Conan Exiles creative director on why the game lets players own slaves

Conan Exiles is a game with many strong, albeit disparate inspirations. Its art style draws heavily from the iconic work of Frank Frazetta, while the gameplay is directly inspired by successful sandbox survival titles like Ark: Survival Evolved. But the narrative, such as it is, and world-building are inspired by author Robert E. Howard’s original work, which was crystalized in the 1982 movie Conan The Barbarian starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Fans may remember how, in an early time-lapse, Schwarzenegger’s Conan grew to manhood toiling on the Wheel of Pain. At the time, Conan was enslaved. It’s a small moment in the movie, but slavery is a recurring piece of the Conan universe. In order to be true to the source material, developer Funcom decided to include themes of slavery in Exiles. In fact, Funcom went a step further, turning slavery into a game mechanic.

Exiles features human non-player characters, AI-controlled entities, that have their own settlements scattered all throughout the game world. Players can attack those settlements and, after they defeat an enemy, tie them up and drag them away. Once back at their base, they add the human NPC to a Wheel of Pain structure, much like you would add iron ore to a furnace in Minecraft. Food serves as the fuel in place of charcoal. After a period of time, you’ll possess a compliant slave that you can order to do what you see fit.

Funcom’s creative director Joel Bylos admits that this is unusual to see in a game. When I asked him about it, he first began with an apology.

“I think there’s a couple of elements to this,” Bylos said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be offensive to people listening or anything, so let me apologize in advance.

“I will say, me being Australian, I have less cultural baggage with slavery than I would say Americans do, for example. There’s a bit less of that going on, at least for me, right? I haven’t grown up with this history, so it’s a bit hard for me to put myself in the shoes of anyone who has. So I just want to say in advance that it’s a bit harder for me to put myself there. […] But it’s in the stories. It’s part of the Hyborian world.”

[Australia is currently grappling with its own history of slavery.]

Bylos said that for the team at Funcom, slavery actually served a useful purpose within the boundaries of the game. The team wanted players to be able to build bases, and they wanted the human AI to be able to attack them in large numbers. Rather than have an entire server’s worth of human-controlled players show up for a base defense, a single player or small group can use many slaves. In that instance, Bylos likens in-game slavery to giving players access to “intelligent turrets.”

Bylos went on to say that the team at Funcom initially wanted a game where players could take each other as slaves, or “thralls,” as they’re referred to in-game.


Thralls working in a player-built base.
Funcom

“We talked about doing that and sort of having people play off it in a sort of joking way,” Bylos said. “I would say I’m a firm believer in the fact that just because you do something in a video game, you don’t do it in real life, and most people are quite aware of that.”

In the end, Bylos said, the system of players taking other players as slaves ended up being too difficult to implement during Conan Exiles’ time in Steam Early Access.

In-game slaves do more than defend bases. Both male and female slaves can also be tasked with dancing for the player’s pleasure. Asked about that feature, Bylos explained that Funcom drew its inspiration from Star Wars Galaxies, a critically acclaimed MMO released in 2003. Dancing slaves, he said, aren’t just for eye candy: They actively remove de-buffs and apply buffs to player characters in-game.

“I think it’s interesting to discuss the sort of ethical ramifications of something like Westworld in regards to these type of things,” Bylos said of Conan Exiles’ usage of slaves. “Especially, I think, Westworld’s very relevant to what this is. But I — I’m not sure that it’s such a big problem for people when it’s seen from a mechanical level as, ‘This is a way to defend my base.’

“I understand it’s a troubling element,” Bylos said, “but it doesn’t come from a place of malice. It comes from a place, I would say, of perhaps a little bit of ignorance on my part, because I don’t have that heritage. But, on the other side of that, I would just say it just comes from a place of where, mechanically, we thought it was quite interesting for people.”

Players don’t have to collect slaves. They don’t have to construct buildings either, and they don’t have to interact with NPCs or even other players. They can just hang out and explore the sandbox. That’s how these sorts of survival games work. At the same time, Bylos and his team curate what of the Conan lore appears in the game, and what doesn’t. Conan Exiles is loyal to its source text — but how the audience of 2018 responds may be different than how the audience Howard wrote for in the 1930s did.

Source: Polygon – Full

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