted in small post from Funcom representative:

"Naturally, we've been reading up on the feedback you've all provided us. Let me say that The Shadow of Vanaheim content pack was in no way intended to infuriate our player base. We want you to enjoy playing Age of Conan, to have fun!

Our intention was to release new store items that would be obtained in a more engaging way: through new content. Instead of purchasing a new item and it then be delivered to you without any real fanfare, you'd go out and experience a new adventure tied to it while still adding to your growing collection of vanity armors or mounts. I admit that the timing of the Anniversary might have reinforced assumptions, but that was not our intention. We'd like to move forward with releases such as these, providing newer, more inventive ways of customizing your experience. We felt that debuting the first of these during Age of Conan's anniversary was a way to celebrate the game's longevity.

Your frustration is not lost on us though, and we sincerely apologize for any confusion or disappointment this release has caused. Please continue to provide feedback regarding Age of Conan, we are listening and will review each concern brought to us. Just visit to share your feedback.

Thanks for your understanding, folks".

This kind of miscommunication is something that Kickstarter based small indie game developer might commit, but its not to be expected from company that boast it's MMO presence dating back to 2001. You sirs learned nothing!

And this is just history repeating itself as some of you might remember the first anniversary and the following reads just like recent post:

"The announcement of this happening might have lead many players to expect a bit more than it actually was intended to deliver. The main idea was to provide a place where players can gather to celebrate and maybe use their firework items in bigger masses and get great screenshots for the competition described in the last newsletter than it is usually possible.

So the 'festivities' in front of Conan's castle are there to give players a point where they can meet, buy food and drink and celebrate.

We apologize if some expected more and are now disappointed. "

You might have just as well copy/paste that message and just do some basic editing. Here I will do it for you:

"The announcement of this happening might have lead many players to expect a bit more than it actually was intended to deliver. The main idea was to provide adventure pack that players can buy a to celebrate.

So the 'anniversary event' is there to give players a content that they can buy and celebrate.

We apologize if some expected more and are now disappointed. "

But enough of that, that is NOT the main issue (its just a lack of professional integrity on Funcom's part), lets go over why the adventure pack is just not worth buying:

Business model
The last time Funcom wanted us to pay for a new content was Savage Coast of Turan update. I wasn't happy about paying for it, but it was a quality content and it was substantial. The content pack had new visuals and assets (armors, music, textures etc.), good story, dungeon, 2 solo dungeons, proper zone and new raid (but I can't really comment on it). And to think that I felt ripped off by THAT. I would pay for it again if it meant holding Funcom to those standards. You want to know how big is the new adventure pack? It is smaller than Dead Mans Hand. That is right: content that costs almost half the amount the Turan  (for collectors edition) is shorter than it's ONE solo dungeon and contains no new assets.

What are you charging me for then? I am a subscriber, you get my money every month.  
In all honesty the quality of the content pack (or lack of it) doesn't justify even selling the pack to the F2P player base. Its a money grab. Selling someone a product that it is worth its money is a transaction, this is just making a sale with a few vague information about the product and then  grabbing customers money and running away hoping that before he learns what a horror he bought you will be far enough and still have his money. 

Zones and assets
The new adventure pack is pretty much old zones (Conall Valley, Atzel's Approach and Fortress) mashed together with some mobs sprinkled all over it. Every were you look you will recognize the already existing assets with maybe a small tweaks (which are few). The whole experience of moving between the zones feels like "adventure on rails" because you either can't go anywhere where the devs don't want you (Conalls Valley) or the zone is so small that there's just no were else to go but to stick to the main path. Its just same old same old.

The main story is very short and it can be prolonged only by endless killing of pretty tough mobs that stand in your way of just burning through the quest. Oh you are a rogue class? Then you can stealth your way around and beat the whole thing in 30 minutes or so. The main quest is pretty much "kill this, kill that" and the side quests are the usuall "pick up axes and shields" or "pick up horse shit and throw into well" (I am not kidding). No new mechanics, no need for clever tactics or thinking in general.Re-runing the content was tedious and boring. Its nothing like Apostate in Kara Korum or Isle of Iron Statues in Ardashir: those are gems and I never got stick of them even after all those years.

