Category Archives: age of conan

Mr Bigger, whatever are you doing down there?

I hopped in to Age of Conan: Unchained over the weekend, the now free-to-play version of Funcom’s fantasy frolic through Robert E. Howard’s world of brawn, beasts and breasts. With the release of this edition of their game, Funcom have decided to make it unrated, which thus allowed them to fully expand on the latter of that troika of fantasy staples. And when I say ‘fully expand’ I am being literal:

Apart from the fact that either some enterprising soul in Aquilonia has invented both silicon and a way to implant it into female breasts, or a Stygian teenager found an interesting new use for the Dark Arts while furiously practising with his magic wand in his bedroom, there’s also the splendidly ridiculous innuendo-laden increase to a male character’s ‘size’, where one assumes that it actually changes height, and not length or girth as the text might lead one to believe.

Age of Conan? Carry On Conan more like. Hopefully they’ll add a Kenneth Williams-esque ‘Ooooo, matron’ emote, which would, admittedly, be a strong contender to take the crown from our long term favourite.

Funcom are also taking the prestige cosmetic MMO mount to new levels:

Yes, yours for only 1100 Funcom points, or about $10, is a virtual prostitute! A cosmetic pet in every sense of the phrase. There’s also a priestess for 2100 points, but I’d watch out for those high class ones because they expect you to take them to the opera and buy them dinner in an expensive restaurant as a bare minimum before they give you their bear minimum, and where are you going to find a staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen in Age of Conan anyway?

Still, Sparkle Pony hasn’t got anything on Slapper Priestess.

Of course Anarchy Online has had a perfectly normal Funcom-Points-powered store for a good long while now, so Age of Conan’s slightly (im)mature cash shop is not necessarily a sign of things to come. Regardless though, I couldn’t help but wonder how they intend to monetize their forthcoming supernatural MMO The Secret World, and whether it too would offer options via an in-game store:

The Secret World. Let me tell you the great secret of the world, honey. The secret is… [waves you in closer] the secret is… in my underpants. I’ve got your secrets right here, baby. Yes, find out all the secrets of my underpants, unlock my deep dark treasure, for just 2500 Funcom Points!

Of course it would obviously help if that was delivered by a buxom young lady in tight leather, rather than the craggy bearded geriatric old man in a crusty pee-stained bathrobe that I was picturing.

Publicity can be terrible, but only if you don’t have any

Stropp picks up some interesting points on the “Unrated” aspect of yesterday’s Age of Conan announcement, particularly around how the team plan to use “… even more of the barbaric, brutal and sexy setting that is Howard’s Hyboria”. Recent TV series like Game of Thrones and Spartacus: Blood and Sand feature liberal sex and violence as a fundamental part of well-told stories, rather than as a sensationalist smokescreen to try and camoflague other shortcomings, perhaps Age of Conan: Unrated could herald a similar advance and be a mature MMOG, as well as “mature” (nudge nudge, wink wink)?

Or maybe it’s just a cheap bid for publicity, and “Unrated” was felt to be a slightly more subtle tagline than Age of Conan: Blood and Norks

To be able to fill leisure intelligently is the last product of civilization, and at present very few people have reached this level.

Age of Conan has a bonus levelling system where you earn levels while your account has an active subscription. This pool of levels can then be spent on any character over level thirty to increase their overall level. You accrue levels at a rate which is comparative to the amount of time you would have otherwise had to spend actually levelling the character, and, as mentioned, it can also only be applied to a character that has already reached level thirty, something which doesn’t take a huge amount of time but is a suitable barrier to people rolling up a level one character and then boosting it up to the end game without any experience of the class whatsoever.

I was indifferent to this scheme, where some bloggers and forumites had railed against it I couldn’t see the problem; other players using it wouldn’t affect my game in any way – by the time it was released there were already enough level-capped characters to mean that the PvP game would be unaffected – and if I chose to skip content and get to the end game it was exactly that: my choice.

Now I’m actually starting to see that it could be quite a good thing in a mature game where players have already reached the level cap, perhaps multiple times. I’m currently in the middle of an alt dilemma in LotRO, having three characters that I really want to play but finding myself having a hard time playing any one of them, knowing that if I play one of them then that is time that I’m not playing the other two. Playing alt roulette and investing small amounts of time in each character is not an option either as I will be constantly repeating the same content (since they’re all close in level) and thus the sense of character progress – one of the primary factors for playing MMOs in the first place – will be greatly diminished, to the point where it’s very easy to burn out.

I’m also seeing quite a few posts amongst World of Warcraft blogs concerning people taking the time to level alts in the pre-Cataclysm lull, but with their hearts not really being in it and a vast majority of them discussing whether the levelling game in WoW is really relevant any more, and even worse, pondering whether they want to bother with the levelling game in Cataclysm, something that I would imagine Blizzard is banking on players wanting to do in order to keep subscription numbers ticking over while they get on with implementing the level eighty five end-game properly (you’re not expecting a comprehensive end-game on release, are you? Really?).

