Saturday, 9 February 2013

Thoughts on Mounts: Let's Be a Little Frank ... Frazetta

Last week, Funcom’s weekly community update did something some players found a little unexpected and which elicited mixed reactions.  Despite the earlier revelations that company restructuring (i.e. consolidation of all MMO development to the North Carolina) would mean a delay for more Dragon’s Spine content in the near-term, we actually learned that we’ll be seeing a new series of game mounts in the in-game shop.   And the mount is indeed unusual.  Design-wise its well executed and nicely in-keeping with the Dragon Spine serpent-men design as well as the rhino-horn motifs of the adventure pack's culture armor.

Yothian War Mare

This mount and the reactions to it (including my own ambivalence) got me to thinking a little about the conundrum of adding mounts to AoC.  Some players were out and out hostile to what they felt was a creature that might break the atmosphere of Conan’s low fantasy setting.  If we see every player using this beast, we may feel ourselves to be more in Burroughs' territory (William S. or Edgar Rice?) Others welcomed the mount, as it is indeed something different. 

When the Khitai content was released many players felt the wolves were exotic but acceptable, while the tigers were more outlandish and the subsequent cultural echoes of He-man and the Masters of the Universe, were a little too loud for some. 


Ridden Death

I liked the wolf immediately and was the first in my guild (at the time Phoenix Storm) to grind one when Khitai tokens were still very slow to accrue. 

Murddock making a routine run in Chosain on his faction mount.

Though I don’t love them per se, the tigers have certainly grown on me.  

A Dark Templar prefers Chosain's forests from his game-store mount.

At the time, the incentive to acquire one stemmed from the speed and endurance the new beasts supplied. Both 'eastern' mounts (with the right AAs) were more effective for traversing game zones, at that point.  Khitai also brought with it a series of Hyrkanian horses for players possessed of more traditionally oriented tastes.

The problems for Funcom are several: 1) there’re only so many way to re-package horses, yet horses don’t cause too many issues for the game’s setting; 2) Some players want vanity mounts (the camels are proof of that … I always felt that the camel’s function  should’ve provided a few 6-8 extra inventory slots that could be accessed only when the mount was summoned) and don’t always want speed; 3) with the mount-speed revamp what will motivate players to buy or grind for the Yothian mount?; 4) how can new exotic mounts be introduced and integrated?

Clearly, Funcom needs revenue.  The new mount is a means to that end.  I neither blame them for this nor am I going to be a knee-jerk cynic who feels that they shouldn’t have a monetization scheme.  I want them to pay the devs who make content for Age of Conan.  

Yet I’d like to have seen something a little more low-fantasy in the vein of Frank Frazetta’s fanciful mounts.  Frazetta's depictions always managed to balance credibility with the weird exotic elements by suggesting, rather then openly depicting, drama. 

Frank Frazetta (self-portrait)

Frazetta’s images of mounted low-fantasy characters were always pregnant with enough real bestial energy to make the viewer feel that by taming or controlling these creatures, the rider and or their culture was one that respected the majesty of the animal.  Animals in Frazetta’s paintings establish ferocity, sexuality and struggle.  The polar bear chariot (image 1) is less practical, but who would mess with the people who routinely use them.  The woman brandishing her spear on the lizard (image 2) rides it bareback, straddling the firm ridge of her mount's spine: she controls it perhaps more for its sensuousness than as a means of transport.  Finally and most clearly, the duo on the horned-reptile (image 3) are presented in a suggestively coital posture (as the male fends off pterodactyls with his bow, the female presents her posterior). It's a snapshot of sex and combat … of vulnerability and pleasure ... of risk and struggle. That’s the precise dramatic moment Frazetta wants us to see: the essential male power fantasy. 

Frazetta image 1
Frazetta image 2

Frazetta image 3

So far, the Yothian mount doesn’t seem capture anything as dramatic as Frazetta's ... and let's face it: perhaps, it just isn’t supposed to.  AoC doesn't look to tough-as-nails men with 1940's post-war Brooklyn values as its customer demographic.  As much as Frazetta is a central contributor to the Conan pastiche, Funcom like Dark Horse comics and the other modern contributors is entitled to posit a Hyboria that speaks to a broader 21st Century consumer of pop-culture.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but see this particular mount as more inkeeping with the rhinos and mammoths which were originally intended to serve the siege elements of the game.  As such, a very very ... very ... small part of me is hoping that the Yothian war mount is a harbinger that, unbeknownst to us, a siege-revamp is slowly cooking and that PvP players might be getting a new option sometime in 2013.  After all, once the crafting revamp finally is delivered and patched, some of the systems devs will be freed up. But hey,  that’s just wishful thinking … then again the ‘eastern riding’ skillwas designated to the more generic ‘exotic’ name in August of 2012, suggesting, at least, that FC had a new culture-mount on the drawing board, well before the financial re-structuring and HR issues were common knowledge.

If this mount makes them money, then mission accomplished.  If it is the first of few new siege mounts that portend a smoother siege system for PvP, then that’s good too.  Will I buy a Yothian War Mare? I’m not sure, give me a practical reason, Funcom, and I certainly will.  For now however,  a wait-and-see attitude is more likely.

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