Monday, 14 October 2013

Beyond Dragon's Spine?

This blog was initially started to help new and casual players with a view to helping to clarify some stats and explore the new (and that word’s being used ironically) crafting update.  That was the plan nine months ago, and in the meantime TMAB has produced some content to meet those needs. After a  hiatus, Murd’s found some time to again deliver some content.  Originally, this material was supposed to have been 3-4 shorter entries ... so go grab some tea and cookies, beer and pizza, or bacon and absinthe (essentially whatever you prefer) to accompany a longer read. 

Minor News

Now much credit has to be given to the FC team for the by and large smooth server merge and addition of new versions of the old world dungeons to live and to test-live.  Yes there were glitches, but it wasn’t the Armageddon that it might have been.   Additionally, in  the recent Game Director’s letter Joel Bylos gave a welcome update on the crafting revamp.  It was somewhat of a “do you want the good news first or the bad news?” update for crafting oriented players.   Although the long slow process of converting all the old assets into the current post-DreamWorld re-vamp format is complete, Bylos intimated that there was still more to be done.   

The GD did answer a question that’s been nagging Murd somewhat:

Originally Posted by ibrock (a.k.a. Murddock)
Joel, you probably know this question has popped us elsewhere, but given that some GUI work has to be done, will you also be making any changes to the trader window, so we can search for crafted items (e.g. search by item stat or by crafter etc.)?

Nusquam (a.k.a. Joel Bylos)
It’s not the GUI work I was referring to, but it *is* a good idea. I'll see if we can fit it in.

Thanks Joel ... being able to search by stat would be a useful option: and searching by crafter will help reward those who really speacilize in the activity.

In the meatime, Murd’s had another question to consider ...

What's coming further out in AoC’s future?

With the Secret’s of Dragon’s Spine content now seemingly rounding second base (crafting’s still underway, the PvP mini-game, and the raid are the two final zone components in the production line).  It’s reasonable for players to wonder what’s next; what new area of the Hyborian Age’s world will be opened up (or will there be just more systems tweaks and those purported carry overs from TSW)?

While the TMAB staff of one really approves of FC’s choice to use the Serpent Men legacy in south Stygia as central pinning point for the narrative in Dragon’s Spine, the zone itself seems a little sparse.  Exploring more desert (albeit very impressively rendered) fell a little flat for Murd.  Now it must be understood that in RL, TMAB’s lone hack actually lives and works in an oil rich desert country in the Middle-East.  Every day, Murd sees camels, sand dunes, and giant sandworms --- Hey, they may look exactly like convoys of cement mixers blocking traffic but locals know they’re sandworms in disguise ---  so the desert setting isn’t that exotic for this blogger.

As such, Murd thought he would let his imagination wander and suggest some viable possibilities and permutations.  The guiding principle here is to keep to Funcom’s current make more out of less approach.   The goal is to achieve more variety but allow FC to use some existing assets as a starting point.  Finally, Murd remembers hearing that FC can implement procedural aspects to DreamEngine games, so why not include that as a way to create variety in any new content. 

Part 1 - Khosala, Vendhya & Kambuja 

Khosala, Vendhya, Uttara Kuru and Kambuja: this region is R.E. Howard’s equivalent of the Indian subcontinent and South East Asia.   As such, they can provide some variations on existing themes.  India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia, clearly have incredibly diverse geographies and cultures to draw on, but as these areas fill the cultural continuum between Persia (Turan) and Egypt (Stygia) to the west, and Indo-China (Khitai)  to the north and east: there’s less need to create completely new assets.

Kambuja offers new South Asiatic style jungles.
(Original Image:

A new adventure pack situated in Vendhya could recycle some of the wire-frames used for Kopshef (peasant houses), Ardeshir (Domed Palaces), Khemi and Keshatta (Souq’s and ships), and Black Lotus Swamp (huge statue heads) which would be supplemented with some new skins and few new buildings (see images) that employ a more south Asian colour scheme (viz. Saffrons, golds, purples and yellows).    Vendhya, too, could employ some elements from Khitai, such as statues of Yag-Kosha, Yun etc. Also useful could be some elements from the Varghasan Tiger’s (Armor sets) as well, as they’re supposed to have come from Vendhya.   There are already meshes for Turbans, pantaloons, and similar attire for various cultures in the game, that could be re-skinned.  And there are plenty of existing animals that could be situated in Vendhya (tigers, cobras, water buffalo, monkeys, crocodiles, etc.) 

Some new assets might include Indian Elephants (or more interesting prehistoric members of the elephants’ family tree).  That might be especially apropos, as the Yag-Kosha (an elephant-like god resembling India’s Ganesh) aspects of Khitai would be tied-in.    

Using the existing mammoth elements (e.g. bodies and animations)
some new prehistoric pachyderms could be introduced.

