|January 17, 2007|
|CES Day 1: Artix Entertainment – Score One for the Indie Devs!|
By Linda "Brasse" Carlson
In a show where very few software companies ventured out from under the protective umbrella of major sponsoring goliaths such as Microsoft and Dell, I found Artix Entertainment happily manning a small booth at CES. I tried for hours to drop in for a casual interview, but these folks were always busy when I walked by. People were talking to them. People in well-cut suits, with very shiny shoes, and well-displayed fancy wristwatches. Clearly a sign that there was something to be seen in this booth, and that I was not the only one interested.
Finally, I got my chance to learn who they were.
Artix has two major titles, AdventureQuest (www.BattleOn.com) and DragonFable (www.DragonFable.com). The art style is 2d anime, with bright colors and a varied host of NPC characters to interact with. In both titles, the emphasis is on fun, casual gameplay. No five hour raids to keep you up too late on a work or school night; play whenever you want a little break or have some time to immerse yourself.
It is in fact the people behind the game that add the zest, the fun factor that keeps people coming back for more.
I had the opportunity to speak to some of the key people behind these titles.
It is very likely that they are better known by their game avatar names than
their "real" names these days. One of the hallmarks of this company is
spending a lot of time interacting with the playerbase - check the forums and
see how often the devs appear to comment on threads. All three agreed that the
forums were the number one source for player input and impact on the creative
focus of the game.
These are what can best be described as "massively singleplayer online games", although no label can neatly encompass what Artix has achieved with these offerings. Instead of working in traditional MOG groups, each player works solo, while still having a significant impact on cooperative goals of the game community. Your actions count. They progress the storylines, and the whole world, forward.
The target market is a very wide range of age groups, offering parents a safe place to allow their children to entertain themselves. If they were movies, these games would be rated "G" or at most, "PG", with no foul language, no alcohol, nudity, or extreme violence. As players do not interact directly with each other, there is no danger of a child being exposed to unwanted behavior in game.
Let's address the obvious questions. Interesting monsters? You bet; over 700 in game at this time. Cool items to discover? Absolutely, with new objects added each week! Character development? Certainly; grow from the starting classes of Warrior, Rogue or Mage to specialize as a Ninja, Paladin, Dragonslayer, or many other paths. In fact, Tony noted, "You can eventually master all of the classes in game." I was incredulous. "Switching your clothes is like switching your job," explains Adam, "If you want to be a crazy, axe wielding Cleric, you can." I like these guys already.
Artix Entertainment is a true indie developer. Its beginnings are shrouded in the mists of time, lost to modern knowledge… actually, Adam and Tony, the founders, were happy to reveal how a thriving small company arose from what Adam called "thousands of failed game attempts" in college. Tony and he spent countless hours working on this project as a personal challenge, with no intention of making a living at it.
Simply put, these two wanted to see if they could create a game that, as Adam wryly put it, "perhaps a hundred people would play." They went with Flash because it seemed a good development tool, and highly accessible to the public. Adam quipped, "A better question might be, why didn't we go with java or something else, and the answer is, we also wanted to finish it!"
Developed over spare time on weekends and evenings, AdventureQuest was eventually launched, was stable, and people seemed to like it. The team watched as their target of a hundred people grew rapidly - very rapidly. Growing pains with SQL server and MS Access programs were encountered, and dealt with, and all seemed to be going well. They knew they were doing something both very right, and very wrong, when their success resulted in the receipt of a bill from their ISP for $6000 in bandwidth overages one month.
This, together with server crashes due to the sheer volume of players logging on, provided a wakeup call that the team needed a dedicated server and that they funding to continue to provide content. They first turned to the playerbase, and quickly came up with a fundraiser, incorporating the concept of "Guardians", who sponsored AdventureQuest early on.
Throughout, Tony says, "There were points that we shouldn't have come out of, but did." This was the crossroads, when Artix became a serious game development company. Well, as serious as they get, which isn't very. I enjoyed the lighthearted approach they maintained towards their ambitious project. It has never gone to their heads.
Only two years later, Tony quit his job to focus on AdventureQuest full time. Although the playerbase has grown to some twenty-five MILLION users after four years, the company's attitude remains the same. They are irreverent, poke fun at themselves in game, and even pay homage to other famous titles with adventures such as "Leeeeeerooooooy!" Yep, it's that Jenkins guy, leading you on what is undoubtedly a wild misadventure.
