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It's completely plausible to suggest that most of those following 'Age of Conan', while disappointed with the game's delay announced on August 10, would have thought, "Great! This means more time for beta testing!" because after all, a game that has been through a lengthy and thorough beta period runs smoothly on release and is essentially a very satisfying and satisfactory product (there are exceptions to the rule, of course). We're aware that the Technical Beta phase has been ongoing since April 28, but the 'Age of Conan' public has now been receiving conflicting reports as to when the General Beta phase will begin, in fact, it has been suggested that it has already started!
Let me make one thing very clear before I continue: this fortnight's edition of Mitra's Method is not to bring into light any concerns anyone might have regarding the method in which Funcom is handling their beta testing program. Nor am I attempting or inciting any doom-calling about how the apparent lack of General Beta could be detrimental to the game's development. As I have iterated in previous editions of Mitra's Method, the beta testing phase is of the utmost importance in any game's development, and every tester has their part to play in such an important stage of development for 'Age of Conan'. The last thing I want to do this fortnight is to stamp my feet repeatedly on the ground crying "Where's my beta? I want it now!" on behalf of everyone, no; such behaviour is exceptionally childish and would do no good anyway.
Last week's Games Convention in Leipzig, Germany, saw somewhat of a "watered down" version of what the combat system will look like, work and how it will manifest itself in the end product (keep in mind though that the User Interface they demonstrated was a placeholder). Why we have had a change to the combat system in the first place is the result of feedback from beta testers. Now, think what you will of the changes, and in turn, think of what you will of the beta testers that supported such a change, but this puts emphasis on why such a stage in the game's development is so important. Obviously, this was an issue in-game that needed addressing and had implications on the game's release. It would be fair to say that if the state of the combat system was in such a way that this feedback was a major reason behind the game's delay, not making the appropriate changes might also have implications on the game's sales and number of subscriptions in the hereafter. Funcom made a decision for the future of their game.
"This time we did the right thing. I am proud by the fact that we work in a company that knows what the game truly needs, and are willing to follow and support the best interest of the game." - Gaute Godager, 'Letter from the Game Director', August 10, 2008
In response to the changes to the combat system as a result of the feedback from beta, many of us were asking "How hard could it [the combat system] be?" From what we had seen in demonstration videos going as far back as E3 and GC 2006, it was simply a matter of hitting the directional attacks and following the keys "pre-lit" on the combat rose to trigger a combo that was already slotted in your combo hot-bar; seems easy enough. But the honest truth is, unless you have tried it yourself (which I say would count for about 90 per cent of us) it's not quite fair to suggest that the beta testers are in the slightest way incompetent by asking "How hard could it be?"
Funcom are still working with their "Easy to learn, difficult to master" approach to the combat system, but now in making the changes to the combat system (outlined here), Funcom is able to make the game more accessible to those unfamiliar with such a system, particularly in an MMO. Now, understandably, people learn at their own and different pace, but it's not just experienced gamers that Funcom are marketing 'Age of Conan' to. Sure, it's fair to argue that a large proportion of the 'Age of Conan' market will consist of experienced gamers, but don't be surprised to find a lot of MMO first-timers in Hyboria. The combat system has to be designed in such a way that would prompt learning and instil confidence within the user. "Easy to learn..." certainly does not mean "dumbed down". Gaute Godager even himself said:
"We are NOT changing the vision! It stays the same! Not dumber, not less deep or complex, but less convoluted."
I happen to like Gaute's choice of words there, namely with the use of the word "convoluted", meaning "complicated; intricately involved". Let's be honest again, no one wants complicated or intricately involved! What we want is what Funcom has been promising from day one: "Easy to learn, difficult to master". The challenge in the game's combat should come from the player deciding what strategy they will employ when engaging the enemy, and not having to grasp with a system that's going to leave you feel like you're using chopsticks for the very first time. Jeepers, I remember the first time I picked up the guitar thinking is was complicated, but once the basics were covered, everything else came naturally, and I believe it's also a "natural feel" that Funcom are striving for with their combat in 'Age of Conan'.
