Derek Smart Talks: Alganon, Free To Play

I know what you’re thinking: “Omali, you clearly don’t have a punchline ready for this segment,” and you would be one hundred percent correct, but I have good news. In my continuing efforts to branch MMO Fallout from the normalcy of sarcastic comments, random videos, rants, sales, and “I told you so” moments, I’ve decided to start trying to get interviews with various developers, starting with my first phase: “How Free Can You Be?” I’ll be trying to get interviews with various free to play developers, about their outlook and particular take on the business model.

So with fresh taser burns from my daily trash looting at the Bioware offices, I chatted with Derek Smart about Quest Online and Alganon.

First off, I want to thank you for taking time out of your busy day to talk about Alganon and Quest Online. For those reading this who might not play Alganon, tell us a bit about Alganon and Quest Online and yourself.

I have been a game developer for over twenty years mostly focusing on hardcore space games developed at a company which I founded and own, 3000AD, Inc.

Quest Online was founded and seed funded in 2006 by Greg Wexler and some other dude who used to work for him at one of his other companies, Mortgage Coach. The company developed the Alganon MMO game which was released back in 2009 prematurely by that very dude (later terminated) and to well publicized disastrous results. So I was brought in by the majority investors to head the company, rescue and finish Alganon etc. I’ve been heading the company and leading the team since then.

The holy grail of free to play developers is to strike a center where the player is not so encumbered by the cash shop that he feels forced to spend, but at the same time has an incentive to throw money down on items/equipment. What is Quest Online’s aim for the cash shop’s presence in-game?

To be perfectly honest, we were lucky in some regard. You see, the game was not developed to be a F2P game supported by a cash shop. So when we literally cobbled that in, the game’s original design gave players all this content for free because there was only so far that we could go in order to monetize the game without doing a major amount of work. So the end result is that when we made the switch from a subscription model, we didn’t get much push back from the gamers because they could play the game without having to buy a single thing.

In the past year we have added numerous items to the cash shop, some essential and some vanity and we’re continuing to do that periodically. For example when we started implementing PvP we took the opportunity to added more cash shop items without making it so that the player with the most money wins. Though that can in fact happen at some point; but that’s the nature of the beast. 🙂

The level boost (about $10 total for the last twenty levels) is really the only “essential” buy to experience all the content available in Alganon. Can you give us an idea about what the big nonessential sellers are? Vanity pets, dyes, potions, boons, gear, temporary/permanent mounts?

That is correct. I don’t have the metrics on hand, so I really don’t know what the big sellers are.

Do you believe in the 85-10-5 rule for cash shop games (85% pay nothing, 10% pay a small amount, 5% pay substantially)?

Absolutely because that is pretty much the sort of metrics that I am seeing in our weekly reports. For Alganon, since you can play for such a long time without having to spend a single dime, our metrics – while improving in leaps and bounds – tend to be all over the map. That comes with the territory.

Alganon offers scaling PvP armor (the armor stats level with the player) on the tribute market. How is the tribute armor balanced so Alganon doesn’t become a buy to win game?

I don’t really have the answer to that because I don’t know. What I do know is that the guys try to make sure that the game doesn’t end up being “pay to win” like so many other F2P games out there.

The manner in which Quest Online has set up the tribute market is rather non-intrusive (barring perhaps the last twenty levels). How do you go about attracting a player’s attention to the tribute market’s existence, or is that a secondary function of the level cap?

We try to be as discreet as possible because as I mentioned earlier we don’t want to give gamers the wrong impression. While we do want to make money, we want to ensure that gamers stick around long enough to like the game and thus spend money on it so that we can continue to improve on it. We periodically have promos and such but we don’t go out of our way to make them intrusive.

How did Alganon’s advertising campaign in PC Gamer perform? From my personal experience playing, there seems to be a small but noticeable increase in concurrent users on Alganon compared to just six months ago.

It quite well actually. But it wasn’t just PC Gamer; we had campaigns on various online sites as well as other print media such as Beckett’s MMOG and others. All that in addition to our on-going Google and Facebook promos. I tend to spend money wisely, so I don’t believe in just throwing money at a marketing wall. For me, timing is everything and it has to make sense.The game’s population is growing, which is precisely why I am expanding the game as well as branching the IP out to other games.

What do you think the largest barrier is to more people picking up Alganon? Quite a few free to play games have noted a significant (30% in Dungeon Runners) percentage of players never fully download the client after they register an account.

I think it boils down to the MMO version of a perfect storm. We had the disastrous 2009 launch by my predecessor followed by the well publicized drama of his inevitable exit. And to make things worse, the game wasn’t even finished, it was buggy, had missing features etc. As if that wasn’t bad enough, it was a game you had to buy and pay a monthly subscription to play. Yeah, crazy stuff indeed. So there’s all that.

With so many choices out there, getting gamers to come back and take a second look, takes a tremendous amount of work, resources and marketing. So we have been taking it one step at a time. So our biggest barrier is getting gamers to come back; in addition to those who didn’t even bother to even check it out.

Launching off of the previous question, are there any plans for similar promotions in the future? Would Quest Online consider bringing back referral bonuses?

Yes we are considering that and several other promotions which will be announced in the coming weeks. In fact we have a promotion going on this weekend.

Alganon’s saving grace from its launch has been Quest Online’s dedication to fixing up the title, whereas a lot of other companies might have cut their losses, given the figurative finger to the early adopters, and moved on to another project. I think this is why the active Alganon community, although relatively small, are very adamant defenders of the game. Since your arrival, you seemed to have really rallied the development team, improving the game a lot since its relaunch back in 2010. Your thoughts?

Well my first course of action was to see the game completed. Then we had to address the bugs, performance issues, touted but either missing or incomplete features etc. We had to get all that out of the way first in order to assess whether or not Alganon was worth saving in the long term. Of course the business model was rubbish to begin with and simply could not be sustained, so I got rid of that as well and took the game F2P. In the end, it came down to my deciding whether or not there was anything worth saving. So once all those obstacles were out of the way, I made that determination and so I rallied the troops who then hunkered down and just got on with it. It really boils down to focus. We came up with a plan and executed that plan in various steps and phases leading to where we are now: the expansion of Alganon.

On a completely unrelated note, I heard through a very reliable source that you will be present at E3. Will there be any news on Line of Defense?

Yes, we are unveiling the first Alganon expansion, along with a bunch of other good stuff. The PR which should be out on June 7th, contains all the information.

There really isn’t anything new on the Line Of Defense front, other than it is coming along nicely and is looking awesome. We are going to be releasing some new shots once the E3 noise dies down next week. In the mean time, this is the art for the posters and postcards available at the show.

I want to thank Derek Smart again for taking time away before heading off to E3 to talk to me.

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