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The Free Zone: A Tale of Two Allods

By Richard Aihoshi on March 08, 2010 | Columns | Comments

A Tale of Two Allods

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."  Although many people probably recognize these opening words from famed author Charles Dickens' classic novel A Tale of Two Cities, I suspect relatively few realize they aren't meant to stand alone as a single sentence.  Rather, they begin a lengthy one that touches on a range of feelings associated with life and the human condition in the Victorian age. 

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

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While I can't claim to know more than the initial two phrases by heart, I was reminded of the larger context by recent happenings associated with Allods Online.  In case anyone isn't aware, the game is being published in North America by Gala-Net via its portal, gPotato, where it has been in open beta since mid-February.  The journey to arrive at its present status has seen plenty of twists and turns.  Not surprisingly, they have fostered a variety of emotional reactions, which basically explains how my mind made the connection to Dickens' words.  

The story behind Allods Online dates back to 1996 when Sergey Orlovskiy, fresh from obtaining a master's degree in computer science from Moscow State University, founded Nival Interactive and set to work developing a game called Allods: Sealed Mystery.  Fusing RPG and RTS elements, it was released in 1998, becoming a significant hit in the Russian-speaking market.  Under a different name, Rage of Mages, it also attained a fair measure of success internationally.  Here, it was something of a sleeper, even winning some awards but not selling particularly well. 

A follow-up, Allods 2: Master of Souls, shipped the next year.  Renamed Rage of Mages 2: Necromancer for most of the world, it basically followed a similar pattern.  By and large, the same could be said of Nival's ensuing titles.  Etherlords, Evil Islands, Blitzkrieg, Silent Storm, Etherlords II and Silent Storm: Sentinels all sold better outside North America.  Domestically, they combined to gain the company a respected position as possibly the premier Russian developer.

During this time, Orlovskiy had acquired a strong interest in both the massively multiplayer category and the free to play business model.  In 2006, he founded a sister studio, Nival Online, to enter this space.  He chose to use the Allods property, which was still very well remembered and highly regarded by Russian-speaking gamers.  And he pulled together the largest budget ever for a domestic development project, 12 million dollars. 

By late 2007, Nival Online had entered the publishing ranks with three licensed titles, Perfect World, Granado Espada, and Pirate King Online.  At that time, the company merged with IT Territory, Time Zero and Nikita Online to create Astrum Online Entertainment.  Several months later, a fifth studio joined the fold, DJ Games.  The combined entity had more than half of the Russian market, which had started to grow rapidly.  At some point, Nival Online changed its name to Astrum Nival. 

Leading up to its successful domestic launch last year, Allods Online was the focus of tremendous attention, much more than it has received here.  For example, it was named Best Game 2009 and Best Online Game 2008 by the Russian Game Development Conference (KRI), where it also received the Audience Choice Award 2008.  Then, a few months ago, Astrum Online Entertainment was acquired by Russian internet giant Mail.Ru. 

Until very recently, Orlovskiy retained a minority share in Nival Online.  He was also busy on another front, starting up Nival Network to create a social network and games portal, ZZima.com, and to publish and operate a selection of F2P titles that currently includes MMORPGs Dragonica, Shaiya: Light and Darkness, Cabal Online, Conquer Online and Eudemons, multiplayer racer Level-R, browser-based strategy game Khan Wars, and musical titles RockFree and Super Star.  On the development side, a project called Prime World is in pre-production.  

Last month, around the time the North American open beta began, a rumor somehow surfaced that the original developer of Allods Online was no longer involved.  Gala-Net even felt the need to issue a statement denying it.  The studio is the same; Nival Online merely became Astrum Nival, which was then acquired by Mail.Ru.  It does appear that Orlovskiy, whom I'd regard as the "father" of the property, is no longer connected with the title.   

Another questionable matter arose almost concurrently.  Gala-Net opened the game's cash shop without providing any advance notice to the advance beta players, and with pricing that caused, in the company's own words, "stir and shock.  While an apology on both counts was quickly issued, it remains to be seen how satisfied the community will be with the reduced item costs.  Some of the changes were pretty dramatic, as much as 78 percent. 

Allods Online itself has been fairly well received.  The play is primarily quest-driven, which is generally regarded as a positive, while the main criticism seems to be that advancement is somewhat slow.  One important element, space combat, hasn't received much exposure yet, which is rather unfortunate since it's promoted as one of the game's key points of distinction.  I guess we'll know more soon enough as the Dickensian tale of this intriguing project continues to unfold.