Free for All: An insight into Istaria's indie development

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Free for All: An insight into Istaria's indie development
Last week I was able to hand off some questions to Amarie, the Community Manager for Virtrium and Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted -- the game formerly known as Horizons. While the game might be getting a little long in the tooth, it's important to note that development is still a priority and that the game is still very enjoyable and playable. It boasts 11 different playable races (including dragons!) and an open character development system that puts some more modern games to shame.

I recently received a copy of a producer's letter and was impressed by its open, frank nature. I quickly contacted the team and its members agreed to answer several questions. There's a lot to read, so grab a coffee and let's take a look into the world of indie development.

Massively: I really enjoyed the frank nature of the recent developer's letter. Do you think that communication like that is rare in the industry, or are we just not looking hard enough?

Amarie: I don't think that straight-shooting communication comes often from a company, and I suspect I learned why. Many of the things I said in the section about player retention were taken very out of context and misconstrued, and some of our players with the longest active accounts were offended by this misunderstanding. And having read it from their point of view, I can understand why, though they were responding not to what I said, but from what was read into what I said.

I do think that as you look at smaller gaming companies, you'll see such frank discussions happening more often, not less. It's especially true with development teams that take an active role in communicating more directly with their customer base. In the long run, the more often that happens, the more likely it is that there will be some misunderstandings. But so long as the spokespeople for any particular company strive to convey information clearly, a better understanding between game developers and game players will grow.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of developing a smaller MMORPG?

I think the most obvious advantage of being a part of a small team, and thus a smaller game, is that each person on the team has a bigger influence and is a real decision maker as to the direction of the game. Because the Virtrium team is both developer and publisher of Istaria, there is no "big company" driving the development of the game, pushing for arbitrary deadlines or the need to add a particular feature that marketing feels will increase sales.

As a smaller MMO, it's in our interest to develop what some of the larger games would consider niche features. For example, Istaria has a solid crafting system in place that can be built upon and expanded in ways that the team has only just begun to explore. We've begun to revamp some of the crafting schools so that each one provides something unique and special to the game world as a whole. In our most recent patch, we've started to expand on under-utilized systems that also make the crafting side of the game more important. For the spring update, we'll be focusing on adding new content to biped-constructed plots and how to improve upon that particular system within the game.

Of course, this could also be considered the biggest disadvantage as well. Making the decision to focus on one aspect of the game and make that particular system more in-depth means that someone who is looking for us to update or make changes to a different part of the game may decide they've waited long enough and stop subscribing.

How do you get the word out about your MMO? Frankly, I have never seen an ad or anything like that before, so what do you count on?

In order to attract customers, one must somehow get the word out about not only the existence of the game but of what's happening with it. But doing so often costs, and traditional ads on a website or in a magazine cost more than makes sense budget wise. We need to have a focused campaign that will provide a high percentage of people who try Istaria to those who subscribe because we've reached the right sort of gamer before they even download the game. So we've had to do some "out of the box" thinking with our marketing campaigns.

For example, much of our actual advertising dollar goes to continuing to fund a Google Ad campaign. We've been able to directly see a connection between money spent and the creation of new accounts to measure how effective these ads are. The challenge here, of course, is thinking of the right key words to link to the campaign so that those who search find Istaria and not one of our competitors. Due to Istaria's long history, one of the areas we also focus on is bringing past customers back to the game. Every day we see people who once played and enjoyed Istaria under the original name (Horizons) coming back to see what's happened over the last few years.

"There's lots of people out there who don't mind paying for a game, but want a comfortable period of time -- without the pressure of a time limited trial -- to make up their minds."

If you had a much larger budget, what would be the first thing that you would add?

I'd split it between two areas: art and marketing. Over the years much of what we've discovered is that most content updates are driven heavily by the art that can be generated over time. We have some wonderful, generous and talented players who have stepped up over the years to work on creating new art assets for Istaria, but we can always use more. The other area I'd spend more in is marketing the game. I feel we offer a play experience that no other game provides and would be something more people would play if we could just connect with them.

Is it harder to make tough decisions with a smaller community? Is the fallout worse than you think it would be in a larger game?