For some time I have complained about the quality of writing and this is all time low. I don't think I will spoil a lot (because there is not much story in general) if I will tell you that the whole story is about the mighty Thegn Heimdall being upset because Conan killed his dad. Boom! The ol' "revenge for killing a parent" cliche! And this is the whole story: kill everyone, get to Heimdall and kill him too.  Even more disheartening are the dialogues: for a while now dialogues are written in a way that show our character is both aware that he is an invincible half-god walking the Hyboria and also a psychotic murder machine. Pretty much every dialogue ends with something like "Ok, I will fuck them up", "they are as good as dead", "I am on it to kill the people you told me to". Its cocky and disturbing. Also whoever wrote this tried to drop as many "big words" as they could into dialogue. 
An Aesir warrior that does nothing but killing says "to reciprocate" *face palm*.

I will let the screenshots do the talking. I could have provided more (like NPC stuck in the geometry), but this should give you the taste of how well the content pack is put together.

Forum poster Khaletohep has even better list of bugs.

Last and not least here are the rewards

The bear mount, highlight of this adventure pack, is very low quality. Pretty much a mob that someone slapped a saddle on and told it "you are a mount now".

There are 3 NPC that sell stuff: one is for social items (cloaks, helms etc.), one has bear mounts and one has some items (those are class specific).

The content is repeatable and on 20 h cooldown. For just finishing the main story you will get 2 tokens and finishing the HM (which is not easy) will grant you 5.

The proverbial "carrot" in this content is a very powerful ring and HM tokens which might interest players that don't have T4 accessories on their characters or still need more tokens.
I and I think a lot veterans need neither the ring nor the HM tokens (which we have nothing to spend on anyway). 

So to sum it up:

If this adventure pack came as a "free" update to the subscribers I would deem it "OK-ish". There is nothing great about it, it has a lot of flaws, but at least its there. Its like eating in a fast food joint: yeah its bad, but at least its fast and after all its still is kinda-food. 

Paying for this ON TOP of hefty subscription price? OH HELL NO.


Seems like Funcom keeps shoving Shadow of Vanaheim down everyone's throats. It's marketing, I am fine with it. What I am not fine with is that all the communications read like SOV is a HUGE DEAL, a major content update. Its not! Lets do over the and check out the message there:

"With Shadow, the team was able to unlock more areas of the Hyborian world and offer players a unique story to experience."

- no area is unlocked. This is an instanced content that exists only a private zone for the player. It is nothing else that old Cimmeria with "Vanaheim" sticked slaped over it.

"Vanaheim was a great location in Conan’s past as they were the natural enemies of the Cimmerians"

- who wrote this? Vanaheim is a country of Vanir, not people.

"therefore the players get to experience some of the older lore aspects in the game and see what the lands would look like in the far north of the world."

- they look exacly like Cimmeria because all the in game assets are related to Cimmeria

"In working with the players they received six or seven proposals and eventually decided on Vanaheim as the focus of the story."

- no one asked players about that, ever.

"The update offers players some new instances for smaller groups, between one and three players."

- I am sorry, instanceS? Plural? There is one instance and it scales with the amount of players going up to 3.

"For hardcore veteran players it offers hard mode versions as well which will bring some competitive end game gear to their table"

- 1 ring

Friday, May 1, 2015

Lore Whore: Zenobia and world's longest pregnancy

Zenobia (pic to the left is a McFarlane Toys Conan Series Two) has a very strange relation with Age of Conan, it's timeline, NPC and even developers themselves.

Zenobia is no were to be seen in game and as far as I know only 3 NPCs mention her: Pallantides, Conan and Countess Albiona.

Albiona only mentions special jewelry that Conan gave Zenobia. Conan, when asked about it, will simply say that "Zenobia is not here, man" and gets defensive about it (what are you? Jealous?)

A real gold to be mined comes from Pallantides dialogue.

"Ah, now there's a wonder. She was a Seraglio girl who caught the king's eye after helping him escape the Iron Tower. She's beautiful beyond words, almost the match of the perfect Countess Albiona. She's heavy with child right now. As my blade guards the king, it guards the queen as well".

