Interview: Legends of Aria’s dungeon expansion, early access, ganking, housing, and cash shop philosophy

Where am I? No one gets to know.

Indie old-school sandbox MMORPG Legends of Aria has become a household name among MMO players over the last few months, first rolling into early access just ahead of the holiday, and then with a major new expansion that was set to include – before it was withdrawn – cash shop items that some players in the old-school fanbase that populate the game deemed pay-to-win.

A couple of weeks ago, we peppered Citadel Studios’ Derek Brinkmann and Jeffrey Edwards with questions about the update, the state of the game, PvP, and even the recent cash shop kerfuffle. Read on for the whole scoop!

MassivelyOP: The big content out now is of course the dungeon expansion, which basically adds a significant amount of stuff to do in the dungeons as well as doubles the game’s PvE space. I’ll make sure to link back to the exclusive dev blog so people can read the details on that, but I want to ask about the reasoning behind focus on new content before the game is even in Steam early access. And what direction will PvE content go in the future once folks have bested everything in this expansion? Is that a cadence you can keep up with?

Citadel Studios: While our existing players I’m sure will be very happy to have new content, this dungeon expansion actually solves a major sticking point with players that have delved deep into the world of Aria. That problem was that there was just not enough mid to end game hunting grounds to support the size of the player base that can fit on one server.

After the dungeon expansion, the next content update will be expanding the game world into two unfinished regions of Celador, that is the Frozen Tundra and the Outlands. We’re also working on a substantial PvE content addition for the Frozen Tundra expansion which is going to change how people engage with end game PvE. The current iteration of our item economy is relatively flat which is a fundamental necessity when dealing with sustaining PvP in a sandbox game such as ours, but this is only the foundation.

As far as the cadence of content updates we hope to release a major content update every 3 to 4 months this involves not just expansions to the existing world but creating entire new worlds that connect to Celador through magical portals.

I’ve seen rather a lot of criticism of the game’s PvP state – specifically, the unchecked ganking of miners and other associated griefing. I know Citadel has been resolute on allowing this type of gameplay as part of its old-school template here, but now that more people are playing, has the studio had second thoughts? Is the dungeon expansion meant to give everyone something to do other than gank each other? How does Citadel plan to mediate between the wolves and their victims in the future? And is any of this in the best interests of the health and longevity of the game?

A lot of the problems with the “state of PvP” revolve around the fact that the hardcore ganker types are very good min-maxers. More often than not you find these players quickly have the most advanced character, the most advanced gear and have developed an advanced knowledge of the game. For these players, the greatest utility lies in grouping together and essentially orchestrating an early game lockdown in securing their access to the good loot.

Many developers will knee jerk at this environment and make motions to coerce these players away from their wickedness, but this is certainly a phase in these types of games and we’re already seeing far greater participation by blue players and a drop off from the zerg types. More importantly, we’re seeing more and more dead red players.

That’s not to see that there isn’t more we can do. We are working on tools for innocent players to give them some early detection of incoming gank squads. Some of these tools have been made available with the dungeon expansion update.

We feel it is very important that the risk vs reward a player encounters exists in a large percentage of the game content this is sort of a pillar of our design philosophy. At the same time, we want to make sure there is plenty of content in the guarded areas of the world for those types of players. If they choose not to venture Into the Wilderness, they can still purchase those items from other players as all of the items in our game are tradable. This is similar to the way it works in other open sandboxes like Eve online.

Crafting is also on deck for tweaks in this patch. I’ve seen some concerns already about the state of some of the crafting skills and in particular the economy – more than one sandbox has been ruined over inflation and hoarding, after all. Can you walk us through the crafting update and your plans for regulating the game’s economy over time?

The beauty about crafting in our game is just about every item that is used in combat will degrade over time and be destroyed such that there will always be a demand for high-end combat related items. We operate a rare item economy which facilitates hoarding as part of our end game economy. Our rare distributions are broken into seasons; at the end of a season the previous available rare items are discontinued and replaced by new items. We hope that this will maintain a scarce environment for rare collectors to enjoy for the months and years to come.

We have no immediate plans for a major overhaul of crafting although we will continue to add new items to craft as well as the upcoming PVE progression item system that’s planned to coincide with the Frozen Tundra expansion. This will definitely make a large impact on crafting!

leave my dagron alone

One of the teases in the recent dev blog was the game’s plans for animal tamers. I’m thinking back to the years when everyone in Ultima Online was towing around a greater dragon and there was almost no point to being anything but a tamer! What exactly are tamers getting, and how are you folks planning to balance the desire for taming skills and cool pets with the potential for imbalance in PvE and PvP?