Would a levelling pool such as the one Age of Conan has implemented benefit World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online veterans? If you could spend the first thirty levels getting the hang of the basics of a class, making sure it suits you, and then spend levels to skip to the end game, would you? For me, I like the journey as much as the end game, if not more, but sometimes I just want to skip to the end. If I had a limited pool of levels to use then the choice would need to be made with some consideration and not just on a wanton whim; tie those levels in to an active subscription as Age of Conan does and you have a rudimentary system of offline levelling akin (on a basic level) to EVE’s skill system which rewards veterans who have kept their subscription active. Would that be a bad thing? The system is much more finite than EVE’s incredibly expansive skill system, and so the idea of simply “playing offline” to level shouldn’t be a problem, after all, once you’ve hit the level cap you’ve not a lot of options other than to start playing or quit. It shouldn’t affect skill too much either: as many WoW raiders bemoan, most players reach the end game at the moment without having much group experience at all, and the end game in many of the current crop of MMOs seems to be where people start to actually learn their class with respect to team play. If nothing else it can be used as a method to smooth over the levelling run where it becomes too steep, allowing you to nudge your character through the pain barrier and give yourself a second wind before the lactic acid of the grind causes your MMO muscles to burn out; rather than driving players away, it could help keep players in the game where they otherwise might have burnt out and left. Certainly there will be that group of players who blow their entire pool of levels on boosting arbitrary abandoned alts to the level cap, still finding themselves bored and quitting, but I put it to you that these people would have quit anyway and would not represent the norm or majority.

The levelling game of mature MMOs is often seen as nothing more than a one or two month subscription extension before the real game starts for its loyal player base, many of whom already have characters at the level cap. Perhaps it’s worth rewarding those players by giving them a little freedom and choice in which characters they play and how.

Freedom and choice in an MMO? I must be new around here.

There are intangible realities which float near us.

The Tortage Formation Floating TeamHere we see a classic display by the world famous freeform synchronised floating team of Tortage Volcano, performing one of their signature manoeuvres: the Shinkansen. I’m not sure why characters in Age of Conan seem to spend a lot of their time floating off the ground, perhaps the belts that are worn during the Hyborian age are more than just simply a tool for holding up one’s trousers or skirt, and are in fact part of a powerful magnetic levitation system that runs throughout the land.

It has also been hypothesised that the average diet – consisting of rare-cooked meat and large quantities of vegetable matter – caused an excessive build up of methane in the digestive tracts of the people which, when ejected at pressure from the body, combined with the rigid tough leather kilts of the time to generate the effect of a rudimentary hovercraft. Further weight is added to this theory when one considers the general grumpiness and aggressive tendencies of the vast majority of the global population at the time, something which could very well be attributed to the daily assault on the senses that they suffered. Although the era of peace that followed was attributed in great part to the reign of King Conan, an alternative theory suggests that it correlates more closely with the invention of the nose peg by Hieronymus Pimhole II at the turn of the century.

Another less well supported but similar theory suggests that foot hygiene at the time was so poor that people walked around on a permanent layer of funk. The observation that people living in the Hyborian age were able to stop floating and fully submerge themselves into water as soon as their feet were wetted (and therefore cleaned) does add some credence to this supposition. The theory also sheds some light on the writings of several natural philosophers of the era, including Stoltin the Mature, who described most of the natural world in flavours of cheese, and whose most famous work – Memory of the Horridly Persistent Ammonia Honk of a Rose – shows clear signs that the people of the Hyborian age had trouble penetrating the incredibly powerful hum that their feet produced.

The theory that it’s a cheap trick of perspective used by naughty gods to make people look like they’re walking on the floor unless viewed from close to ground level, is clearly bunkum, however.

Does my belt look big in this?

I’ve been adventuring in Age of Conan again recently. Instead of picking up my high level Bear Shaman I decided to re-roll: it meant I could switch to an RP server for the generally more pleasant community atmosphere; make my way through Tortage to see what, if anything has changed; get to grips with the combat system again; and pop out of Tortage ready to run through the lands of Khitai, newly released with the Rise of the Godslayer expansion.

So far so good. I’m out of Tortage, with nothing of note to report: the experience is still smooth and enjoyable, although it didn’t wow me as much as the first time I played through, but that’s perhaps because I knew what to expect, and games have moved on a little in ambition since the time that the voiced MMO content and personal storyline ‘tutorial’ of Tortage was a Big Thing. Khitai is pleasant, with much better quest organisation and zone progression than the other areas I remember from my previous time in the game; quests are still the standard MMO fare, and the zone is still pebble-dashed with mobstacles, which is a particular shame in this instance because the lands of AoC, and Khitai in particular, are breathtaking and must surely call to the explorer in everyone.

