This week we’re speaking to two producers from Allods Online; Lori Bray and Vincent Douvier about liberalising Russia, if pay to play games have a long-term life and the empty shelves of the next generation. Oh, and about Allods Online.
RPS: You’ve been out of Beta for 6 months. How are you doing?
Bray: We’re doing quite well, actually. We’ve had 2 updates since May. The first one was August, which was where we introduced the Renaissance mechanic with a reroll mechanic where our players could reach max level and then reroll the character to have a whole new path. Then in October we had the Undaunted update which introduced a survival mode, which is actually quite a unique mode for an MMO RPG with a levelling respect. We just started preparation for volume 5 which is due to hit the European servers in early 2012. We’re really excited about that. Our players are still really enthusiastic about the game.
RPS: What does the Undaunted, um, thing consist of?
Bray: The major feature of the Undaunted update was a zone called Mausoleum of Sparks which was a Survival Mode. Basically the players go in a group up against whole waves of monsters that increase in strength as each wave comes.
RPS: A bit like Horde Mode in Gears of War?
Bray: Yeah, or like Zombie Mode in Call of Duty.
RPS: With the ships and survival mode you’re really moving away from the central “Dungeon-Diving” of WOW, aren’t you?
Bray: Yes, well, yes and no. We do still have a lot of the classic elements of Fantasy MMORPGs. We still have a lot of the dungeon instances that players can enjoy, the sort of classical tropes and experience, and we still have the classical rage mode where you go up against the bosses and you go and you gear yourself up, but we do try and have a lot of fresh elements, so that players who are looking for innovation get to experience that as well.
RPS: How has ship combat panned out? Is it working, are lots of people playing it?
Bray: It’s actually one of our most popular player events. It’s very, very challenging but it’s also very worth it. The players build their own ships and they need to go out in a group of six to go and compete but it requires this intense amount of teamwork to actually be successful at it, so a lot of players opt out of the actual PvP, but the players who do opt into it end up getting this really intense PvP experience. One of the things we do is that our community managers organise regular events that we call Astral Armadas where they actually coordinate these mass PvP events with dozens of players ships that all meet up in the middle of the astral space and have at each other which a Game Master ship, sort of as a potential flagship organising all of it. Those are some of our most popular Game Master –run events and our Community Managers have a lot of fun and our players have a lot of fun. It’s one of our most popular events to happen. It’s really challenging, it’s really worth it and it’s really popular with the players who enjoy it but it can be quite difficult as well.
One of the things that’s quite new since last time we spoke is, you can actually customise your own ship. Before there was just one template for each faction but now you can customise your ship inside and out, so you can change your hull, your sail, your figurehead as you get to change your furniture inside for unique sets of furniture based on the different cultures in our MUD. So there’ll be a Gibberling set or an Elf set or a Kanian set of furniture. There’s an Orc set of furniture as well that you can get on either side. It’s all themed around the different races and you can mix and match. This is available through the Boutique or through gold or special currency that you collect in the game so it’s available to free or premium players.
Bray: I think for us specifically, ultimately the goal of Allods Online is to provide a complete and full experience for the player, from level 1 all the way up to level 47. The player gets to experience every single aspect of the game without ever having to visit the Boutique. After that, they get to make the decision about how much they want to be involved with the Boutique.
RPS: Can you buy items in the Boutique which give you an advantage in combat or in PvP, in effect Pay to Win?
Bray: What do you mean by items?
RPS: Anything, any item or buff or mount ... anything that gives you a larger chance of winning over a free player?
Bray: We’ve made conscious decisions not to sell items that we felt crossed the line. For example, you will never see on the European servers these types of mounts that gave a large combat advantage to some players. But on the other hand there are items in game like elixir which would increase your character attributes. Players ultimately have the choice whether they want to visit the Boutique and purchase those items or whether they want to buy those items from other players for gold or whether they want to trade those items for other currencies, for items in the game. We also have a mechanic in game called Boutique Coins. These are basically the cash shop currency, the Boutique currency, duplicated so that players can buy it and then trade it amongst one another. It’s a one to one ratio so one gPotato is worth one Boutique Coin. Players buy that and then can trade it to other players for gold coins or just whatever. That just gives players more options and more choice to obtain the items that they want from the Boutique itself.
RPS: So you have an internal market. Can people craft items and then get something for them? They can’t transfer it back to real money, can they?
Bray: No, they wouldn’t be able to do that, but they can use the Boutique Coins to buy anything that’s in the Boutique itself.
