June 26, 2008

Weekly poll - game rating

This week I'll ask you to rate Age of Conan on a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being best and 1 being worst). Take everything into account: not only the overall game quality, but the "fun factor" as well. You can find the poll on the sidebar to the right. Note: there are some problems with IE7 users not being able to vote; to fix them, you have to add http://www.google.com to the "Trusted Sites" list of Internet Explorer. My apologies for the inconvenience (yeah right... about time you sir got Firefox!).

The last week's question was about leveling speed. I made a pie chart about it since I like pie.


I expected even more players to be in the 61-80 range already, but it looks like 41-60 is still the largest so far. Frankly, the leveling speed seems a tad too fast to me. Most people however counter that with the fact that Age of Conan is all about "endgame" (raids and massive PvP sieges) so you want to get there as soon as you can. I just hope once I get there, most of the features will be working.

June 18, 2008

Weekly poll - leveling speed

It's time for the weekly AoCBlog poll again! This week's question is really simple - what is the level of your main Age of Conan character? Leveling in AoC seems pretty fast to me, too fast even - but maybe that makes sense for an MMORPG which is concentrated on the endgame content. Then again, there doesn't seem to be much endgame content implemented yet. Let's see just how many people rushed through the levels - you will find the poll on the sidebar to the right.

As for the last week's question, it was about the performance of Age of Conan. I asked if people were happy with how AoC runs on their PCs (considering the hardware, of course) and here are the results we got:

Are you happy with Age of Conan's performance?

Yes
: 28
Somewhat: 18
No: 28

Total Votes: 74

As you can see, only 38% of the players who voted on the poll are happy with how AoC runs on their computer - the results are not unexpected, I might say. While it's true that Age of Conan has beautiful graphics and because of that requires a powerful system to run smoothly, even people with modern PCs are sometimes experiencing problems. I know that for a fact as I had some trouble with my ATI Radeon 3870 and Age of Conan myself.

I should probably note that this poll won't necessary be accurate as only 74 gamers have voted; however, I'm pretty happy with the result as it is the very first poll I posted on my blog, and expect a lot more votes in the future :-)

June 16, 2008

Age of Conan Powerpoints system

I assume most of you got Clan of Conan #17 in your e-mails already; if not, you can always just read it online. It is really an important issue as it outlines some of the biggest upcoming additions to the game. Putting the additional quests, voice-overs, some new dungeons and UI polishing aside, it boils down to three major additions - Kingship (and the whole guild alliance system coming with it), PvP consequences and Powerpoints.

Powerpoints seem to be an alternate advancement system that should give you something to do after you hit lvl80, among other things. Here's a condensed version of how you can obtain these:

  • By having an active subscription (1 Powerpoint / week for every character)
  • By having many guild members (1 Powerpoint / week for every guild member, provided 100 or more guild members login at least once a week)
  • By owning a battlekeep (1 Powerpoint / week for every guild member)
  • By winning PvP mini-games (1 Powerpoint / every 40th mini-game you win after lvl40)
  • Post-level 80 reward system (1 Powerpoint / each level you advance beyond 80)
As you can see, there are numerous ways to earn Powerpoints; and everyone will be earning at least some of these since they come weekly with your subscription, too. "Grinding" beyond lvl80 will probably provide diminishing returns (since experience required to "level up" increases with every "level", or should I say, Powerpoint you get); grinding mini-games, on the other hand, could be harder than it seems, unless you do it with a group of friends. Being in a big guild looks like your best bet if you want to benefit from this new system.

The best part is, of course, using Powerpoints to your benefit. Here's what you can do with them:
  • Buy Powerfeats which can give your character new buffs and abilities
  • Use limited offers that Funcom will put into the game regularly to buy special items, mounts or even spells
  • Buy exclusive items using a combination of gold and Powerpoints
  • Turn gathered pearls into Powerpearls and socket your weapons with these (funnily, this does seem to apply only to pearls but not any other gems, so save up your pearls, folks!)
  • Convert Powerpoints into "rested experience" for faster leveling.
Personally, I believe leveling is fast enough as it is, so I expect most people to use their Powerpoints in order to improve their characters or items and make them stronger in end-game PvP or raids.