However, it’s hard to explore in a game when it’s abundantly clear that every inch of land has aggressive enemies placed in just such a way that you can’t go anywhere significant without drawing the ire of a great many of them. I know combat is the be all and end all of MMOs, and I certainly shouldn’t complain about that in a game based on the world of Conan, but it does ruin a lot of the sense of adventure when you can see you’ll have to fight your way through wild cats, say, that just happen to be spaced in regimented fashion all the way up the side of the mountain you were thinking of climbing; it’s like posting a big sign at the bottom of any interesting geographical feature that says ‘You must grind this hard to explore here’. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me: is it the case that you’re trying to slow players down and make them play longer by making them grind to explore? If so, do you think that works? Do the majority of players look at the mountain and think “Well there’s probably nothing up there anyway, so I’ll definitely want to grind through a horde of crap animals to get there” or do they wander off, do only the quests that they need, and blast through your content and out into the next zone. Now if the way up that mountain was clear, and the player takes the time to explore, they’ve actually played for longer in the zone than they would have with the mobstacles in the way. Not only that, if they then find something of interest at the top of the mountain, part of a collectible set of items with a reward on completion, say, then they’ll be more inclined to explore other mountains. Not every mountain has to have a reward at the top, but a clever developer might put one at the top of the nearest and most obvious mountain at the start of the zone. And a clever developer certainly wouldn’t need any explanation of the nature of many MMO players when it comes to the OCDness of collecting things and getting a shiny reward at the end of it.

Age of Conan has interesting, some might say frantic, combat and I’m enjoying the Bear Shaman class again, and will probably expound on my likes and dislikes in a future post, hopefully in comparison to the other melee healers that I’m playing in my other two MMOs of the moment – the Warden and Captain in Lord of the Rings Online and the Warrior Priest in Warhammer Online. There’s plenty more to talk about in Age of Conan, including some of the amusing bugs and quirks that I’ve come across in my short travels so far in the lands of Hyboria. I thought I’d share this one here for now, a belt reward I got from one of the first quests I did in Khitai. As well being a stunning interpretation of Hyboria’s China, Khitai also has a very Asian feel to the culture, and as such the light and medium armour is all bulky padded layers compared to the more skin hugging leather of the other races. Once you have a full set of armour it looks quite imposing, but of course to get everything situated correctly the belt has to be rather large to compensate for all the bulky armour: fine if you’ve got a full set, but if you get just a belt… well, at least you’ll never hear anyone ask “does my bum looks big in this?”

True heroism consists in being superior to the ills of life, in whatever shape they may challenge us to combat.

I quite like the combat in Age of Conan. Oh, don’t worry, Moaning Melmoth is still alive and kicking MMO game-play mechanics squarely in the hairy gooseberries, but I’m finding that combat in AoC is an interesting mix of the traditional with the experimental. Of the three MMOs that I’m currently playing on a regular basis AoC’s combat feels like a hybrid of the other two, they being Lord of the Rings Online’s traditional slower combat and Dungeons and Dragons Online’s hectic free-form positional fighting. It’s a strange juxtaposition this slow yet hectic combat, but I do think the contrast of the two styles works well in AoC in the main.

I think the hectic feeling comes from two things, which both DDO and AoC share: no auto attack swings, and a dependence on character positioning to maximise outgoing damage while decreasing incoming damage – when considering combat from a melee point of view, at least. The fact that there are no auto attacks gives a sense of urgency to the player’s actions, this is less pronounced in DDO where one can just keep their finger held down on the attack button, but in Age of Conan if the player isn’t pressing buttons then their character isn’t attacking, and so wandering off to read your RSS feed while your character auto-defeats a mob, possibly with something pinning down the numeric key of your biggest attack or self-heal such that it triggers every time it comes off of its cool-down, is not an option. I think this is what I like about AoC’s system: it’s designed to keep the player invested in the fight; you rarely find your mind wandering on to other subjects. I think it’s a testament to this that among the media-promoted adolescent male gamer population that plays these sort of games, I’ve yet to see anyone running around with a topless female character. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m sure there are jiggles of topless females (Oh really? Well you define the collective noun for topless females then) running around in certain areas of the game, treeless open expanses of Serengeti-like grassland, where they bask in the sun and hunt around in packs for unsuspecting prey to devour, while men with cameras venture out on safari and try to capture pictures of them. On Earth we call this place Ibiza. But, at the lower levels at least, I haven’t seen a single one, and I think that this is down to the fact that they are so involved with the combat system that they simply don’t have time to sit, chin in cupped hand, while they press the number 2 button every fifteen to twenty seconds, and wonder whether there’d be more to that side-boob if they unequipped their character’s chest piece.