First of all it establishes two truths about Zenobia: she is already married to the Conan and she is pregnant. This is a great indicator about when exactly Age of Conan is taking place.

The last Conan story The Hour of The Dragon ends with Conan naming his ransom for Tarascus life:

"Very well."  The king smiled as at an exceedingly pleasant memory."She shall be your ransom, and naught else. I will come to Belverusfor her as I promised. She was a slave in Nemedia, but I will make herqueen of Aquilonia!"
- REH, The Hour of The Dragon

So between The Hour of The Dragon ending and Age of Conan king Conan went to Belverus (capital of Nemedia), took Zenobia back with him to Aquilonia, made her queen and pretty much... "gave her one".

The whole dialogue gets weirder: Pallantides says that Zenobia "was a Seraglio girl".

Seraglio is  a harem. But why is it spelled with a capital letter in the middle of a sentence? Its almost like the writer thought that Seraglio was a person. REH didn't capitalize the first letter of that word and I didn't find any other sources that would do so. 

"There is a girl in your seraglio named Zenobia."
- REH, The Hour of The Dragon

The biggest blunder is Pallantides saying that Zenobia "caught the king's eye after helping him escape the Iron Tower" and that she is "almost the match of the perfect Countess Albiona". That is a straight lore fail on Funcoms part (I am not aware of similar lore mistake in the whole game).

No one helped Conan escape the Iron Tower, in fact it was Conan who broke into Iron Tower to free Countess Albiona.

"In an instant Conan had drawn the massive bolt that barred the door--too heavy for one ordinary man to have manipulated--and called hastilyto Albiona, who ran staggering to him. Catching her up unceremoniouslywith one arm, he bore her through the door and into the outerdarkness.
They had come into a narrow alley, black as pitch, walled by the sideof the Tower on one hand, and the sheer stone back of a row ofbuildings on the other. Conan, hurrying through the darkness asswiftly as he dared, felt the latter wall for doors or windows, butfound none"

- REH, The Hour of The Dragon

But Zenobia indeed helped Conan to escape when he was a prisoner in a dungeon in a Belverus.

"Who are you?" demanded the king belligerently, struggling to asitting position in spite of his chains.
"Men call me Xaltotun," was the reply, in a strong, golden voice.
"What place is this?" the Cimmerian next demanded.
"A chamber in the palace of King Tarascus, in Belverus."
- REH, The Hour of The Dragon
"It is no mockery!" The girl was trembling violently. Her braceletsand breast-plates clinked against the bars she grasped. "I swear byMitra! I stole the keys from the black jailers. They are the keepersof the pits, and each bears a key which will open only one set oflocks. I made them drunk. The one whose head you broke was carriedaway to a leech, and I could not get his key. But the others I stole.Oh, please do not loiter! Beyond these dungeons lie the pits which arethe doors to Hell."
Somewhat impressed, Conan tried the keys dubiously, expecting to meetonly failure and a burst of mocking laughter. But he was galvanized todiscover that one, indeed, loosed him of his shackles, fitting notonly the lock that held them to the ring, but the locks on his limbsas well. A few seconds later he stood upright, exulting fiercely inhis comparative freedom. A quick stride carried him to the grille, andhis fingers closed about a bar and the slender wrist that was pressedagainst it, imprisoning the owner, who lifted her face bravely to hisfierce gaze.
"Who are you, girl?" he demanded. "Why do you do this?"
"I am only Zenobia," she murmured, with a catch of breathlessness, asif in fright; "only a girl of the king's seraglio."
- REH, The Hour of The Dragon

I have always wondered if Conan's and Pallantides dialogues were parts of some old plot for future content so I asked former Game Director Joel Bylos about it:

You can check whole conversation here. Of course Joel is super knowledgeable about REH and his writings so me catching him on getting something wrong would be as rare as Funcom writers getting the lore mixed up. Which, in case of Zenobia, seems like there is an ongoing curse.  So my dear Zenobia, you have been pregnant for a like 7 years now? Either have the baby or don't, make up your mind sweetie.