Exclusive: Aika's Ashes of Betrayal interview

We're sure we're not alone in counting the days until Aika's impending expansion is finally upon us. The Ashes of Betrayal expansion is due out in North America on June 17th and promises to be packed with goodies like new class evolutions, new armor, new questing zones, new level caps, and new hotspots for relic wars. We were fortunate to land an interview with the Aika team at gPotato, who tackled such topics as Aika's perpetual beta status, the cash shop, the new Ashwood zone, the recently released Aitan Arena, the upcoming mega-dungeon, and the future of the adorably creepy fairy familiar Prans. The team even mentioned a few of their planned promotional contests -- do you want to win an iPad for playing Aika? Yes, yes you do.

Join Massively past the cut as gPotato previews what's in store for us in Ashes of Betrayal -- and beyond!
Massively: It's a bit unorthodox to launch an expansion while your base game is still labeled as an open beta. What was the rationale behind that decision? Can we take that to mean that the North American version will soon be out of beta? Will the expansion also have an open beta period, or has it been live on Asian servers for some time? Can we still expect the expansion in mid-to-late June (as previously announced)?


gPotato: First, yes, we're definitely still releasing Ashes of Betrayal on June 17th -- old players and new can mark their calendars in ink, because that date is not changing. It is a bit unconventional to launch a major expansion while in open beta, but then again free-to-play MMORPGs are not exactly your conventional games in terms of life cycle. Aika entered OB in mid-March, which means it'll be just about three months old when AoB comes out, which is very young for a game with the depth of play and ambitious future plans that Aika has. We're still introducing core game systems and concepts which have had and will continue to have a significant impact on the way the game is played by beginners and veterans alike. Naturally, some of these changes come with their quirks and require a good deal of communication with the player community to evaluate and refine. The game is very much still evolving, and that's why we're still in open beta.

Ashes of Betrayal has been live on Asian servers for a while. Aika, with the expansion, will still be in open beta as a whole since we'll still be working to customize and polish all aspects of the game for our player base before, during, and after the AoB launch. However, this doesn't mean that the expansion will be an afterthought to the current version of Aika or just a couple new areas for high level players -- AoB will introduce content that will greatly affect the nature of Aika's PvP, PvE, and even the way new players encounter the game.

Many potential players are wary of free-to-play games because of the cash shops which inevitably fund them. Yet the reaction to Aika's cash shop was nothing like the fallout generated by other games, such as Allods. What sorts of things have Aika's team done differently in the design and promotion of the Aika shop, to gain the trust of the playerbase and engage a Western audience -- particularly in the wake of the European service restriction issues?

We're very fortunate to have an item shop which offers items that can enhance the experience of playing Aika without disturbing the in-game economy or gameplay balance. The Aika team has worked closely with developers HanbitSoft and JoyImpact to tailor the Item Shop's inventory and prices to Western preferences. Part of our strategy has included, for example, making most Item Shop items tradable for in-game gold. Many players have commented that Aika is one of the most "free" free-to-play games they've seen, since it's possible for anyone to earn the in-game gold to buy from those who use the Item Shop. You don't ever have to spend a dollar to enjoy all the fun in the game.

We've benefited enormously from HanbitSoft's accumulated experience in overseeing the item shops of the Asian Aika servers as well as the experiences of other gPotato game teams in managing their own item shops for a Western audience. We have a great deal of support on all sides for Aika, and that certainly helped us ensure fair treatment for our players during the service restriction uncertainty. Overall, it boils down to having a well-designed game with a carefully thought-out item shop inventory that allows for convenience and customization without dominating the game itself.

The Ashes of Betrayal expansion will raise the level cap for all players. We know to expect an influx of PvE content for high-level players, such as the Darkrane Forest quest zone, which the Aika team have discussed already. What about the second zone that's been hinted at? And what about low-level players -- will they have any new content to look forward to? Can classes other than Templars and Conquerors expect similar upgrades in this expansion or the near future?

