Exclusive Interview with Steven-Elliot Altman

Steven-Elliot Altman, 9Dragons’ Lead Writer, and Howard Marks, the CEO of Acclaim, took the time to answer some questions we had on the game that went into Open Beta today. This martial-arts MMORPG will be the first major title released by the resurrected Acclaim.

WarCry Q&A: 9Dragons
Answers by Howard Marks (CEO, Acclaim) and Steven-Elliot Altman (Lead Writer, 9Dragons)
Questions by Dana Massey

WarCry: You’re just about to launch. Between now and then what is the biggest concern?

Steven-Elliot Altman: Now that the game is fully functional, I guess that our biggest concern is server integrity. We’re used to a few thousand players playing consecutively… but we’re pleased to report that (and perhaps a bit nervous about the fact that) pre-registration has far exceeded our expectations. That coupled with the reality that 9Dragons is free to play… we’re hoping for (and a bit nervous about) a significant rise in those numbers. Our technicians are sweating I hear… wish us luck!

WarCry: What lessons has the open beta taught you? Were there any significant changes to the game directly as a result of player feedback?

Steven-Elliot Altman: Open Beta really forged us into a true community of players, Dana. I think we have a give and take between the staff and the players that hasn’t been seen before. A great example of how players affected us was when we announced we were going to Open Beta with only four of the six starter clans: Shaolin, League of Beggars, Sacred Flower and Brotherhood of Thieves. The community pleaded with us, and strongly recommended that we open with Heavenly Demon and Wu-Tang as well, and they gave us several well-conceived reasons why. We listened, had an internal debate, and decided to give them what they wanted. It always seems to be a win-win situation.

WarCry: What’s the current idea for a pricing model? Recently, several MMOs have started out with a monthly model, but have changed to a free to play / micropayment system. Where do you fit in and where do you see this industry going?

Howard Marks: When we restarted Acclaim back in the fall of 2005, we decided to go with the free to play model for all of our games. This includes 9Dragons, but also 2Moons, BOTS!! and DANCE! Online. It is free to play because we have advertisers paying to place ads inside the game without any player delay or disruption. We also have virtual items sold for Acclaim Coins purchased by our players on our website. The combination of these two revenue models allow us to offer the free model profitably and therefore allow our player to fully enjoy their playing experiences.

WarCry: How do you feel a Western audience is going to respond to a game that is not only originally produced in Asia, but also heavily Eastern themed?

Steven-Elliot Altman: Good question, Dana. I don’t think anyone is going to realize this game was originally produced in Asia. Indy21, our Korean publishing partner, did an excellent job creating this engine, and our team left no stone unturned in making the content accessible, understandable and fun for Western gamers.

As to the themes, I think Westerners are already convinced they love the action, spirit and mystique of Kung Fu television, films and philosophy. Pioneers like Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Ang Lee already cleared that road for us. The question is, Did we deliver? We’re about to find out.

WarCry: When our own Razor, of the Razorwire, recently took your game for a twirl he noted that after the first thirty minutes he “was about to give up on the game as just another Asian Grindfest.” He didn’t, but what are you doing to make those first thirty-minutes more user-friendly?

Howard Marks: We ask our beta-testers to tell us how to improve our games and we listen. If the game is not balanced and not fun, we will add more quests for example. The key in our opinion is to listen to our players. We have a very active message board for 9Dragons. I have my own forum called BIGWIG rants.

WarCry: Are you worried that the far more famous Shaolin or Wu-Tang Clans will attract far more people than the others and hurt the game’s balance?

Steven-Elliot Altman: Actually, it’s Wu-Tang Clan (the noble clan of peerless swords) and Heavenly Demon Clan (the sinister clan of demonic sabers), who passionately hate one another, that seem to draw the most disciples in-game. As a balance to that, those two clans are actually much more difficult to join, requiring a far greater degree of training and skill. Female players playing female characters dominate Sacred Flower clan, as expected, and Shaolin has an equal number of male players playing Shaolin Monks. The League of Beggars has that great drunken monkey style Kung Fu appeal, and The Brotherhood of Thieves has that Sopranos mentality and some of the coolest wardrobe items. We could let you check our server stats yourself… it’s surprisingly well balanced among the six starter clans.

WarCry: There are still quite a few rather obvious bugs floating around the live servers, such as characters running away after they pick up loot. What are you doing to track and eliminate these things?

Howard Marks: We have a bug reporting system where our players report problems and we fix them through weekly patches. Hopefully, we will have a clean near bug free game when we go commercial in a few weeks.

WarCry: Are there any plans to increase the capabilities for players to reconfigure their controllers and customize their user interface?

Howard Marks: We do not have that immediate plan, however, we will survey our players and prioritize what they want improved. If this is important to them we will add it to the list of changes for 2007.

WarCry: What plans do you have for 9Dragons once it is launched and the basic bugs are cleared up?

Steven-Elliot Altman: I can’t wait, Dana… and it’s not that far from now, we’re close. Here’s my short list: Start our first series of inter-clan wars, which we call Black and White Wars. Start some great contests for things like Best in-game videos, and Best player created advertisements. Introduce and unseal the three advanced level clans… Black Dragon, Union of Noble Families, and Disciples of Iron Fist. We’re also interested in exploring venues for novelisation and dare I say… <whispers> feature films.

WarCry: As this is the reborn Acclaim’s first major MMO since Howard Marks reinvented the company, what does the release of 9Dragons mean to the company and what expectations do you have for it?

Howard Marks: This is real big milestone for Acclaim. We have been waiting a little under a year to get this one out. The fans have been great and we have high hopes for this game. As we all know, this is interactive entertainment and it is hard to predict success, however, we are very proud how the game turned out and Steve Altman has written a great story. I hope your readers will have a chance to experience 9Dragons.

Thanks again, Dana! You always ask the best questions. We look forward to meeting your readers in-game and playing alongside them. Steve’s handle is “The Hermit” and Howard prefers to keep his character’s name anonymous… so watch out.

For more information on 9Dragons, check out 9DragonsGame.com.

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