While at the 2008 Game Developer’s Conference I had the opportunity to talk to Auran CEO and Fury Lead Designer, Tony Hilliam. During the interview we discussed what happened at Fury’s launch, their subsequent business model change and the Age of the Chosen expansion in the months after launch, as well as the future course for the game.
When Fury launched back in October it was billed as the MMO for PvP fanatics. The PvP fans came out to play, but to Australian developer Auran’s disappointment, not enough of them stuck around. Early users ran into a number of problems which helped drive players away from the game. Many players complained they had a hard time getting the game to run with the high level of graphical quality of which the game was capable, even on high-end machines. Because the game was PvP focused, any choppiness could be a death sentence, thus some players who could run the game on its higher settings would be forced to opt for lower quality visuals as well. Tony informed me of one particular bug that caused a lot of headaches in the first few weeks after launch. Apparently there was a sound bug that could cut the game’s frame rate in half. After a few weeks they solved the problem, but the damage had already been done. In the business of MMOs, the first few weeks are critical, and can direct opinions about the game for years to come.
There were also problems with some of the game’s core gameplay mechanics. At launch, Fury didn’t have the robust tutorial it needed in comparison to the game’s learning curve. Many players complained that Fury was nothing more than a button masher. The players who were complaining about the button mashing also complained about losing to the more experienced players, who weren’t button mashing at all, but were playing more strategically. Experienced and skilled players turned out to be as big of a detractor for new players as any bug could have been. When a player started out, they were thrown into the ring with other players, who may have been new to the game or may have been a hardcore veteran from the early days of beta. Without any previous experience or practice with the combat system, new players were eaten alive by the more experienced. Tony explained a three game rule which they identified in the days after launch.
Essentially, if a player tried three matches and lost every time, they left the game, most likely never to return. If a player jumped in and won three matches, they were hooked. It was great that people were getting into the game, but losing half of their potential player base right off the bat, just because players were frustrated with the learning curve and the matching system, was crippling. Fury is a PvP game above all else, and if the players aren’t there, there’s no one to fight. Tony said they “designed a game that required a critical mass. [Fury] needed at least 2000 concurrent players” and they fell short of that mark after launch. He admits, “People want a great PvP experience and we didn’t provide that at the start.”
After Fury’s various trip-ups at the starting line, it could be easy to pronounce the game as dead on arrival. But rumors of Fury’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Despite a poor showing early on, Auran managed to keep Fury alive and in the race with the Age of the Chosen expansion in December. While they didn’t have the time or the funding to produce a game with the level of polish they wanted at launch, when December rolled around they were much closer to the version of Fury that they had envisioned. Age of the Chosen addressed many of the issues that the game had at launch, adding new game types such as Carnage and 1v1 Elimination, a streamlined tutorial section that players could return to at any time to practice their skills, and a number of combat tweaks, UI improvements, and bug fixes. Tony informed me that they have had a much higher player retention rate since Age of the Chosen, and in his opinion, “if Age of the Chosen had been at launch day, there would have been a different outcome.”
Age of the Chosen wasn’t the only good news when it came to player retention. Tony informed me that the game has done pretty well in Australia, and wasn’t far behind their expectations for that region. In Australia Fury had the advantage of being the home team, where players were more likely to enjoy the fun parts, and be patient with the bad parts while the dev team worked to solve the game’s shortcomings. Tony described the Aussie gamers as having more of a “glass half full” outlook for the game, where those in other regions where the game has been less successful have been a little pessimistic.
I asked Tony what Auran has been working on since Age of the Chosen. In game terms, they’ve been continuing to work on improving the new player experience by enhancing the tutorial and training levels. They’re streamlining the abilities so that they are less overwhelming at the start. Originally players started with 32 abilities, with 400 more they could unlock, which allowed many non-MMO veterans to easily get lost early on. They’re also improving the computer AI, providing two types of behavior: traditional mob behavior that MMO players are accustomed to, and bot behavior which causes combatants to fight more like players and are more useful for practice. On the business end, they’ve been busy looking for new partners and funding to get development back in full swing. Tony said that there were several interested parties, but he couldn’t’t say much as nothing had been finalized at the time of the interview.
In the end one has to ask if it’s really a good idea to judge a game based on how it was when it launched. The MMO business is still young, and we really have no idea how long some of these games are going to be around. In other genres of video games you launch your product, and aside from patches and sequels, you’re pretty much done. In the MMO world launch is only the beginning. Your game is constantly changing and growing during its lifetime which could last five to ten years or more. There are plenty of MMOs that I didn’t like at launch that I like now, and plenty that I did like that I like more (or less) now. A living game like an MMO is constantly in flux, and maybe those of us outside Australia should take a lesson from the Aussies and take more of a half glass full approach. That’s the way Tony’s looking at it, as he looks for new partners to help provide the stability and give Fury a new lease on life. They had long term plans for Fury’s development, and aren’t ready to give up.