At the title suggests, this is sort of a free writing expedition. I've got a basic thought, and I'm going to try exploring it a bit. The title is a bit misleading at this point; my idea involves the time it takes to win, rather than a winning strike at the right time.
Here's the deal: Conan has been a ton of fun for me. I play mostly solo theses days, after several rough starts on PvP servers. Technically, I'm on a public hosted custom PvP server, but a server with 1 average player is… solo. Anyway, I've enjoyed this game a ton. I like the building, the exploration, and the ideas put forth for the rest of the content of this game. I'm particularly looking forward to the thrall and combat reworks. I'm not here to gripe, because I understand that the game isn't done. I'll wait patiently until it is.
Okay, there is one gripe, so I guess I lied. Sorry, you can stop now, if you no longer have faith in my integrity. Levels – that's my gripe. It's a gripe I've felt more and more over time, with particular respect to PvP content. It's this idea that in order to achieve a fair fight, you need to grind for hours to unlock the rest of the game.
Now, don't get me wrong, I actually think that a small tutorial or training session, possibly assisted through leveling, is a good idea for teaching how a game should or could be. It would allow a semi ranking system for newer players to get their feet wet. League of Legends does this, but they take the the time from start to max level a bit too long. Okay, a lot too long!
That's not really the point. The point is that the meat and potatoes of the game is denied until a player reaches max level. That doesn't maybe take so long in Conan, especially on a custom server with high exp rate. As a side note, ideally I'd play on an official server, and I'm going to continue the rest of this as if it's the only option. Even though it doesn't take long to level, as far as an MMO is concerned, there are clear leveling areas and a difficulty curve within the game. It's not exactly been perfected, but you can easily feel where things go from easy to rough to brutal. This is particularly true if you try to head to the hard spots at level 1…
Okay, I actually don't mind harder and easier spots in the game, as far as PvE content is concerned. In fact I like the idea of resources in tougher spots requiring more effort and difficulty. However, I don't think that the way to make things harder in a skill based game is to simply boost their stats. I know, I know, the AI in this game is still very basic. It's supposed to change in the future. That said, in order to make things hard at high level, they'd have to be nearly impossible at low level.
And then of course there is the crux of the issue: PvP. There's no getting around this. In a level based game, players with levels will usually win. Now, I'm talking a level based game where levels provide tangible bonuses, like stats and better equipment. At an equal level of skill, the game goes to the player who out stats the other. Of course there are multiplayer dynamics to consider, but the point still stands. A group of better armed, more powerful players wins against lesser adversaries.
There are a number of ways to combat this issue, such as expediting the level process; normalizing the character stats; or my personal favorite: removing levels entirely. I'm going to focus on that last issue, which should come as no surprise based on the tone of the rest of this document.
Okay, maybe this is finally the meat of this article. At least, it's the point. Skill based PvP games have existed forever. They come in nearly every genre, and they have gained immense following despite, or because of, the lack of build up required to get started. However, most of them lack something critical to a game like Conan Exiles: permanency.
In Rocket League, Super Smash Bros, Starcraft, or even League of Legends, the game has a finite beginning and end. Once your match is over, you move on to a new match, no strings attached. A game like Conan doesn't give you that luxury. Win or lose, you're situation doesn't change by rage quitting to come back later. This is one of the key aspects of a large-scale multiplayer survival game. There is no logging off to hide from the monsters. Logging off probably means you're feeding the monsters with your own resources, or even flesh!
So, the game needs a kind of grinding element: resources. It's a survival game, so it only makes sense that you'd have to farm your ass off just to live another day, let alone thrive in a hostile wasteland. That's not really a question. But in this style of game, how do you get a player to sort of naturally progress through the tiers of construction? Do you really want power gamers going straight for the best, most lucrative spots with total access to all the gear on the server from the get go? Well, the short answer is… Yes.
Here's the thing, in order to sustain a balanced system without levels, the world itself needs to diversify. If the best gear requires iron, wheat, and the blood of demons, well, put those resources far apart from each other. Force players to fight or trade for the necessary resources. Beyond that, make many of the resources limited or rare, such that a powerful tribe can't rely on maintaining a stranglehold on the market.
This sort of issue still doesn't exactly solve the problem. Even with limits, the strongest clans will find ways to hold the key resources. This means that beyond the resources and the things which can come from them, there needs to be a sort of balancing factor in the meta. Conan happens to have a very compelling tool to handle this: religion and gods. It's got some serious kinks, but a struggling clan could certainly benefit from some divine intervention.
Considering we don't really want this game to be a stat stick waving game, divine intervention needs to be sort of a more active role. No blessings or auras that jack up your prowess for a few hours. Now, stat boosting isn't out of the question, but things like divine equipment that has very low durability, something to showcase how ephemeral their support really is. The current god avatars really work toward that ideal, but they've got a long way to go. A wave of the hand "base wipe" power doesn't exactly instill a desire to construct an awesome palace.
There's also another tool available to Conan Exiles that isn't present in, say DayZ: magic. Arcane power is coming to conan, and it can be a force for balance. If arcane potency derives from different sources than crafting of gear, or constructing bases, this means it'll be even harder to block all avenues of attack. Additionally, if sorcery has a stronger rate of effect against more traditional combatants, then it can work as a balance of power against the stronger clans.
