Allods Online: gPotato Interview
We speak to gPotato’s Vincent Douvier about the European release of Allods Online and how it’s slowly cornering the free-to-play MMO market.
Allods Online launched across Europe officially in May, how has the game performed in the region so far?
Our official release was on the eleventh of May, and we’ve just announced our next update. The reception from players for the official release was just impressive. Gamers were quietly waiting for it, and when it came, nobody was disappointed so it seems like Allods Online is a game that players want to have.
Just like any game during beta, we had ups and downs, and we really took into consideration what the players were saying. Of course, we couldn’t take everything into consideration because, well (laughs) there was just too much.
That said, we are always very open to player feedback, and some of their feedback has resulted in new things being added to the game, as well as some tweaks. I’m also quite happy because we’ve managed to get exclusive content for the European version of Allods Online, which is published by gPotato.
What new features did you add? We have three new things. One is in-game weddings, so players can get married and this gives them benefits. If the person you married is within a radius of 50 metres of your character, they get a plus five per cent bonus to their HP.
In other regions, only guys and girls can get married to each other, but in the European version we allow same sex marriages.
That is actually quite a forward-thinking idea. Can this bond be broken as well?
Yes, there is divorce, and there are two ways to do this. One is if the two people agree to divorce – just like in real life – they can pay five gold for it. Or say the other person stops playing Allods Online entirely, you can buy an item to force the divorce and break the marriage.
The funny thing is that the item to force divorce is called ‘Champagne’, so it’s like in Russia. If someone gets divorced, it’s a big party (laughs) with lots of champagne.
That’s brilliant. You mentioned earlier that a lot of these elements have been added due to feedback from the community. With so many players, how do you even begin to try and watch the community closely enough?
Well, we’re really active on social networks. Like everybody, we have a Twitter – one for each region and language, as well as personal accounts for the team, including myself.
We have Facebook pages, we have official forums, but we also have a platform that we started in November 2009, which is a Guild Portal.
The Guild Portal exists in French, English and German, and it’s a place where people can advertise their guilds, look for new members, as well as sharing video and pictures.
We have over 18,000 players registered on the Guild Portal, but of course we have way more players than that, but these are the players willing to go for that extra content and strong community element.
With so many players it must be difficult to keep on top of the wants and needs of the community.
Looking at feedback on forums, they do tend to yell about things like any typical player. I set the team a job to provide players with a way to give us feedback properly, and we always make one thing clear to them.
If someone’s not happy with something and they’re just yelling about it in the forums – and sometimes people do get angry and write up a big burst of emotions – then we’re going to moderate their post.
We won’t even look at the post. Although the person might say something right – because of the amount of players we have and the fact we have to produce reports to the developers based on feedback – if people want things to go faster and to help us, they need to follow a set procedure.
The procedure is to fill out a form online with the post title, the specific problem and so on. This was done on the official forums and Guild Portal.
And they were not that disciplined at the beginning, but as soon as the players realised that we were fighting for them and going back to the developer with lots of their feedback, the system started to work. Not everything makes it through, but we do our best.
That in itself is quite a powerful thing, especially when a large community is involved.
Well, it’s about creating trust with the player and I do believe we succeeded.
That leads me to an incident last year that saw a lot of Allods Online players becoming frustrated with the price of microtransaction items. The true reasoning behind the backlash is hazy. Can you tell us what happened there?
The reality of this was that these days, everybody is talking about free to play and even now World of Warcraft has an extended trial period which they call ‘free to play’. For me, being in the free to play business is like “oh god”, because it’s not true.
In reality it’s just an extended trial period. But it’s good, and developers do benefit from it. When we started closed beta, I was expecting about 80-85 per cent of players coming from the free to play audience, then about 15 per cent coming over from subscription based games.
What happened in fact was the split was about 50-50. This changed a lot of things, because the players coming from subscription based models were not used to microtransactions. They were willing to come and play our game, but there was a misunderstanding between those two communities on our portal.
One side was like, “Everything is fine. Go check other free to play games like Runes of Magic and others, and you’ll see that Allods Online is very aligned to it.” But at the same time we had a huge influx of free to play players who said, “This is insane. This is not right.”