The second system that keeps a player invested in the combat is the combo system, which is, in a way, a bit like an inverted gambit system as used by the Warden class in LotRO, with AoC’s version being somewhat easier to cope with, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view and capacity for memorisation. Where a player of a Warden has to remember a string of sub-moves that will produce a resulting gambit move, Age of Conan provides a number of final moves that the player activates by pressing a button on their hotbar, at which point a UI element pops up informing the player of the sequence of sub-moves that must be performed to achieve the desired final move that they activated in the first place. I like this system, and although I think there is fun and satisfaction to be had from remembering all the various moves in LotRO’s system for the Warden, there’s nothing in AoC’s system that prevents a player from memorising the moves required and thus executing them quicker than someone who has to study the display – a big advantage in a game where combat is a lot less static than more traditional MMOs such as WoW and LotRO – but at the same time the memorisationally challenged such as myself (just ask Zoso: it’s a miracle if I remember to finish a sentence half the time) are not prevented from joining in with the complexities of combat straight from the off, albeit at a slight disadvantage to those with a richer capacity for recall.

The final function that helps to keep each combat exciting and fresh is the dependence on positioning to maximise your damage while minimising that of the enemy, a system which is shared to some extent, as I mentioned earlier, with DDO. It makes for quite a comical experience when you first play such a game, though, especially if you’ve been used to the more traditional ‘stand toe-to-toe and hit each other in turns over the head until one of you collapses’ fight, which sounds as though it would be equally at home at a college fraternity initiation rite, and thus may well explain the popularity of traditional MMOs among that section of the student population. There’s a point when the full comedy (or tragedy, depending on your point of view) of the situation for someone new to this style of combat hits home: generally there’s a point where you’ve got the fingers of your left hand on the movement keys to keep you facing in such a way as to maximise the area of effect of your glancing blows; your right hand is frantically mashing left, right and side buttons while holding on to the mouse for dear life as it flies around the mat like a cat that’s just sat on a hill of fire ants; your nose is pressed across the attack buttons on the keyboard that your left hand can’t quite reach while you desperately tongue the key that you’ve bound to health potions; and it’s usually at the point where you shout profane curses to your deity of choice for not giving you eyelids with enough musculature to be able to depress the F keys that are sitting tantalisingly beneath your eyes that you realise you might not have quite got to grips with this new combat system yet.

The great feature of this more fluid and dynamic flow of combat is that it adds another level of tactical decision making to the fight: as well as picking the right ability based on health bars, number and power level of combatants, and such, you also need to consider how to best position yourself to deal maximum damage while at the same time taking as little as possible, which in turn feeds back into the decision making process as to which ability you might want to use. Sure, fundamentally it’s still MMO combat, so Sun Tzu need hardly plan his undead comeback tour, but it definitely keeps the player more focussed on the task at hand, rather than flicking over to YouTube to watch a video of someone else performing the same fight but in their underwear. No, it isn’t the player’s character in their underwear.

AoC differs from DDO slightly in the fact that, where DDO just needs you to keep the left mouse button held down for your character to begin flailing away, AoC uses the 1, 2 and 3 keys to perform a basic ‘white damage’ swing to the left, centre or right of the target respectively, and while I admire the additional idea of trying to get characters to target a specific location on an enemy it does lead to slightly jarring combat animations where you mash one key in between performing a special move until the enemy switches their shield to that area, at which point you spam away at a different location, it ends up making your character look like a slightly over-exuberant dance or exercise instructor “And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And lunge. And parry. And thrust. And hack their arm off at the shoulder. And relax.” The animations don’t flow entirely naturally when you’re executing them so quickly in succession either, such as when you’re just going for white damage spam (note to search engines – not a bukkake reference) to finish off an enemy, and so it can lead to a little bit of a disconnect at that point, but it’s more comedic in nature than anything.

Where AoC differs greatly from DDO and is more akin to LotRO is in the slowness of combat. When I say slowness I’m talking not about the speed with which you perform actions in combat, but the average amount of time combat takes. I think here AoC marches more in step with the traditional toe-to-toe-head-beating frat party MMOs, where you have time during combat to think about things, to make mistakes and correct for them and to generally get a sense of the thing before it is all over. In DDO you can one-shot and be one-shot, or if not then very close to such, on quite a regular basis. So where AoC keeps the player on their toes by having them make lots of decisions quickly throughout the duration of a long combat, DDO makes players think quickly because otherwise they will either be dead, or the mob they are trying to attack will have been killed so hard that they travelled back in space and time and became their own father.

