Learning the Barbarian in 'Conan Exiles'

by G. Christopher Williams

22 February 2017

There's no one better than a barbarian to teach you how to become civilized.
cover art

Conan Exiles

US: 31 Jan 2017

I’m not a big fan of Minecraft.

Admittedly, I haven’t played the game since it was still available in its beta state as a browser game. However, this is not to say that I begrudge anyone else’s love of the game. I realize that it is very, very clearly a lot of other people’s type of game, though, not my own. Playing Minecraft just taught me something about the kinds of games that I do like to play (which I wrote about at the time, see, ”I Don’t Know How to Play”, for example), more civilized and structured ones.
What Minecraft made me realize is that I don’t really love playing with a box of Legos, that is, free-form, less structured forms of construction play. So, it feels kind of weird to me to have poured as many hours into Conan Exiles as I have (at least in a certain way). Though, it is a game that has me learning a few other things about how I play.

Like Minecraft, Conan Exiles is a survival/construction game. It is a game about avoiding environmental dangers (at least in its PvE format), in part, by building structures and other things to better survive in its world. Like Rust or ARK, though, Conan: Exiles is a game that is less about letting your imagination run wild when building things. Instead, Conan is about constructing specific things (in this case, things not determined by your creative ideas, but, instead, based on fulfilling strict build recipes) that will help make your little corner of the game’s universe more hospitable for you.

Each level gained in Conan gives you some additional RPG-like ability points that you can use to increase your stats, but they also allow you to learn the recipes for building objects and structures that you will need to survive in its harsh world. All of which is probably why I like this game better than I did Minecraft. The game has a clear line of progression to follow through its various chains of recipes, a structure if you will that helps define the game of civilizing myself in a barbaric landscape. 

My approach to the game has been all about learning, though, which is something that I didn’t realize until I was hours into it. My first real foray into the game was to try playing it as a PvE experience. Since I knew that I would be beginning the game naked and afraid, I figured that while Conan features both PvE servers and PvP servers, that I would most comfortably initially experience it by simply focusing on learning how to survive in harsh environmental conditions. In other words, I avoided the possibility of being immediately shanked by a stone knife by avoiding the PvP servers for my first run through.

What this allowed me to do was to begin by learning the progression of stats and recipes that would best allow me to get set up in the world, acquiring food, shelter, weapons, and even water, so that I could begin to build a relatively efficient initial outpost in the world. Obviously, I was learning the game by limiting my experience of it to focus on its foundational aspects: basic survival and construction.

Additionally, what I learned—something that I hadn’t considered until I played the game in this mode—was effected by observing the other players sharing the server with me. I saw what they built and began to understand better what was important in the universe even when they weren’t around. Traveling back and forth between my own little initial encampment, a bedroll and campfire, and places that I might better hunt for food or mine stone or chop down trees, I would see other more fully developed houses, walled compounds, and the like. I also observed how players controlled monster spawns and other little tricks that I would later use.

I got myself up and running little by little, soon building my little house, a smithy, a shrine to my god, a tannery, and the like. Feeling like I understood the basics, I then launched onto a new server, a PvP server, so that I might better understand the world and its additional dangers, other players.

Initially, this experience went quite well. I got off to a fast start, due to my previous experience on the PvE server. I changed my focus away from building an initial homestead, though, and began preparing myself more for combat, rushing stations to build weapons and armor. I was pleased to see how much more efficient my initial build was going, though, until I reached the point I had on the PvE, a need to gain more advanced resources, iron ore for making metal.

At that point, I began exploring other parts of the world that I hadn’t been to before, and at that point, I began to encounter better equipped and more hostile players. They taught me my weakness and lack of a full understanding of the world pretty quickly. I died a number of times, I lost items that I felt were safely secured at my base camp, etc., etc., etc.

This barbaric behavior, which I guess that I should have expected given the branding of the game, drove me back to the server menu, where I chose to design a single player server. My knowledge of the world of Conan, its map, the locations of more difficult to acquire resources, was clearly lacking, and I needed a way to learn everything once again by limiting my experience of the world further and at the same time opening up my experience of the world all the more. I needed no players to compete with, be that in an overtly aggressive manner (through combat) or a more passive aggressive manner by competing for resources and spawns.

My initial start was faster still and soon the larger world of Conan‘s map became available to me as I started exploring the world nomadically, building some basic items to keep myself alive in my explorations, but largely focusing on always moving and getting the lay of the land.

At this point, I intend to dive back into the more competitive servers. I have a better understanding of the game as a whole. Ironically, in a game about barbarians, much of my experience has been in learning systems and structures and hierarchies in various contexts. A game named after a barbarian is mostly about learning rules, becoming more and more civilized, in order to participate in later more effective and efficient acts of barbarism. Who says barbarians are uncivilized? 

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