First Impressions: Struggling to survive in Conan Exiles

I am no stranger to covering survival sandboxes for Massively OP. I wrestled with dinosaurs before ARK: Survival Evolved was a thing. I got kidnapped and tried to drown myself in a puddle, spent days building a glorified shack before hackers or server admins could destroy them, and got to better understanding of what it’s like to be an Asian gamer thanks to Valve’s social experiment. There have been some good memories for sure, but the cancelled games, broken promises, and fact that most of the genre is in an infinite non-launch state are just some of the reasons I’ve been losing faith in online, multiplayer survival games. I love the idea of PvP allowing for meaningful social gameplay, but in reality, I mostly experience only ganking. But without PvP, I generally get so bored of PvE that I run into the arms of a (J)RPG so I can get drama and permadeath in a finished product, often without kids screaming at me to stop moving and just die.

But here I am again: roped into another shot at the genre. I’m looking at pay-to-play Conan Exiles like a launch title, “early access” be damned!


Beautiful graphics, ugly world

To be honest, I never played Age of Conan and really don’t remember much about the original movie beyond James Earl Jones having glorious hair. And that it was violent. Really, really violent. Hyper-masculine stuff that, despite my gender, rarely appeals to me.

So when I was offered the chance to skip through the woods with Bree’s blessing and MJ as my guide for largely PvE action, I figured, “How bad can it be?” Then I logged in to make a character and it all came flooding back. The ladies look great, not just in terms of graphics but in being traditionally “pretty,” but the guys are mostly… well, what I sadly have to face in the mirror. With some work, I rolled a dude that might make some people swoon. It was interesting that men not only had a “package” slider but “breast” slider as well. I’m sure we all know what most guys will probably do with their sliders.

While the fantasy world may be brutal, some of Funcom’s tweaks to the normal formula were greatly appreciated. For example, there’s not only a map but a compass, which really speeds up the ability to join with friends. The lack of these features in other survival games makes meetings tough, and when everyone and his kid brother wants to kill you for a laugh, it can be frustrating. The ability to gather and interact with the world while wielding something in each hand is another small change that takes away some tedium I’ve experienced in past titles.

That being said, the crafting UI is awful. The search feature is nice, but skills are tied to each other in ways that are visually hard to organize. Maybe branching trees, or even something like Albion Online’s chart system would make it feel more organized and less haphazard.

Those who watched our first experience with the game know that MJ is a builder and I’m a gatherer, so PvE play made sense to me and boosted my impression. (I tend to try to make friends with the locals, and while this works in MMOs — including PvP-oriented MMOs — survival games tend to have incredibly hostile playerbases by default.) While we didn’t finish any major projects, the process helped me learn the game more naturally without cheesing with internet guides. While I usually have something read and ready for my survival game crafting, I didn’t do that when playing with MJ, and that was a nice change.

Crafting doesn’t feel much different from other survival games — it’s simple drag and drop with very little customization– but that’s not entirely a bad thing. Gathering, though, felt more intuitive, with rocks being picked up as pebbles and picks taking out large chunks of eatable meat. The first few items you make, like a stone pick and axe, are easy enough. However, tedium sets in more than anything else as you progress through the system. It has social functions, but game wise, it’s not fun, especially for someone who has experienced deeper crafting systems.

During our second adventure, MJ and I focused a bit more on killing mobs than crafting. Well, technically we were exploring, but mobs usually are around to limit that. While I felt the mob AI was a bit better than what I recall in other Early Access titles, mobs sometimes acted dumb, standing around doing nothing while I whacked them in the face.

This was a general theme throughout my experience with the game: It doesn’t all work, and most of it’s still under construction. The team noticed that accepting clan invites results in “punching” (or axing) whomever you’re near, which is pretty dangerous on a PvP server. Funcom’s also addressing how vulnerable buildings are, something often felt and dealt with for months in other survival games. And yes, server issues (like supply) are being addressed. The problem for me, though, is mostly in the gankbox nature the game still invokes when played alone or with randoms.

