GDCO 2010: gPotato's Tara Einis on Iris Online and Allods' cash shop

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GDCO 2010: gPotato's Tara Einis on Iris Online and Allods' cash shop
When I heard that I had landed an interview with Tara Einis of gPotato (publisher of Allods Online, the upcoming Iris Online, and many others), I immediately began daydreaming about poring over hours and hours of audio and transcribing hard-hitting interviews filled with fiery give-and-takes. Instead, I found myself calmly wanting to know about gPotato's general cash-shop practices, long history in free-to-play, and reaction to Allods' perceived "debacle."

I also found evidence for my theory that the company is, yes, still publishing games and still excited for the future. It should be no surprise, though -- gPotato has maintained a hefty presence in the world of free-to-play for longer than most. So, what are we going to see next? What did gPotato have planned for the future? Turns out quite a lot.

A New World

Iris Online, set in the world of Arcana, is gPotato's new offering: a tarot card-themed MMO with gypsies thrown in for good measure. One of the coolest features is a tarot card system that will help in the customization of weapons and armor and allow for buffing. Players will choose from humans, elves or human/animal hybrids to start with. Over 40 types of mounts will play an important part in the game -- even from the very beginning.

Some cards will be required for entry to themed dungeons, such as the "Lover's Dungeon" that will need male/female couples to survive together in order to complete it. Monster cards will allow players to morph into many different monsters, each with its own advantage during battle. Transforming into a ghost, for example, will allow players to sneak past enemy cannons. Think of cards like a combination of buffs, access requirements, and character tweaks.

If you enjoyed Luna Online, then you definitely have something to look forward to with Iris. While both games are slightly more skewed to a female audience than the other gPotato games, expect to see all sorts of players coming in for the sheer variety of quests, monsters, and cards. As the game began to catch everyone's attention around the gPotato offices, it occurred to Tara that everyone who played the game loved it. Now, "Everyone Loves Iris" has become the catch-phrase for the game, even on Facebook.

Closed beta is expected later this October. I asked about the testing process, including the practice of opening a cash shop during beta phases. Essentially, the cash shops need to be tested, and open beta players rarely see character wipes. Purchased items aren't wiped either -- so buying during open beta is still going to affect your character when the game goes live.

The infamous cash shop

Despite my excitement for Iris Online (I'm a fan of Luna), I had to move on to ask about the infamous Allods cash-shop issues. For the record, Tara was very open to anything I felt like asking -- as long as she had the answer.

Initially, cash-shop prices were set too high. The devs at gPotato would "run the risk of seeming oblivious if they had not noticed the issue." One of the problems came from underestimating how many players would be paying for cash-shop items in the first place. It is already known that the majority of players do not pay a dime to play free-to-play games, but Allods was possibly a special case -- at least initially. The high production value and gameplay attracted many North American subscription gamers who, ironically, had no issues paying box prices for games that they had never even downloaded before. The passionate vocal minority turned from loving the game to posting flames about it, almost overnight.

"We've put so much effort into it... it's frustrating when people don't want to talk about the re-balancing of classes and want to talk about the cash shop."

The current point of debate is about the possibility of players becoming cursed upon death and needing to remove that curse with purification scrolls. Yes, the scrolls are paid for with real-life money. However, players can buy those scrolls from other players with in-game funds. "We've also been doing a lot of events and contests to seed the community with these items, to ensure that everyone who wants them can have access to them." In other words: Yes, you might have a chance to become cursed upon death. But "cursed items don't really impact lower level players... so basically when you die, one of your items can get cursed. You have a very small (I mean a really small) percent chance that a curse will be cast upon you. And then if a curse is cast upon you (it's almost like roulette you know) the curse will land in one of your item slots. Unless your item is in that slot (if it's an empty inventory slot it doesn't matter) or unless that inventory slot has gear that's epic or legendary (which I think is about 40 plus) only in that case would you even be susceptible to the curse. Or you can get a stack of Holy Charms... I think they're like a penny a charm -- then every time you die the charm protects you from getting any curse. It's insurance."

It should be noted that there are no plans to change the mechanic any time soon (I asked). After all, any new game change will be met with "growing pains." The cursed item mechanic is working, and the team does stand by it. "We eliminated fear of death and introduced cursed items. For the most part, in terms of what we can see, we believe that this introduction has positively helped the game and improved the experience." It was nice to hear that a lot of the evidence I have found to support that statement -- interviews with players and too many forum posts to count -- was legitimate.

The Future

"Whether the prices were initially set too high or the game mechanics aren't necessarily the perfect match to the North American and European audience... it seems like there has been some difficulty making it a perfect match. The game really is stunning, really fun and... you know, 28 classes, and it's chockablock full of stuff to do. We've put so much effort into it... it's frustrating when people don't want to talk about the re-balancing of classes and want to talk about the cash shop. I think that every time that we talk about the cash shop we are not talking about something amazing happening in Allods."

I tend to agree with Tara. As someone who is generally known as the "free-to-play guy," I can confess to feeling frustrated when a comments section or inbox concentrates on one or two issues that affect a small percentage of players. Games like Allods should not be painted so generally and with such a tiny brush. Tara told me that she and the team "believe that it's a better game now -- we stand by all the patches and all the changes."

"There's so much more to go," she continued "we're at the tip of the iceberg here. Allods is a huge game, and I think as the cash shop gets further and further behind us, more and more players are not going to feel 'my friend said Allods is this and that' -- they're going to say 'Allods is an awesome game; I'm going to give it a try.'"

It should be noted that gPotato is by no means a wilting flower -- it is still a powerhouse, and it is still pushing one of the most robust lineups in free-to-play. With newer games like Luna Online, Allods, and now Iris Online, the company stands to continue to deliver content for all types of players. Has the Allods cash-shop drama affected the team? Of course. It seems to me that the lessons were well-learned and that gPotato is moving forward with new patches and content for all its games, Allods included. In fact, a few days before this interview, gPotato published a new content patch -- you can find the notes here.

I wanted to thank Tara for her time and especially for her eagerness to answer my questions.
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