RPS: You also mentioned that the combat mounts aren’t in the European version. So there is a substantial difference between the version that Nival have live and the version you’ll have live?
Bray: There’s a lot of differences between the gPotato versions and other versions published in different territories.
RPS: And in those versions you can pay money to have better weapons and mounts and that kind of stuff?
Bray: Because we don’t publish them we don’t know the specifics. I don’t know what we’ve requested to have changed for ours.
RPS: What’s your relationship with Nival like? Are there difficulties communicating with them or is it very simple and clear?
Bray: I’ve always found them to be exceptionally open. Sometimes the reactions that the European players have can come as a surprise to them but they always enjoy receiving feedback from our players and they’re always very open to the feedback from our players. They’re really eager to listen. They always ask a lot of questions, they always want to know what our players think.
Allods Online is their baby, they’re just as passionate about the game as we are and they are always eager to improve it and to make it better in any way that they can. It’s been really fantastic working with them. They’re just as passionate about the product as we are.
RPS: What do they find strange about the way European players play their game?
Bray: It’s just cultural differences. One thing in particular to mention is that the gPotato version allows marriage between any gender. The Russian version doesn’t. We had to explain to them that in the European version it wasn’t going to be a big deal to have marriage between any gender but it would be a big deal to limit it, because limiting players to that - Number One, would be frustrating for players who weren’t playing as their own gender and Number Two, wouldn’t reflect European ideals. That came as a shock to them because it just was a cultural difference that they weren’t expecting to have an effect on game play.
RPS: Do you feel that you’ve liberalised a small part of Russia?
Bray: I’m not sure that it’s a matter of liberalising. It’s a constant exchange of world views that is edifying to both ends.
Bray: The most rewarding thing that I’ve personally learned is the richness of Russian folklore and history that goes into Allod. I think particularly in the fantasy genre, we’re still used to seeing this Anglo Saxon influence. Having this game that goes for a completely different foundation is fascinating. Having someone to shed light on what those foundations are, what those influences are and what those allusions are is really edifying for me personally.
RPS: They’ve taken their folklore and their myths into a world.... and then blown it up. They’ve got all these Allods which are the islands to float between. How did they go about that in their back story?
Bray: Allods Online is actually the fourth game in a series in Russia that’s quite popular, called the Rage of Mages. It’s over 15 years old. The game lore itself actually spans about ten thousand years so Allods Online isn’t just a world that was sketched out and then blown up, it’s a complete world with its complete history that took 15 years to build and then was destroyed. It definitely has the richness and completeness that you’d expect from that.
RPS: Was it destroyed in the later Rage of Mages games or is this a completely separate part of the mythos?
Bray: The players definitely discover how the world was destroyed as they play through the game. I shouldn’t tell you about it; that would definitely be a spoiler to the plotline, the players should discover it.
RPS: The best games produce emergent stories. What sort of stories has Allods produced for you guys in general, or what have you heard that’s been amazing?
Bray: When you talk about emergent stories the first thing I think about is player generated stories, the stories that they make for themselves. The best ones that come out of Allods Online for me are the guild rivalries and alliances that happened across the different PvP areas. Particularly in the later games there are these zones that are specifically designed to create PvP, not just one on one or even group versus group but faction versus faction and entire guilds will go against each other and clash. The rivalries and hatred that comes out of it is hilarious. You’d expect it to always be faction versus faction but we have this one area called the Melting Isles where faction doesn’t matter. You can attack anyone you want at all. So, on the French server there are these two guilds. The League guild is called Wanted and the Empire guild is called the Filibusters of Never (Couldn’t quite hear this, but this name is awesome if real – Dan). They hate each other. They hate each other to the point where they will stalk each other across the world. They will go to every single PvP zone they can, they will follow each other’s ships through the astral. They will hunt each other down in the Melting Isles, they will do whatever they can to hunt each other down to the point where they don’t actually get any rewards out of it, they just want to hunt each other down. It’s like they’re bounty hunters for each other. They absolutely hate each other and it makes sense because they are opposite factions.
But then on the English server, there are these two guilds called Astral Riders and Hungaria. They’re both league. You’d expect them to have formed an alliance and be at war with the Empire and work together, but they hate each other. So instead of having a really strong faction, they’re just fighting against each other. Because of that the Empire in really, really strong and is able to completely dominate all of the different PvPs because two of the strongest League guilds are too busy fighting against each other.
RPS: How do you get balance in PvP and how do you achieve it when there’s paid for items in there?