We’ve been especially careful with taming. Compared to past iterations, we’ve increased the relative skill requirement to engage in the profession in additions to scaling down our pets in comparison to what you may have experienced in past games.

Our design philosophy with taming, although yet to be fully implemented, is that the inherent power of your tameables comes in your choice of pet and their suitability to your hunting zone. Rather than give pets utility through damage and health alone, we want to bring trained abilities and magical spells into the equation and make players thinking about their decisions.

We also want to give tamers far greater utility outside of combat, but we can’t talk too much about this just yet!

I gotta ask about the whole early access issue. Originally, the game was meant to launch on Steam’s early access platform before Christmas, but that was held back and indeed now has a release plan for spring, many months on, which indicates a much bigger set of issues. Can you walk our readers through the rationale? Should we be worried about fragmented playerbases? Will the game be ready in time?

We’ve grown from a grassroots studio with the overwhelming majority of our funding coming from the player base. To this day, we have maintained the power of our own decision making. Many games both small and large suffer when decisions are being made from above and we place huge importance in our own ability to protect the best interests of the players of Legends of Aria.

When we arrived at our initial Steam release date back in December, we had the integration setup, the marketing plan and budget in place and were ready to push the button. We had a meeting of our team leads, discussed the state of the game, player feedback and our thoughts and feelings on the current situation. The conclusion was that we could release our game in “Early Access” to our fan base through our own web portal and take our time perfecting the title before attempting to reach a wider market, so that’s exactly what we did.

From an early position in a kickstarted development process, you reconcile that you’re never going to consider yourself “done” when you arrive on Steam; however, we always strive to be as “complete” as possible when that day arises. We’ve been extremely cautious and in our success, we’ve found more time to make a much better impression on Steam and we’re more than willing to take that time.

We’ll be ready!

Everyone comes to our house.

Speaking of the playerbase, back in December Citadel said that the game population had “exploded” – in fact, that was part of the justification for the delay, since the servers couldn’t handle so many players, right? How is the playerbase right now, and the Citadel still expect it to grow once the Steam EA launch and then presumably the “real” launch occur?

We’ve been extremely relaxed in our marketing to date and are strong believers in “build it and they will come.” We’ve never had a desire to make a premature splash, attract the masses to our game early only to find it potentially raw in areas and to be heralded as unfinished and cast aside. You lose a great deal of good will from your fans; we want to make an honest transaction with our players and to garner their support. Once we feel we’re content-rich enough to make a splash, we’ll bring the super-soakers.

With that in mind, our player base is doing great and we have very active NA and EU servers. We’re continually seeing increases week on week which makes us extraordinarily happy as it’s mirroring our growth model. Once Frozen Tundra hits we’ll be unleashing much more content and we certainly expect to see those numbers continue to climb.

You mentioned in your December AMA that custom housing is still in the plans. I suspect a lot of people don’t know that the game even has housing at all. Can you give us the scoop on the future of that gameplay element?

As it stands today, housing is already in many aspects head and shoulders above what is available in most games today. Players are already decorating, customizing and creating incredible spectacles. The depth of our decoration tool allows players to create truly unique assortments of, well anything. We’ve already seen people create Christmas trees, wall-art, and custom signs and custom bazaars and marketplaces.

That being said, this is just the beginning of our housing system. We have plans in the pipeline for individual homeowners such as gardening, farming, and other agricultural pursuits. For guilds and groups, we’ve also got the prospect of more integrated player cities which will bring a host of cool features and services to your own player town.

I have another one to add in here given what’s going on with the game’s new cash shop. I gather that the cash shop just went in (and out again) and vending some pretty powerful items as loyalty purchases, including potions that boost skill gains and Ultima Online-esque soulstones that store skills, in addition to more benign items. Apparently several of the main streamers and some in the community are freaking out over it all. Can you folks explain why you’ve put the store in now (folks seem surprised at the sudden move) and how you justify these particular items? Are these items a test or something that sort of sets the stage for the types of items players will see in the future?

One of the most important things we need to do is establish a solid recurring revenue model so we can continue to maintain and improve the game. In achieving this are a number of red lines you simply do not cross; that you do not break the in-game economy and that you do not invalidate the integrity of in-game competition.

We are starting with a very small selection of items and not offering cash purchases so we can test different offerings to arrive at something that both the players want and also allows us to keep moving forward. In fact, since you’ve asked this question, we removed one of the items as our player base generally saw it as a step in the wrong direction. We will continue to have conversations with our community and to make the best decisions going forward.

We’d like to thank Brinkmann and Edwards for answering our questions! Legends of Aria is currently in early access; you can pick up a copy for yourself on the official website for $29.99.

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