Immersion in peril

While I’ve admitted I’m picky about my immersion, I’m still human. I don’t mind being an exile with a map and list of crafting recipes magically unlocked as I simply refill thirst and hunger meters for a long enough time if the game’s fun enough. The basic idea behind property destruction (needing one tier higher to destroy a structure) wasn’t bad, though imperfect, and I applaud Funcom for its attempts. The game’s introduction, with its randomly generated reasons for your exile which may or may not be true, is hilarious. It’s yet to get old, and that’s important because I keep losing my server.

For whatever reason, maybe even user error, I’m having trouble finding servers I make characters on beyond private ones I’ve been invited to, despite favoriting them. MJ and I never found our first characters, and when I’ve been wise enough to write down the server name, it’s full. I know this isn’t an MMO, but when your game campaigns are supposed to be, at their shortest, 30 days, your game should really strive to ensure the little progression PvP players may eke out is kept.

Issues with rubber banding don’t help either, especially when combined with the sometimes-strange AI. While seeing mobs fight and kill each other is still cool, dying because an imp is warping around you isn’t. The feeling of danger gets lost when that rhino and pack of hyenas chasing you are so out of sync that you can quickly gather materials, build a bed, and set it down safely, “just in case.”

The thralls are an interesting concept but seem a bit tone-deaf in our modern real-world climate. Worse, if you’re the exploring type as I am, they’re virtually required. During exploration, you may be exposed to “Corruption,” a permanent debuff that can be cured only with the help of an entertainer thrall. That means constructing the right tools and buildings, kidnapping a random NPC, and breaking its will so it’ll obey you. They also function in optimizing crafting and keeping your property safe while you’re offline. Admittedly, I spent a lot of time on my private server essentially playing a dark kind of Pokemon. It’s a guilty pleasure I didn’t expect, and honestly, in some ways, I’d like to see more. But it’s still mildly disturbing. Maybe the world of Conan treats it more like the late Roman ideal of slavery, but it’s off-putting and probably why the game uses the term “thrall,” another word for slave. It’s hard to divorce the source material and still include a really fun mechanic, though admittedly on PvP servers, this is very, very hard to do without even considering morals or ethics.

And this is where my key issue with Conan Exiles and the survival genre at large lies: PvP. Keep in mind that my MMO PvP experience originates in Asheron’s Call, where the allegiance system gave you a reason to not jut KOS everyone. Someone would essentially bind his character to yours, giving you additional experience that he generated while you strived to make sure he’s happy enough not to ditch you and pass that sweet XP on to someone else. It gave other players measurable value.

This is, perhaps, why survival games feel to tedious to me. On a PvP survival sandbox server, players are mostly loot sacks or laughs, not someone people invest in unless you were friends before joining the game. While PvE servers make it easier to build, I always get bored since it feels pointless. The genre is mostly built for strife.

Exiles may have great source material, but there are no emotes or other tools available for roleplayers, even though roleplay is one of the server types. Watching an entertainer without being able to sit [Correction: You can sit] or even cheer feels super creepy, but functionally, “surrender” or “open hands” emotes would help with non-verbal communication [Correction: There is a surrender emote]. The game has built in voice chat, but that’s for function, not RP, and I rarely have stumbled upon kind strangers using it. Maybe this genre is aimed more at Killers than Socializers, but it doesn’t have to be.

A death worth dying for

Like the rest of the genre, Exiles focuses so much on combat that life mostly feels meaningless. We get cool dragons, but there seems to be little to no strategy to killing them beyond getting numbers and not dying. I’d heard that red dragons don’t naturally occur on the map, but before I noticed how to spawn mobs, I had one attacking a factory town I’d set up for testing purposes. The idea of mobs coming to player towns based on progress is cool, but getting there on a live PvP server is tough, and the grind is dull enough that I ended up spending a chunk of time playing a new mobile game rather than jumping back onto disappearing PvP servers filled with KOS zealots.

