Thursday, 28 February 2013

That GD Craig Morrison

This week it was announced that Funcom was placing Joel “Nusquam” Bylos in charge of its 3 MMOs.  The rumors were out and, while not surprised, I received this info with mixed emotions.  A new perspective and a fresh approach are not a bad thing.  Funcom is doing more with less - the economics dictate that they must.  Clearly for now, TSW is going to be the center-piece MMO, but Age of Conan still apparently has a stable population and is profitable on a smaller scale.  Funcom would be foolhardy not to try to grow the game somewhat, given the considerable time and resources they’ve put into it.   The appearance of Age Of Conan on Steam this week, suggests that such an approach has been recognized.   Players are excited to see what Bylos will accomplish … and yes, many are impatient to see the remaining Dragon’s Spine content come soon, (especially the crafting revamp!!). Bylos's first GD letters across the 3 games' forums were neither generic nor redundant (which is a nice early indicator that he respects all three communities as distinct customer groups).  AoC's 5th anniversary in May will be an more appropriate time to write more extensively about the new GD's early impact.

For the record, I genuinely respect Craig Morrison (present tense … he’s not dead) and I very much appreciate the vast majority of the things that he accomplished in Age of Conan.  When Morrison came to the MMO, the game was a staggering amalgam of captivating ideas, technical innovations, exceptional music, and peerless visual design.  Nonetheless, these were mixed with frustrating content gaps, glaring bugs, disappointing feeble systems (e.g. crafting); and worst of all, a game mechanic that didn’t really motivate many players. 

The loot itemization system had been conceptualized to be shallow precisely to keep the PvP skill-oriented combat from being imbalanced by PvE item stats: an idea fascinating in theory but untested in practice.  Players quickly complained that there was no compelling incentive to pursue loot (i.e. "Why bother raiding or doing instances, if we don't really need the rewards?)  Despite reporting great sales at launch, the game was not ready and many frustrated players departed.  Age of Conan: Uncooked has become something of a cautionary tale in the MMO industry.

Precisely why Funcom released what was essentially a beta-version in May 2008 remains unclear.  The game was visually stunning but essentially was premature.  At that time, the Game Director, Gaute Godager, had a very different vision for Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. His original vision emphasized a game with both PvP and PvE in equal measure, with an endgame focused on PvP siege competition.  Presumably PvE elements were supposed to supply gear that gave a slight edge and PvP play to cultivate player-skills and ultimately earn guild prestige.  Elements of this plan were frequently reflected in the marketing.  Brawling in taverns, for example, was generally promoted as an exciting in-game option. Well, it was there ...  briefly ... and now exists in a minor way as a quest completion item, not as a major PvP system. The game was simply not what what had been hyped. (IMHO: Very likely Godager's AoC might been destined to be a more a niche game. It probably would never have become aWoW killer, a destiny that most promising new MMOs seem briefly to acquire in the popular imagination.)

In May 2008, Tortage Beach was a hot spot!

By late summer of 2008, subs were declining.  In September of that year, Godager left in frustration. The popular inclination ever since has been to blame Godager for leaving players with a flawed masterpiece.  But this is somewhat unfair, Godager had actually worked on the project for about 6 years and should also be credited by those of us, who love the game, for actually establishing a starting point.  It must have been hard to leave a company he helped create over a decade before, seeing his dream project not quite meet his hopes.  That being said, seldom do current players seem to grasp that Funcom’s shareholders (many of whom probably don’t care exceedingly about MMOs being ideal) were legally entitled to demand a return on their investment after a long development period.  Regrettably, many players still have difficulty accepting that Godager’s ideal AoC, while intriguing and appealing to many; was not what we got; it's sure not what we have; and as things stand now, it's not what we're likely get.

Community Director, Craig “Silirrion” Morrison, who had also spent considerable time working on AoC and Funcom’s previous MMO, Anarchy Online, stepped into the breach.  There can be no doubt that Game Director Morrison’s first assignment was to make the game relevant to the majority of players and stop it from seeming like a beta.  Under Morrison’s watch the 1.05 patch began a re-imagining of AoC and a re-shaping of the game to be more appealing to mainstream MMO players. 

Subsequently, thanks to Morrison much was added, changed, and definitely improved:

  1. A PvP system was adopted
  2. Consequence system
  3. Leveling content was added (from Atzel’s Approach to Tarantia Commons etc.)
  4. Classes have been ‘vamped’ and re-vamped
  5. New leveling instances (Slaughter House, Iron Tower, etc.)
  6. T2 (Feb 2009) & T3 (Feb 2010) Raiding was completed
  7. Direct X 10 Client (March 2009)
  8. Innumerable polishes (e.g. adding inspect other’s gear in GUI; new mounts; Seasonal contents, Facebook, Lock-out window in GUI etc.)
  9. The Gem revamp (June 2009)
  10. Veteran points and vendors
  11. Guild play content  (Feb 2010)
  12. PvP tokens
  13. Shrines of Bori (sigh)
  14. Local Fast-Travel improvements
  15. Offline leveling
  16. Initial Rise of the Godslayer content (May 2010)
    1. AA
    2. Critigation gear
    3. Exotic Mounts
    4. Factions
    5. Numerous instances and some raiding / repeatable quests
    6. Silk Road
    7. New tokens
  17. Jhebbal Sag
  18. RP horse racing
  19. Dreamworld update (much of this is less obvious)
  20. Refuge of the Apostate (April 2011)
  21. Ai District and  T’ian’an District (May 2011)
  22. Free-to-play Age of Conan is 'unchained'
    1. In Game Shop
  23. Forgotten City and the Breach (July 2011)
  24. Blood & Glory
  25. Savage Coast of Turan
    1. Ardashir Coast
    2. Fort Ardashir
    3. Isle of Iron Statues
    4. Dead Man’s Hand
    5. Temple of Erlik Raid
  26. More Dreamworld updates  - e.g. server side PhysX (Nov. 2011)
  27. 2 House of Crom instances (Jan 2012)
  28. Jade Citadel Raid content begins (March 2012)
  29. Multi feat specs (June 2012)
  30. Unchained versions of Dead Man's Hand (solo), Forgotten City (solo) and The Breach (group) (June 2012)
  31. Jade Citadel Raid content is completed
  32. New Amphitheatre of Karutonia Unchained (Oct. 2012)
  33. New Sprint Mechanic and Mount re-vamp (August 2012)
  34. Secrets of Dragon'sSpine (Jan 2013)
    1. Sepulcher of the Wyrm
    2. (Crafting revamp underway - confirmed)
    3. (New raid content underway - suggested)
    4. New PvP mini-game
    5. New Yothian Mount (Feb 2013)

There’s a considerable amount of solid and great work here.  Additionally, it is fairly certain that a few more of Morrison’s initiatives are still on the table such as the long awaited stealth revamp and maybe some ideas for cross-server implementation.

This PoM remembers a time when entering the Iron Tower
 couldn't be done but Silirrion made it possible.

Although it seemed at times like the game was dragging and players were starving for new content; the fact remains that for a game that has a smaller but apparently stable player base, Age of Conan: Unchained is neither dead nor neglected.

For the majority of his tenure, Morrison was always in communication with the community and whether players agreed or not; he tried to professionally communicate his perspective.  Even when faced with occasionally personally oriented abuse, he frequently expressed his acceptance that it came from passionate players who, at heart, wanted the game to succeed (albeit in a manner most amenable to their play preferences).

Lest This Machine Age be accused of producing a  retrospective flattery-fest: Morrison’s era was not always smooth.  Though no doubt sincere, the communication of timelines and delays was often aggravating.   Some of the decisions made on his watch seemed to serve corporate imperatives (e.g. the initial Khitai grind; or free-to-play being limited initially to 4 classes).  How these benefit players is debatable.   And yeah, some bugs in the game persist (such as the minor invisible-mount bug or the more exasperating issues of lag spikes, and undependable siege-play performance).  Evidently, Godager’s PvP-oriented plan for AoC is ancient history. Nonetheless, the difficulty of managing the game's PvP content provides a instructive lesson. 

The Shrines of Bori content is the obvious case.  Bori was a productive idea in theory; one designed to help PvP newbs gear up faster and so become more competitive with vets.  However, the PvP community largely felt it was more akin to PvE.  It was clear that at the time, Morrison acceded to PvP players’ demands for PvP content a.s.a.p. and Bori was released sooner than he wanted.  (Funcom probably has a policy geared towards avoiding that miscalculation … The Secret World’s smooth launch is a case in point.)  Morrison was between a rock and a hard place and got some toes squished.  Lesson learned … the subsequent  PvP idea for world bosses (something on a small scale but akin to Rift’s world events) was scrapped at length when the PvP guys protested.  

Wanting to avoid similar missteps, when determining player preferences, surveys were employed.  While a nice idea in practice, surveys have a few fatal weaknesses: 1) even sincere surveys are vulnerable to the perception of question bias; 2) similarly such stats can be perceived to be interpreted to suit bias; and 3) while superficially democratic, a survey of a community with a small but dedicated minority (e.g. PvP) will seldom produce an overwhelming case for that community’s needs especially when other groups (PvE raiders or crafters) who want their own wishes fulfilled and who are competing for the same dev resources, are completing the same survey.  Hence, angry and (however justly or unjustly) disgruntled sub-groups seldom acquiesce to survey results (unless miraculously, they find in their favour).  While the survey probably benefited a PvE player like me, it still remains a tool that's vulnerable to negative-perception and as a potential exercise used to dismiss PvP players: even if that wasn’t its actual intention.  When it comes to surveys: use with caution.   

One wonders whether Craig Morrison, in hindsight, just wishes he’d taken the same time and resources to deliver a tiered-arena system (and in-game coliseum) or a revamped siege system both of which have been the observable desires of many vocal PvP players. It's likely that by the time this solution was clear, he wasn't in a postilion to deliver it.

Not being Funcom employees, most players cannot really know what limitations affected Morrison.  Hence, I cannot fairly judge.  And despite my admittedly arm-chair expert views on the PvP matter, I genuinely do admire Craig Morrison’s efforts. 