Because of that, we became the first big MMO to open the door to free to play and subscription based players, and we had to act accordingly to change some of the strategies we had. We had our ups and downs, but what you mentioned only lasted about ten days.
There definitely seems to be an element of experimentation then, particularly in setting prices and gauging the reaction of people. It’s good that you actually spoke to people about that problem. In what ways is there still a perception shift between the subscription model and the rising trend of free to play?
Over time I think everything will be free to play. World of Warcraft with its previous subscription model was becoming a niche game. Sony went free to play, Electronic Arts uses the model and well, I could just name all publishers doing online games and they’re all going free to play.
But with us, we’ve been doing free to play in Europe since 2006, so we know the market well. In fact what I really enjoy about it – and I guess this is what the other publishers have noticed – is that with this model, we are more democratic in the way we can bring our games to a wider audience.
World of Warcraft has 11 million users, and I’m really happy for them, and it’s great. But they are limited to the people who can pay 15 Euros per month.
In free to play it’s like, if you have a computer, you can play without having to pay a dime. With Allods Online, we are currently the cheapest MMO n the market, and our players do know it.
Some gamers come across and see our pricing and they say, “What? This is crazy, this is outrageous”. But members of our community often say to them, “No, no, no. You’ve got it wrong, let us explain.” I’ll give you an example of this, and it ties in with another exclusive feature for the European edition of Allods Online.
When you died in Allods Online, you have a penalty which is that you have a ten per cent chance that one piece of your equipment will get cursed. When it is cursed, all the stats are reversed. So if it was a robe that gave you +100 intelligence, suddenly it would give you -100.
Ah, I think I’ve heard about this one. It caused another outcry in the community, but you guys fixed it quite quickly if I remember correctly?
Yes that’s correct. So say for example I have an object that is cursed and I want to remove the curse, I would have to go to the boutique. You have to pay for an item called Phylactery of Passage – let’s just call it death insurance – and if you have it equipped, you will never have an object cursed at death.
If you play Allods Online anywhere in the world, you have to buy this death insurance with real money. Except in the European gPotato version, in which we give this item away for free.
They just have to open the boutique and if they want 1000 Phylactery of Passage, they just select it, it goes in their inventory and they are now protected.
So now there is no way their items can be cursed. It’s things like this that came from listening to the community, because here at gPotato, we’re not fond of giving players a penalty for death. Because what was happening was, if I entered a fight I’d be like, “Oh damn, maybe I’m going to have an item cursed”.
It used to mean that players had to go to the shop and suddenly ‘ker-ching!’ they were being reminded of the real money aspect of the game.
When I play games, I don’t play them for this aspect. I play for fun, to escape, to be with my friends, and I don’t want to be reminded that I have to pay for things. So this was just another neat exclusive item for our European players.
Will the notion of buying items in this manner become better accepted over time?
Free to play is not the future. It’s already the present. I mean, the kids that are cool already know from like age 11 and on, how to play high quality games for free without their parents knowing it.
There’s no credit card needed, so they can just jump online and play with just an email account. Then you have the older generation you know, like us.
We always wonder about the future, the present, how the genre will go. But for the younger audience, the market of tomorrow, it’s already there and they’re already looking to what will be next.
I think most people would agree now that free to play is the present and that it will expand over time, and it seems like there are new games launching in that market on what often feels like a weekly basis.
The upshot is that they don’t have the same clout as Allods Online. Is it accurate to say that the game was created on a budget of around $12 million? Yes, it was a $12 million development budget, and that was two years ago.
Say I was a new MMO developer who perhaps isn’t as fortunate to have that large a budget. How difficult is it now, to compete in this climate and to succeed with a brand new free to play title?
That’s a good question. I need a moment to think (laughs). Well, you would need a good publisher, so I’d say come to us here at gPotato. If the game was good we would gladly publish it in Europe and possibly worldwide as we have branches everywhere.
After that, it’s more a case of strategy, and this often changes depending on publisher. You could even launch it on a free to play portal, although it could get sounded out by the other 2000 games there.
We’ve been in business since 2006, and what we’ve noticed is that new entrants to the market – Sony, EA, Codemasters with Lord of the Rings – they say they are free to play, but they’re not. They’re ‘freemium’.
