Albion Online: Don’t play by the rules!
Albion Onlines Game Designer Robin Henkys talks about rules, and why you have to break them.
According to an old saying, “Rules are made to be broken.“ And when you look at the ever-increasing density in the games market, breaking some rules is a good way to set your game apart from others. Unfortunately, the old saying fails to identify when, how and which rules are meant to be broken.
In this article, I want to show you how we came to break a few of our own “rules” for game design and development during the production of Albion Online. I also want to show what impact this had on the product, what we learned, and how you can possibly apply these observations to your own game.
The first question we have to ask is: what is a rule and what constitutes breaking it? As far as I am aware, no single generally accepted framework for game development exists. Hence, I’m relying on my own perception of conventional “game development wisdom”, which is based on 10 years of developing games in similar genres to Albion Online, a degree in game development, and following the mainstream literature. I’m certain not everything I consider to be breaking a rule will feel the same to you, but I still believe you will be able to take something from our experience and this article.
The next question is: which rules did we break for Albion Online, and how did we decide to break them? The short answer is: we never set out to break any rules. We set out with a vision to create something no other game we knew of was offering, and on the way we found we had to bend or break some rules to make our vision come true. All of the times we strayed from the path, we were working towards our vision for Albion Online, and the decisions we made were direct consequences of that vision.
Before we get started, I need to explain our vision for Albion Online. Instead of trying to describe the game in a single vision sentence, we opted to use a few principles formulated as bullet-points as our vision. We felt that these rules described the dynamics of the experience we were aiming for. These points were:
- Full-Loot PvP – I can fully loot all equipment from any other player I kill in Albion Online.
- Player-Driven Economy – All equipment items in the game are crafted by players from resources gathered by players. Resources are local, and transportation and logistics are a part of gameplay.
- You Are What You Wear – There are no classes in Albion Online. Instead, players build their own characters by freely combining equipment items.
- One World – All Albion Online Players play in the same world.
- Cross-Platform Play – Players can play Albion Online on PC or Tablets and can freely switch between the experience, all functionality is available on both platforms.
Please note that this is a modernized and summarized version of our vision bullet points, but the essence of these five points has always been what I would call the core of the vision for Albion Online.
Step by Step
So what rules did we have to break to achieve our vision? To start with, we begun development without a finished GDD. This is far from unusual (although still highly irresponsible for most games), but in Albion’s particular case it made sense. A game so vast that depended on social interactions could not, we feel, be designed on paper. Instead, we decided it should be developed in fast iterative cycles, proofing one aspect of the game after another, while always proofing the game as a whole at the same time. We focused on short production sprints and frequent playtests, adjusting the design as we went along. We didn’t focus on individual features in these tests; instead, we tested the game as a whole every time. After each test, we asked ourselves what changes were needed to get closer to our vision. Sometimes this meant we had to throw away entire systems, replacing or repurposing them as needed. More often, however, we chose to adjust or extend systems to achieve our goals.
A good example of this is the evolution of the rules of engagement in Albion Online. We knew that a pure implementation of our “Full-Loot PvP” vision would leave new players at the mercy of veterans, so we knew we needed a system to restrict PvP against newcomers. The first iteration was a very simple system of Blue and Red Zones. In Blue Zones, PvP would be impossible, while in Red Zones players could attack each other at will. Through many iterations, this evolved to a system which included a reputation system as well as Blue (safe), Yellow (non-deadly), Red (deadly, but attacks cause reputation loss) and Black (anything goes) Zones. In the end, the system even included „unrestricted PVP zones“, which allowed for PvP without reputation impact within Yellow and Red zones. Working iteratively on the whole game at the same time allowed us to arrive at a system far more elaborate than we could have foreseen, or planned for, at the beginning.
Of course, it is not unusual for a game to go through a prototyping phase, but what is unusual (and maybe „rule-breaking“) is that we never left this phase with Albion Online. No matter how late we were in the development cycle, no change was too big to make if we felt it was truly necessary. As an example of this, to make the player-driven economy work, we changed the entire layout of the game world several times in the late stages of Beta, despite the massive effort required. In fact, finding strategies to increase flexibility in all systems was crucial to surviving the continuous prototyping. In the case of our game world, we invested in a modular world building system, which would allow us to quickly rearrange levels as needed.
It’s Done When It’s Done
Working in constant prototyping mode also dictated the second oddity of our development cycle: we worked without a definite deadline.
That is not to say we didn’t set any deadlines. We set many of them. Our initial idea was that Albion would launch nine months after the start of development (we ended up taking 4.5 more years after that), but we always knew that we were only going to release Albion „when it’s done.“ In the end, we officially released the game only when a majority of players deemed the game done and ready for release. In this way, the development of Albion felt radically different to other productions we had worked on. But how was it possible to bend the rules of the games business to make such a development possible? The „game-changer“ was a unique funding structure, a mixture of private capital and early access money.