The second zone is Ashwood, a hellish cauldron which will feature new terrain, quests, and monsters -- but, most importantly, an entirely new Temple to expand our epic nation vs. nation Relic Wars. Relic War is a continuous PvP mode where armies of combatants from one nation (or two allied nations) invade rival nations' territories to steal sacred relics from the Temples that house them. The aim is to secure the stolen relic in your own nation's Temples so that they provide powerful and stackable permanent buffs to all of your fellow citizens. Every nation currently has three Temples, each with three relic slots, and it's a testament to the compelling and exciting nature of the Relic War experience that every day many of the relics change hands multiple times, with screenshots of massive raids attacking enemy defenses frequently posted on the forums. The new Temple will dramatically change the strategy behind Relic War, particularly since it's located in an area with very high level monsters and easily defensible choke points.

Ashwood and Darkrane Forest might not be extremely friendly areas for low-level players, but there's still a lot for them to look forward to in Ashes of Betrayal. There's a 200% EXP boost event in the week before the expansion's launch to help as many players as possible hit the level cap before it's raised on the 17th. Players will receive double EXP from Thursday the 10th to Wednesday the 16th if they play from 7am to midnight PDT, which we think will make killing MOBs that much sweeter. We're also running a "Tweet for the Last Seven" event where we'll make the 200% EXP boost non-stop the whole week if we get our Twitter follower count up to 2,000 by this Thursday.

Then, in the expansion itself, we'll be introducing a special nation population balance mechanic which will give new players an incentive to join the least populated nation. Players who make new characters in this nation will be given in-game item packages with very useful items to give them a bit of a head start in their Aika experience. As the players level up their characters, they'll have the opportunity to receive similar item packages at different level thresholds. Existing low-level players will also be able to receive these packages, so it's not just for those who join after AoB is released. In this way we hope to encourage new players to keep playing and maintain balanced nation vs. nation PvP gameplay. We'll also be running in-game noob-friendly events with great prizes, including an iPad and limited edition Aika merchandise. Between the new content, EXP boosts, and new player events, it's just a great time to play Aika, no matter your experience level.

As for class evolutions, the Paladin/Templar and Warrior/Conqueror won't be the only classes to receive upgrades in Ashes of Betrayal. All six classes will have their second tier evolutions available, which will include three new skill attacks, new equipment, additional skill points to spend on learning and upgrading skill attacks, and the ability to customize character stats with special stat points. First tier evolution forms can't change their basic stats -- they can only change their skill attack builds and equipment properties (through crafting), which means that this new ability will give players much more control over their characters' attributes. We've already previewed four out of the six new evolutions, including the Conqueror (Warrior's second tier), Templar (Paladin's second tier), Sniper (Rifleman's second tier), and Pistoleer (Dual Gunner's second tier), and the reaction to their new gear and skill attacks has been very enthusiastic. We'll be introducing the Arcanist (Warlock's second tier) and Saint (Cleric's second tier) very soon.

The team have said that the plot of Darkrane Forest will lead in to an epic upcoming instanced dungeon. What can the team tell us about this dungeon? Will it be part of a regular update or an expansion in its own right? How will it differ from existing encounters, and will it provide sufficient "endgame" activities for players who prefer only PvE, once they've reached the new level cap?

The new dungeon will be a sort of mini-expansion -- somewhere in between a regular update and a full expansion. It's an absolutely gorgeous and deadly floating island where the corrupt Darkrane is gathering his forces for the final showdown. After manipulating the Human army into killing the former leader of the Kynari (a race of half-bird, half-man beings), Darkrane took the role for himself and turned this formerly sacred land into a fortress.