Whenever a new IP comes along and the developer says, “Hey! We’re free to play”, it’s helping us because it widens the market and helps gamers better understand the notion of free to play, and how it works.
Because of that, there are lots of newcomers that try to break the European market and setting up in Ireland, Spain and so on. But they are failing.
They fail because Europe has a challenge which is that it’s split up into 25 different countries with 25 languages, so it’s not so easy. It requires know-how that – thank god – we have in-house. But because of this challenge, there is a lot of cheap free to play games that are coming out in the European market which are sometimes damaging to the market.
Is this a question of quality and developers entering the free to play space purely because they feel they can make a fast buck?
Well, it damages the free to play image because they are cheap, and these games might be published by people who are purely after fast cash. The strategy we have at gPotato is like, we don’t have 200 games on our portal. At the moment I believe we have eight, with two more to come within the next 12-16 months.
Our aim is quality products, and this is why we used a $12 million budget as I mentioned earlier. We have Age of Wulin, which is a martial arts free to play which will go live in the next 12 months, and we just aim for quality.
There will be the same focus of quality there, and this is why we’re one of the free to play leaders in Europe. We aim to be on top of that with fewer products, but better quality.
It’s quite interesting that you say there are many people trying to make fast money without giving much thought to quality. We see this a lot on social networks today, where you get spammed by games likes Mafia wars and Farmville. Do you see social networks as a competitor to what you do?
Social networks tend not to target the same people we do. It depends, because on our portal we do have client-based , browser MMORPG titles like Dragonica. On the other hand Allods Online requires a large download and installation.
The people on social networks don’t really want to download. They want fast online gaming instantly. With Canaan Online, we have Facebook Connect functionality, which is our way of using social networking. But with Allods Online, I cannot go on Facebook because it requires the download of a 4GB client first.
So we don’t go for Facebook and don’t see the need to compete with Farmville, Cityville and Mafia wars. But we absolutely could do a small flash-based game as an appetiser to the game. So then we could say, “You enjoyed that? Well, now you can download the 4GB version to download at home.”
That’s a good idea. I suppose on the other side of all of this is consoles. If we’re saying that free to play titles are the present and indeed the future, where does this leave console development? Could the console market begin to suffer if the collective development budget and quality of free to play titles increases over time?
With consoles, I’m honestly quite confident about them, just because of Sony and Microsoft. When you develop a game for these two publishers, the title has to go through their QA department and they are predators. They wouldn’t let crappy games go on their consoles exclusively because of how this might affect the company image.
There are lots of microtransactions on consoles. I was reading a games magazine about two or three months ago that said these payments represent about 20 per cent of the income of both Sony and Microsoft’s game businesses.
This is huge. It’s all people buying DLC, extras and such. I bought an extra mission for Assassin’s Creed and that was cool. It was only nine Euros so I didn’t mind.
So you feel that some of the free to play DNA is now creeping into console development?
It’s already there. It’s already everywhere.
There have been several attempts to bring the MMO ethos and games to the console market, but they never seem to strike the same chords as they do on PC. In what ways does the genre suffer in transition?
There is DC Universe Online, which I think has been live now for about five months. I do believe that the problem for me is that MMO games are often quite complex. You need a keyboard because you will be chatting with people.
Also you might find that you have so many spells to choose from, and I know that Sony is going to release a keyboard in September for the PS3. But it’s a console, who wants to be on a keyboard for that?
I do see things changing, where the PC MMORPG is becoming more complex with deeper mechanics, while console MMO games will go the other way and become easier to access. I think it will be more things like dungeon crawlers and things like that.
In an MMO like Allods Online, you will often be surrounded by hundreds of players at once and you can talk directly to them or use the shout function. On consoles you have a pad and 50 people in front of you, and you think, “How am I going to communicate?”
You have voice chat sure, but it becomes too chaotic. For me, the challenge on consoles is to do more things like dungeon crawlers. I remember playing Phantasy Star Online years ago with my friend, and because there was no game chat, we were on or cell phones to each other.
I see more things like, when you enter a hub and see your friend there, you can press a button and add them to your private chat channel. Then you can say, ‘Hey, let’s go to this mission, do this dungeon or whatever.”
Would you say that this is the chief concern from your perspective as an MMO developer?