Again, it can't be an "I Win" button. If all it takes to beat the big castle in the cliff are some hair brained necromancers, nobody is going to build bases. The sorcery has to complement the traditional style of combat and gear, not just outpace it. It's likely that a rock paper scissors sort of arrangement would work out with sorcery defeating standard arms, standard arms suppressing divine might, and divine might reigning over sorcery. That said, I haven't put enough thought into how best that sort of encounter should really go. I mean, where does lizard and Spock fit into that mess?
Okay, there's more to Conan than combat, and there's more to winning than crushing your foes. There's also the matter of running your kingdom! The thing is, crafting skill trees, and skill trees in general, are a form of leveling. You can hem and haw and hedge the issue, but the simple fact remains: a progression system defies the illusion of balance needed for skillful expression of games. I don't want to downplay the value of hard choices, such as with how talent systems in some games work. I mean, where you need to make a critical decision on whether to increase your number of summoned turrets, or give your existing turrets flamethrowers. This meaningful decision is important, but let's come back to the later.
Let's talk about the crafting system. Currently, it's a skill tree. I mean, you have to unlock aspects of the crafting system that grant the ability to unlock other aspects, and so on. This gets in the way of skillful gameplay, and it particularly forces the grind back into the mix.
A different method is to let everything out on the table from the get go. Instead of a tedious push to get to the max tier equipment, why not make all equipment valuable? Sure, iron swords and rock swords are not going to be as effective as steel swords. Sandstone walls can't stand up to the punishment of heavy reinforced stone. But, so what? Introduce a system to make it so walls slowly decay. Maybe they all decay St the same rate. Maybe they don't. I don't mean you should let them crumble, but their effectiveness should degrade over time. Introduce an upkeep system to repair your walls. Make the cost of upgrading relative to the initial cost of the walls.
This method allows you to build a sandstone or reinforced stone base, and the effectiveness of both drops to about the same over time. If players want to keep their highly fortified structures up to snuff, they need to keep getting those resources. The same can be said for weapons and armor. They already have a decay system. Unfortunately, it goes straight from full effectiveness to broke in a single swing.
I think it's important for gear to degrade and wear down, but I also thing it should be worth maintaining your gear. It's not realistic that a sword will just shatter after flawlessly slicing up that 50th spider. It would make sense for the edge to dull; for the armor to rust; for that bread to go stale. Let's be honest: food doesn't just pop out of existence. That's not really the main premise of this article, though.
A different issue is the speed at which things are crafted. It makes sense that it doesn't take a lot of time to throw together a stone axe. It makes far less sense that in that same amount of time, I can build a wall! Now, don't get me wrong; I love the fire and forget style of crafting available in Conan. I wouldn't want to stand there waiting for Einfinnr, my avatar, to finish building a wall or pounding the hell out of a sword until it's shiny and new. Instead, I think it should all be taken care of by thralls. Now, you're not going to start with thralls, so it could in theory start tedious, but.. realism or not, boring is boring.
Instead, how about for construction of buildings or permanent fixtures, those things which should be too large to hold or build, are built in place. Instead of building a foundation in your inventory and placing it on the ground, instead place ghost foundations. Then, access those ghost foundations like you would any other crafting station. Place the required materials into them, then click craft. Let the base build itself up.
A more elegant solution would be to have a shared inventory for all the contiguous pieces of a building, not including furnishings, such that you could add resources to the structure as a whole, rather than going to each individual piece and adding resources, especially when it comes to those high placed pieces. The same solution could work for maintenance of the structure. It's not intended to be an inventory, so only let players add resources necessary to complete the structure, and treat it like an always on furnace, so that you can't just start a building to use as a storage dump.
When it comes to gear, repairing on the fly should probably be abolished. Okay, maybe not entirely. It makes sense to repair your gear as you go: a whetstone for your sword, new straps for your buckles from some spare leather, or polish the rust off your breastplate. But, that only goes so far. Eventually, you'll need to take it back for true repairs, or replacement.
I mentioned hard choices above, and I said I'd get back to it. Let's address that now, especially with respect to gear. On one front, which weapons and armor you want to bring should have a meaningful choice. We shouldn't just all take the ancient khopesh, because it has best DPS. A khopesh and a broadsword should have distinct uses. Maybe one is much more durable. Maybe one has a better time cutting through heavy armor. Whatever the difference, each piece of gear should be meaningful. Now, I'm actually okay with aesthetic differences, but and so maybe different versions of the same weapon could exist. Perhaps a scimitsr and a khopesh are exactly the same except for appearance.
That explains crafting choices, but what about equiping choices? It's fine to carry a ton of things into battle. But, swapping armor on the fly? Five different weapons strapped to your back? Okay, so maybe you do sling them all over your shoulder. That is going to be akward to carry! Your wargear choices should truly matter. It should have some kind of time er to equip new gear. It should affect your stamina usage. Something to encourage a player to carefully prepare for an outing.
Well I wandered from topic to topic, and maybe I wasn't clear I some places, but the main gist of this article is to explore the idea of dropping levels and skill trees by the wayside and working toward a balanced, skillful system that forms somewhat organically from the system, rather than forcing it down the players' throats. I hope this was helpful, or at least interesting; thanks for reading.