I think AoC’s combat is a step in the right direction, but they perhaps went a little overboard on the ideas front without perhaps considering the limitations of the human beings who will be trying to perform seventy five different actions at once, whilst at the same time coordinating their efforts with five other players who are all trying to do the same. MMOs are well known for their extensive keyboard layouts for all the various functions of the game, and I’m sure it’s partly to blame for why we haven’t seen many successful MMOs on the console yet:

“Everyone, this is Geoff. Geoff’s job is going to be to fit aaaaaallllll the functionality of our MMO’s UI keybinds onto a controller with six buttons and no alphanumeric input whatsoever.”

<Raucous laughter>

<Geoff sneaks off while nobody is looking, never to return>

and I worry that by extending this theme of “if you design it, they will bind it” to fast-paced combat we’re heading towards a place where N52s will become a requirement for entry into some areas of the MMO genre. The funny thing is, similarities aside, LotRO’s version of the combo combat system is actually perfectly suited to a gamepad, as unwize rightly pointed out a while back in response to my previous thoughts on the gambit system.

In the meantime, however, it’s back to my combaterobics.

“And one. And two. And lift. And stretch. And dismember. And teabag. And rest.”

I Can See For Miles

I had one day to enjoy my whole extra core in Age of Conan before my subscription expired. When I first decided to unsubscribe, it was, with uncanny timing, the day after a month’s subscription had been paid, which seemed rather a waste. Still, seeing as the subscription was going, I popped over to a new server to wear a hat and Learn More about Xotli (from a distance, and most assuredly via observation rather than first hand empirical experience), and if it hadn’t been for that I might not have poked around and got that second core working, which has saved a few hundred quid (for a while) from not buying a new PC, so it wasn’t such a waste of a tenner after all.

The really staggering difference after being able to move some of the graphics sliders up from the “no, just… no, don’t bother” setting is with view distances. Previously my character was horrendously short-sighted, and anything more than a few feet away was a hazy gray shape. After the laser eye surgery of extra CPU power, I can stand on a hilltop in Khopshef overlooking the bay and just drink in the view, marvelling at the ripple of the water and the sway of distant palm trees, which is marvellous for me, possibly not quite so great for anyone else in the party I’m supposed to be healing. It’s also been great to play with other people again (IYKWIM); after Melmoth became otherwise engaged, I had a bit of a hunt around the old server forums for a likely looking guild, and it’s a tricky business. Starting with the blurb, some are nice and easy to discount; anything looking for the “best of the best”, “server firsts”, seeking to “dominate the server”, “become feared”, “achieve a THOUSAND YEAR REICH SUBJUGATING ALL HUMAN EXISTENCE TO OUR WILL”, yada yada, is unlikely to be my kind of place. That tends to leave a goodly percentage of guilds advertising themselves as some combination of friendly, mature, fun, casual, help-each-other out, easy going types; there aren’t many whose stated aim is to constantly bicker in guild chat then disband in a blizzard of acrimony and disputes over the contents of the guild bank, or to start off incredibly enthusiastic but become progressively more disenchanted with everything yet somehow unable to leave, ending up as bitter, twisted husks. Funny that. I hooked up with a decent enough bunch on the old server, guild chat ticked over quite pleasantly, but there was almost never anyone around of the same level, in the same zones, so grouping up to denude Kopshef of wildlife was most enjoyable.

Class-wise I’d picked a Tempest of Set almost at random, not really intending it to be a permanent thing; I’m not quite sure if it’s for me, I had a bit of a tendency to fall back to my “nuke first, heal later” technique (where “later” is “after we’re dead and running back from the spawn point” in some cases). The interface also seems rather fiddly for healers with squashed up little party health bars and very unclear targeting, especially in a mass brawl with a necromancer in the party and their posse of zombies (and if you’re fighting zombies, forget it… “Is it one of ours or one of theirs?”). Still, there’s plenty of lightning-based nuking to enjoy, it’s not as if I’m a proper healer or anything just because I happen to have a spell or two that might possibly restore some health or something. It’s baby steps on the DPS to healer path, like moving from accountancy to lion taming via banking.

I still let the subscription lapse, as I’m off on holiday for a fair chunk of August, and there’s the free reactivation of Star Wars Galaxies to make the most of for the rest of July, and City of Heroes, and I slightly picked up Mass Effect at the same time as some holiday stuff… Come September, though, it’ll be back to Hyboria (depending on Wrath of the Lich King, and Warhammer Age of Reckoning, and anything else coming around that time…)


