Tanya X. Short, Game Designer
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Feature: Guild RenownDungeon: Xibaluku

Age of Conan

Age of Conan is a AAA MMO featuring a brutal virtual world of noble barbarians and ancient evils. I've always been a fan of low fantasy and pulp, such as Robert E. Howard, so I was thrilled to join the team as an A.I. Designer soon after the game's launch.

Age of Conan had a rocky start and I pitched in to help improve retention immediately, from scripting needed content (dungeon bosses) to developing an expansive guild leveling system. I was fortunate enough to work with professionals of every discipline in strike teams, and to be able to work so independently as to teach myself a dozen different proprietary tools to manage the content I was responsible for. It was a challenging but extremely satisfying two and a half years.

Feature: Guild Renown

Some guilds will always focus on building something from nothing; others will always focus on destruction.

Conan had been a Live game for six months, it had a new game director, and a mostly-new development team. As the "dynamic content" team (consisting mostly of A.I. and PvP designers), we met and discussed what development we should pursue -- social activities, minigames, guild city improvements, mounts, etc. And the more we discussed it, the more we decided we needed a system with which to reward guilds, both for skill/prestige (end-game players) and for time investment (average player).

We were given the goal of creating a system to add value and replayability to existing player content and activities, building upon the natural retention of guild gameplay. I was responsible for pitching the concept, then leading the charge on the design for the feature that became known as Guild Renown.

I worked closely with the systems team, GUI designers, and code team to ensure the system developed would be balanced, secure, and functional. A guild interface already existed, but it needed expanding to communicate the earning and rewards of the Renown system. There were no leaderboards in Conan up until that point, so the Renown Rankings design had to be built from scratch. In consultation with respective experts, I developed mockups, created reward system designs, and also did the grunt-work of actually implementing much of the rewards as well.

It was great to work with such a diverse range of talents to help create new layers of gameplay depth within an existing ruleset.

Click for a better view of one of the later GUI mockups and how it compares to the in-game interface.
Click for a better view of one of the later GUI mockups and how it compares to the in-game interface.

A guild builds their very first guild city (an expensive endeavor):

After several iterations, we ended up with a headlining post-launch feature that increased the overall replayability of the game and offered extensive rewards for all player-types. Guild Renown awards points for any activity in the game, of three types: Glory (PvP), Valor (PvE) and Artistry (Crafting). Accumulate enough of these points (of any type) and your guild "levels up", unlocking new rewards.

After you've reached the maximum Renown level (20), you might want to start paying attention to the leaderboards, since each type of Renown receives its own leaderboard for you to track.

Battlekeeps are core to one of the Conan USPs, 'sieges', which were left relatively intact by Renown system changes to the separate guild cities.

As a reward system, city decorations appealed to explorers, collectors, crafters, AND end-game achievers, as it empowered them to find all of the hard-to-get recipes and display the fruits of their labor in their guild city for all to see. We also offered access to special guild mounts, pets, clothing, exclusive quests, PvP expedients, and teleport conveniences.

It took some patience to work out all of the kinks and exploits in such an all-encompassing system, and lots of hard work from various disciplines, but it was also the most intense game design challenge of my career up to that point, and thus its success was extremely satisfying.

I also used the Renown system to add incentives to explore the world, via the city decorations and city quests. I especially enjoy creating a unique-but-optional experience to discover for curious players. Of the dozen or so quest I added to the expansion (Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer), my favorite was actually an easter egg without a "quest" at all. It involved a difficult-to-acquire pet spouting occasional riddles. If you decipher the riddles, you can dance on a particular skull to earn a special scripted sequences, and a pet that is an in-joke referring to the game director. Fans loved it and made a "world first" forum thread to celebrate finding it, months after its release.

Dungeon: Xibaluku

One of the randomised mini-bosses, changes tactics each time the dungeon starts

"Xibaluku" was one of the first major dungeon releases after Age of Conan's launch, featuring a witch-queen deep in the bowels of an ancient Acheronian ruin, raising the dead. It featured 9 bosses, of which I scripted roughly half.

The witch-queen Tia Shar's lair, deep in the dungeon.

At the time I was just gaining mastery over Funcom's proprietary Dreamworld tools and scripting system and really wanted to push the envelope to see how far out I could go within the Age of Conan gameplay. So, the Martyr of Xotantha was my proposed design: a boss with a randomly-generated co-operative logic puzzle that raises platforms across a perilous chasm. Meanwhile a second (or third) person must actually jump across the platforms, trusting their group-mates with their life.

I also created and implemented a dozen quests for the expansion, Age of Conan: Rise of the Godslayer, and continued to improve the guild cities in keeping with the expansion themes.

I also developed the designs for Age of Conan's free to play transition to Conan: Unchained, taking a directed strategy and turning it into a fully detailed cross-disciplinary plan of development, including asset production and feature development tracking. It was my closest brush with producerhood, but before Unchained could be released, I was pulled to work as Lead Designer on Fashion Week Live. Still, my understanding of the community helped me create some of the best-sellers in the item shop, including the ever-popular Pleasure Priestesses.

I also voiced the Frost-Giant's daughter in a promotional video for Ymir's Pass, the first post-launch playfield. Fun times!