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Behind The Scenes At Quest Online

Dana Massey Posted:
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Quest Online LLC is a unique MMO company. During a recent visit to Phoenix, the developers of Alganon did more than just demonstrate their debut MMO product, they showed off how their company works and what makes it different from their competitors. As a company, they seem to have two core philosophies: build it themselves and never waste a dime.

QOL is independently funded through private investors who, according to Co-Founder David Allen, have all bought into their vision and give him and his team the latitude to follow their vision.

The biggest surprise though is that the company is entirely remote. When they brought me down, they didn’t tell me this, Allen wanted to see my reaction. I thought we were making a pit stop at his house to grab a cup of coffee, but no, that was the headquarters.

In an upstairs office, he has a PC, complete with three giant monitors where he conducts his daily business. Largely, they stay connected through Skype. There were constant meetings and text conversations flying by the entire time I was there, he even interrupted the demonstration a few times to track some bugs and tasks with the team. And don’t take that as a complaint. Too often, during press demos, it seems as if the entire company has shut down for a dog and pony show. It was refreshing to know that business continued as usual. It gave me a more honest view of what they were up to.

To stay coordinated, they use a series of web-based software solutions. Jira is a tool that helps them track tasks, work hours and bugs. Confluence provides them with collaborative workspace, which is a fancy way of saying that’s where all their documentation, spreadsheets and other information lives. And as mentioned, Skype keeps them in verbal and visual touch.

As a distributed company they can and do employ people from all over the world. Much of their art is done by a group in Romania, but still, the core of this roughly 40 person team remains in Phoenix. At dinner that evening, a dozen or so members of the team dropped by Allen’s home for a BBQ. They are distributed, but clearly also get some face time in as well.

It takes a special kind of person to have the discipline to work at home, but for a small company trying to compete in a very expensive field, the sacrifice makes sense. According to Allen, if they ran the company in a more traditional manner, he estimates they could easily spend two to three times as much as they do.

The other big difference between QOL and most every MMO I’ve ever seen is that they do everything themselves, and I do mean everything.

They didn’t license Unreal, buy HeroEngine or any of these other third party solutions. Every single thing in Alganon is developed 100% in-house by their team. This is very rare. Some MMOs license everything from the graphics engine, to the billing system, all the way to the trees in the world. The only possible exception to this, according to Allen, will be integrated VOIP. They do intend to eventually adopt it, and will almost assuredly turn to a third party for that out of pure practicality.

The Alganon Editor is how the game is put together. As anyone who has tried to play with the Neverwinter Nights or Unreal editors know, these tools can be complex, but also quite powerful. It’s a lot of work to build and maintain one, and usually the more custom to a project it is, the more convoluted it gets.

Allen demonstrated their Alganon Editor to me, and I am not exaggerating when I say that within minutes I was fairly confident that had he let me, I’d have been able to edit just about anything about the game and start producing content.

I’ve worked with these tools professionally and for fun, and the Alganon Editor may just be the simplest, most straightforward and powerful tool I’ve seen. Quite literally, every content aspect of the game - from the way the world looks to what skills and abilities characters have - exists within this editor. Someone could, theoretically, take this tool and make an entirely new game out of the same content.

And no doubt they will. Allen admitted that Alganon is – he hopes – the first of many projects. They have a concept for a second MMO, although they have not and will not actually actively pursue it until after Alganon is launched and established. That said, they’ve planned for the future with their tools.

I wondered if these tools, since they’re so neatly done, are something they eventually intend to license to others, but Allen said simply, “No, that’s not the business we’re in.”

With Alganon itself, they’ve set out to do a core handful of features well, rather than doing too many without fully fleshing any of them out. Over time, they want to expand the game organically and make sure anything the player sees is fully realized. It remains to be seen whether players will stick with a product that only has a couple races and classes, but there is some precedent for this. EVE Online for example launched as a shell of what it is today and grew over time. QOL is looking for a similar path.

Take for example Player vs. Player, which was conspiculously absent from yesterday’s preview. While they’ve set the game up to have to opposing forces, the fact is that for launch, it simply is not in the cards. They don’t have time to do it the way the want to, so it won’t be on the agenda.

Ultimately, they intend to clone every skill and ability in the game and individually tune each half both for PvP and PvE. So for everything from a simple sword attack to the way armor absorbs damage, there will be two totally independent set of statistics. This should provide them with greater flexibility and less unintended consequences. It’s a major undertaking, one Allen was baffled that hasn’t caught on more generally, but it’s how they believe it should be done and they’d rather hold off on PvP until they can do it right, rather than just letting people smack each other around in some half-assed variation.

With a company trying to build its own tools, its own engine and a completely new game on a small budget, there is little room for error. If they’re only doing a few systems, but promising to do them well, they cannot screw them up for launch. Allen has adopted a no-BS management structure to make sure things go smoothly.

He told me quite frankly that they work in a pretty strict sink or swim environment. People either are self-sufficient or they aren’t and move on. He calls QOL a “company of experts,” and if someone doesn’t pull their weight, they’re quickly let go. In a few cases already, the company has parted ways with people who for whatever reason just couldn’t pull their weight.

While he notes that the original concept and design of Alganon are his, he admits freely that it is no longer “his game.” The designers, led by Lead Designer Hue Henry, an alum of Cheyenne Mountain, have long since taken the foundation he laid out and made it their own and that’s exactly as he wants it.

As a team, this setup appeared to work for them, at least from my limited glimpse inside.

During my hands-on time, I ran across a few different bugs. In one case, some models got swapped, which caused some big, ugly broken buildings to appear in one of the cities. In another, through an absurd series of events, I made my character virtually invulnerable.

I was playing off their working server, so I didn’t expect a bug free experience, but finding them was a boon. I saw exactly how they handle these things.

Within moments, they were already discussing them, figuring out what went wrong, entering them into their software and by the next morning when I met Allen for breakfast, they had all either been fixed or identified and had people working them. They didn’t waste any time.

I’ve been at companies that probably would have required a board meeting and three different TPS reports to sort out what they did right before my eyes (hyperbole, I admit, but you get the idea).

The pink elephant in the room is, of course, Horizons. David Allen was the original creator of one of the more epic MMO failures in history, so people do wonder why this will be different. It was launched by Artifact Entertainment in 2003, two years after Allen had left the company. The game still exists today under the name Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted.

Allen himself admitted he learned a lot from that experience; it appears to be the basis for his no-BS/sink or swim management style, for example. Saying that is one thing, and doing it is another.

The fact is his version of Horizons never made it to market. The game he designed was much grander, much more off the wall and what eventually landed on people’s desktops was only a shell of that. Contrast this to Alganon, which if anything might be too familiar and realistic. He’s learned not to try and do too much with too small and inexperienced of a team.

The proof of all of this will be in the final product, but at least to date, he’s saying all the right things.

The fact is, that in this economy and in a market where products are both extremely expensive to produce and risky to launch, QOL is doing what it takes to exist as a small, independent, American developer. They’ll be a wonderful trial balloon to see if developing online games can actually be legitimately done online. Say what you will about Alganon, but if they’re successful, they could become a model that ushers in a rebirth of the independent North Ameircan MMO studio.


Dana Massey