I think the time’s come to move on from Age of Conan, at least for a while. I hit level 50 and just can’t get terribly enthused about carrying on. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it seems like there’s a wave of MMOG-ennui sweeping over the world and I’m as caught up in it as everyone else. I posted about Age of Conan being exasperatingly MMORPG-y; the latest Van Hemlock podcast has contemplations on the Meaning of MMOG Life; the first part of an interview with Paul Barnett on Rock, Paper, Shotgun covers some of the same ground, for games a whole, and then of course there’s the kerfuffle over a Richard Bartle interview, in which it was revealed that Bartle was the instigator of the brutal crackdown on the Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe, leading to Morgan Tsvangirai withdrawing from the presidential run-off. Least, that’s the only explanation I can come up with for the outpouring of Fearsome Internet Rage that followed, the only other possibility is everyone’s getting terribly cross that he doesn’t realise that WAR is going to be the most amazingly revolutionary thing in the history of time ever, knocking trivial stuff like fire, the wheel or sliced bread (even a piece of sliced bread attached to a wheel and being toasted over a fire) into a cocked hat (the cocked hat itself ranking a distant third as far as amazingly revolutionary things go). Still, once you get past the unhelpful hyperbole and weird metaphors involving bicornes, there’s the ennui again. As Alec Meer puts it in the RPS piece “Much as I can enjoy a few days/weeks/months in a Conan or a Tabula Rasa, I’ve pretty much come to terms with any MMO for the next few years being disappointing on a fundamental level of exploration, purpose and self-expression.”

I might well head back to Age of Conan at some point, Funcom seem to have plenty of plans for extra content to add, and if I upgrade my PC in the meantime I might get more than a couple of frames per second with high detail graphics. For now, though, Guitar Hero: Aerosmith beckons. Let there be rock!

PS: apropos of nothing else in this post, I just love the quote so much, from Neil Gaiman’s blog, Terry Pratchett in a spectacularly mis-headlined Daily Mail article:

“There is a rumour going around that I have found God. I think this is unlikely because I have enough difficulty finding my keys, and there is empirical evidence that they exist.”

Hat News Hiatus

The producers of Hat News Now Today would Now like to apologise Today, Now, for the lack, Today, of Hat News, Now, Today. Unfortunately the crack team of hat news hunters have been unable to find any new hats.

Well… that’s not strictly true. There’ve been new hats by the bucketload. Barely a slaughter of 20 EnemyGroup EnemyTypes goes by without a new hat or three to add to the collection, and no two hats are the same, oh no, they vary in level, vary in armour type, and, most of all, vary in prefix. There are Sacrosanct hats that give Unholy damage invulnerability and Merciful and Mocking hats that reduce or increase threat respectively (if you wear both at the same time you get an Ambivalent hat, leaving mobs uncertain of exactly how they feel about you) and Invigorating hats that increase your stamina and Exsanguinating hats that tap enemy health and Interventionist hats that make you more likely to interfere with the peaceful business of NPC society and Euphemistic hats that are a bit rude if you look at them a certain way and Paraphrastic hats that re-word your dialogue options (I may have made one or two of them up. But not many!)

Visually, though… I have a suspicion that some Enchanting Corporation ordered a huge container-ship loaded down with identical mass-produced hats, then stuck ’em on a conveyor belt going past drunk magician with a thesaurus. “Sacrosanct! Pow! Salubrious! Zap! Turn you into a pig! Newt! Pig! Newt! Pig! Louder pig louder pig louder pig mute pig!” So a level 21 Iron-mail Helm is identical to a level 34 Invigorating Iron-mail Helm which is remarkably similar to a level 37 Mocking Bronze-Studded Helm which is identical to a level 48 Bronze-Studded Helm. Once you’ve seen one heavy armour helmet you have, quite literally, seen them all (apart from a few level 30 Vanir and Nemedian bits covered last time out on Hat News Now).

There is a bit of Hat News Hope, as some higher level players do appear to be sporting slightly more interesting headgear, so maybe somewhere in the distant corners of the world there’s a rogue hat maker creating wild and crazy headgear for those brave enough to seek him out… or there’s a 10% chance of a rare helmet drop from some boss at the end of a hellish instance. Find out soon, in Hat News Sometime In The Future, Maybe.

Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up

You know, games are like buses. You wait all day, then it turns out that in a deregulated public transportation system the route you’re on is considered insufficiently profitable to keep running. And then three come along at once.

So a couple of months back there wasn’t really much going on games-wise, provoking an Attack of Opportunity Impulse Purchase, whereas now quite literally several games all clamour for attention. Mass Effect is just out on PC, which I’ve been looking forward to since everyone raved about the 360 version, but I haven’t even got around to buying that yet; there’s still Audiosurf, and Dawn of War, though after conquering 90% of the planet in the Dark Crusade campaign I’ve run out of steam slightly there. Issue 12 of City of Heroes has been out a few weeks, and I’ve rolled up a new Arachnos Soldier for some rather splendid villainy, though not nearly as much as I’d like, plus there’s a new zone I must get around to exploring with my trusty old hero. What I’ve mostly been playing, though, is Age of Conan. There are the glitches of a new MMOG, bugged quests and such, but that’s the price you pay for starting at launch instead of giving it six months (or a couple of years), and the patches are coming thick and fast. The problems are offset by the fact that it still has that New MMOG Smell; everything is fresh, there are new areas to explore, new levels to gain, new abilities to learn, new things to craft, wave after endless wave of new people/monsters/demons/wildlife to mercilessly slaughter.