Bray: When it comes to balance, the biggest thing is getting as many people as possible involved, giving players options and choice. So we have loads of events. We have this amazing community management team whose job is to make as many different events as possible for players to participate in. We give out tons of prizes for participating in these events. Sometimes they’re really exclusive items that the players are scrambling and fighting to get and sometimes it’s just mundane items like maybe a really boring mount that we give out every week. Sometimes they’re just going and getting to fight other ships with a GM and sometimes that’s reward enough. Our community managers are literally in the game two or three times a week for hours on end just with the players, creating these events. That creates this opportunity for players to get together and see the different aspects of the game and what’s on offer and that really helps the players understand what’s there and getting as many people as possible in one place is important to creating that balance.
RPS: So you get your balance from more anecdotal stuff and more drawn from what the players want, rather than doing it metric spaces and finding out which classes are weaker or which classes aren’t being played?
Bray: There are the developers who do the metrics and the game design. We’re the publishers and we’re in charge of shepherding the game itself and shepherding the community.
RPS: Do Nival have access to metrics on the European servers?
Bray: They definitely pay attention to those numbers.
RPS: gPotato seems like a very family friendly portal, and Allod seems slightly different from your other games, it’s slightly more hardcore. Are hardcore gamers part of the target audience for gPotato?
Bray: One of the things that we like to say is that there’s a little bit of everything in a family. Allods is the type of game that appeals to the more challenge oriented gamer in the family. We have other games that would appeal to a more casual gamer in a family. The biggest thing about gPotato is that we give the entire family the choice of game in our portfolio.
RPS: They aren’t going to be playing together then.
Bray: We do have families that play together. We have a few players on our servers who are actually father and son pairs or mother and daughter pairs, we have man and wife pairs who bring on their three year old to help.
Douvier: To give another example of that, we have a grandma from Spain. I think she’s something like 80 or 82 and she plays with her grandson. She sent a support ticket a few months ago because her grandson did not manage to finish a quest that she did manage to finish a few months ago.
RPS: Why do you think the UK press hate free to play games so much?
Douvier: You tell me!
Douvier: First, it changed a lot in the last three years. You said we talked one year ago. I did a few press tours of the UK. My last press tour which was something like 6 months ago, last May, I felt the difference. Journalists were open and asking more. Asking how it was working in other countries, which was the first time. Usually British tend to think they are the top of the world. Don’t get me wrong, I’m French and French think that also. Why? I think it’s partly what you mentioned with Korean MMOs, Asian MMOs who entered the market in late 2008, 2009. Because “Oh! We can make easy money, let’s just translate the game” - that’s not the way you do things. That’s not how we do things at gPotato.
The company exists in 2005 and we launched our first free to play game in German which was in 2006 followed by Flyff we translated the game ourselves, it was all about quality. So my problem is more, I come on a press tour and say “Hey, we’re free to play” and we are compared to these other MMOs which we are not, we do things differently. It works. UK Journalists are listening more and understanding. One thing is that your market is very console oriented. Journalists didn’t have to make this differentiation. You had enough to talk about with the Playstation. Well, OK, things are changing.
RPS: If a UK PC games magazine sells 30,000 copies and 10 million people are playing games on their phones, there’s a disconnect there between the specialist writers and the gamers. Do you think the market for MMOs is ever going to be saturated?
Douvier: No. Maybe in 20 or 30 years, or 50 years from now. The thing is that when you and I look at it we look at it from a professional angle. We know our market. If you look at the big picture, somehow I think we need to thank Apple, and the App Store, and the iPhone and the iPad which has totally broadened the market. It looks like it can be seen as a saturation from our point of view, but in fact it’s more a segmentation of the market. There are so many new target segments to reach. Just like the Grandma we were talking about earlier, the father, my Ma, who doesn’t know how a computer works but she does tons of crosswords. In fact, she’s a hardcore gamer, but she just doesn’t understand the term hardcore gamer. That’s linked also to niche games, which is a natural evolution. It’s more of a segmentation as I see it.
RPS: Do you segment how you approach the gamers inside your game, for example do you track if they’ve never done any crafting and have something pop up saying “you may want to try doing some crafting”?
Douvier: We have two levels of feedback on that. First one would be from the stats that the game developers are gathering. The second would be about the ticket influx that we have. When we release a patch, if three days after we suddenly have hundreds and hundreds of tickets about a quest, right, OK there’s something we didn’t see. Then we would be able to act as though we were saying, through community management making events to provide them with solution to go forward but who will not impact on the mechanics of the game. However, the developers have the information through the stats they collect and also through the feedback that they get from the producer, like “Hey, in Europe, we have an issue THERE”.