Tedious, mundane gameplay generates boredom, and that can be a good thing. On the one hand, it may give players a reason to seek social bonds/systems and build a community. However, especially with all the online gaming options these days and multiple servers filled with potential victims, it seems to give players an excuse to just murder anyone they can. My few PvP run-ins with a single gear tier difference made me a bit more comfortable with Exile’s loot progression system, but the result was largely the same: People just kill others because they can.

Maybe for core Conan fans, the lore is enough to keep them there, but I want more. Bigger, official servers, especially for RP PvP with strict “no voice chat” options would be appealing. Shorter, tighter scenarios would be much more appealing, and it seems it’s being left to player server hosts to make that happen. Fortunately, the admin tools are rather robust. I can see why servers for the game are sold out: They’re much more fun than official and random servers as they stand right now. You can potentially start your own campaigns, give people time to build up their sections of the world, and then begin playing, or then open your world to others. I’d like to experience more of that and have my mind changed about the game. I mean, there’s a reason we don’t score reviews of games, but judging happens, hard and fast.

Early abrasion

Conan Exiles would best be enjoyed by fans of the Conan IP and survival genre enthusiasts. The UI feels more friendly for non-veteran survivors than some of the other ones I’ve played, but constant  loss of progression from disappearing servers and gank-happy server mates is demotivating. When things work, PvE is boring, though there are some mysteries that may be discovered later that could make dragon battles more interesting.

The thrall system, somewhat like ARK’s dinosaur taming, is fun, but a bit problematic, especially as a core system. As someone who has been virtually kidnapped via mechanics, I actually want some kind of non-kinky bondage system developed if it can be made fun, perhaps like Asheron’s Call’s allegiance system, but forced and meant to be broken. Exiles keeps things a bit safer by restricting the system to NPCs, and it is a fun kind of dark Pokemon collector, but morals and ethics aside, it feels far too dangerous to seriously attempt on PvP servers.

PvE servers might be fun, but only if you’re into Conan lore and grinding (or admin cheating). However, if a game is asking me to live, with hunger and thirst and item degradation, let me live. Give me a reason to play. Give me systems that encourage it. How do we explore when maps are so small and static? Why risk my life and buildings to other players when I can just build faster and better alone? And where’s a hug emote to provide shelter to some other lost soul struggling to survive the dark and lonely nights?

Big and/or random maps with long travel time, developer events/story progression tools, unique trade items, ways to start with friends, and some kind of fast travel that needs to be built and maintained by groups, are just a few of the features that could help not only the game, but the genre, unless you want to go with a smaller scope, which seems to help H1Z1’s King of the Kill beat Just Survive.

The game seems like it can thrive with small scale (RP) scenarios designed by players for groups of survival enthusiasts and/or brand IP fans. However, Conan Exiles feels like the kind of survival gankbox you’ve come to expect, and as someone who enjoys PvP and meaningful player interaction, I still don’t feel like this genre, let alone this game, is there yet.

Massively Overpowered skips scored reviews; they’re outdated in a genre whose games evolve daily. Instead, our veteran reporters immerse themselves in MMOs to present their experiences as hands-on articles, impressions pieces, and previews of games yet to come. First impressions matter, but MMOs change, so why shouldn’t our opinions?
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43 Comments on "First Impressions: Struggling to survive in Conan Exiles"

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enamel

“… the grind is dull enough that I ended up spending a chunk of time playing a new mobile game rather than jumping back …”

Sooooo how are you liking Fire Emblem Andrew? hah

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Dan

I’m having a blast. Going to be leagues above ark (minus the smaller map) and currently puts many sandbox builders to shame. I’m running a heavily enforced rp-pvp server and waiting for players. Back in Age of Conan I was on Cimmeria I believe (rppvp) and had a blast. I suppose this setting is just my thing. I’m not going to get too worked up over the few bugs and performance issues as I remember full well ark when it launched.