Initial investment into Albion was relatively small for a cross-platform MMORPG (only a few hundred thousand euros), but more funding was negotiated with investors based on needs as the game developed. This worked out similarly to a publishing contract, where funding would be provided as certain milestones are reached, but it was far more flexible and didn’t create any conflict of interest, as both sides saw the growing promise of the product.
The second stage of funding came entirely from early access. Once the game had grown enough to garner significant interest, an early access campaign was launched that ended up financing the final two years of development all by itself.
Our iterative development approach integrated well with our financial approach. Since our focus was always on producing fully playable versions of the game, we were able to build a player base from the early playtests, and this enabled us to smoothly transition into Early Access when needed.
The Rules of Fun
Now that we’ve seen how we bent the rules on the production side to make our vision come true, we’ll take a quick look at the game design side. Here, our vision forced us to make the most awkward decision of them all: minute-to-minute fun versus the principles in our vision.
As a game designer, my number one rule used to be “if it isn’t fun, it doesn’t belong in the game.“ But many of Albion’s core ideas directly contradict the short-term fun of the experience.
Another player being able to loot everything off my corpse after killing me? Double punishment. Not being able to teleport to my friends to play at any time I like just because transportation of goods is a part of the game design? Lots of boring walking. Market prices too low to make a profit from crafting as a crafter? Frustrating. Not being able to loot items from mobs because all items are supposed to be player crafted? Disappointing!
In games like Albion Online, there are no simple truths or easy mantras to follow as a designer, because most player actions are double-edged swords. You often have to weigh how much fun derives from the principles the world is built on against the frustrations deriving from them. A player killing another player and looting them is actually a net loss of fun for us. Usually, the frustration about the death is bigger than the joy of making the kill, and due to partial gear destruction on death (for the in-game economy), it is also a net economic loss. Most mainstream MMORPGs of the recent era overcome the problem of player death in PvP with the same simple solution: the effects of player death are mitigated into meaninglessness. “Meaning” in PvP interaction comes from losing a battle or overall objective, but rarely from losing personal assets.
In order to achieve our own vision of a meaningful game world where players truly risk something, we had to actively break with design convention and accept a certain amount of fun lost for the overall experience. But it wasn’t as simple as just declaring “full-loot PvP = good.“ Instead, we had to leverage the feeling of playing in a world where you COULD be killed (or COULD be making a kill), and at the same time significantly limit the number of kills actually happening. In Albion, this kill rate is the result of complex interactions between the rules of engagement (where can I engage other players), mount balancing (how easy is it to catch a mounted/unmounted player), combat balancing (how easy is it to kill another player), objective distribution (how likely are players to cluster around the same locations) and population density (how many players are there overall), as well as social factors (how large are in-game alliances and how likely are players to be in the same alliance). By spending a lot of time and effort on carefully balancing these systems, we believe we’ve gotten away with breaking the rules and have maximized the amount of fun from PvP for our particular niche of players.
Another good example of having to think outside our own rules is how we dealt with loot from mobs.
Throughout most of the game‘s history, creatures in Albion did not drop any equipment items, since doing so would undermine the market for crafted items. Of course, the mobs dropped other items (like crafting ingredients), but never a single piece of equipment, which was generally seen as very disappointing by the players. To find our solution, we had to overcome our own internalized rules for narrative design. We created a „black market system“, which buys items from players and distributes them to creatures, which will then drop the items upon death. The market price of items goes up as more creatures are killed, ensuring that there is a constant driver for players to sell items to the black market and keep the drops going. In this way, creatures can drop any of the items that can be crafted in Albion Online, while all items remain player-crafted. We later added a little narrative which explains the black market, but to design it we first had to overcome our internalized narrative rules which called for a “logical” game world.
This is how we try to handle all contradictions between Albion’s core vision and expectations from our accumulated game development wisdom. When there’s a conflict, we free ourselves of our internalised “rules” and consider whether bending or breaking the “rule” we’re in conflict with allows us to stick to our vision while maximising the gain from conventional wisdom. Following this approach, we’ve managed to stick to our core pillars promised in our vision, which is also what over 200,000 early access buyers of Albion Online (and a total of 500,000 players up to now) bought into.
I hope in this article I’ve shown you that it is possible to succeed off the beaten path and that breaking a few of your own rules here and there can be a strength of your game, rather than a weakness. I personally think it is a good time for developers and investors to put trust in their unique visions for unexplored or under-supported genres, as it is a good way to set yourself apart in a market that is getting more and more competitive.
Take a chance, challenge your own rules, and strive for a vision you really want to see succeed over a vision that is easy to achieve – the world of gaming will be richer for it.
is the Game Director for Albion Online and CEO at Sandbox Interactive.
Robin previously lead the game design of Drakensang Online (Bigpoint) and the level design of Drakensang: River of Time (Radon Labs), based on the “Dark Eye” pen&paper license. Robin studied Games Computing at the University of Lincoln (UK).
Albion Online: Don’t play by the rules!