SAN FRANCISCO--With GDC 2009 underway, we took the opportunity to visit with Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures game director Craig Morrison on the game's current status and its planned updates. The game, Morrison admits, had a rocky launch and was lacking in some areas, but has since been amended extensively based on feedback from the player community. Commonly cited launch issues, such as a lack of higher-end content, a lack of diversity in quests and dungeons,anda lack of higher-end player-versus-player battle have been worked on; content has been added steadily post-launch, and high-level siege combat is also in the game and enjoyed by players right now.
Variety is something that the development team has pushed strongly to implement as well, says Morrison, who cited the most recent in-game update that added a new dungeon, Xibaluku, which included several harrowing new encounters that require players to think on their feet, such as a powerful "boss" monster whose magical shielding can be deactivated only by solving an always-randomized jumping puzzle; and a monster-infested crevasse where sallying forth quickly means getting weakened by flocks of bats, but moving forwards too slowly means taking a nasty fall, since patrolling troll monsters will catch up to you and send you tumbling. And this push for variety will also be reflected in the coming update new content, which, in addition to including a new high-level dungeon area, will also include a wide-open outdoor commons area under siege by two rival gangs. These gangsconstantly battle for control in public, shared areas as part of a new story that will have new quests tied to it. Completing these new quests may turn the tide of battle in favor of one side or another...in real-time, as other players are making their way through this content. So, while you might be trying to advance the agenda of one faction, you may suddenly see the balance of power swing in favor of the opposing faction as a result of other players helping that rival faction...again, in real-time, with no instancing. Morrison explains that this kind of on-the-fly change, while very difficult to implement in the game,should help shake things up for players who are looking for something new.
However, the game still seemed to lack one crucial piece of the puzzle--powerful, desirable, and sexy loot items (known colloquially by massively multiplayer veterans as "phat loot"). This will also change. The Age of Conan team's next big project will be a gigantic overhaul of the way items work in the game, as well as the power and bonuses they provide. In most massively multiplayer games, you expect to keep fighting, keep questing, and keep looting more and more-powerful items that grant your characters huge bonuses that strengthen them considerably. Previously, Age of Conan's somewhat conservative loot system did just the opposite. Even powerful magical swords and armor would provide measly-sounding +0.02% bonuses to damage or protections against damage. With the next update of the game, items will instead carry "ranking" labels that provide easier-to-understand bonuses like "+10 to strength."
In addition, the game's basic item bonus system is also being overhauled. Previously, you could receive bonuses to certain attributes (strength, endurance, and so on) only from specific armor pieces; for instance, you could only get strength bonuses from gloves or helmets, which limited your choices considerably. Now, you'll be able to find armor in any slot that increases any character statistic, and really focusing on raising the power of a single statistic will have a noticeable, but not overwhelming, effect on your character's power level. Morrison was quick to point out that even a fully kitted adventurere with meticulously gathered enhancing armor will increase in power by about 50% (as opposed to the 200%-300% power increases you might see in other online games), so this advantage won't always guarantee you a victory, and isnt' intended to be something that players should obsess themselves with, unless they're looking to get into high-end raids, which, as Age ofConan players already understand,requires every advantage players can get their hands on. Hopefully, thisradical changewill help players get more enjoyment out of their game by pursuing powerful loot, but won't make players feel obligated to complete specific armor sets or end up limiting variety as all players of a certain class end up all wearing the same type of kitted armor.
While Morrison was happy to discuss the details in the upcoming updates for the game, he unfortunately remained completely silent about the full-on expansion pack, which was announced some time ago. There are no details on the expansion that can be shared right now, and the game director suggested this might be for the best, seeing as how there may be players who still aren't satisfied about current in-game issues and may not be happy to see the team focusing instead on a new project, instead of fixing what should be fixed. Still, the recent additions to the game seem to have improved it considerably, and Morrison tells us that now that siege PvP is in the game, about half of the player population plays in PvP, and the other half focuses on PvE...an almost eerily perfect split.
The next content update for Age of Conan: Hyborian adventures may make it out to the test server in the next week or so, but as the game director suggests, it'll require some time to tweak properly before pushing live.