https://steamcommunity.com/app/440900/discussions/1/133256758572375541/

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Melissa McDonald

I kinda feel like chuckling at the irony of people who are so bloody committed to playing PvP games, “sandbox” games (which apparently nowadays simply means the giggling capability of kicking over some other kiddie’s sand castle), and then moaning about ‘gankboxes”.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

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Voidness Lambda

Well the issue with this game might be like other one in the genre :
perma Early acess.
By the way they call it early access but it looks more like an Alpha build.

Most of the current « players » I would call « testers » are disapointed by the current state of the game.

Levels and craft receipe learning break the immersion.

The small scale of servers does not allow to call this a massively multiplayer game.

I’d like to see something more like Life is Feudal MMO. Because I hate the idea of building a life, a clan, a city , on a server that will maybe wipe tomorrow.

Yet the survival genre is missing a unique persistent universe.

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bobfish

I think survival games are pointless and boring, but Conan is actually mildly interesting. The lore obviously helps, but the genuine effort to create some PvE content is nice. I fully expect to be bored of this in a few months, but at least it feels like there might be something more than the same core gameplay loop found in every other survival game.

Time will tell of course.

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Totakeke

I have a feeling that they’ll probably do something really neat with the lore later down the line. At the moment you can’t pick every god or race of person in the Conan world, and there’s something telling me that they’ll have a race vs race rule set for the game like how they messed around with for Age of Conan.

Say what you guys want about AoC, but Funcom was on the ball with the lore of the series, even more so then the movies.

Mewmew
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Mewmew

Hmm I don’t get it. How does Rust randomizing penis size give you a better understanding of what it’s like to be an Asian gamer?

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Veldan

I don’t think he was referring to the penis thing, but rather to character appearance being tied to Steam ID in general. I’m guessing his randomized appearance was that of an Asian person.

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Alberto

I am having a blast in this early access game…for early access this game seems to be very well polished and a step above most of the EA broken as hell games that come out on Steam every week. If you want to see some hilarious ex of RP chk out a streamer named burkeblack as he RP’s a crazed Cult leader and his sidekick Chip Chip ( who uses a Voice modulator to sound like Alvin and the chimunks) This game has a Ton of potential, funcom devs are patching it almost daily and me and my Friends are having a Blast, lots of PVE content to explore not just PvP and I find the crafting satisfying and not overlycomplictaed though sorting it can be a mess. My only worry is how long will this remain a popular game or will it Burn hot and then slowly fade away to a much smaller audience like RUST and DayZ? For $30, less if you grab a coupon (20% off greenMan Gaming) its well worth the month of fun I will be getting out of it. PS complaining about hypermaculinity in a CONAN IP is….pretty dumb…you should know what you are getting with that IP…its over what 70 years old now? Different time different standards, that like complaining that H.P. Lovecraft is too scary.

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Suikoden

As a huge Robert E. Howard fan, I can tell you that Funcom does as good a job with the Conan IP as Turbine (Standing Stone) does with Lotro. This game has so much going for it and I say, “good for Funcom.” I agree with you about having larger, and more, official servers. I get nervous about what could happen if I invest tons of hours into a server and everyone I’m playing with disappears. How do they replenish the population? What happens if the person running the private server quits the game? Other than these few concerns, I’m loving being able to play in Hyboria in a new experience. Howard’s world lends itself PERFECTLY to the MMO survival genre. Couldn’t be a better match.

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Paragon Lost

Not even close if you ask me. Funcom fails to create a large and fully developed world. I wish they did as good a job at recreating the Hyborian Age as Turbine did with Middle Earth.

Funcom is only capable of making a single slice or two of the pie. Which leaves you frustrated, wanting more and sighing with what could have been. Did you just read Andrew’s article btw? It reads like a typical Funcom release, bugs, issues, what’s not already built in that would would totally improve the game etc.