Well, I say “new”…

Age of Conan isn’t exactly revolutionary. The combat system is a bit faster, and involves pressing a few more buttons, than other MMORPGs, some of the classes are quite interesting, there are tweaks and flourishes here and there, but at its heart there are stats and levels and XP and quests and mobs and loot, it’s an MMORPG (according to the standard definition, where ‘RP’ obviously stands for “stats and levels and XP and quests and mobs and loot”, ‘cos it sure doesn’t stand for Role Playing); if you didn’t have to kill ten rats to gain 20XP to get to level two it wouldn’t be an MMORPG, and if you didn’t want to do that you probably shouldn’t be playing an MMORPG in the first place but…

Now none of the following is at all new or original, most of it’s been going on since the dawn of (MMOG) time, I’ve blogged about similar things before, you’ve probably blogged about it, there are several libraries worth of blog posts and forum posts and web pages and magazines and books and pamphlets and flesh-consuming shadow swarms that cover the same ground, but sometimes Age of Conan is just so exasperatingly… MMORPG-y. It does try. Some quests do things a bit differently, and you have to feel for the designers who know that any attempt to be witty or innovative or different in the quest text will be lost on the 99% of players who click “next… next… next…”, then look at the quest log to see what the actual goal is, and that any attempt to mix things up, do much other than send you to a named person or to kill clearly specified mobs, will send half the players straight off to Google while the other half make thousands of forum posts and GM petitions and eternal loops in zone chat saying “ZOMGZ KWEST IS BUGGED WOT TO DO???” So I understand entirely why it happens, but sometimes…

You pitch up at a village, look for the people toting giant floating punctuation, have a quick chat, and find out there’s bandit trouble. “Perhaps I could seek the underlying causes of the conflict” you offer, “determining what unfortunate events drove the bandits to crime in the first place, and then offer an independent conciliation service bringing bandits and villagers together to forge a peaceful outcome beneficial to all parties”.
“Yesss…” replies Neville T. Arbitrary the Villager “… or you could just kill ten of them.” So you toddle off to dispense some rather presumptive sword-based justice, and find the bandits have most distinct social groups. There are Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Chartered Accountants and Bandit Certified Accountants and Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Constructivists and tucked away somewhere amidst them all is Geoff the Bandit Leader. Neville T. Arbitrary the Villager was most specific, though, and only wants you to kill ten Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Chartered Accountants. Who knows why, he’s Arbitrary like that. It’s 2am, and there’s nobody else about, just you and the bandits, so you make a start, picking off a lone Bandit Chartered Accountant scout. Moving closer to the main camp, there’s a Bandit Campanologist, only he’s standing next to a Bandit Philatelist. Oh well, bells, stamps, it’s all the same, in you wade, smiting them both down, though of course only the Campanologist counts towards your quest tally. Further and further into the bandit encampment you go, picking off the bandits in ones and twos as their fellows stand idly by; then you get a bit too near a group of three who all notice you and leap to the attack, and as you pop a health potion and back off to try and deal with them a pair on patrol decide that would be a really good time to wander past and join in the fun, and the five of them mash you into a pulp. Tum te tum, corpse run, back to the camp and resume the hunting of Bandit Campanologists and Chartered Accountants, who are still inconveniently hanging around with Philatelists and Neoclassicisits. After some gruelling combat, another death caused by respawns in the middle of a fight, and innumerable kills of all types of Bandit except Campanologists and Chartered Accountants, you finally kill precisely ten of the requisite mobs. And you’re now stuck in the middle of a bandit camp, with a host of rather cross bandits (all of whom, naturally, are Campanologists and Chartered Accountants now you don’t specifically need to hunt them down) between you and the village. So you decide you can’t be arsed to fight them all, again, and just start running as fast as you can, occasionally activating the /train emote as about three hundred bandits follow in hot pursuit, at least until the gates of the village where a couple of NPC guards nonchalantly swat aside the pursuing bandits, wiping them out with such ease you wonder exactly why the village is in such peril when the pair of them could take out every bandit within thirteen miles without breaking a sweat. But never mind.

Neville T. Arbitrary is so delighted by your martial prowess that he gives you a handful of loose change he found down the back of the sofa, and a piece of armour carefully selected to be utterly useless to your class, if you’re even allowed to wear it at all. And then another bit of punctuation appears over his head. “What now?” you ask.
“I was wondering if you’d mind awfully killing 10 Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists”, he says; “ten minutes ago I was firmly convinced that only Bandit Campanologists and Bandit Chartered Accountants posed any sort of threat to our village, but no, I realise now that they’re irrelevant when compared to Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists.”
“Oh” you say. “Well, luckily for you, in the process of killing those Campanologists, I happened to mow through a bunch of Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists as well.”
“Oh, no, they don’t count at all” explains Neville. “You were killing them *then*. This quest is to kill them *now*.”
You sigh. “What about Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants?” you enquire.
“Oh, no, I don’t care about them at all” replies Neville.
“You’re *absolutely sure* about that? It’s just that once I’ve killed these Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists, I have this funny feeling you might want me to kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants, and really, it would save us all so much time if I just killed them all at the same time.”
“That wouldn’t be very Arbitrary, would it now?” says Neville in a shining example of nominative determinism.