Overall the Powerpoint system looks to me like a nice addition to the game - it is made to reward veteran players (the longer you play, the more Powerpoints you gain) and obviously as a means to keep those subscriptions active. It also seems to rely on guilds a lot, proving that Age of Conan is very much a guild warfare based MMORPG.

You can start earning Powerpoints once your "free" month is up and your subscription starts, but note that you won't know how much of them you actually have until they add a tracker in the interface by the end of June. Visit the official Age of Conan website for more info on Powerpoints.

Coming up next post is Kingship - once I read up and find out more info on it.

June 11, 2008

Weekly poll - game performance

This post is the first one in series of weekly polls that I will be posting on every Wednesday. I might even make a nice-looking chart with some comments on last week's results next time! This is just an experiment, so we'll see how it goes. If you want to vote in the poll, just look at the sidebar on your right.

This week's question is: are you happy with Age of Conan's performance? Do you feel it runs as well on your PC as it should, considering your graphics settings and hardware specs?

My answer to this question would have been "no way!" a few days ago (if you read my post "performance issues", you'll know why) but installing 64 bit Vista has done nothing short of a miracle in improving the performance of the game. While it could be much better, now the game runs at least close to what I'd expect from my system. Hopefully this will only improve in the future!

June 4, 2008

Age of Conan performance issues with Radeon 3870

I had already posted a line or two about performance issues that I was having with Age of Conan before, and now it's time for a full post. With roughly two weeks after EU release I feel like I've tried every little "fix" and "trick" there is to get my FPS rate up and can describe the problem thoroughly. If AoC runs fine for you, you might as well just skip this.

Just for the record, I first started playing the game using the following system:

Athlon XP 3000+ @ 2.25 GHz
1 GB DDR RAM
Radeon X800GTO video card

As you can see, it's just a little bit above the minimum requirements. The game didn't even start properly at first, but luckily, I found a fix on the official forums. You simply had to change the RenderSetting_ShaderModel setting from "1" to "0" in your prefs_2.xml file. The reason is, ATI X800 cards only support Shader Model 2.0; while there's an option in-game to change to SM 2.0, the game is "dumb" in a way that it starts with SM 3 by default and you have to start it with SM 3 to be able to change to SM 2.0 in options. But enough about this.

With the said system, I haven't done much gaming at all, but I was able to reach Tortage, getting around 20 FPS in the jungle on lowest settings, and an unplayable 5-15 FPS when I got to the city. Still, I was a bit impressed with the performance. If that's how an old system runs the game, with a proper upgrade I should be able to run the game very smoothly, right? Or so I thought...

As a gamer on a budget, I chose the following upgrade for my system:

Athlon X2 5000+ Black Edition @ 3 GHz
4 GB DDR2 RAM
Radeon HD3870 with 512 MB GDDR4 RAM

I also got a new 460W PSU from Zalman and a Freezer 64 Pro fan for the CPU. Spent the day configuring the system and overclocking; it scored about 10.1k in 3DMark06 and passed 4 hours of combined 100% CPU and GPU load, something no game can accomplish. In the process I stupidly set /3GB switch - several sites recommended doing this as it supposedly allocates 1 GB RAM to the OS and 3 GB to applications on a 32 bit WinXP and makes it use the RAM more efficiently. However, I encountered a lot of problems (like lower 3DMark score) so I don't think the switch is needed at all if you have WinXP SP2 or SP3. Removing it fixed everything. So far, so good. At least till I launched AoC...

