Saturday, 23 March 2013

A Little Age of Conan News

Things have been somewhat quiet in Hyboria for the last few weeks. Additionally, Murddock’s real life has been making more demands. Nonetheless the Age of Conan community is beginning to peer at the virtual horizon expecting the monthly community letter to appear in the next week or by month’s end for sure.

It’s not that nothing has happened, several small changes have nonetheless accumulated. However the AoC community abides in a constant state of expectancy, one which swings from high expectations for an immanent or major moment of game content to the ongoing state of waiting for something that’s overdue to finally appear. Since The Dragon’s Spine content went live those states have merged: the New GD’s appointment (I think technically he’s now maybe called Creative Director); the consolidation of Funcom’s MMO base of operations in North Carolina; and the growing desire for new content have resulted in an almost month long state of irritated suspense. Joel Bylos, has got to be aware of this and must find himself in a correspondingly aggravating spot: without a team that’s settled and working he can’t offer new timelines, and yet he won’t want to loose the positive inertia that the restructuring news has managed to create. To his credit, he has been present on the forums and in the press and at least he’s hinting at ideas.

Sometimes, waiting is the hard part.

Hence in this post, in anticipation of Joel Bylos’ forthcoming, first, real on-the-job monthly letter, This Machine Age will try to assemble some of the scattered tesserae of news.  A survey of the minor developments can be revealing.

The news:

  1. The consolidation of the US and EU forums 
  2. The delivery of the Yothian mount 
  3. The tidbits Joel has dropped across his recent interviews.  

1) The new, and yes, improved forums.

This Machine Age would have been an ardent supporter of the community folks who were concerned about the impending loss of the old forum’s archived info. TMA would also have been guilty of assuming that no end of bickering might have broken out about things like the spelling of “neighbour” with or without the “u” (I did see one cute diversion about how we Canucks, with our 1/3 francophone culture, spell centre ending in “re” while our Yank and Brit brethren spell it “center”). However it must be said that the merger has been not only smooth but in some respects beneficial. Folks are being great about mining the old forums for useful info. The forums, at least as they stand now, are more efficient and welcoming for new and casual players.

Additionally, the forum mods are on the job; so by and large the forums feel less trolled and more constructive than they have in quite a while. The AoC community is not well-known as a cuddly lot; our alternate fantasy lives center (see what I did there?) on beheading or severing our enemies’ limbs. At times, our forums have been a reflection of how we relish brutality. It wouldn’t be surprising to discover that Bylos’ new leaner regime is focused on peace, order and good government (a term of Commonwealth legislation common to Canada and to Australia, Bylos' homeland).

Folks are now more than eager to learn what's coming next!

2) The War Mount.

Murddock and his alts have, so far, seen only one.  TMA has already opined on this in a previous post.  If it makes them some money … well,  thas’aaallllright.  It’s IMHO not a 'must have' item.  In short, the inclination to roll back the first attempt at that patch was a good decision in the face of a crappy situation; it looks like they took some time and figured it out.  It's worth noting that the additional inauguration of routine server re-starts is a welcome indicator that likewise on the tech side, the FC devs appear to be  trying to implement a leaner disciplined service.

3) Squinting at Interviews.

Joel Bylos, in the past few weeks, has given about seven or eight interviews to the various web-based gaming outlets that cover MMO’s.   Age of Conan’s baby sister, The Secret World (yes, it’s an infant: it’s younger and gets more attention and takes up more time and resources … and it's kinda cute) is the focus of most of the interviews, but several appear to provide some clues as to what’s ahead for AoC. Most of the articles, not unexpectedly cover Bylos’ experience with AoC, Godslayer, and the TSW but each interview has a tidbit or two to offer . 

Garrett Fuller, on March 07 in, prompted Bylos to reveal what he could in about his first few weeks on the job: “I am in the process of taking a look at what has been done by the former team, on both the content and the systems side. The priority is Dragon's Spine and the crafting revamp. I am also taking a look at the PvP systems and seeing what can be done to improve things on that end.”

