Hyborial Rhapsody

After a day spent trying to secure a King Crab in post-campaign Battletech, the rest of the bizarro weekend unexpectedly went to Conan Exiles.
I built this fort from scratch in an entire Wednesday, gathering stone and other material from the surroundings, fighting off the occasional crocodile.
Too well do I know that my own little game is never going to get made if I keep procrastinating, but I can partly justify playing Conan Exiles as research of a cutting edge example of the genre I keep coming back to: open-world, survival, settlement-building RPGs.  An easy perspective in finding what game I want to make is to see how existing games are unsatisfactory.

Given a lengthy early access period, Conan Exiles feels like it was released ages ago, but it was only formally given release status this week.  Word on the 'net is it has underwent considerable improvement in that time, rising from merely adequate to arguably the best of a genre that includes Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust.  (No zombies, though, so 7 Days To Die has nothing to fear.)

The setting in Conan Exiles is neither a strange futuristic dinosaur-world nor a post-apocalyptic wilderness, but rather the epic lore of Conan The Barbarian, taking place in the Hyborian Age, a fictional time placed at roughly 10,000 B.C.  Conan's birthplace is the same as Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan: the dime store adventure publications of yore.  The lore is given a great treatment in Conan Exiles, and it should: Funcom has been running Age of Conan (a Conan themed MMORPG) for over ten years now.
Nights are actually dark, encouraging players to carry a torch while reminding them they're not here to be babied.
But lore is just the window dressing, lets get on with the gameplay.

I have mentioned that Conan Exiles is basically the best of a genre that includes Ark: Survival Evolved and Rust, but what does that mean to the player who has never played either?  In short, it's Minecraft survival mode for graphics-loving, violent adults:
  • Your character wanders a huge world, scaling mountains, harvesting resources, in order to survive.
  • Survival entails eating, drinking, braving harsh environments, and defending yourself against enemies that would not look out of place in a Conan adventure: primordial beasts, savage people, and darker things still.
  • Finally, you must overcome the most dangerous foe of all: other players... should you choose to start a character on the PvP servers, that is.
About the only thing missing from the Minecraft comparison is the ability to actually dig in the ground, as the world is static.  It is a noticeable omission, as its competition has gone that far, but in exchange we get a really elaborate looking world so I suppose it is a fair trade off.
Though I've seen prettier, Conan Exiles is generally a gorgeous game.
Like the entire open world survival genre, perhaps the most compelling feature is that you can build.  Things you build include:
  • Houses, forts, settlements, or whatever you please out of the various building blocks.  Three tiers of construction materials are available to be unlocked, each more durable than the last.
  • Hordes of obedient thralls (non-player character slaves).  After bludgeoning them in the wild, dragging their unconscious bodies back to the Wheel of Pain, and taming them with time and gruel, they become fixtures of your base, mostly defending it or enhancing crafting benches.  It will be over ten thousand years before anyone invents the word, "Emancipate."
  • The very weapons and tools in your hands, and the armor on your back.  These can also be equipped on your thralls, improving their ability to perform their duties.
So what's the point of all this?  Well, that's the question I'm usually trying to answer, isn't it?  As I expected, Conan Exiles has no bigger picture significance than Rust or Ark did before it.  We could pretend maybe we're in competition between the major religions in the game, but ultimately those altars are nothing but another kind of crafting table, so that is more of a roleplaying consideration.
On top of that, Conan Exiles is not without some bugs in its release state, though they are unlikely to be showstopping.

As is typical of open world survival games, the only higher purposes are ones that the players choose to invent for themselves.  At the most basic level, you can bully the other players just because you can, turn it into a competition of a sort.  Fortunately, for those of us who do not see that as much of a point, that competition is optional:
  • In PvP servers, the things you build become vulnerable for destruction during the prime time hours of the time zone of the server (5pm-11pm) but your ability to lose absolutely everything but your experience points is counterbalanced by harvesting and xp gain being twice as fast on those servers.  
  • In PvE-Conflict servers, the player-built structures are always safe, but during prime time hours the players can kill each other's characters.  It's a good medium for those who want a little player-on-player violence, but aren't looking to lose everything they built.
  • On PvE servers, we don't need to worry about players ever being able to kill each other or their bases... but then some jerk builds a base that completely blocks your access to somewhere on the map, and suddenly you can see the appeal of being able to knock them down.
My old high school chum thinks I'm an unabashed carebear just because I generally dislike open PvP.  But it's not really the fear and excitement of being perpetually ganked that bothers me (though it does make it hard to relax while playing).  Rather, I am a gamist at heart, and constant lopsided dogpiles are a really poor game.  Without fairness and balance, it's not truly a game anymore, it's more of a social activity, one that involves a lot of simulated death and pillaging.

Even were it not distasteful for the morbid dysfunction of that scenario, this introvert has little need to go out of his way for a social activity.
I have some mighty works I can look upon with despair, too.
Surely I have played this kind of game before, so I knew what to expect.  However, as I said earlier, my procrastinating in Conan Exiles had a goal (more of an excuse) to better understand where I stand in my own game development endeavors.  What have I learned from this refresher of playing Conan Exiles?

I've come up with a little bullet point as to what I want to see in open-world games that Conan Exiles does not have, some of which I already hinted at:
  • Finite Resources - I think open world games would be more interesting if the conservation of mass ("matter cannot be created or destroyed") rule were applied.  In Conan Exiles, all resources respawn, and at a fairly rapid rate.  This means there's no true scarcity and no real reason to fight over them.
  • Settlements With Needs - Player characters need to eat, but food is bountiful and largely spammed as a healing method.  Tamed thralls don't need to eat, and consequently there's no need to build farms to defend, no real limit on thralls.
  • NPCs With Agency - The animals and other NPCs in Conan Exiles have a simple reason to live: wait around for the players to exploit them.  It's not a bad reason when looked at from the perspective that NPCs are pieces in a game, but it's a terrible reason when looked at from the perspective that NPCs are fixtures in a compelling virtual world. 
  • NPCs With Personality - Socially, the NPCs in Conan Exiles are quite shallow, sporting behaviors no more advanced than games 20 years ago.  Though it makes sense not to get too attached to them here, I always thought it would be nice if the NPCs in an open world could be as socially able as the villagers of Animal Crossing or other social simulation games.
All these things are examples of features that would add heightened significance/greater purpose to everyone and everything in an online game.  Think about the opportunities each one of these features would bring, not necessarily to Conan Exiles, but to open world games in general!  If even one of these features were delivered, it would be that much more compelling.

However, I can also see why Funcom did not opt to rise to these challenges, as they had a goal to deliver a game on time and under budget.  With Conan Exiles, they went the Blizzard route of just trying to make a better example of a known working model.  As usual, it seems if I want to do things my way, I'll have to do it myself.  Better luck next bizarro weekend, procrastinating me.


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