One element that TMAB would especially like to see in AoC is a truly deep dark grim jungle.  Parts of Tortage and Dead Man’s Hand come close visually,  but they’re just creepy and a truly horrifying jungle is a must.  So while much of the flora from the jungle areas might be re-used; it’s be nice to see a really new use of day and night … so that by day there are merely little islands of light and colour in an otherwise dark green jungle zone (imagine the area around the Lemurian ruins in NG, but on a huge scale). By night, it should simply become preternaturally dark and friggin’ precarious and unsettling (use sound for this!).

With plenty of pulp and camp culture to be mined here along the lines of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: cannibal cults, thuggee, Kama Sutra, lost over-grown temples in naga filled swamps make Vendhya compelling.

AoC Could do with a touch of Ray Harryhausen’s Magic.
 (Original Image: The Golden Voyage of Sinbad)

Proposed ideas

A) PvE - A raid just cz they’re always expected and needed; and 1-2 new solo/unchained 6-man instances  TMAB strongly suggests that all new 6-mans function like 'The Breach' in which one location that serves two play styles: 1) an auto-content leveling solo and 2) a max level unchained group instance.

An overgrown temple in the Kambujan swamps might serve as
the setting for a solo/6-man unchained dungeon.

B) PvP -  Something a bit fresh … some kind of zone that employs procedural jungle terrain elements that establish unique, so the play field is different each time.

Knut Avenstroup could supply some sensuous new South Asian inspired music.
 (Original Image:

      Part 2 -  Visit Zamora’s infamous Shadizar the Wicked

Now the idea TMAB has for this new location might be too ambitious for FC as it stands, but here’s the suggestion:  this area, as with Vendhya, could re-employ some of the Middle-Eastern urban architectural wireframes.  Shadizar should be used to introduce something the game really needs, an extensive new urban environment.   

Shadizar: the original "hive of scum and villainy"
 (Original Image:  Assassin’s Creed by Ubisoft)

Shadizar has always figured prominently in the Conan pastiche materials.  And it’s high time for FC to put it to use in our MMO.  

Shadizar:  Beloved setting for so many Conan interpretations.

The general thinking is that in the centrally located country of Zamora, Shadizar’s an East-meets-West kind of milieu not historically unlike Istanbul (or also Andalusia). It’s a trade-route crossroads where cultures clash and mingle.  

There’s some evidence that Howard intended the Hyborian era to have a kingdom inspired by Romani culture.  'Zingara' is an Italian term for a Romani woman which was perhaps erroneously transposed with 'Zamora'.   The real world Spanish place name 'Zamora' came to be applied to the Romani/Byzantine themed fictional city; while the noun 'Zingara' ended up being applied to the clearly Iberian themed fictional western Hyborian nation. Confused? ... Don't worry ... Howard’s fantasy world never really coherently maps one-to-one with our own.  The simplest rule of thumb is that Shazidar is ancient, dangerous, and a melting pot of ruthless and cunning denizens.

Shadizar: She’s most seductive and, as such, especially dangerous!
 (Original Image: deviantart - "Dreaming")

Shazidar’s precise appeal is that it offers the adventure of a deeply seedy and dangerous urban space.  It should make Tarantia Commons, the last genuinely major urban zone, seem safe and bland.   The wicked city should amount to AoC’s version of Assasins Creed or Prince of Persia: a sprawling city where there’s as much going happening on the rooftops, as there is in the taverns or temples.

Shadizar: Where your next drink, could be your last!
(Original Image: deviantart - woman from Rajasthan)

Currently there are in-game locales, such as  the souqs in Khemi and Keshatta, that hint at what Shadizar the Wicked should be:  busy with trade and full of dodgy back alleys, sketchy locals and the most notorious operators from across the world of the Hyborian Era.  Shadizar must also be about money ... It would be fitting if a mechanism were in place such that every item in-game could be  purchased (albeit somewhat randomly available) and every in-game and appropriate currency (gold, silver, relics, MoAs etc.) could be spent there (albeit from merchants who gouge players unashamedly).  Additionally, it should be an environs where players might randomly have their pockets picked or be out-and-out mugged and yes lose actual money (just a few silver, mind you)! Likewise, in game gambling could be a small but interesting mini-game to keep some suckers ... er I mean, players engaged.

What happens in Shadizar, stays in Shadizar.
(Original Image: Prince of Persia Wallpaper)
FC could build the narrative for a Shadizar adventure pack around faction play (one faction for each class-archetype). Simply put, each faction wants to run all the Shadizar’s criminal and commercial syndicates.   Every two weeks a leader board would identify the archetype faction that’s in the lead; points would be accrued by 'toons doing the dungeons and PvP competition.