The issue is communication. Communication and controls. With control, developers know how to go about it because of their experience of making games for consoles. It seems to really work on DC Universe Online, so they have this area tackled already. Now it’s more of a question of communicating properly on consoles, and with many unknown people around you.
It seems that the console MMO space has a lot of growing up to do in terms of finding out what works and what doesn’t. Going forward for Allods Online, what updates do you have on the horizon, and how can you see the game evolving over time? Well, we have our new expansion.
I’m really proud of it for one reason: Our developers are using it do fix problem that have been affecting all MMOs since 1997 with Ultima Online. The problem is people re-rolling characters, because often, you have someone who is a warrior who is max level, he’s in a guild and so on.
At one point, he doesn’t get bored of his warrior as such, but he wants a change. So he might re-roll his character and play as a magic next time. It would be a breath of fresh air for him because it changes up the gameplay, but in the end, there is no real reward for that.
Almost every Allods player online today has re-rolled at least once. Sometimes they will have a definitive change of character, sometimes they won’t, but they always re-roll for one reason or another.
In this expansion we are adding a reincarnation system where, when you re-roll, you will benefit from your main character.
Can you give us an example of how this might work?
Let’s say I’m a warrior and I’m re-rolling to a magician. The things I bought in the boutique as my warrior will transfer over to my re-roll character. That’s the first step. When I level my re-roll character up to a certain level, I then unlock skills from my magician that I can take to my warrior.
So I had a warrior and I was a tank, but now I have my magician and I’m like, “Well, I’ve levelled up my magician, I have all the pre-requisites now. I want to transfer my fireball spell.” I can move it over to my warrior and suddenly he has the fireball spell too. Or, I could give him a shield against magic as one of his skills.
I’m really proud of that because it’s an incentive to re-roll. But for all the people who are re-rolling, it’s also a reward. You don’t re-roll because you’re bored anymore, you do it to unlock benefits for your main character.
Also, if a person wants his characters to be linked, he can choose two skills to go from the warrior, back to the magician, such as a one minute immunity to melee damage.
So essentially you’re now able to create hybrid characters. How mindful were you of how this might affect the combat balancing?
Rather than letting you transfer any skills you want, the choices are fixed. You have to choose between two skills that you transfer. The balance is established by not giving that much freedom, and this balance is important because if it isn’t there, people will start to leave and say, “Your game is just a joke guys.”
Earlier we spoke about Sony and Microsoft but not Nintendo. What are your thoughts on the unveiling of the Wii U and does it spark your imagination in any way?
When I saw the Wii U, I didn’t understand it. They mainly talked about the pad and not the console itself. I thought to myself, “They are going to fail because they’re not going for HD and all the other features that you see in other consoles”.
I was disappointed in the way that, when Nintendo released the Wii, it took Sony and Microsoft two years to release Move and Kinect. So with the first Wii Nintendo was like, “OK, we’re going to target a wider audience and we bring them something new they haven’t seen before.” That’s why the Wii was such a huge success.
Now, with the Wii U, I watched Nintendo’s reveal then I watched the Sony conference, and all of a sudden I saw that Nintendo isn’t bringing anything new to the market with the console.
PS Vita can do the same because it already has all the hardware for it, and for Sony, they probably just thought, “OK we have the hardware to match so now we just need the software.”
So Wii U doesn’t do much that is new, and I am guessing that after Sony revealed PS Vita, that there was a lot of running around at Nintendo’s Kyoto headquarters trying to figure out how it could match Sony’s console.
I do enjoy the idea of Wii U, but it already has competition, whereas the original Wii didn’t have a competitor for about two years. Now, they are already facing competition.
So do you reckon there could be tricky times ahead for Nintendo potentially?
Well, it’s magnificent for the players to be given more choice, but we just have to sit and wait to see how it works out. Because it’s like, I already have a PS3; I won’t have to buy a Wii U as I’m pretty sure that my PS3 and my Vita will be able to do the same together.
The plus side is that I can take the Vita away and outdoors, but the Wii U pad is not a portable console. Nintendo stated this clearly. Then you have Microsoft which, well, I hope they come up with something else. Kinect is cool, but now Wii U and Sony are getting ahead of them.