I don't know that the size of the community has any real impact on making the tough decisions and moving forward with them, but what it does do is make each individual voice sound louder at times. A smaller community simply means that it's very easy for a few voices to appear like a storm. We often struggle to make the decision, "is that feedback the voice of the vocal majority or the true majority." For any MMO, it's difficult to make changes because there's always people who want their experience to remain the same -- even if that might mean that things are unbalanced or results in a play experience that is undesirable (unpredictable) across tiers. It's even more complicated because one person's idea of "the same, but different" varies from another person's idea.

To provide a recent example, the team has begun the massive task of revamping loot drops. This has proven itself to be a hotly debated topic but is something that we're doing with an interest in the long term quality of Istaria. The need for change in this area in particular is something that has been brewing through internal discussions for quite a long time and comes from both player feedback and some of the work that we'd done in the past with content updates. Making sweeping changes to it wasn't something we undertook lightly. As much as we'd like to avoid that situation, we know that it's simply not possible with the scope of changes that we're making. However, great achievements can not happen without great (or at least some) risk. The loop revamp is not an end to Istaria, but sets the stage for even more content to be released in 2011.

Do you think the older graphics harm the game or actually help it in some cases?

That's a great question and the subject of debate internally from time to time. When Istaria was launched, the graphics were created with high quality texture and mesh and a scalable slider for graphics quality. If you take the graphics and texture sliders and shift them to very high quality, the visuals look comparable to many other games on the market, not just something that's newly released. It is true that there are higher-end shader effects that newer cards support that Istaria doesn't take advantage of, but we've often felt that when a question about "dated graphics" and Istaria comes up, it is less due to the graphics not taking advantage of every possible effect and more because the person isn't taking full advantage of all the game has to offer. When it comes to the shader effects, not using some of the latest card features makes Istaria a bit more friendly to Intel cards, which is always good for making Istaria available to people on mobile and entry-level computers.

Has having a free-to-play option for your game helped it out financially or just with increasing traffic?

That's a very complex question to answer, but we feel that it was a good decision. We do get a number of people that are looking for a free game and never intend to subscribe, but there are also a number of people who start to play for free and then subscribe. Sometimes they take a week, and other times they take six weeks. Internally, we kind of think of the free-to-play as a flexible trial. There are lots of people out there who don't mind paying for a game but want a comfortable period of time -- without the pressure of a time limited trial -- to make up their minds.

The dragons are obviously the stars of your game -- do you have any major plans for the other races to beef them up?

We're going to have to agree to disagree on this one, I'm afraid. While dragons are most assuredly one of those niches that Istaria fills that I mentioned earlier, I don't feel that they're somehow out-classing the other races. Istaria is more two-games in one, as I see it. The "dragon-game" provides one type of playing experience, both for adventuring and crafting. The biped game provides something very different. That said, we do plan to continue to develop the stories behind the other races in the world and make these stories available as repeatable content. While some of the races currently in game are there due to past events (dryads and satyrs for example), because these were one time events which happened in the past, someone coming to the game today won't experience those stories, and we'd like to change that.

Over the last seven years of your game's life, has the basic technology changed that much? In other words, are you finding it difficult to work with the game's older guts?

There are two parts to that question, client and server. I think everyone has a reasonable understanding of client technologies out there and would agree that while there's been some changes in details, there hasn't really been a paradigm shift in how a 3-D client does its thing. Computers have a lot more system memory, video memory, and faster processors, and Istaria's client has a scaling bar under performance options that will gladly use those extra resources. Multi-core is much more prevalent today than it was in the past. While I wouldn't say that Istaria is a heavily threaded application, it does using threading in a few key areas to better take advantage of multi-core processors.
Istaria's server software was written for multi-processor servers and had some tweaks made to make it more friendly to multi-core processors, but there's very little that has changed on the server side when it comes to software development. It's a threaded application from the ground up and designed for hardware scalability and heavy concurrency.

Are you proud of your game's independent status or do you worry that it reflects poorly on the game?

I think we're all very proud of being an indie title, especially since that independence allows us to work in an environment that is not corporate, not to mention that we don't have to deal with corporate crap when it comes to game content. As a design team, we'll sometimes sneak socially interesting topics into the game content so that we're telling a story but also making a social statement at the same time. A significant part of game development should be considered an art form, and freedom of expression is an integral part of ensuring that the end result has a depth of feeling and expression that makes it more than the sum of its parts.

Thanks to Amarie and the rest of the team for answering 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!
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