Free for All: An insight on indie from Alganon

Recently I decided that I wanted to ask different indie developers how their world revolves and what it's like to exist within that world. Development is a funny thing and often much more difficult than many of us will ever know. In my experience, the budget doesn't change the basic goings-on in the development studio, but it can effect what developers are willing to talk about. I would never expect certain mainstream developers to ever open up to certain questions, while many indie developers seem more than willing.

Last time, I asked the developers of Istaria what they thought, which you can read here. This time, I decided to send some questions to Quest Online, the maker of Alganon. I received my answers from Derek Smart, president of QOL. Alganon has been one of my surprise favorites of the last year, so I was eager to ask some questions -- after all, he says exactly what's on his mind.

Massively: Given the rocky start of Alganon, how does the team cope?

Derek Smart: We cope by focusing on the path that lies ahead, not what has come before. I'm sure that it bothers some of us, but nobody is focusing on that at all. I, for one, am not bothered by it because that rocky start had nothing to do with me. What I am more focused on is how far we've come since that rocky 2009 launch and the fact that we were able to actually pull off a decent re-launch of the game this past April. That's what leadership and experience is all about. No matter how things are, if you have a goal and a plan, you just forge ahead. The most important aspect of any team is for the leader to have the respect of the team. Without that, you're destined to fail, no matter how hard you try or how good you think you are at your job. I have been successful in every single plan that I've put forward for Quest Online and Alganon simply because, apart from having the respect of the investors and indeed the team, nobody focuses on the past but instead works with me to forge the road ahead.

What would you say to someone who claims that Alganon is a "WoW-clone?"

"I run the team the same way that I run mine. I work with them to come up with achievable goals and just let them do their jobs without any interference."

If they were claiming it today, I'd just laugh because they clearly haven't played the game lately. Sure the original designer set out to create a WoW clone, but as you all know, that was the very first thing that I put a stop to when I came to QOL. We made quite a few changes which re-focused the game on its own strengths, rather than trying to position it to compete with WoW or any other game for that matter. In truth, WoW copies features from a bunch of games that came before it. And you would be hard-pressed to find a fantasy MMO game that didn't draw from WoW and every game that came before. This whole thing about Alganon is merely due to the fact that the original designer did in fact set out to develop a game that was a bit too much like WoW. And given WoW's popularity and numbers, when you start to look at those similarities, that's the first game that comes to mind, not all the others that pretty much do the same thing.

How did going free-to-play effect the game? Has it helped much? Really, you've gone "freemium" -- do you think the game can still truly be called free-to-play?

From the onset, making the game free-to-play was always my goal because I already knew that was the direction that the MMO industry was going in. So when we were able to finally accomplish that, it removed the final barrier of entry to the game. That helped boost our numbers quite a bit, and we're still growing in leaps and bounds. Yes, the game is truly free-to-play because you don't have to buy anything to play it. You do get to a level (30 I believe) where, in order to have an edge, you have to purchase some items. But if you get to level 30, then it must mean that you're having fun. At which point buying an item or two in order to progress isn't such a big deal. Also, this level cap is not an artificial one. It goes back to how the game was originally designed and is not something that we wanted to mess with at this point in time as that would just open up a whole other can of worms.

The team has been rolling out patch after patch -- what's the secret to getting a team to buckle down to create fixes?

Leadership, focus and a plan. Having a flag also helps. Seriously though, when I came on board, I took one look at the previous dev plan - and trashed it. From that point onward, I made it clear what our goals were going to be. Those being :
  • finish the game
  • fix what's broken and in so doing release patches as frequently as possible
  • implement only features that were essential to the game in its current generation
Basically, even though I don't do any programming on Alganon, I run the team the same way that I run mine. I work with them to come up with achievable goals and just let them do their jobs without any interference. Then I track those goals regularly to see where things are. If there are issues along the way, we work through them and within the scope of what they're doing. Basically, they're not flailing all over the place and being tugged from one thing to the next, implementing (or even removing) things on a whim. There is a plan and we stick to it. All cool ideas go on a list that stays on the backburner.

" While larger corporations are the necessary evil in our industry, you couldn't pay me enough to go work for any of them at this point."

