I still remember the big secret that Robin Henkys wanted to keep from the public when I visited Prenzlberg in Berlin in December 2018: Free2Play. In order to make the online role-playing game Albion Online accessible to a wider range of players interested in sandbox MMOs and to keep the hurdles for the mobile release as low as possible, the decision-makers at Albion Online wanted to take the step from Buy2Play to Free2Play . The time had come in April 2019. Since then, anyone who is interested in the full-loot MMO with the player-controlled economy can download the client and start playing for free. In line with this, the tutorial has been made more user-friendly so that the numerous newcomers can find a good start in the complex world.
Not without reason. Albion Online does not live in the shadowy MMO community, but lives outside of these circles rather from word of mouth. Anyone who has discovered Albion for themselves, as Managing Director and Game Director Robin Henkys will let through on my new visit, will be happy to recommend it. It makes sense to remove the payment barriers and make the game as accessible as possible. I chatted again with the creators of Albion Online, asked Robin and Head of Operations Christoph Hombergs about how the last year went for games and studios – and what the future has to offer fans of the successful MMO Made in Germany.
Source: Sandbox Interactive
The welcome in the modern-looking yet homely offices of Sandbox Interactive is warm; after all, we ran into each other on several occasions last year. "You are too early," says Christoph. Apparently, this is becoming our running gag, because that was how Dirk Gooding, who was then chief of the developer magazine Making Games, and I were greeted by him the year before. It doesn't matter to me to wait a bit, after all, this way you can chat about the first three coffees of the day. After the morning stand-up meeting of the designers and developers, Robin finally joins us and asks: "What are we actually doing?" The spontaneous answer on my part: "You still exist after the year!" He laughs. "And I think we will still be around for a while. We won't be rid of that quickly."
And already we jump upside down in Robin's summary of the past year. The absolutely most important event is of course the switch to Free2Play, which was already in progress in December 2018. A change to a Free2Play model was an idea that was played with every now and then at Sandbox. When the decision to take this step was finally made, the prevailing opinion in the community was "When will Albion Online Free2Play? Buy2Play is out of date." The fact that the game, in addition to the USA and Western Europe, has many interested parties, especially in emerging markets that are not quite as financially strong as Brazil or Russia, was another good argument to take the step. A major update was also released for the Free2Play launch, which, in addition to a new tutorial and thus a significantly improved initial experience, improved some core elements of the game and addressed weaknesses.
PvE in an open game world
In summary, the Free2Play conversion project ended with a great relief on the part of those responsible and developers, because everything went very well. With the launch came an update that brought PvE fans, for example, random dungeons; a strong and almost always available option for those of the players who don't get to the top of their lower lip in the PvP part of the MMO. "It's unthinkable these days that it was ever different," Robin admits. "At that time we thought too much in terms of PvE in terms of instances to meet the initial need." This in turn ensured that the open-world character of Albion went slowly but surely at least in this area – actually an absurdity for an online role-playing game of the hardcore genre. Since the quasi relaunch of Albion there have been random dungeons for groups and since summer 2019 also for solo players who are very popular.
The groundbreaking success
The Sandbox people tend to communicate less in numbers, but the transition has exceeded all hopes. "We didn't know what to expect," said Robin, "and the day before the launch I thought 'Oh dear'". No one could estimate whether Free2Play meant an upswing or a downfall. The company previously generated a lot of money from the new sales, a source of income that logically ceases to exist with the changeover. Of course, the project was not tackled completely blue-eyed. Robin was able to draw on his experience with Drakensang Online and Bigpoint, and Sandbox 'decision-makers also spoke to the people from Cipsoft (Tibia Online) and other companies with experience in the Free2Play transition. For example, a rapid growth in the number of players can be expected and also an increase in sales. Reminder: Like Eve Online, Albion Online only takes place in a world that runs on a coherent server association. When it was time for Albion, the mail went off. "I remember when it started …" I start and Christoph throws in: "It was full." "It was very busy and we had to turn on the queues," continues Robin. "Because Albion only has this one world and it cannot endure infinitely." Not only are new players immersed in the adventure, many veterans have returned and given Albion a new chance.
And the community?
It is often the case that the fan community is rather skeptical about a Free2Play changeover. Before that, people put money into the supporter packs and into buying the game themselves – and then everything suddenly becomes playable for free? "Most of them said 'Boah, really cool'," says Christoph. The Albion community has been very positive about the change in business model, because it will make it easier for them, for example, to give their friends a taste of adventure. Because rarely is something more exciting for an adventurous MMO player than a free trip to new worlds. Especially since the developers only pack the reference to the premium time in the tutorial. In the further course of the game you will be spared from advertising. Exemplary when you think of how other studios clap their MMO with advertising and restrictions after a Free2Play changeover. Even more exemplary: The community has parked its heroes for the transition in the starting cities of its own accord to help the newcomers.