This dungeon is pretty unique in several aspects -- it's a beautiful, mystical area open to the sky, unlike your typical caves or closed buildings, and it's at least double the size of other Aika dungeons. There will be multiple ways to travel through the dungeon depending on certain conditions, so players can experience the dungeon differently as they try to collect all the rare drops and gain EXP. Of course, there will also be fantastic new monsters, bosses, and quests that will bring the storyline of Darkrane Forest to a thrilling culmination, as well as the chance to acquire materials and instructions to craft the most powerful equipment yet. It will have multiple difficulty levels like the other dungeons, too, so we're pretty confident that it'll be enough to keep PvE-focused players busy for a long time.

The Aitan Arena, which pits hundreds of players together in a two-team last-man-standing battle, released just a few weeks ago. How is gPotato addressing some of the issues associated with this form of PvP -- namely, class balance (some "weak" melee classes eternally suffer early elimination), and level spread (since even the current level brackets include characters sometimes 19 levels apart)? What sorts of PvP challenges can players expect in Ashes of Betrayal?

The Aitan Arena's been a very popular new feature for Aika, and we've heard a lot of positive feedback as well as some concerns about class balance, scheduling, level brackets, and so on. While we're taking note of player suggestions for the Arena and considering various adjustments, it's also worth noting that the Aitan Arena is only one of five distinct group PvP modes in Aika, ranging from 6v6 Battlegrounds scrimmages to 1000 vs. 1000 Relic War invasions. One of the purposes of Aitan Arena is to give players a convenient and quick opportunity to dip their toes into PvP if they've never tried it before, which would hopefully inspire them to explore Aika's amazing PvP gameplay further -- it's not supposed to be as complex and tactically-oriented as the other PvP modes. As far as level spread goes, it will always be the case that players at the top end of a level bracket will have an advantage over players at the bottom end, but the good news is that Aika is designed to get players up to the level where they can participate in mass PvP as quickly as possible through a quest-based EXP system. It's definitely not a Herculean effort to level up quickly if you want to, and there are many high-level players in our community who offer to help lower-level players with dungeon runs and questing. Given the nature of the game and the community, low-level players don't need to be discouraged by the Aitan Arena level bracket system -- instead, it can be a great way to meet other players in your nation and find the inspiration to keep leveling.

To answer the second part of your question, Ashes of Betrayal will open up a whole new barrel of PvP challenges for higher level players. As I mentioned earlier, the new Ashwood region will feature a fourth Temple for Relic War which will dramatically alter the strategic metagame of Relic War. Right now, with many players at the level cap, Relic War armies are usually strong enough to bypass the monsters and NPC guards around the current Temples, and the biggest hurdle is dealing with player-led Temple defense. With the new Temple, it'll be very difficult for all but the highest-level players to successfully traverse Ashwood in the first place without being obliterated by monsters, making it much easier to defend relics there. However, the addition of a fourth Temple presents a new political challenge because Temple defenses cost money to upgrade every week, and that money can only be raised by higher national taxes (the guildmaster of the ruling guild in each nation controls the tax rate). It's a double-edged sword, and we're excited to see how it plays out within the world of the game.

Additionally, the expansion will increase the feasibility and popularity of another of our PvP modes: Altar War. In Altar War, invaders of a nation must plan a coordinated attack against four guardian stones and a host of very powerful NPC guards during a specific time period to break open that nation's Altar of Aika and raid its treasury. The rewards are incredible, but because of the difficulty in coordinating and executing a successful altar raid, there have been very few so far. Once players have the new level 50+ skill attacks and more powerful gear, they'll be better equipped to participate in Altar War, adding a new dimension to nation vs. nation warfare.

We have to admit that the fairy familiar Prans really set Aika apart from other games. Will we ever see upgrades to our little Prans -- like the aged-up versions many players have asked for?

We love the Pran, too! There isn't a definitive date for the introduction of the next Pran evolution to Aika, although it is on the horizon. Luckily, for those eager for Pran content, the expansion will include a host of very entertaining new Pran quest interactions and dialogues, plus upgraded buffing skills at higher levels.

Thanks very much to gPotato for giving us the scoop on Aika's Ashes of Betrayal!
This article was originally published on Massively.