Massively interviews Alganon's Derek Smart

Amidst the recent flurry of GDC announcements, it's possible for people to miss what's been coming out of some of the smaller studios. That being said, almost everyone with some game industry knowledge took notice when it was formally announced that Derek Smart would be taking charge of Alganon. It helped that Mr. Smart, well-known for his vocal nature and not shying from controversy, almost immediately took the opportunity to set the record straight regarding the management change. (And then set it even straighter.)

Naturally, Massively asked for an interview. Mr. Smart was kind enough to answer a number of questions from us, ranging from future plans for the game to his place within the overall structure of development. Love or hate Alganon, his responses should be of interest to almost anyone with some knowledge of the game or the man himself. Check on past the cut for everything he had to say regarding the game, its present, and its future.

Massively: First of all, how long have you been associated with Quest Online and Alganon?

Derek Smart: I have been involved with the company and the game since 2009. My involvement was only made public on Mar 10th when it was announced publicly, almost two weeks after David Allen "departed" the company.

Were you responsible for the decision to move the game to a free-to-play model?

Yes. When the investors brought me in last year to assess the situation, the first thought that crossed my mind was that here was a WoW clone, charging triple-A prices and being released in the busiest time of the year.

So after speaking with them and David, I advised that in this market it would be very hard for any small company without the right marketing, asset and clout to compete with triple-A titles. Let alone a WoW clone.

Since David had already released the game prematurely on Dec 1st and with near disastrous results, I pointed out that the barrier of entry was too high. So I had them drop the price of the client, create a trial version and to cancel all subscriptions going forward. The goal was to continue working to finish the game then re-focus it for a subscription-free business model in which you would buy the client but play for free. If you wanted some of the cool stuff, then you would have a micro-transaction system for that.

David -- as he had been all along -- fought the idea of a F2P game forever and a day. Linking it to sub-par games. For some odd reason, he seemed to equate F2P to low quality gaming. This from the guy who shipped a game -- a direct clone of WoW -- in a dismal state, then continued to charge for it. With a straight face no less.

In the end, I put my foot down and so the Tribute Merchant system (the fancy name for the game's micro-transaction model) came to be.

What I didn't plan for however was for it to be in the game during the three month period (Jan - Mar) that the investors had once again given him to finish the game. I was shocked when through a Skype message one day he messaged me that the Tribute system was almost done. To say I was shocked would be putting it mildly. But that was just another example of David adding stuff to the game -- without running it through me first -- when he should have been tasking the team to actually FINISH and FIX the game.

Is Alganon going to include additional races and classes over time, or are those currently in the game going to be fully refined first?

The game has a very rich back-story and lore, so we're not going to mess with that at all. The plan is to continue to flesh out that back-story in events and the like. Through those, we will introduce other races and classes over time.

Once we run out of back-story in the lore, then we're just to going start making up stuff. No, seriously, we are. Since David, Hue and Jason are gone now, we can do anything we want. We already have, uhm, battle hamsters. So we're going to expand on those and take it from there.

You've said that you're gutting the game's "WoW-alike" look entirely. Is this going to extend to classes or mechanics in any fashion?

Well the whole "WoW" (see what I did there?) thing is a double-edged sword. How can we rip it all out without tossing out a good portion of the game? Remember, this game was four years in development. So it is not an easy task.

So, what we're going to do is start small. First with the in-game UI, then mechanics, classes and such. See how far we can go, then come to a screeching halt when we can't go any further.

The good thing is that by the time we get around to doing something that could really cause problems with the game, people will be having so much fun that they wouldn't even notice that we've actually stopped changing things.

Yes, that's the plan. That and the fact that we're going to focus all our efforts on fleshing out the battle hamsters, since Elves -- of any kind -- are flat out banned from the game.

What's the thrust of the game as it's being oriented now? Is it PvP-focused, raid-focused, et cetera? Or is it trying to provide a broader variety of content?

Right now we are focused on the PvE elements of the game as it currently stands.

We are looking to do PvP post-launch as part of the special areas in the game that you will have to pay to enter. So for example if you want to watch a PvP raid but not participate, you could still pay to enter that PvP area. If you want to participate, then you pay more.

And yes, the team just threw that one at me today, I swear if they're setting me up, heads will roll.

How close would you say the game is to being ready for the full launch in April?

We're on target for April 8th, though if something comes up, I will delay it. We have specific goals and tasking for the official launch and even if we hit those goals, we would still want to do some further testing before opening the flood gates.

At this point in time, hitting the goal is not the issue. The biggest issue I have is that with all this new-found exposure, under load, the server CPUs may very well heave themselves clean out of their sockets, blow past the fan, bid farewell to the memory chips on their way out and make a clean exit out of the cage.

We'll be up nights.

What aspect of the game do you currently think is the strongest?

The fact that it's a WoW clone? Why yes, that's it!

No, but seriously, while I don't claim to know a lot about the game like my predecessor or the current team, I can safely say that the strongest aspect of the game is the world, the rich backstory, lore and all the unique features (e.g. studies, the library system, etc.) which tie it all together.

Past the launch date, what are the overall plans for Alganon?

