Lore Hound Exclusive: A Follow-up On Alganon With Derek Smart

Getting to know Alganon is like reading an interesting fable and following the main character on a wild journey. The game has been through several delays, numerous financial injections and even a change of leadership. Some people are surprised that after all these antics, our hero is still alive. Others believe in the future, not realizing that even the main character can sometimes give up.

Yet, the thread of the narrative continues and the ending is unknown even to its creators. Will Alganon mirror the tale of the legendary Phoenix and rise to glory from its own ashes, or will it fall forever into the depth of the unknown, where all Games-That-Almost-Made-It lie still? (feeling oddly poetic, sorry)

No one has a clue, really, but to help shine some light on things, I bring you an in-depth interview with Alganon‘s Derek Smart. As you can see for yourself, most answers were very blunt and no attempts to side-step uncomfortable questions were made, which makes for an interesting read. Props!

You reached out to us with an offer of an interview after a four part report on Alganon was published by Lore Hound. Would you like to comment on it?

Actually I never saw the interview until one of my staff brought it to my attention. Despite the fact that it was a well written piece, we felt that some of the information needed clarification because taken within the general context of the piece, those parts seemed out of place and bordering on conjecture.

What is the main focus of the Alganon team at the moment? Are you excited about meeting milestones?

We are focused on streamlining the game, implementing the few missing features which we felt the game needed as well as working hard to continue building the install base. When I took over the Alganon team earlier this year, milestones were pretty much non-existent and the development was, well, all over the place. Which explains the state in which the game was when it was first released in late 2009 in an unfinished form. It also explained all the previously missed dates, a lot of money wasted etc – all of which led to the decisions taken by the investors to halt the development of the game, thus effectively closing down the company due to lack of funding.

After a bit of team shuffling and my position and authority being firmly established, the first thing I did was work with the team to come up with specific and achievable milestones which would see the game to completion and beyond. Thus far, we have have been cranking out those milestones as planned and with very few missed deadlines.

I have a lot of experience in this area, having built up my company from the ground up – and one failed first game back in 1996 – to what it is today. Along the way I picked up a lot of skills and experience which have served me well. So, I run the QOL team and company pretty much the same way that I run mine. There simply is no room for foolishness.

(interview continues after the break)

Due to where the game was back in late 2009 and the fact that the investors had pulled funding completely, coming up with a plan of action was key to securing the funding needed for the continued development of Alganon and for the operation of the company as a going concern. So I put that together, we got the funding that we needed and we haven’t looked back ever since.

The main goal was to finish the game itself. We accomplished this in April 2010 with the Alganon 2.0 generation launch. And since that time we’ve been working on stability issues, bug fixes as well as minor features which improved the gameplay experience. And once we were through with those main items, we embarked on more high end features which would see us make the game F2P, implement PvP etc. There are a lot more things coming down the pipeline for 2011, but I can’t talk about them just yet. ;)

What recent changes and/or features have pleased fans of the game the most?

To be honest, I simply don’t know. Contrary to popular belief, we have a pretty decent population of gamers who are just happy that we’re still working on the game and that it wasn’t abandoned.

The marketing push for Alganon has been relatively weak for some time. Was this decision dictated by the budget or by other factors?

Well “relatively weak” is putting it mildly. Marketing was, for the most part, non-existent. In fact, it was only around the time of the Beta that any form of marketing was ever put into place. Then of course the Beta was abruptly dropped and the game released to much controversy as you know.

Considering the amount of money that was spent on this game by the end of 2009, I don’t believe that budgeting had anything to do with it. Quite frankly, marketing just wasn’t a priority and as such was underestimated to say the least.

Of course, once I took over the team in March this year, the money that the investors put up and which was conditional on my running the company, was allocated to development, paying off debts that the company was saddled with at the time etc. Then of course the lawsuit happened and we had to set money aside to sort that out. By the time the dust on that settled, we were out a lot of money which could have gone toward marketing the game. So we’ve been doing a financial juggling act to say the least. Marketing was always on my mind, but we just didn’t have the extra money at the time to make it happen.

Fast forward and at this point in time, with new funding, we’ve put together an extensive marketing plan for the game and which we are running from Nov through to the end of Q1/11 and then again later in 2011 in time for our forthcoming major announcement. We have ads in five issues of PC Gamer, Google, Facebook and a lot of website campaigns that are already setup and ready to start running in January. We need to get the word out that our game is still here and moving along at a brisk pace. In fact, the primary reason that I am even spending so much money on marketing is because those who try the game, like it enough to stick around. So we’re pretty much putting our money where our mouth is. No amount of marketing is going to save a bad game once word gets out. Alganon today – a far cry from its original incarnation – is a very good game that is just going to get better as time goes on and we keep working on it.

The way the item shop is currently implemented in Alganon does not sit well with some players. Having to pay in order to advance past a certain level is probably the most debated aspect of the current F2P model. Are there any tweaks coming to the Tribute Market in this regard?

Well, I don’t think those concerns are warranted. For one thing, you can play the game right up to level 30 before you find yourself having to make the decision to pay if you want to level up. That is a lot of play time.