Alganon simply has some of the prettiest landscapes, especially for its system requirements -- what do you owe this to?

We out-sourced all of the content for the game and the HeavyWorks guys who worked on them did a very good job with the terrain landscape.

The music in Alganon is amazing. How important do you think music and sound design are to creating a more "professional" or "major studio" feel to your indie game?

Music is a very important aspect of any creative medium, interactive or non-interactive. I don't think that the quality of the music lends itself to whether or not it makes the "indie" game feel more like a major studio or professional production. It is just part of the asset creation process, and as such, goes hand in hand with the content. You can have the best music playing in the background of a crappy game and that certainly doesn't make the game's overall production feel any more professional.

Be honest -- would you rather be under the umbrella of a larger corporation, or do you enjoy your independent status?

While larger corporations are the necessary evil in our industry, you couldn't pay me enough to go work for any of them at this point. I was on the ground floor when most of what is currently happening in the industry started to formulate to where we are today. Being an indie affords guys like me the luxury of individuality, but let's face it, most indies don't have two pennies to rub together. I just don't happen to be one of them, and that is due to the decisions that I made many years ago when everyone was laughing at me for sticking to my type of games. Look where we are today. Running around with the "indie" brand like it was a badge of honor is only meaningful if you actually have something to show for it. So yeah, I love my indie status and I won't trade it for anything in the world. Except maybe for a seriously obscene amount of dough, because let's face it, anyone can be bought for the right price.

How do you keep players interested in a game that does not get as much press as many games?

Word of mouth for the most part. Alganon had little to no marketing before I came on board, but I have since changed all that by running various marketing campaigns every so often. For example, I am in the process of blowing through $100,000 in marketing for this period alone, starting with a major campaign in PC Gamer magazine and elsewhere. Marketing is a numbers game that has absolutely no guarantees whatsoever. For games like Alganon, as well as the games that my company 3000AD has developed over the years, the biggest publicity we get comes from our gamers. Who would have believed that from one less-than-stellar game, (my first) release in 1996, I'd still be here -- more than fourteen years and several games later? Especially in this volatile and largely unforgiving industry. Your install base can make or break you, and I learned that lesson a long time ago. So with Alganon, I'm keeping that formula intact. We cater to our install base by tailoring and tweaking the game toward their playing habits, while doing some marketing to grow the ranks. At the end of the day, word of mouth usually trumps marketing, unless you're that guy in marketing who has to justify his paycheck.

Advertisements cost money. In lieu of big-budget ad campaigns, what are some of the tactics of the indie developer?

It's all about guerrilla marketing for the most part. At the end of the day, most indie success stories come from fans, not from marketing. Sure, marketing helps get your game recognized and pushed out to those who otherwise may not have heard of it, but at the end of the day, it is all about catering to those who like and play your game. Once you do that -- and remain consistent -- as long as you have a good game, the rest is easy. The most important rule in all of that is, for good, bad or ugly, you must engage your install base. Gamers are very finicky, and with so many games to choose from, you simply can't afford to disregard the pre-existing gamers while pursuing others who may or may not even like your game.

Do you think it's easier or harder to satisfy a smaller audience?

Not really. At the end of the day, you have to look at your metrics. In most cases, if you have a decent game, you can still make a tidy profit even if you have a smaller audience.

Can you let us in on some information about the team? How big or small is it? What are some of the personality types that form a team in an indie game?

At Quest Online, we have a fairly decent-sized team. After the trimming I did a few months ago when I first came to Quest, we now have about 24 people, not including the "as needed" contractors (audio, art, etc.) whom we use from time to time. Personalities run the gamut, and since I've met most of the primaries, all I can say is that they're a pretty eclectic group. Everyone works hard at their jobs, and I wouldn't trade them for all the tea in China. Maybe all the rice, but definitely not the tea.

Thanks a ton to Derek for taking the time to answer my questions!

Each week, Free for All brings you ideas, news, and reviews from the world of free-to-play, indie, and import games -- a world that is often overlooked by gamers. Leave it to Beau Hindman to talk about the games you didn't know you wanted! Have an idea for a subject or a killer new game that no one has heard of? Send it to!
This article was originally published on Massively.