InterviewRick Simmons of Horizons: Empire of Istaria

  • August 16, 2007
  • Acquisition by Virtrium
  • by: Ophelea
  • available on: PC

Istaria: Chronicles of the Gifted

Developer: Virtrium

Release Date: 12/08/03


Setting: fantasy

Like the proverbial phoenix (dragon?) that continually rises from the ashes, Horizons: Empire of Istaria is poised to take flight once again. Purchased just over one year ago by EI Interactive, the game has languished with no updates, billing errors and poor community support until recently when Virtrium, LLC purchased Horizons and all remaining assets from Tulga Games. The players have been wondering, though: exactly who is Virtrium?

Good question. In the previous two weeks alone they've re-established Blight, the test server; opened the community forums to registration (they've been closed for more than 8 months); established a new, very agile support ticket system (none had existed for nearly a year); and have somewhat covertly been talking to the players. Things the remaining rag tag bunch never expected as they were simply hanging on to the game until its dying breath.

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I was once employed by Tulga Games to support Horizons but after the sale haven't been involved in the game. Monday I received a phone call from the former CTO, Rick Simmons. Could he speak to me on Friday? About what? He'd tell me on Friday…

It seems the super secret new owner - Virtrium, LLC - is none other than said Rick Simmons. He, along with members from every department of the former Tulga development team are working diligently to get the game back on track. Some very familiar faces are back on the job, Lead Designer Jason "AmonGwareth" Murdick and CS Lead Sean "Reyem" Meyer are just two of several. David Bowman, due to commitments with Certain Affinity, will not be involved except as a consultant on design - particularly those areas that were left unfinished.

Their first goal is to get a new billing system in place. In testing today is a system that will accept all forms of credit cards and PayPal, something not previously available to players. Since the purchase, the European server was shut down. The inclusion of PayPal will also help fill this hole. Also included will be the ability for those who want to mail in a check for payment. Few companies still accept this form of payment, but for the small games that can, it really makes a difference especially in terms of customer service and goodwill.

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The exciting part about the new system is the multiple account and redemption code functionality. A single account can hold multiple subscriptions, allowing players to stack subscriptions or services to their account, such as multiple plots, concurrent logins, consignment slots or character slots. And, if you want to pay for a friend's account, you can purchase a redemption code for any number of months and give that code to a friend to pay for their account. Their account is then paid without the issues of who "owns" the account.

Having the Blight server back is a commitment to the players that changes will occur. There is an internal test server, but Blight has always been the external test server. Early next week, a new terrain client will be pushed out for testing. This means an updated client. A very small group of people have been working with the game for only a few weeks yet they've prepared client improvements - now to get the players to help test them! Gaining the trust and help of the players is a hurdle that Rick admits they're going to have to overcome.

The week before the game was sold a patch was placed on the Blight test server to correct an error in the previous update. It never made it to live. Because of this, the players have been living with over-aggressive monster agro, buggy crafting issues, database errors on items and a whole host of minor issues. It was the second in a series of three very large patches. That patch will now go out with the next delta (Horizons speak for update).

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I haven't talked to Rick for many months. The interesting part is, he's usually quite reserved and methodical when he speaks. Today he was excited and eager. This is not an easy task he's taken on! Many would consider a small team to be a hindrance but he looks at it as strength. They are able to come to a consensus quickly, be more responsive, be available to the players as a team rather than delegate that role to a single person.

As time passes and the administration of the game is brought under control, he fully intends to grow the game to a respectable 10k playerbase with regular content updates. But, he wants to do so by contracting out those aspects that can be - art, web development, music - and keep the rest close and agile. Always able to react to the needs of the players and the game.

He wants to do what the game has always done well: community, crafting and dragons. No other game has it. Kudos to the niche game. It's the reason it continues to rise from the ashes. Let's just hope this dragon soars and never need land again.

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About the Author, Kelly Heckman (A.K.A Ophelea)

I'm a mother of two boys, ages 11 and 13 and live in the chaos that ensues. I've a permanent disability that keeps me homebound, so books, kids, games and books are my constant companions. Oh, and books, too. *grins*

My children both play games so I often play them first, getting to know exactly how something may effect my sensitive and easily stimulated older child vs. my stoic and imperturbable younger.

I like games for games; for the pure enjoyment of them and believe that no game is wholly bad, though some are real stinkers.

I also have the dexterity of a camel in mittens so find playing FPSs difficult (and I also don't like the gore) and RTSs at times can stump me. I just can't seem to move quickly enough to keep up with them. Some of my favorite games are arcade games and I'll spend 3-5 years on the same 5-6 levels because I just never get any better. But, I have fun.