"The interview says 'they laugh'"
The makers of Albion definitely have a laugh, since the online role-playing game is in a growth phase, and by itself, without the sandbox people having released a major update. And the switch to Free2Play was technically much better than the actual launch of the game. "Although … we had one thing in it," notes Christoph. "The Goldtrade story?" Robin asks him and puts on a face that says something like "Wasn't that bad." It wasn't really bad that a dupe bug made it to the servers for a short time, a bug that allowed players to double the premium currency – without paying anything for it.
Within minutes of reports from the community, the developers responded, shut down the game, and fixed the problem including rollback within an hour or two. And without that the premium currency market of the MMORPG could be damaged. Such an exploit is of course an absolute no-go in Albion's player-driven economy. And that also proves what a good reputation developers and their babies have in the fan base: the players care about the economy and therefore report such problems immediately before anyone can mess with them. "It is clear to everyone involved that the game would be broken if such errors existed and exploited," says Robin, "and the players are usually more concerned with the continued existence of the game than their own profit. I find it very personable from a human perspective."
If things don't go so smoothly for the Albion Free2Play model, there will still be no items in a shop that will bring you a playful advantage – so no Pay2Win in the classic sense. "For me, items that you spend money in the shop that bring a boost to your character are out of the question," added Robin. It looks different with mount skins, optical adjustments or unusual emotes.
The queen is there
Even though the Free2Play update adjusted the open world for PvE fans, there was another area that has become difficult over time, namely guild fighting. Territorial wars for supremacy have always raged between guilds and alliances in the Outlands, and it emerged that the really big communities always had the edge. An expansion of the contested countries was only a drop in the bucket; brought relief for a burning problem only for a short time. In the summer of 2019, however, the developers decided that patches no longer help. The plan: rebuild the Outlands. The challenge: Implementing this plan meant converting half the game. And that came in January 2020, including a completely redesigned Outlands map, shelters, the new NPC faction Avalonier and various mechanics to give small guilds a chance. Thanks to new incentives, the strong should now stay more in the middle of the Outlands and meet similarly powerful player groups there. It is up to the debate whether the players are going to reorganize the world as the developers intended.
"Sometimes you have to make bold decisions, even if that seems against the will of the players," says Robin, referring to the adaptation of the rules that are based on conquering areas. Ownership claims have been governed by 5v5 guild battles since its launch, but over the years this has meant that only a small, elite group of players have identified these skirmishes among themselves. The other members of a guild often came to helpers. To get into this elite, someone else had to drop out and that was extremely rare. Because of this, these battles have now been outsourced to the Crystal League, for which a guild does not have to hold an area to participate. The system is reminiscent of the tests by Osiris from Destiny. With a ticket you can take part in the battles, which will be upgraded with every victory and send you into the race against groups that have had the same success. Neither an ELO nor an MMR system regulates matchmaking, and it doesn't need that either. Skill and interaction determine how often you upgrade your ticket.
The community initially viewed this change critically, but after the release of the Queen update, it was positively surprised by the Crystal League and the restructuring of the balance of power. Robin has a split opinion about alliances, which many players have wished to be completely abolished. He understands the desire of the community, but also hopes that mechanics like the Zerg debuff and negative effects for alliances that have brought many areas under their control will provide some form of self-regulation. Almost all major alliances have already broken up because of this. "And an agreed non-aggression pact," says Robin, "is much more unstable than a game-guaranteed one." At this point it is exciting to see how the PvP metagame developed by Albion.
And the future?
The focus of the designers is currently shifting to the needs of the little man. The Avalonian streets will become a kind of fast travel system. The Avalon Nebula opens at randomly chosen locations as a portal and gives players access to a veiled world that changes every day. Among other things, the system is used to temporarily connect places that are currently very far apart. However, there is a twist: Large troop shifts for a guild fight are not possible due to restrictions. Small portals let only one player through every five minutes, medium portals, five, large portals twenty heroes – too few warriors to start a big battle with arch-rivals, but enough to investigate the situation. Branches from the foggy streets lead you to NPC Encounters or even Avalonian outposts, but perhaps also to swamps, in which you will find a particularly large number of resources. With the Nebels, a real exploration element is introduced for the first time in Albion, which is constantly changing and creates new incentives for all players. Those who prefer to fight a PvP duel in peace can do so in the 1v1 dungeons, in which you not only defend yourself against NPC opponents, but also a combat-ready opponent. Think of invasions from the games of From Software. If you defeat the enemy, who will put you on the skin, you can of course loot his pockets. We weren't able to look at these dungeons yet, but we could see the mobile version of Albion Online. It has been in a beta since release, which is now being revamped for a (hopefully) early start on smartphones, including some customized UI elements and a virtual controller control. This ensures more movement comfort than the tap control previously used. And that should also help in conquering the Asian gaming market … at some point, in the long term. So there are enough reasons for the people at Sandbox Interactive to keep dreaming. We're glad!
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