The problem

Low FPS no matter what kind of graphics settings I use
. Turning on Bloom, Anti-aliasing and 3D Occlusion doesn't decrease my FPS. Nor does turning them off give me any kind of FPS boost (although it does seem to reduce "stuttering" at times). Here are some screenshots which explain the problem:

  • Screenshot 1 - 1024x768 resolution, Low settings, ~14 FPS
  • Screenshot 2 - 1280x1024 resolution, High settings + Bloom + 4X MSAA + Advanced Transparency, ~15 FPS
You can clearly see how in Tortage during the Final Battle with Strom, I get ~15 FPS no matter what graphics quality settings do I use. It is also the same in other towns: Khemi (~20 FPS), Conarch Village (~20 FPS), and especially Old Tarantian where I get ~15 FPS with a lot of "stuttering". Again, turning down the graphics might reduce the "stuttering" somewhat, but it doesn't affect the FPS counter at all.

In the wilderness or dungeons, it's another story. If I suddenly start getting low FPS, I am able to boost it somewhat by "tricking" the game, but this only works for a few minutes, or until the next zone. Basically you need to make any change that makes the graphics engine of the game restart (flicker to desktop and back). This includes changing the resolution or the MSAA setting. That's why if I'm getting 20 FPS in a zone (NOT a town though) I'm able to boost it to 30-40 by turning on 8X MSAA setting. Again, this doesn't make any sense whatsoever, as 8X MSAA is supposed to give much bigger load on the graphics card, and decrease the FPS. This too indicates some poor coding or unoptimized graphics engine.

I must also add that I've never seen the FPS go over 50 - never, period. It doesn't matter if I set the graphics to Low, disable all the shadows and occlusion manually, and even reduce the resolution and the view distance sliders. People with graphics card of similar performance to the Radeon 3870 (such as various 8800 GT or GTS models) are reporting up to 120 FPS on low settings in instances - something I can only dream of. Note, I don't care about getting 120 FPS instead of 60 - I am just comparing the performance here and trying to describe the problem.

This is a very widespread "low FPS problem" and I don't have much faith in Funcom's ability to fix it anytime soon. After all, it took them 5 years to get the game to the state where it is now (far from finished, as Gaute himself said) and "fixing" this problem would probably involve modifying the graphics engine itself. Some people even reported that the problem existed back in beta, but didn't receive any attention from the developers. It isn't listed as a "known issue" anywhere I could find even now!

Here are a few forum threads to read up, if you're interested.

http://forums-eu.ageofconan.com/showthread.php?t=13465 [now closed]
http://forums-eu.ageofconan.com/showthread.php?t=25454
http://forums.amd.com/game/messageview.cfm?catid=229&threadid=94989

While everything I wrote here up till now is related to ATI 3870 cards, some people with nVidia cards are having similar problems as well - take this guy for example. Most fanboys respond to such problems with "Your PC is too weak for the next generation graphics of AoC, upgrade it" but that's just not true with the powerful computers listed in the threads linked above, and is simply ignoring the issue at hand.

Personally, I've made a clean WinXP SP3 install, downloaded the newest Catalyst 8.5 drivers and did everything else I could. All other games work just fine, so I have to make a conclusion that the problem is Age of Conan, not my system. Plus, note the number of people complaining about low FPS both on official AoC and AMD Game forums.

All I want is to enjoy the game I waited so long for, which I cannot at the moment. I hope the developers will officially recognize this as a real issue and then start working on fixing it. If you still don't believe this is real and are too lazy to read the 50+ pages of forum talk, just take a look at this post. All this person did was change his video card from 3870 to 8800GT, and the performance increased more than two times. Does this mean everyone has to change their cards to nVidia because they are "better"? Hell no. My 3870 runs other resource-hungry games just fine, and it makes you think if nVidia's "The way it's meant to be played" movie at the start of the game actually means something... Well, I know I won't be buying a new card just because Funcom can't code properly. Forget broken quests, feats missing descriptions and useless skills - they need fixing, yes, but this is something much more important, fundamental even.

Gaute Godager, the Game Director of Age of Conan says in his letter to the community that the game as it is now is merely a platform, the engine on which all the good stuff will be built. Well, it seems the platform itself is flawed.

Please forgive the long rant; I hope you understand how frustrating it is not to be able to enjoy the game to the full. It's playable, but the performance is not nearly close to what it should be. Hoping for better times in Hyboria soon.