Proposed ideas

A) PvE - Beyond the obligatory raid,  2 new dungeons with solo / unchained 6-man options (see above).  However each new 6-man version of the dungeon would employ mechanics which are designed to be played by archetype dominated groups.  So that each entering group must have 4-5 players of the same archetype and one of any other archetype (e.g. a group could have 5 priests and a rogue or, say, have 4 mages and a soldier).  One instance would be designed to be played by groups or mainly rogues or alternately groups mainly of soldiers; while the other instance, would alternate between groups predominated by priests and those predominated by mages.   The Rogue/Soldier 6-man zone could be set in Shadizar’s warren-like neighborhoods where melee is suitable, and might employ some procedural elements to add variation to the warren layouts.  While the Mage/Priest-oriented 6-man instance could be tied to the Spider-Cult of Zath and put the emphasis on magical tactics ... spider webs would make an ideal procedural element within a temple labyrinth. 

Shadizar needs an Arena
(Original Source: Spartacus Starz TV)
B) PvP - This is a location that screams out for a colosseum: an area with an open air arena and also some kinda sub-basement hell-hole for pit-fighting.  This is where FC could start a real ranking system for PvP players, who can duke-it-out in 1-v-1, 2-v-2 in the pits or 4-v-4 team competitions played out on the arena’s main field.  If it were done right, FC could add new arena floor set-ups and minis as later content.  And for cripesakes, let players do the 4-v-4s in premades, so that there’s something for everyone!  Yes, players could do random stuff for better PvP loot, but the Premades could serve as a means for players to also get team bragging rights and vanity gear.  The pits instance for example could be developed from the existing Armsman Tavern area cellar in Tarantia’s Noble district with a facelift and a few new prop and lighting tweaks.

It'd be great to have a fully functioning PvP colosseum in Shazidar
(Original Images: Spartacus Starz TV and Spartacus Legends Video Game)

Finally, TMAB suggests this system employ cross-server tech to be implemented in such a way that players can spectate: ½ the arena seats would be restricted for PvE players (with its own entrance) in which no one can unsheathe their weapons (let’s call it the ‘noble’s boxes’ a la Spartacus ). And the other ½ of the gallery would be more a rough and ready space in which spectators could PvP in the ‘Cheap Seats’ (again a la Spartacus), but not enter the combat floor.   Why do it like this?   Well I really believe that more PvE  players would do PvP if they could see it and get a feel for it.  Plus, while Murd doesn’t PvP, he admires the folks who do play it … Murddock would like to observe his guildies doing their PvP thing.  There’s no watering down of PvP in this concept, rather it’s actually a way to bring both player communities together.  Cross-server might allow this kind of innovation.

Part 3 - Hyperborea

Okay here’s my final suggestion.  Where the prior two make ample use of the game’s Middle-Eastern and Asian assets, this one addresses a cry that’s been on the forums off and on for years.  Let’s have  new content that returns to the specifically northern Hyborean zones, and offers a cultural injection of northern European themed gear (House of Crom, a visually impressive set of instances, was the last area to do this, but the HoC gear itself was visually not really that innovative and IMO looked like stuff that was left-over from early development).


On a clear night you can almost hear the distant sobbing of a brass monkey!
(Original Image: Hyperborean Vibrations)

Now Murd’s home in Canada is the eastern-most region and he grew up in a North Atlantic sea-side town that regularly sees icebergs (in March);  whales, seals, and moose (a traffic hazard) are occasional visitors;  and where the snow can still be on the ground in June.  ½ the resident’s have Irish ancestors from around County Cork and the other ½ claim descent from Devonshire folk in the UK.  And yes, my town was a base of operations for piracy in the 1600’s.  The most frequent visitors were longliner crewmen from Norway and Faeroe.  For my neighbors in the Middle-East, that counts as exotic!  Indeed Murd sometimes misses home; and it's no surprise Murd friggin’ loved Skyrim because its environment looked precisely like his childhood landscape (save for the cars, TVs, and shopping malls).  So TMAB’s kinda biased here.

Hyperborea is the high arctic: Northern Canada, Greenland, Iceland and even more so,  Finland, the Baltics, and Russia, as they are the modern 'counterparts' of Hyperborea.

Hyperborea should look like Russia in winter.
(Original image: 7 Giants of the Urals)

You get the drift: very sparse trees and lots of harsh driving snow.  An extreme arctic zone that draws on such Hyperborean elements which might be accessed in the northern part of the Eiglophian Mountains complete with midnight sun, Aurora Borealis and so on,  could feature environmental debuffs associated with the harsh cold conditions, much in the same way Kara Korum has a negative effect.  The tough Hyperborean folk have inhabited the extreme cold for a long time and their culture relatively ancient.