This game like the rest of their games, has a high “shine factor” that draws people initially but after that they can’t retain them. No real depth, no real large immersive game world. You play through and then you’re done. :(

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Utakata

*Flexes pigtails*

…these can be hyper masculine at times. <3

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Tithian

It wouldn’t be a Conan game if it wasn’t hyper masculine AF. In the comics at least, all the men were buff and ugly, and all the women wore bikinis and had DDs, besides maybe the odd mercenary woman. But the prostitutes and slave girls were designed as porn stars, practically.

And from the short stories I’ve read, it becomes obvious that the movies and other recent media are extremely tame by comparison.

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thickenergy

The stability has been greatly increased and lag greatly reduced since the launch. Which means the mobs are a hell of a lot meaner than they were at first. The last couple days of play have been great for me.

I play on a PvP server, one I feel very lucky to have found. The admin is solid, and he has made every effort to do server resets in the interest of stability and update to all the patches as quickly as possible.

The population of the server is pretty great too, overall. I’ve managed to make most of my encounters peaceful, even setting up trade agreements with many folks. This is the first game in a long time where I’ve bothered to be in a clan, and it’s making the game even better.

*I’m pretty sure almost no one is using the in-game server browser at this point. Except for not having a search text box, the Steam server browser is far superior currently. And the favorites functionality actually works. :P

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Reselect Name

I dont get PVP in these games. How does it work? Just mindless ganking? Is there any organization to it? Is there any point to it?

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Ryuen

And that it was violent. Really, really violent. Hyper-masculine stuff that, despite my gender, rarely appeals to me.

I always thought the movies were rather tame when compared to the original written stories.
But yes, the Conan IP is brutal with violence and slavery very much a part of that world.

As to the game, haven’t bought it yet. I’m adopting a wait and see stance for this one.

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CasualSlacks

“I’m looking at pay-to-play Conan Exiles like a launch title, “early access” be damned!”

Come on, Andrew! Going through the subreddit and Steam, it seems to me that WAY too many people are doing this and I’m not clear on why. Seems likely impatience is the biggest factor. I generally avoid Early Access because I know what it is and what it represents, but my desire to see Funcom succeed overcame my typical reluctance (if I had similar feelings for Garriot, I’d buy SOTA; but I don’t). Nevertheless, you didn’t expect Exiles to be an MMORPG so that puts your thoughts on the game far above a lot of it’s other critics on the .

It strikes me that Andrew doesn’t want to play on a PVE server because it would be boring and grindy, but he has gotten little to no enjoyment from the PVP he’s experienced. Personally, when the game launched, I looked for a PVP-RP server. I figured the RP would make it less gankbox-y but the PVP would keep the tension that motivates character development. But I’ve failed to be friendly enough to join a clan and there’s no point in trying to go 1-vs-2 or 3 since everybody else in a clan.

However, before I went on-shift on Friday morning which prevented me from playing until last night, I decided to get on a private PVE server to just build, explore, and see what I can do. I’m not huge into Conan lore, but I do enjoy ultra-violence in my games and risk-taking with real consequence. When I got back last night, I had my little sandstone house and I set out exploring my area. There was plenty around to try to kill me without relying on players to stalk and threaten me. I found some sort of non-player made structure and I intend to investigate it today (so long as I don’t get jumped by giant spiders again). Seems to me that it’s been the amount of grind that I encountered on the PVP servers. I think the only thing that decreases grind is playing with other people.

Also, there is a surrender emote and plenty of people on the various servers I’ve tried, but a lot of those people are unbelievably annoying.

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Tanek

I probably sound like a broken record on this after 2 years, but I still think people treat Early Access games like launch titles because they are marketed like launch titles. They are on the same ads, get the same promotions (YouTube, Twitch, MOP livestreams), see the same big sales.

With little to distinguish Early Access from full launch other than a blue rectangle on Steam, I am not surprised people jump in wanting the game to act like it has been fully launched.

