Free for All: Istaria's updates, community, and future development

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Free for All: Istaria's updates, community, and future development
Istaria concept art
Before anyone asks in the comments section: Yes, Istaria is still around. I've noticed that many players seem to think if something is out of their sight, it's out of every other player's mind too, but the truth is that there are many, many smallish and indie MMOs in existence that not only continue to do well but offer unique gameplay for anyone who might be interested. Istaria is even still referred to as Horizons by many, even though that change was made a long, long time ago. Despite all of the outdated opinions and its status as an "older" game, interesting things are happening in the world of Istaria.

I took some time and asked Amarie Ancalimon, Community Relations manager from Virtrium, about the latest string of patches and updates. I got plenty of information back, so let's get to it!

Istaria screenshot
Massively: What graphical and performance improvements were made in this latest update?

Amarie: The latest client had a lot of changes, with many based on player feedback and requests. Some of the more important changes were:
  • Object fading: When a tree, house or character becomes visible, it is faded-in.
  • Clipping plane and gog: This was adjusted so that it is more gradual and does a better job of showing "grey stuff" off in the distance.
  • UI tweaks: Lots of little changes related to column sorting, adding icons for items, and phrasing within various windows to make things easier to understand and use.
  • Texture quality: The algorithm for changing textures has been updated so that textures look better, even with varying texture resolutions and without using extra texture memory.
  • Graphic defaults: We've adjusted our graphics levels to better reflect hardware that's out there.
  • Frame rate: Overall, there are lots of little changes to ensure that framerate stays smoother and higher when under heavy load.
It's inevitable that someone will ask, "This game is still around?" in the comments section. As an indie developer, how do you cope with the perception that the game is at death's door?

You're right; that is a pretty common question... even on our own forums! Perception is that because we're "so old" and have always been a small niche market, we're either at death's door or about to be, but the truth is that Istaria is growing at a small but steady pace. I won't say the population of the game isn't small because it is small, but we make allowances for that size. As an example, we have very few mobs that would require raid-sized groups to take on. As we revamp content of the various tiers, we are specifically making sure that content is appropriate for solo or duo-sized groups. I think that has helped a great deal in bringing people back to the game as well as keeping them once they arrive. No one wants to be frustrated by not being able to get what they want when they want it, and that is not an experience we want players to have. For someone who's willing to take the time, most things can be accomplished by playing solo. We just keep plugging away and doing what we can to let people know that we're not going anywhere.

A further difference is that we're not owned by a huge corporation. There's no guy with a tie sitting at a desk and bringing down the hammer and saying that unless we make a strong fourth quarter, things will close. We make decisions about keeping players around for a long time, not short-term decisions about boosting a dividend. When it comes to how we develop with a small team, it comes down to tools. From the very beginning we put a lot of time and resources into our development toolbox. Given the number of years we've been working on Istaria, we think our tool set is refined and allows us to do a lot of creative things with a trim staff. At the end of the month, we pay all our bills, and that's enough to continue to do what we love.

"I guess we thought that once we opened the door to 'free as in free beer,' everyone would jump at it."

You offer a few ways to pay for access. Which model have you seen the most success with, and which one surprised you most?

As might be expected, as soon as we offered free-to-play, we saw a slight dip in our revenue as some players stopped paying for their alt accounts. Total players didn't change and actually increased in the following months. We're pretty sure this was word-of-mouth as it made it really easy for an existing player to have a friend join him or her. Since we started advertising free-to-play, we've been happy with the growth. Along the way, there's been some conflict between the "type" of player that free-to-play brings in, since someone playing for free has only a time investment in his character and is more prone to misbehaving. The support team deals with those cases in a fair and reasonable manner, bringing swift justice and guiding everyone else in the fine art of using the ignore feature.

Our biggest surprise for new account types has been the mix of free-to-play and trial. Trial provides any character race time-limited play, while free-to-play is a single human character, forever. We get about a 50/50 mix of free-to-play and trial. We thought the majority would play free rather than trial. I guess we thought that once we opened the door to "free as in free beer," everyone would jump at it. In the end, it's good to remind ourselves that what you're playing is just as important as how you're playing. Casting a fireball as a human (forever free-to-play) is good, but fire-breathing dragons (time-limited trial) takes it up a notch.

You've been updating the game semi-regularly for a while now. Do you see the frequency of updates increasing, or do you just concentrate on keeping a schedule?

We're trying to keep our schedule on a relatively predictable pattern, with some exceptions. Our goal is to release a major update four times a year. This works well with seasonal events, and it also lets us work on tasks in small chunks so we don't tend to bite off more than we can chew in the next few months. We're a small team, but we're dedicated to bringing our players a mixture of bug fixes and new content with each update. We've gotten into a pattern where the first few deltas (changes to the database) offer the new content, then a couple of deltas to fix any bugs that are outstanding or were introduced, and then everything gets bundled into one big content update and pushed to the live servers.

"We like to brag that Istaria has one of the best communities in the gaming world, but because it's true, it doesn't really feel like bragging."

A player recently asked me to sell Istaria to him. I talked about the housing, the crafting, and of course, the playable dragons. What else should I have told him about?

It sounds like you've hit the main highlights that most people think of, but you missed one very important one: Istaria's community. We like to brag that Istaria has one of the best communities in the gaming world, but because it's true, it doesn't really feel like bragging. I'm proud of our community and how well everyone gets along. Don't get me wrong; there are disagreements. You'll always find that in any community. But even when disagreeing, our customers tend to be mature and respectful of one another. They don't let one or two "bad eggs" spoil the overall gaming experience for them, as I've seen happen in other small gaming communities. Our players are welcoming, willing to help others with advice (and quite often gear) to get the new player off and running in Istaria. To me, that makes a huge difference.

What can a player expect within the next six months or so?

With our summer update, we're planning to rework the Tier 3 areas of the world. This is the region around what's called the Barasavian Desert and covers players around levels 40 to 60. We have some major surprises in store that I think will knock the socks off our players. In addition to introducing two new monsters -- the Welger (a heavily muscled, rough brute) and the Rubble Crab -- we're planning to rework all the mob spawns in this region so that the area makes more sense. Just as we've done with Tier 1 and Tier 2 in 2011 and early 2012, we'll be setting the flow of where players travel to get quests by introducing new new quest hubs.

And that's not all that's in store with the next content update. We'll be revamping many of what are considered Tier 4 and 5 player communities so that the plots within them are much larger than they currently are. While it's true that these communities will have fewer plots overall, as many are being combined, the resulting communities should give our higher-level players the option of "upgrading" to a larger plot in an area closer to the higher tiered resources. We will be repricing all plots in the world with this update, with the goal of encouraging our high-level players to move to these larger plots, opening up space for lower-level players with more affordable options.

When it comes to comparing Istaria with other games out there, all games have combat; that's a constant. Istaria holds an important place when it comes to crafting and construction, and the people you play with are just as important as content. For someone who has never tried Istaria, we've got a wide variety of content to explore and many years of development in quests and game content. For anyone who has taken a break from Istaria, now's a great time to come back.

Thanks to Amarie 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!
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