Artix have always been and remain community-driven, meaning that they develop
content based on what the players want. Stacia noted that the staff actually
read and respond to the massive volumes of email that is sent in every week. A
further mark of this commitment is the regular newsletter that is sent out to
the playerbase, outlining innovations and new content about to be introduced.
Artix currently employs 25 people spread all over the continent, all fully committed to and heavily involved with the games. Most of them were talented people hired directly from the playerbase. This means that the team is all keen on the projects. With a small, close-knit group, developers are free to create content on the fly, not wasting time bogged down in endless production meetings and waiting for approval from higher-ups. The development cycle at this company is unique, to say the least.
Adam explained, "Monday morning, we have a staff meeting. Everyone says 'Artix, what are we doing this week?' To which I reply, 'What's on the forums?'" We all laugh, but again, the player-centric focus is tellingly revealed. "After some discussion, I then go to the designer, and we start working on it. By some miracle, we usually make it by Friday." That's it folks… concept, art, coloring, animation. Born on Monday, served to the players on Friday. Wow. Tony continued, "There is always ongoing work in the background, as we increase our functionality and game features."
So how, exactly, does AdventureQuest, a free game with no subscription fees, pay 25 salaries, enormous server usage charges, advertising and all the other costs associated with a rapidly growing, ever-changing, online game environ? Two ways: Guardianships and Z-tokens. Both methods are entirely voluntary for players, and therein lies the appeal for those of us who do not wish to incur a large initial purchase price, nor ongoing subscription fees.
A Guardianship involves a single, one-time fee of $19.95, which boosts your character's armor effects and appearance, allows you to summon a creature to fight at your side, fills your pockets with 300 Z-tokens, grants you free access to all areas of the game at any time (including Guardian-only quests) and more. More? Yes, I admit that though I was writing the features down as fast as I could, there was more. Go look it up on the site! True power-gamers can add an additional $5.00 for an "Xboost", increasing a permanent boost to experience gain when defeating monsters, adding 10,000 gold pieces to your personal hoard and providing you with mana and health potions… and more. I am not kidding; go see for yourself!
Z-tokens may be obtained in game by battling some of the tougher monsters, but they can also be purchased at very reasonable real currency prices from the BattleOn site. They are used to obtain unusual weapons, armor, pets and player housing in game.
DragonFable works along exactly the same economic model, with the purchase of Dragon Amulets and Dragon Coins offering excellent in-game returns for your real money investment. As a game set in the tumultuous recent past of AQ, DragonFable game offers a lot of fascinating lore to be discovered, along with a very different epic storyline which will unfold over the course of two years.
In addition to these major titles, Artix offers an array of free (there's that word again!) mini-games such as Undead Assault, Dragonslayer and Monster Joust Madness. http://www.battleonminigames.com/
So what lurks in the misty future for the Artix team? The biggest challenge now, according to Adam, is to fully develop the "crazy power and functionality" of their game engine over time, which he says they have just begun to tap into. Artix has plans to release at least two more Flash titles in future, including an assault mech game that Adam describes as "so over the top, old school anime style, non-stop destruction." "Beyond Assault Mecha, there are a lot of really cool ideas that we cannot talk about yet" smiles Tony. "Another path down the road", continues Adam, "epends if we can find a partner who can help take us there. DragonFable, for instance, could be a massively multiplayer game, with minimal changes. We could take all of our resources, try to throw the long bomb, like everyone and their grandmother is trying to do… or we could find someone who already knows how to accomplish everything, from compressing the data to possessing the ability to deal with hackers. If we can find a partner like that, we can take that path."
Bottom line, these people love what they do, they refuse to take themselves too seriously (except when speaking of technical production), and the fun they have translates into a distinctively different online gaming experience. Here we have a highly successful online game engine that was developed from, as Adam describes it, "An original design document scrawled, in pencil, on a single 8.5 x 11 piece of paper." Talk about flying by the seat of your uhhh… well armored pants!
Those guys in the fancy suits I mentioned seeing around the booth? I doubt they'll turn the heads of the Artix team. There is still a place in this world for a small team of developers with heart and vision. Life is good.
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