So it's clear that from the get go, the he sees that PvP, at long last, deserves some substantial attention.

Also on March 7, M.J. Guthrie at,  coaxed Bylos to reveal how team changes have impacted the number of AoC developers:
“The Age of Conan team lost more people than the other projects (as a percentage, of course, Anarchy Online had fewer people to begin with). The reasons are relatively simple: Almost all of the people on The Secret World have experience with Age of Conan in their various positions. The Lead Systems designer for The Secret World, for example, was formerly a Systems Designer on Age of Conan and worked on all of the classes and the AA system on Age of Conan. So he has experience with both games that really couldn't be found elsewhere in the company.”

Bylos also described the new North Carolina team:
“Everybody is able to work on both Age of Conan and The Secret World because of the flexibility of our DreamWorld engine technology. The world building program, Genesis, can just as easily create the savage lands of Hyboria as the mist-cloaked towns of New England. Our other tool, Gaia, allows us to create items, monsters, spells and abilities, visual looks packages, achievements, and more, which can be used in all of the projects. With such a flexible tool base, it is easy for the gameplay designers to switch between projects quickly and efficiently.”
From this it looks like the North Carolina team will be working on in-progress projects such as Anarchy Online’s long cooking new game engine.  Bylos’s says “I am just signing off the Issue #6 milestone for The Secret World, and then I will be looking at the next slice of Dragon's Spine for Age of Conan before moving back to Issue #7 for The Secret World.” 

At least Massively’s interview suggests that the in-progress content for AoC has been prioritized, in this production cycle.
In Mike Fahey’s interview (Kotaku on March 8) Bylos’ implies that he sees his job as requiring discipline from his devs:

The Secret World's launch went pretty smoothly, due in no small part to Bylos' experience on Age of Conan. Not wanting a repeat of that game's uneven experience, as lead content director he made sure The Secret World didn't fall into the same trap. … [Bylos says] 'With The Secret World I really pushed the guys – every area needed to be the same'.”

This is well ... somewhat encouraging, and somewhat supported by the aforementioned observation about the new tone and mods on the forums, as well as their decision to rollback a shaky patch.

About 10 days later, on March 16, posted an interview (attributed to Auroralyn)  in which Bylos’ indicates: “As a general goal, I want to grow the community of The Secret World, Anarchy Online and Age of Conan by providing more of the experiences that our gamer have come to expect.” 

More interestingly, through the combined dev team’s efforts, he suggests:
“That can mean something as simple as Age of Conan players being able to get all of the minor improvements that we made in The Secret World (area loot button, mappable dodge key etc.) and it can apply to larger features like the Lore and Achievement systems. … What it means for players is that they will (hopefully) see more regular updates on their title of choice and those updates might be slightly smaller, but will hopefully contain a good mix of both features and content.”

On March 19, PC Gamer’s T.J. Hafer presented a more lengthy to-and-fro with Bylos.  The Creative Director hit a desired talking point when he says:
“Age of Conan is free-to-play, which means there obviously is content gating which can only be removed via a subscription. Currently the Age of Conan model causes a division between paying players and free players—too much of a division, in my opinion. We are discussing ways to broaden the experience in Age of Conan for free players. That’s a priority for me.”
Hafer’s interview nicely reveals that Bylos is aware that MMO community members are savvy to the vicissitudes of language that serves corporate imperatives: “Of course, everything can be construed as ‘marketing speak’, so I’d rather just say that players should wait and see what we do, and judge us on how we deliver.”

There are obvious limitations. Given Funcom’s financial woes, Bylos’ reply to Hafer’s question, regarding the likelihood of another Godslayer sized expansion, is not surprising: “Never say never, as they say, but it is more feasible for the team to deliver smaller, more regular and more focused updates than it is to cordon off a portion of the team to spend 18 months on an expansion. So I’ll say it is unlikely, but not impossible.”