You turn to the farmer standing next to him, Neville S. Arbitrary. “I don’t suppose you’ve got any more sensible quests?”
“Well… you could kill some wolves, I suppose, they’re causing havoc with my livestock”
“Wolves, right. That doesn’t sound too bad. Hang on a minute… is it just Slightly Elderly But Not Infirm Wolves With A Bit Of A Limp And A White Stripe Down The Nose that you want killing?”
“Not Youthful Wolves, or Adult Wolves, or Wolves With No Stripes Down The Nose, just the Slightly Elderly But Not Infirm Wolves With A Bit Of A Limp And A White Stripe Down The Nose?”
“What are you drivelling about? No, any wolves. Any wolves at all. So long as my flock is safe.”
“Oh. Right. That sounds quite sensible.”
“Only when they’re in my fields, mind.”
“You can only kill the wolves when they’re within the boundary of my fields, or they don’t count.”
“What is this, restrictive rules of engagement in an attempt to prevent the wolf/human conflict escalating? Is there a demilitarised zone surrounding your fields? What about if I attack a wolf outside your field, but in the process of the fight end up inside your fields and kill him there? Or what about if I’ve got a bow, and stand inside the field shooting wolves outside? Or stand outside the field shooting wolves inside?”
“Look, I don’t make the rules. No, wait a minute, that’s not true at all, I do make the rules. Hey, that’s why they call me Neville Spatial Arbitrary.”
“Ohhh. That explain a lot… And the bloke next to you is…”
“…Neville Temporal Arbitrary, yes.”

Unable to face the Arbitrary brothers, you log out. Next day, you log back in at 8pm, determined to hunt down those Constructivists for Neville T. At peak evening time, the camp looks a bit different. There are players everywhere, and not a hostile to be seen. Every now and then a bandit materialises from thin air and looks a bit surprised as he instantly vanishes in a hail of arrows, swords, flames, bolts, ice shards, maces, stuffed marmots, socks, geese, inflatable hammers, lightbulbs, zeppelins etc. With a sigh, you start doing laps around the area, very occasionally having the good fortune of a bandit respawning right in front of your face enabling you to get the first hit in before it’s annihilated, though it’s impossible to be choosy about exactly what you’re attacking as if you paused to check exactly which sub-type of bandit it was, it would be far too late. On one lap, you happen to land a blow on Geoff the Bandit Leader, who’s faring no better than his men, and eventually, after an awfully long time and an awful lot of killstealing, you manage to tag ten Bandit Philatelists and Bandit Constructivists. You head back to Arbitrary Neville.

“Well done”, says he, favouring you with a bit more loose change and a dagger that you instantly throw away, spearing a passing chicken. “Now go and…”
“I should warn you” you interject “that if you say ‘kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accountants’, I’m going to flip out, like a ninja”
“Oh no” says Neville “wouldn’t dream of it. I was going to tell you to go and kill ten Bandit Neoclassicists and Bandit Certified Accou…”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
“…. AND! And! Also Geoff the Bandit Leader.”
“Geoff the Bandit Leader?”
“Geoff the Bandit Leader”
“Look. I’ve already killed Geoff the Bandit Leader. That bloke over there has killed Geoff the Bandit Leader. Those three over there, where two of them are 10 levels higher than everyone else, they killed Geoff the Bandit Leader 73 times to try and get their low level friend a certain sword that he drops, only it turns out that got changed in the latest patch so he no longer drops it and they’re writing a stern forum post even as we speak. There is currently a line of people, and when you join it an automated voice says “you are number 113 in the queue to kill Geoff the Bandit Leader. We greatly value your bandit killing, please enjoy this music as you hold to kill Geoff the Bandit Leader”. I’ve seen Geoff the Bandit Leader die so many times he makes the killer at the end of a film who everyone thinks is dead but suddenly pops up going “GRAAAGH” look like a rank amateur in the not-actually-dying stakes. I could just about suspend my disbelief at the constant stream of random Bandit underlings with peculiar hobbies popping out of thin air with some unconvincing theory about constant reinforcements emerging from underground tunnels or something, but unless Geoff the Bandit leader has SIX! BILLION! identical clone brothers this is frankly silly.”
“I’ll give you this rare ring”
“Oh, all right then”