Ya never know; that nameless faceless Sin you see chillin' in
Khemi next week,
could be Silirrion just enjoying the fruits of his labours.

In fact, Craig Morrison, I hope he's free now to join us as an AoC player! And this is meant this in the best spirit; I hope he gets to enjoy the game for what it is and reap the simple pleasures of his hard work.  I like the idea that, somewhere in a pug raid there’s a nondescript HoX or Sin who seems too shy to speak on voice coms; an otherwise typical player, but who is in fact GD ("Gamer Dude") Silirrion playing for kicks.   From what one can ascertain about him from his blog and on Twitter, he’s a talented, thoughtful, likeable guy, who loves his career in game development.  He always brings his A-game; and in his work-life, he gets to play in the major-leagues.

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.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Combat Mechanics ... Uhhh Simplified?

In last month's main post, an attempt to explain the trickle down effect of base stat benefits was covered.  However, clearly loot on White Sands, in Tortage Underhalls, and all other Hyborian locations provide explicit bonuses beyond boosting strength or wisdom etc..

A Barb alone in Khitai: unconscious of all the complexity
 that underlies his shenanigans

Most AoC items offer benefits, and sometimes penalties, to stats such as hit rating, protection, fatality chance and so on.  This post will present a table that compares these stats, as they pertain to the two main types of combat attacks, defenses, and damages: melee and magic.

Combat: What's going on under the hood?

Simply put, the systems run in near tandem, with a few exceptions.  Combat can be divided in to approximately five phases:

  1. Hit rating stats  & Countering the hit
  2. Crowd Control (optional) & Countering CC
  3. Damage stats, Mitigation & Penetration (optional)
  4. Critical & Critigation (optional)
  5. Fatalities (optional)

In each phase a stat is checked (i.e. the game rolls/generates a random number, within an appropriate range, on your behalf; adds your benefits or penalties and so on in order to determine whether you are successful or not).

The initial phase determines whether your attack is successful.  It tries to answer questions such as:  Can this character, at this level, actually do harm to an enemy?  If the enemy is of much higher level; statistically, you shouldn't be able to damage it easily, and if it's of much lower level, you should statistically.  In addition to level, the game asks, what other effects might give an advantage?  The countering aspect of this phase simply asks: what statistically does the enemy have in place to help Evade the melee attack or to render Immunity to the magic?

The Crowd Control (CC) phase is the first possible point for actual damage to be calculated, if your hit was successful.  You may have opted for an attack that would stun, knock back etc. the opponent. Some CC's do small amounts of damage.  And not unexpectedly, some opponents may have items and buff effects that help them against a CC statistically.  These are called Resistances.  The phase is 'optional' in that, if there's no CC in the attack, these Resistance stats are generally irrelevant.

In the next phase, the main damage is calculated.  For melee, it's generated from the DPS stat (the blog covered that one in the 'Hyborian Pick-up Lines' post last month).  For magic, damage is calculated via the Base Spell Damage and Bonus Spell Damage.  As with the previous phases, the opponent might have mitigating circumstances, which stem from items, base stats and or buffs.  Melee damage is mitigated by Armor Rating, whereas spell damage plays out against the various Protection stats.  This is one area where the two are not quite the same, as protections are specific to the magic type (e.g. unholy), but armor mitigates all physical damage. 

Some buffs and items may give you spell or armor penetration.  Essentially these rarer effects lower stats on your enemies' Armor and Protection, giving your character a small but meaningful advantage.   Penetration is, indeed, optional. (And yes, I'm really trying not to give into the urge drop a more cynical the double entendre here.)

The next phases are also sort of optional (that is, they are checked, but may not go into effect in some or most circumstances).

After the main DPS is calculated, a chance exists for further Critical damage.  If the check is successful, you will indeed deliver considerable additional damage (The exact amount is harder to pin down: it's supposedly a 50% additional DPS minimum with that 50% further modified by percentage stemming from Critical Bonus Damage).

Countering critical damage is also quasi-optional, as it depends on your Critigation Rating (some items and buffs, particularly ones associated with Khitai content) will allow you quite effectively to reduce the critical damage. 

Finally a Fatality Chance is checked, if your damage is high enough to kill the opponent.  You might trigger an animation that depicts your opponent dying a more gruesome death.  The chances are small and are independent from the critical chance.  Largely, its a nice touch that adds variety to a combat bout.  A Fatality, may also give you a bonus to the XP recieved from the win and allow you to receive heals and regenerate stamina etc, while somewhat invulnerable for the duration of the animation.

This is indeed a lot to digest and internalize.  Figure 1 presents a more detailed comparison of the steps in combat.

Figure 1. Melee and Magic Combat Stats in approximate order of application.
 (NOTE: Available in sharp format - click here).

Consider this a first run at, ahem ... simplifying an explanation as to how combat works and how the various stats affect the bout.  There's much more to be said with regards to pets, traps, and healing.   Most of this information has been gleaned from the tool tips and various explanations from players and developers in forums.  I cannot vouch that it's exact and other players have made more detailed and revealing investigations and have more exact understandings than are presented here. Nonetheless, for new and casual players, it's a start that can help make some broad sense of the combat stats: at least, faster than combing the forums would.