Also on March 19, Wolff Bachner at asks Bylos what is coming for long time AoC players, and he replies,
“For the veterans who have been with us for a long time, we will continue to expand the game, adding both PvE and PvP content … We’re also paying close attention to the new movie project which sees Arnold Schwarzenegger reprising some role as the barbarian – we’d love to see if there are events in the movie which will tie well to content in the game.”

Murddock wonders where Bylos' real sympathies lie.

And finally, despite the fact that some of the other interviews seem to imply that Joel Bylos’ is more concerned with baby TSW, in a more intimately revealing interview (March 22) at, Bylos genuinely appears indicate that running AoC is a task that holds personal resonance:
“It’s scary, because there’s a lot more expectation. It’s interesting; Age of Conan I love, and have loved, because it’s the first game I was a developer on. I guess you always look at what other people are doing with the game, especially if you’ve worked on it in the past, and you want to make your own mark there, and I feel like there’re things still to be done on Age of Conan.”

 More so, Bylos reveals the story of his promotion:

“While I was on Christmas holidays I sat down, because I had a couple of days free. I sat down and I planned out everything in The Secret World we were going to do until about mid-2015.  And then I came back, and my second day back at work they were like 'Yeah, we’re restructuring, and downsizing teams, and so forth.' ”
Zam’s article reveals that Bylos, “… came back from Christmas just so excited about the future for The Secret World. I had a good grasp on what we could do - I’d been working with the guys for about six months by that point, and I had a really good feel for how the live team could deliver, and I sort of planned based on that for the next couple of years. And then I got crushed by the revelation, and then I got offered a new job amongst that situation.”

Bylos presents himself as placing much emphasis on planning.  In the Zam post, when explaining that moving an operation internationally is a convoluted undertaking, he concludes by saying that the team should be more or less assembled soon.  He indicates that  some Montreal employees will not be in North Carolina until the end of March: “… this is the worst period in terms of having them split, and then from April onwards it’ll be fine.”

As the most recent communique, the Zam article suggests that Bylos is getting a firmer grip on the project, as things solidify.  Bylos, at last, is in a postion to suggest what he’s bringing beyond finishing in-process projects. He offers both short term carryovers, and repeats his long-term goals of adding systems that serve both AoC and the baby:
“Certainly Age of Conan will benefit from stuff trickling down - I think you’ll see that. I’ve already stated my intentions to do a quality of life patch for Age of Conan, where we get some of the major things – they aren’t huge, but as a day-to-day thing they’re great. Things like just being able to push V in The Secret World to auto-loot every bag around you, Age of Conan doesn’t have that functionality now and it really should because it’s a few lines of code that can be easily moved over. So I want to do a lot of those small quality of life things in a quality of life patch for Age of Conan, and they shouldn’t be much work on our end either to get over. … An example I gave was a PvP arena system with ranking and stuff; that can work in both games if we have the time to do it, so it’s those sorts of things that I think you’ll definitely see becoming cross-value features.”

Ships moored on the Styx:
 "Bylos is at the helm ... but what's the course?"

To summarize, while there are certainly other details to be found in these articles, reading between the lines with a view to Hyborian fun there are no surprises: 1) AoC needs stable tech and content updates … these will not be huge but hopefully more regular and smooth; 2) Beyond the in-process crafting re-vamp and Dragon’s Spine content,  more PvP systems are a good candidate; 3) Bylos’ isn’t taking the task lightly.  (I take him at his word. Let’s face he got a higher-profile job … when most of us screw up at work, only 2-4 people know or care; if Joel Bylos drops the eggs, it’s covered on the web) and 4) hopefully, the team will start producing more substantial output by the end of April.  TMA wouldn’t be overly astonished,  were some of the quality of life perks to appear late next month.

In the meantime on a side note, Spartacus: War of the Damned is delivering a final season of bloody mayhem (In a parallel universe Steven S. DeKnight is doing a Conan series for Starz). God damn, I'm gonna miss it!   Game of Thrones'  third season is immanent.  In the world of MMO fun, Defiance (game or show) might be a nifty diversion.  ... and of course, there's that community letter!



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