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CasualSlacks

I don’t understand why any mature gamer who’s been on the scene for a while believes marketing by itself. I mean it’s like buying anything else that you intend to get hours of use out of; you listen to the marketing, then you read some independent articles, you check out reddit, you look at some Let’s Plays or some streaming gameplay, and then you put down money to play it for yourself reasonably informed about what you’re getting. Anyone who’s been around PC gaming for the last 3 or 4 years should know that Early Access is.

For any game to launch in any pay-for-play system, developers and publishers have to make the biggest splash possible because they usually won’t get another shot. They definitely won’t get another shot of people buying the game in ignorance. Once the game’s been in EA for a year and it goes Live 1.0, there’s no good reason for anyone to be buying blind.

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Rottenrotny

Sounds like you’re nitpicking even though it’s basically a very early beta build and just don’t like the genre. Stuff like the UI aren’t a big priority when there’s more serious issues like latency going on.

I’ve spent many hours in the game and it’s pretty fun despite the bugs and the facct that it’s missing tons of features.
I think the key at this point in the early access period of the game is to be patient and don’t take it too seriously.
Another good tip I think is to find a server and try to stick with it. I’m guessing there’s some bugs in the in-game server list as I have to refresh several times before the one I play on pops up.

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Denice J. Cook

The reason you are calling it “nitpicking” is because the game is in Early Access. However, in reality, there are only two things a game can be: Free or Not Free. And as this is firmly Not Free, then it should be compared to all other games that are Not Free, and comparisons drawn as to where the reader’s money might be better off going.

People only have so much gaming time, you know. This “Early Access” phenomena nonsense has only hampered the arrival of finished, functional games into gaming genres, while draining player money just the same.

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Rumm

I would argue that at this point in the process, being overly critical is a good thing – its what will make the game better. Looking beyond bugs to see the bigger picture, as Andrew has done here, is what the game needs.

Also, if they’re charging for money, criticism is fair game.

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Koshelkin

I think he raised some interesting points and it’s actually stuff like this which is more useful to developers than “everything’s great so far”. Voicing valid complaints is an important part of any feedback.

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CasualSlacks

I had a reaction similar to @Rottenotny. I wouldn’t say “everything’s great so far,” but as a fellow player reading another player’s critique, and presuming that I’m part of the intended audience, I’d rather see complaints about things I agree are a problem.

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Rottenrotny

Fair enough. I just thought the review sounded a bit biased.

DeadlyAccurate
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DeadlyAccurate

There’s no such thing as an unbiased review. That would be called a product description.

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BalsBigBrother

that is the nature of a review we all come with our own baggage and bias :-)

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Tanek

For the servers, does it not allow you to save in favorites on Steam? Or when you do save it, does it not always show up there?

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CasualSlacks

Actually, yes, Favorites works. HOWEVER, I see how a one might think that it doesn’t. The problem is that when you must wait for all the servers to load before you select the filter to get to your list of favorites. We’re talking about thousands of servers. Even after you select to filter for Favorites, the whole dang server list will need to refresh again. Hopefully, it finds your server quickly and you can get just get in.

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Rottenrotny

I don’t think favoriting works right now. You can click favorite and it confirms that you did, but I don’t see any way to view servers that you favorited.
I know the name of my main server and I just refresh until it shows up. Clearly the server list needs some work haha.

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Tanek

For ARK, I sometimes use the Steam client itself. Under the View menu there is a Servers option. That window has a favorites tab.

If Conan servers can be added there, it may be a way to bypass the slow loading of the server lists in the game client for now.

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Dagget Burmese

Well, they have a lot of work to do in the near future to make the game robust enough and balanced enough for decent PvP. PvPers have already found lots of work arounds to spoil things that the devs will ahve to address. For now PvE and learning all there is about the game will have to suffice.

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Alex Willis

Turn it to 11.

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