We don’t run in-game ads, we don’t gimp any features and we certainly don’t adopt a model like those other guys whereby you’re simply dead meat if you don’t have all the best gear or tons of money to buy stuff. We don’t nickel and dime the player at all because that is something I simply won’t do as I am not a fan of that at all. There is a big difference between monetizing a game and this nickel and diming that goes on in other F2P business models.

You can download the game and play for free – up to level 30. Then if you want to progress any further, you can either purchase a level pack for 454 Tribute (about $2.50) for an additional 10 levels or you can buy the Super Pak for $19.95 which contains the level packs and a bunch of other stuff. Purchasing two level packs takes you right up to level 50.

If you played the game to level 30, then you obviously like playing it; because if you didn’t, there is no way you would play that long. And if by the time you get to level 30 you like the game, then you can support the game’s development by spending such a small amount to level up. Plus you can level up in stages, depending on how much you like the game.

So this ‘debate’ is largely inconsequential and not really a big deal. Thus, I’m not concerned about it at all. Also bear in mind that this game was never designed with the F2P model  in mind. Changing the business model from subscriptions to F2P was my idea and something I was advocating since late 2009 when I was first contacted by QOL to come in and help out.

Even though the guys went ahead and implemented the Tribute system in early 2010, the game mechanics still didn’t cater to the F2P model. We had to change and tweak a lot of things in the game’s design in order to make it happen – and that is why the game didn’t go fully F2P until a few months following the official April release. So during that time, we had to make a lot of changes and given the game’s original design, we could only go so far without opening a major can of worms which would otherwise compromise the integrity of the game’s mechanics.

A lot of potential players cite ‘low population’ as an issue that prevents them from jumping into the game. Any specific plans to increase the number of in-game dwellers? If yes, how do you aim to retain those players and convert some of them in to paying customers?

Well that is a double edged sword. For one thing, we only have US servers and in one time zone. Someone comes in, sees few people, then leaves – instead of staying. And due to how the gameplay was designed, you don’t need to have a lot of people to group or play with.

So I just think that some people are coming with some lofty and unrealistic expectations which are not grounded in reality. I mean, if you joined a game with 500 people on a server, according to some industry metrics that I’ve seen, there is a good chance that you’re only playing with a handful of people anyway. Unless of course you belong to a large guild. And even then, you still have issues where people having different time zones, schedules etc.

For the record, contrary to what a few people are saying, the game has some healthy numbers and it is constantly growing. We run metrics every week and if I gave you our ARPU or ARPPU numbers, you would absolutely think that I was making stuff up.  Each week the number of registered and activated accounts grows and that translates to our F2P revenue. Sure we have a long way to go in order to meet our own long term goals, but considering the controversy surrounding the game’s original 2009 launch, coupled with the fact that it was only just finished and launched in April 2010, we’ve basically been doing damage control since then. We have come very far in such a short time but we certainly have a long way to go before we get where we need to be.

In the report, I mention that launching a social platform called ‘MyAlganon’ was a good decision as it really helped to concentrate on the community focus of the game; a feature that was seen as one of its unique selling points. How would you assess the effectiveness of MyAlganon since its launch? Has it achieved everything you wanted it to?

Since I wasn’t around for the original design and since we don’t do any sort of metrics on MyAlganon, I can’t say whether it has helped or not. What I do know is that since it is the central aspect of the game and given the fact that our numbers are consistently growing, I can safely say that it is doing what it was designed to do.

In your opinion, what are the three main features of Alganon that need to be focused on in order for the game to succeed and meet fan expectations?

Well, we have quite a few things in the works and on the backburner but I can’t pinpoint any three or even one feature. Basically, we’re focusing on every aspect of the game which is why every patch sees so many tweaks, revisions and patch fixes which affect various parts of the game. Obviously PvP and the Tribute cash shop are a big deal, but we have such an eclectic group of gamers that it is quite hard to pinpoint anything concrete. We just stay focused on our goals and just ride the wave from there.

To be honest, I am more excited about the implementation of PlaySpan’s UltimatePay platform than I am about any particular Alganon feature. Up until now, we only accepted credit cards as well as Incomm’s Zeevex game cards for purchasing Tribute, our game currency. With UltimatePay, we can now accept  and process more than 85 worldwide types of currency transactions. This is a big deal because as we add new features and items into the game, being able to accept payments from all over the world is key to our business model. We are expecting to go live with this in the upcoming December patch and I’m pretty excited about that.

Finally, what does the future hold for Alganon?

Well, we’ve almost wrapped up our 2010 goals and are in the process of mapping out our 2011 goals, starting with localization of the game which will allow us to deploy and/or license it to third parties for deployment in other territories. There are many things in the works for QOL and indeed Alganon that I simply can’t talk about at the moment. So for now, once PvP Phase II is out week of Dec 13th, we will close the book on our 2010 schedules and resume next year with some exciting new stuff.

Thank you for your time.

1 Comment

  1. Awesome that a dev took notice and also took the time to personally respond to LoreHound’s coverage of Alganon. I appreciate his willingness, also, to be seemingly forthcoming with his answers. Great interview.

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