"With real combat we have created a system that really brings players into the game and make them active participants in the battles they fight. That means giving them complete control over their attacks in real-time, and where they aim their attacks. This is a much more hands-on approach to MMO combat, where the players must make strategic decisions regarding how they stand in relation to the enemies they are fighting." - 'Age of Conan' FAQ, September 16, 2006
So what of the beta testing between now and March 25, 2008? Well, for a start, if the announcement of the game's delay is anything to go by, it just emphasises how important it is to have the right beta testers involved getting their hands-on experience with the many different features of the game. Funcom have given themselves this five month buffer (five months from October 30, that is) so that every facet of the game can be gone through with a fine-toothed comb and the appropriate feedback left. I know this is something I have spoken about on a few occasions this year, but it is something I am personally quite ardent about because it's obvious to see that Funcom is passionate about their product and in the end want to give us their best, so the best help is needed!
"To avoid gamers that were simply looking for a free trial of the game already at this stage, Funcom launched a Beta sign-up process which involved filling out detailed personal information, as well as providing detailed technical information about the PC system. As such, the sign-up process has been created to ensure that those signing up would be dedicated to the testing of the game. As the game moves into more open Beta stages closer to the launch, further initiatives will be unveiled to expand the base of Beta testers." - '100 000 gamers signed up for Age of Conan Beta during Easter', April 11, 2007
Funcom, as it is currently evident, has listened to their beta testers very seriously because their beta testers have been very serious with their feedback, hence it has warranted a change and a push-back in the game's release, and they, Funcom, will continue to listen - they have assured it.
"Not listening to experienced beta testers' initial reactions is the most dangerous thing to do." - Gaute Godager, 'Letter from the Game Director'
You'll have to forgive me for referring to 'Vanguard: Saga of Heroes' so much (really, I don't anything against it - me not bitter!), but I think with that game, there is so much to learn about the dangers of not listening to the beta testers and pushing ahead with a release despite the warnings. The last thing we want is for 'Age of Conan' to turn into the next 'Vanguard'. Can 'Vanguard' be "rescued"? Does 'Vanguard' still have the potential to be a good MMO? Perhaps, and perhaps not. But I think especially given the size and power of the MMO market today, with all the funding and technology available, no game released should ever be in the position where it needs to be "rescued", and this is why delays as a result of testing and feedback are to be expected. I highly doubt we'd be receiving the same amount of satisfaction from 'Age of Conan' if it was to be released on October 30 rather than some time in 2008. It would be a mistake and a disservice to us and to Funcom themselves if they were to push for the October 30 release:
"I am still professional enough to realize that sometimes you must have the balls to pull your own pants off, standing there in all your glory, and admit your mistakes." - Gaute Godager
While I'm not advocating that Gaute literally pull off his pants and stand there in all his glory, what I do subscribe to is an honesty policy and frankness. Funcom know there's more work to be done, and they realise this takes time. 'Age of Conan' is their game and their accountable for their mistakes if any are made. They've shown they do have the brass to make such a huge decision willingly and knowingly of the fact that it might not sit well with a cohort of the game's followers. You know, it's like that saying goes: "You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs".
So the next few months are going to be very interesting for Funcom, and it's going to be interesting to see what else will result from beta feedback as we push into the last quarter of 2007. General Beta is "Soon™" (if not happening now), and for those of us not beta testing at the moment, we can be assured that the testers in at the moment are doing precisely what Funcom want them to do: feedback, suggest, and report in order to make this game better and better. What we and Funcom want is a star, a hit, a standout, a one-of-a-kind, and a winner from release, not months after.
Until next fortnight, this is Stephen "weezer" Spiteri,
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© Stephen Spiteri, August 2007