Citadel Studio’s open-world sandbox MMO Legends of Aria just received one of its most significant updates yet, bringing in larger, more complex dungeons, PvE enhancements, and a bevy of substantive quality of life improvements. And yet on the same day the Dungeon Expansion update dropped, the small development team was doing their best to navigate a firestorm of controversy surrounding a since-scrapped item many feared would be the beginning of a slippery slope toward "pay-to-win" territory. Project Lead Derek Brinkmann was gracious enough to lend me some time to discuss the latest update and the events of the day.
My conversation with Brinkmann began with him emphasizing the relative substance of this latest update compared to the regular updates focused on bug fixes, polish, and balance. According to Brinkmann, “this is the first update that kind-of changes the game in a significant way.”
Namely, the team hopes the update will remedy an issue with the size of the world’s dungeons, which they felt was better-suited for larger groups as opposed to smaller groups and solo players. By introducing two different levels to the dungeons and doubling their size, the goal is to provide a level playing field for smaller groups and solo players in the first level while giving big groups more to work with, as well as greater rewards, in the lower level.
Further, each dungeon has seen its own visual overhaul inspired by their respective world environments, so Ruin, Deception, and Contempt should feel more aesthetically distinctive. The team also added new monsters, re-skinned existing monsters, and made rare monsters more common to make raids more rewarding.
Another issue Brinkmann and his team hope to rectify with this and future updates is the difficult balance between appeasing PvP-focused players and those who generally refrain from PvP. It’s an age-old dilemma that’s divided the MMORPG community for decades, and Citadel plans on continuing to work toward finding a mutually agreeable solution. The all-new Ward: Evil spell is an effort brought on by this update to make Legends of Aria a home to all kinds of MMO players.
The spell functions in a similar way to a tripwire, alerting the caster of an outcast player’s presence and giving them time to escape the area before being attacked. While Brinkmann acknowledged that he and his team have a ways to go in mitigating the practice of “griefing,” he says the Ward: Evil spell is a step in the right direction. He also gave a hint as to what we can expect from future updates with regards to balancing PvP.
Speaking about the tendency by some PvP players to do their ganking equipped with low-level gear for the purpose of minimizing risk, Brinkmann added, “We want to make sure that the people who are going out there and killing other players are risking something, so that’s another area that we’re looking at for the future.”
The conversation naturally evolved into a broader discussion about creating an experience that satisfies players who migrated from Ultima Online, a game for which Brinkmann served as Lead Developer for six years, while adapting to the expectations of modern MMO players in 2019. His answer made it abundantly clear the consideration with which Citadel Studios listens to the Legends of Aria community.
“That’s probably one of the biggest challenges that we face. Our design strategy has evolved over time because when we started out with Shards Online, we really tried to modernize the experience as much as possible. And what ended up happening was you end up making a game for nobody.”
“If you design a game for a specific audience, you’re going to have a lot more success than if you try to build a game for everybody because it’s nearly impossible to build a game for everybody. We decided to hone in on that niche of people that wanted a true, open-world, persistent game with as few rules as possible, and not worry too much about appealing to the WoW crowd.”
Looking forward to the rest of 2019 and beyond, Brinkmann says the most urgent priority is finishing the game, which will involve adding new areas and dungeons to complete the map, along with continual bug fixes and polishing. Further, the team is working to flesh out the professions and providing a complete experience for all players, regardless of what skills they choose to develop.
Adding content is another primary focus for the Legends of Aria development team, which will involve continually expanding PvE content and adding incentive for players in a number of ways. When asked to confirm that additional content will continue to be added after the game is finished and officially launched, Brinkmann had a concise, definitive response. “An MMO is never really finished.”
Brinkmann then took the opportunity to break down the new in-game store, which will supply 100 loyalty points to players who log in during that week. Players can also earn an additional 250 loyalty points for referring new players. The loyalty points can be used to shop between, as of now, six different items. While this alone is benign enough, Brinkmann was keenly aware of the elephant in the room with regards to the in-game store’s would-be seventh item.
Brinkmann was happy to address the response his team saw after announcing the planned addition of the “Power Hour” potion, which would have been purchasable using real-world currency and allowed players to accelerate skill gains temporarily. After initially attempting to temper the flames of community outcry, Brinkmann and his team relented and removed the controversial item from the new update and rolled out the in-game store with six items, purchasable only through in-game currency.
Brinkmann was more than happy to address the situation, and in doing so made clear that the studio recognizes where they could’ve done better to communicate their intentions and quell the fears of players worried about the implications of the new item.
“I understand that ‘slippery slope’ argument, and we don’t ever want anyone to believe that we’re going to go down that route.”
“As a developer, you have to make sure that you’re listening to the people who are actually playing your game and are excited about it and love it. Maybe even people who aren’t playing it right now that want to come back or people who are thinking about buying it. They all matter. But at the same time, we have to make sure that we’re doing the right thing by our players.”
Despite some minor obstacles preparing the servers, the long-awaited Dungeon Expansion update is currently live. Players will need to completely close down the game and restart it to have access to the new content.