Where The Black Ones and the Serpent Men more properly belong to the pre-catyclysmic Valusian epoch of Kull, the Hyperboreans are somewhat similar to the Stygians, they emerged during the earliest days of the game’s contemporary eon.  In the "Hyborian Age" Howard hints at the history of Hyperborea, which eventually emerges after the cataclysm:
...the first of the Hyborian kingdoms has come onto existence, the rude and barbaric kingdom of Hyperborea, which had its beginnings in a crude fortress of boulders heaped to repel tribal attack. There are few more dramatic events in history than the rise of this fierce kingdom, whose people turned abruptly from nomadic life to rear dwellings of naked stone, surrounded by cyclopean walls ... [but after some time] ...  the first kingdom of Hyperborea is overthrown by another tribe which, however, retains the old name.
So it could be said  that the game’s current Hyperboreans, live amid the vestiges of the original 'first kingdom' Hyperboreans, who, though initially barbaric, became civilized earlier in history.  The subsequent group of nominal Hyperboreans had their own kingdom and, indeed fought against,  "Hyrkanians and Turanians together in time, [who were] united under one great chief. With no Aquilonian armies to oppose them, they were invincible, sweeping first over Zamora, then Brythunia, Hyperborea and Corinthia."

The Hyperboreans players encounter, are more of less the rough and driven descendants of the more civilized Hyperboreans.  It could be very appealing to see their communities that lie to the north.

The last hotspot in Hyperborea.
 (Original Image: Iceland Wallpaper)
Let’s keep the architecture, initially encountered by 'toons upon entering the zone, really basic.  A few hide tents around a lone volcanic hot spring, could suffice.  Players would move through a large hostile ice field that has a few ice covered stone butes.  Yet at the farther end there could be a Hyperborean enclave (Haloga), a place that was once clearly more advanced technologically, but now reveals a few centuries of decline.    It’s aesthetic could be something that re-uses generic ruins (e.g. in Amphitheater in Ymir’s Pass)  but with new touches from Finnish and Russian Pagan art. 

There are already some Hyperborean items in the game, so it might just be a matter of broadening some of their colours and distributions to make the Hyperborean culture seem more rounded, such as adding Hyperborean women (e.g. QueenVammatar or Louhi) and children.  A few renovated fur cloaks, boots, and robes couldn't be that hard to produce.

There are Hyperborean women!
(Original image: deviantart’s idolum)

For no direct reason, there’s also a little part of me that likes the idea of taking some visual cues from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus. It’s a minor coincidence that the aliens, called Engineers, in that movie, seem to share a similar aesthetic as the Hyperboreans (tall, pallid and cold) in AoC.  Scott’s movie presents the primeval icy Icelandic terrain as perhaps version of the early Earth.  Conceivably it’s also an association that comes from knowing Scott’s creatures are informed by the art H. R. Giger, and the latter illustrator’s material sometimes has looked to modernize the mythic weird horror atmosphere of some of the Lovecraftian stories.  So Funcom, why not likewise imply that some of the Hyperborean’s history is tied to the Cthulhu mythos.  Clarke Ashton Smith, whose Hyperborean tales were an extension of both Howard’s and Lovecraft’s weird tales, certainly tried to unite these strands.  Smith’s work, albeit canonically gray,  may also provide some plots to be mined.  Forgive the digression.

Hyperborean design could take a cue from Ridley Scott’s Prometheus 
 (Original Image: Prometheus 2 Movie)

As for assets, arctic foxes, hares, wolverines, lynx, and polar bears are all currently available.  Re-skinning deer and could be done to create reindeer or caribou.  Some new animals might be included here (e.g. walruses, narwhals or even some pre-cataclysmic sea-mammals might be designed as unique Hyperborean hazards).

An ambulocetus catches its prey in the Hyberborean Arctic
(Original image: When Whales Had Legs)

A) PvE - A 12-man raid features some creatures models (maritime-monster undead types adapted or inspired by) The Secret World (see image below); A 6-man; a new solo/unchained 6-man (like the Breach)

Some of the existing Secret World Lovecraftian inspired monsters
might feel at home in the seas under Hyperborea’s ice caps.

B) PvP - A mini-game that stresses environmental hazards (mind you not PvE play as in questing or gathering).  In a combat mini-game that’s played out on procedurally generated ice flows, such that via jumping, sprinting, and hiding,  movement become more decisive would shake up current PvP combat practices somewhat.

A lone Hyberborean looks north to home.

While this posting has hinted a few off the cuff ideas for systems and possibilities, the main intent of these three ideas is to suggest that new cultural areas of the Hyborian Ages world could be developed with the less-is-more approach.  Furthermore TMAB intended to insinuate, that by employing some procedural elements with interesting mechanics, FC could push the longevity of both PvE and PvP instances.

Before this admittedly loooonnnngggg entry concludes, it has to be mentioned that Murd’s most desired new area has always been be an expansion (yeah, a Khitai-sized affair) based on Queen of the Black Coast but that’s another daydream, for another post.

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