We're going to continue polishing and tweaking things while making Alganon stand on its own merits.

The biggest task we have ahead and one I just sanctioned, is a complete re-write of the server networking layer. There are several complaints from the current install base about server disconnects and whatnot. So after looking through the forums and categorizing all the gripes, I discussed it with the team and server dev lead. The legacy system that Jason had in there is in need of a major overhaul and we're just not going to hack at it anymore. We're going to reach in, grab it by the throat, and rip it out. Whole.

We're also looking at some graphics revisions in terms of rendering performance, visuals as well as the complete revision of some asset models.

We're going to take baby steps once we launch, but the progress will come in leaps and bounds.

Once we've finished all that, the goal is to figure out how to get everyone to STOP playing World Of Warcraft and play Alganon instead. For that one, I'm going to call in several favors, find out where all the skeletons are hidden, then expose every single one of them on the intarweb. That'll teach them.

How are you dealing with the people who, for whatever reason, seemed genuinely happy with David Allen's "vision" for the game as a whole?

David's vision for the game was to come up with a WoW clone. I have yet to come across a SINGLE person who actually liked that vision, though David would like to think that people actually supported it.

Lets face it, if someone wanted to play WoW, they'll be playing WoW, not some WoW clone. Seriously.

Yes, the game has a rich back-story, lore etc. but the fact is a vision is only as good as the end result. Thus far the end result is rubbish and I'm looking to change that. What we're going to end up with is a version of that vision based on a completely different branch of the original vision that is unlike the original vision but close enough to not be entirely rubbish. A vision which the team -- who actually develop the game -- feel is the direction that the game needs to go in. In other words, a vision without the rubbish bits in it.

I have no plans to alter any aspects of the game's back-story or lore. What I'm not going to do is stick with a flawed vision; for that David would still be at QOL working on his "vision".

You've got quite a reputation as a developer, as well as a history of not backing down from controversy. Do you find that an asset working on an MMO?

I never regarded my controversial reputation as an asset. Funny that.

Fact is, I'm a game developer and a very experienced one at that. When I came on board at QOL, nobody knew about it because that's how I wanted it. If this whole thing with David hadn't gone down, Alganon would have been fixed, officially launched, my contract ended, me gone, and nobody in the public would have been the wiser.

Working on an MMO in terms of relations is no different from working on any other game. The MMO community is of course more, uhm...vocal? Seriously, I was going to go with rabid. So rabid it is. Bring it on!

Our entire industry was born on the wings of controversy. If it's not Kotick putting his foot in his mouth at some event, it's someone getting fired. If it's not that, it's some game being a disaster at release. If it's not that it's a bunch of developers who ought to know better, getting up on stage at GDC and ranting about how unhappy they are. Swearing the whole time. If it's not that, it's some tool in the government trying to police us. If it's not that it's some website taking bribes in exchange for decent reviews and game scores. If it's not that it's EA doing something really stupid and which carpet bombs the news for weeks on end. If it's not that it's the latest DRM scheme making the rounds. If it's not that it's Derek Smart saying something that ends up being the equivalent of a hurricane blowing across the net.

It all boils down to one of my favorite quotes :

"Game developers are just human beings who happen to make games for a living. If you want to hold us up to higher standards of conduct, then go ahead ...but don't be surprised if we don't uphold them."

What would you say to people who have tried Alganon in its current incarnation and haven't liked it?

I'm sorry? Please come back in April?

Seriously, what else is there to say but that? Even though it wasn't my time and the circumstances were out of my control, I have in fact been there. My very first game was released by Take Two (then under the command of Ryan Brant who went on to become a convicted felon no less) while in Beta in order to make a Christmas ship date. It was a disaster. In the end, I had to fix the game, then released it for free. So yeah, I've been there. Done that. Got the scars to prove it.

So, to show just how sincere I am with the apology, that's why I mandated (yay! I always wanted to use that word!) that upon the official release, we were going to refund 100% of all paid subscriptions. No exceptions.

I am not making any over the top promises, but what I do promise is that the team is going to finish the game, release it, then continue to work on tweaking and improving it for those who enjoy playing it.

You've made some games with a very ambitious scope. Do you have a similar aim for Alganon?

Nope. Are you kidding me!? If I even bring that to the team, right after they stopped laughing, I'd probably be hauled off to a mental institution where they give you some righteously potent drugs for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I'd miss my wife and daughter.

Alganon is a different kind of game and I have no intentions of messing with it. My involvement is one of a person on the outside looking in and making sure that the guys on the inside are doing what they're supposed to be doing, not staring at girlie pictures and giggling like schoolgirls. Once in awhile I would open the door, say something (e.g. uhm guys, the netcode sucks, can we rip it out please? kthnx bye) and close it again.

The beauty of working with a team that knows what they're doing is that you don't have to babysit them. As a programmer, designer, artist, businessman, Jack-of-all, I have the potential to make, break and completely obfuscate anything and everything if given half the chance. So no, not going there. Well at least not this week.

Lastly, is there anything extra you'd like to say?

I'm scared. I'm very scared. Can you hold me? Fine. How about a hug then?

We here at Massively would like to thank Mr. Smart for his time and his responses.