I feel a little bad for David Allen.
The man tried to create something epic and revolutionary with Horizons: Empire of Istaria, by making a seamless world that was driven by an ongoing story in which players would participate and thereby help direct change in the game world. But the game failed to gain any traction. Allen moved on to create a company called Pharaoh Productions, which had difficulty raising capital to fund his ideas. David shut down the studio in 2004 and left the industry for a while, only to come back recharged and ready to take on all comers with what he thought would be successful reentry into the MMORPG industry. With Gregory Wexler, Allen began the studio Quest Online and started production on Crusade… which would later become the game we now know as Alganon.
The game (soft) launched on December 1st of 2009 with a price-tag for entry, and a subscription attached to keep playing just like most AAA titles out there. On March 1st of this year the game went subscription free… just three months into its life. You still have to buy the client, and there is a free trial available, but there is no longer any subscription required to keep playing for as long as you want. It seemed that while Quest Online’s debut title wasn’t blazing any trails, it was holding its own and beginning to carve itself a nice little slice of the market.
Then it happened.
On Wednesday, March 10th, Quest Online announced that the board of directors had voted to replace company founder and President David Allen with Derek Smart, a vocally and always outspoken personality. For the past week the web has been abuzz with many conversations and plenty of words from Derek Smart himself about just what happened behind the closed doors of the studio and just what it all means for Alganon now. You can read all of the lengthy discourse between Derek Smart and some former Quest Online employees here. I’m not sure I have the ability to make it bite-size here, though I will agree (sort of) with former designer Matthew Henry who wrote that Alganon is failing because “despite being fun and all original work, it appeared and played too similar to World of Warcraft.”
Alganon might wind up as the ultimate example of why companies shouldn’t seek to copy World of Warcraft. One of the first things a player of the game will notice, even if they’ve barely touched Blizzard’s game, is the distinct similarity between the two titles’ user interfaces. As an example, there was button for a key-ring on the UI for both games, identical in appearance, even though Alganon makes no use of keys. The button doesn’t serve any purpose. When confronted with claims from the community during an interview on Massively that the UI of his game was clearly uplifted from Blizzard’s, Allen merely stated that players want a familiar interface. In reference to the aforementioned key-ring button, he stated that Quest Online plans to utilize a similar feature later.
Be that as it may, it’s not the function of its UI that players are calling Alganon out on. It’s the appearance. Most MMO user interfaces share a multitude of similarities. But most games also do their best to differentiate their looks from one another. In the case of Alganon I don’t think I’m being too critical when I say it does everything it can to appear every bit as similar to World of Warcraft, both in the UI and in the general art direction. I understand the logic behind aping one of gaming’s most profound success stories, but in doing so you’d better accomplish something extraordinary yourself or you’re going to face backlash. Hell, even if you do it well, you’re likely to face backlash. Such is the reaction a game with millions of fans and just as many detractors creates.
Some might say that simply copying World of Warcraft is a surefire way to ensure failure. But there have been a few titles released in recent years that do carry a great deal of WoW’s influence and have still managed to carve a decent niche in the industry for themselves, even if they can’t boast similar subscriber rates. No, I don’t think simply aping WoW is a tactic akin to developer-suicide. Instead what should be labeled a cardinal sin is replicating the look and the feel of the titan, and doing so poorly.
The reason games like Runes of Magic and Allods Online are relative success stories is because while they borrow heavily from World of Warcraft they also have zero financial barrier to entry and happen to actually play fairly well. There is a level of quality to both titles that is rarely found in other F2P games. Best as this gamer can tell, the reason Alganon has quickly gone from a subscription based game to a F2P is that it simply doesn’t compare to the game it tries so hard to replicate other than in appearance.
The dust is still settling on the shake-up over at Quest Online, and who knows where Alganon will be in the coming months. I’ve played the title myself and to be perfectly honest, damning praise though this may be, it’s not that bad. Smart claims that some of his first orders of business will be to go back and recreate the look of the game so that it can more easily differentiate itself from World of Warcraft. He has stated on Gamasutra that his job is to help the remaining team on Alganon to finish the game. He’s got a long road ahead of him, that’s for sure.
Still all this press on a small independently developed MMO, no matter how much said press resembles the headlines on an episode of TMZ, is accomplishing the herculean feat of getting people to talk about the game. I’d be willing to bet in the coming weeks there will be a surge in the number of trial members registered for Alganon. While the staff still working on the game might be shaking their heads that this isn’t what they wanted their title known for, I suggest they take the good with the bad and realize they’re in a unique position now.
An old teacher of mine once told me that the best reception you can hope to receive with anything you put out for public consumption is a mix of love and hate. You’re not going to please everyone, and if a vast majority dislike what you have to offer rest assured that you will have fans even so. What’s truly disheartening is when your creative efforts warrant little to no reaction at all. When no one cares to get up in arms either with anger or exultation, then you have a real problem.
With that in mind maybe Quest Online, Derek Smart and even David Allen still have something to smile about. At least people are talking about Alganon. It’s in the public’s frame of mind. Now they need to find a way to keep it there, and for the right reasons. It would be a real shame if all Alganon brought to the table in the end was a parable about what you shouldn’t do with MMO design.