Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was originally planned as a cross-platform massively multiplayer game both for the PC as a showcase Windows Vista and DirectX 10 product, as well as an Xbox 360 game. Things didn't quite go according to plan after the game was launched in May of 2008. In short order, the Xbox 360 version disappeared off the radar while the PC version launched without full support for DirectX 10, as well as other issues, such as stability problems; a lack of content outside of the early-game quest zone of Tortage; and strange, arcane itemization that made many items seem worthless (you'd defeat a mighty foe to pick up a magical sword that gave a "+0.002 attack bonus," whatever that meant).
However, time has passed, the original game director and Funcom cofounder left the company, and a new team of developers has been handed the reins to hammer out significant updates to address the game's issues. We took a look at the evolving game ourselves and got some insight from the game's new game director Craig Morrison and designer Joel Bylos.
We ran through the early game experience again on a midrange PC and noticed considerably fewer performance problems than at launch--aside from a few bouts of network lag, the game seemed to run quite smoothly with few to no hitches beyond some extremely minor clipping issues with characters that had long, flowing hair that clipped through their clothes.
Perhaps more importantly, we had an easier time of judging what loot was more valuable and what wasn't because the game's revamped itemization is much clearer about what your character should and shouldn't pick up (a magical cutlass grants a +5 to strength and +25 health points, rather than some strange decimal amount). This makes outfitting your character a snap because Age of Conan continues to have comparison windows that float over your items when you mouse over them, comparing the statistics of your new item against what you currently have equipped. Though recent updates have also tweaked the combat system to make more sense and be in line with the game's documentation, melee combat remains based on using hotkeyed "combo starter" abilities followed by hotkeyed directional attack swings and still seems to work just fine.
In terms of addressing the game's major issues, Funcom feels that it has worked through most of the player feedback, which the game's staff assured us is extremely important. In addition, the studio uses "data mining" (crunching actual statistic numbers of how many players are at which level, how many have completed this or that quest, and so on) to get a sense of what players seem to like and don't like. (Incidentally, based on the data and the feedback, Funcom feels that Age of Conan's current population offers pretty much an even split between player-versus-player fans and player-versus environment quest lovers.) To address specific issues, the development team has continued to optimize the game from a technical standpoint (and the game does seem to run much better), has revamped itemization as mentioned, and has also tackled issues like a lack of content after level 20, when the starter missions around the city of Tortage come to an end.
The strongest content update to combat this lack of mid-level content was Ymir's Pass, which went out in November of 2008 and offered many new areas to explore, many new quests, dungeons, and bosses, and also an epic, overarching quest line based on author Robert E. Howard's classic Conan story The Frost Giant's Daughter, in which the frost giant in question is abducted, resulting in chaos in the surrounding areas. The overarching quest, in case you're curious, culminates in exploring a volcanic temple complex that belongs to angry demon worshippers. You must destroy demonic portals and their guardians along the way to the final encounter, a sizzling lava demon that guards the titular frost giant in chains. Your eventual goal is to free the frost giant by using the power of the lava demon in your favor; and let's just say that should you succeed, the frost giant isn't too grateful.
Regardless, the unusual mechanics of the frost giant boss encounter (which actually doesn't just boil down to killing the boss and then clicking on the chains) were a key inspiration to the development team, which has steadily been becoming more accustomed to the game's technology and what can and can't be done with it. Since then, there has been more content added to the game that offers what current game director Craig Morrison describes as standard massively multiplayer gameplay (such as hunting bosses and exploring dungeons), "but done in a different and interesting way." One example the director cited was the most recent content update, Tarantia Commons--a contested area where guards and rioters are constantly at odds. This zone acts a bit like a gigantic "public quest," a system that has been done in other such games as Warhammer Online, but rather than requiring players to buy into it, the Tarantia riots happen continuously (refreshed every hour or so), regardless of player participation, so even if you're all by yourself and happen to swing by, you can still participate. In the Commons zone, you can side either with the rioters by pounding on doors to incite more of the locals to riot, or you can side with the guards to put down the uprising. And because riots also happen ever hour or so and don't always happen in the exact same way (sometimes the guards win, sometimes the hooligans win), Funcom hopes that players will play through such encounters multiple times.
In addition, the Commons zone extends outward to include other quest-heavy zones, such as an infected leper colony (where you can try to quest for a cure, but may also contract a deadly disease if you remain long enough) and a guild of prostitutes (diseases aren't modeled for this guild, fortunately), where you can take on related quests, earn signature prostitute items (such as the red mask that the prostitutes and their hired guards wear), and have what Morrison describes as a "tasteful, fade-to-black" encounter of your own if you care to do so. In addition, the riot area has enemies with distinctive gear and clothing, like a band of seafaring brigands that wears blue and white clothing that your character can loot from their corpses and wear--new apparel is something that Age of Conan's player base has clamored for, and the team seems intent on delivering.
In addition to new content areas already added, the team is now simultaneously working toward full implementation of DirectX 10 support, toward the game's next update House of Crom, and on a full retail expansion pack, which will be revealed in August. DirectX 10 support is currently in a beta state and a portion of the game's active players are already using and testing the game, but Funcom is continuing to test the game and accept player feedback--according to Morrison, the inability to have broader testing among a range of systems to make sure DX 10 works OK is what has delayed the full implementation. However, Morrison suggests that the team is "getting close" and hopes to have full DX 10 support in the game in the next month or two. In the meantime, the studio is working on the next content update, which is targeted for high-level players (the majority of the active population) and will offer a two-part dungeon that starts with a public area and various linked boss encounters, sort of as a primer to raiding that will hopefully encourage different groups of players to sequentially trigger the bosses to appear in sequence as they complete various requirements and finish off earlier bosses. House of Crom will also feature "tier 3" raid content--the highest level of raid content in the game, in the form of Thoth-Amon's stronghold, the home turf of the fabled evil sorcerer.
While Age of Conan had a rocky start, it seems like the game has made several turns for the better and continues to have a devoted team of about 100 people hammering away at both improving and expanding the game. This new team really seems to have tried to address the major concerns of its fans, as well as the concerns of the people who tried the game at launch and left. For players that have left, Funcom has recently opened a 14-day "reevaluation" trial to reactivate their accounts for free, so if you're interested, visit the reevaluation site for more details.