Next year we will launch two games into closed beta test (CBT) and one of them is called Seventh Core. I’m working on that project. The developers have tools for that one which simply amazed me. They had a CBT in Korea about the game and after that they presented me these maps and it was like, “Well here’s a map of the zone from levels 1 to 10 and all those dots are where a player died.” We found a spot where a huge concentration of players who died, so we investigated and found an issue so they’re rebalancing the level design. They do that for each single area in the game, and it works well. I had a big smile on my face, it was just great.
RPS: What do you think the prospects are for big AAA MMOs to be continue to be sold on the shelves and for people to pay subscriptions? Do you think either of those two things are going to continue happening?
Douvier: I think so, particularly as we get to the segmentation. You have the hardcore fans of the Star Wars galaxy who want the collector’s box. I’m not sure if we sent you a collector’s box. There are also players who just want to download the game and don’t want the box. These would be in my opinion the younger players, what we call the cellphone generation, play games that they get for free on that phone or from App Store or the Android Store. This existed in the past already, but we couldn’t really see it and because of all those Apple and Android, suddenly the segmentation is becoming clearer. For the Star Wars galaxy, you can definitely have a two hundred Euro Collectors Edition which will sell like mad if you target the right segment - which is out there. You have people who will want, “No, I just want the box” or, “No, I just want to download it for ten Euros” and everybody understands. It’s a bit like the console market with Assassin’s Creed or Skyrim or Uncharted where you have several collectors’ editions. You can also just go to the console store and just download it cheaper. People like to feel attached, to have something tangible in their hand, but it’s changing more and more, and as there are less and less tangible things to have in your hand it becomes more valuable when it’s there also.
RPS: Yes, the way Trent Reznor released Ghosts I-IV online, by giving packages away for free and packages with limited editions to push up the desirability, so that hardcore fans who loved him could show how much they loved him. (Dan rants on for ages). I’m more concerned that the pay for MMOs coming up won’t have that hook. I can’t see any more straight AAA MMOs being developed on a paid for model. With strong brands, maybe, but with anything else....
Douvier: The world also is getting smaller, because of Facebook and the internet so things go faster. People are more aware and nowadays if you want – I like what you said where some players demonstrate that they love your games, like you go to their place and you have a shelf with all their boxes of all the games they bought, and you’ll have the dragon from Skyrim in the middle, and they’re really proud about it, they’ll say “oh yeah, that’s cool” and we agree – but nowadays, because of all the cellphones and Facebook you don’t necessarily need to have something tangible to show that you love. You can change your Facebook profile picture and, “Oh yeah, he plays Star Wars too, he’s a Star Wars fan also”. We’re providing more choices and more media to show if you like a brand or not.
RPS: So the lack of materialism, except in a social sense, of upcoming generations will erode even our generation’s desire to have something physical. Something physical won’t be valuable to someone who wants to be mobile and we’ll all live with shelves bare of films, music and books. I wonder if it will happen with games.
Douvier: I don’t think so. What you said about your friends who are getting rid of their books – for my part, I don’t. It’s more that you see that because you’re tech savvy. Working for RPS, you need to stay on top of things, and people who are tech savvy attract other tech savvy people. It annoys me to talk about MMOs with someone who doesn’t even know what it is. On a certain level I’m wasting my time. Give me other friends! So I believe in the segmentation, because of all the media that we have. Everybody can find what we should seem, and we will even find people who are tutored by the same things.
RPS: You’re probably right, it is a tech thing but I wonder if it will become a generational thing, and whether our succeeding generations won’t feel the need to have all the wallpaper of lives – this is who we are, this is what we’ve read, we’ve bought. Possibly they’ll be showing all that off on social networks. Maybe this upcoming generation won’t need the crutch of the physical.
Douvier: I think there will still be room for tangible things. I look at my nephew who’s thirteen, fourteen or fifteen. At one point he was very active on Facebook and he was searching. His parents didn’t know about it but I was checking and they were just saying stupid things. They were mainly using it to have a meeting in real life and after, they were using the social network with the pictures and the comments, to make the good moments that they had last longer and plan another one. In fact they had this tangible thing which was, “let’s go for a beer” – or well, he’s 13 – “or to the cinema to see the Green Lantern” and after they would talk about it in a cafe, and when they go home they still have the opportunity to talk again about it on these social networks. So it’s more of a mix of all of those things.
RPS: We got somewhat off topic there, but thanks for your time.