A reprint from the February 2013 issue of Gamaustra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this article examines the growth of premium free-to-play games. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.
Free-to-play is nothing new for many core PC game audiences, with Valve's Team Fortress 2, Wargaming.net's World of Tanks, and Riot Games' League of Legends championing microtransaction-based models for a few years now.
However, in the latter half of 2012 we saw three new entrants in the free-to-play market, each bringing back classic boxed PC franchises in a new free-to-play format: Tribes: Ascend (Hi-Rez Studios), MechWarrior Online (Piranha Games Inc.), and PlanetSide 2 (Sony Online Entertainment).
Game Developer caught up with Todd Harris (Hi-Rez COO), Matt Higby (PlanetSide 2 creative director), and Bryan Ekman (MechWarrior Online creative director) to try to unpack each of their strategies for cracking the core PC game market.
Is there anything about your respective IPs that made them particularly conducive to a free-to-play (F2P) business model?
Todd Harris: Um, no. I would actually say it was probably not that expected that we would make it free-to-play with that particular franchise. I think it kind of had maybe the opposite reputation. We're the fourth Tribes game for the PC, but it had been a while since there had been a Tribes game.
They were known for being quite hardcore and for having a pretty passionate group of veterans that still played the old game, and also known for being all about the multiplayer, not single player, so things like balance and any perception around pay-to-win would be a big deal. So I actually think Tribes was not an IP that people would have expected to go F2P, and we saw that as a challenge.
Matt Higby: One of the best things about it, I think, is that a lot of times you're making an F2P game, and a lot of the people coming in and getting enjoyment out of your game aren't really doing a lot for you unless they're buying stuff from the store. As a developer, you're not getting much out of the people that are playing for free, unless you can entice them into buying something. With PlanetSide, that's not true; everybody that jumps in and plays PlanetSide is actually providing content for all of the people that are playing PlanetSide with them.
Bryan Ekman: The nature of the MechWarrior IP allows us to attract a large player audience; who doesn't like giant robots? Once a player gets through the basics of learning how to pilot a walking tank, they will find a very deep and engaging experience that allows you to tinker and customize your BattleMech (avatar) endlessly. The nature of a BattleMech gives us plenty of opportunities to monetize non-pay-to-win (P2W) concepts, such as time-savers and cosmetics, that add real value to your battlefield persona.
Was the game originally conceived as a free-to-play game, or was that model added during the development process?
TH: Step one was that we wanted to make a game that had the gameplay of Tribes -- specifically, a fast-paced shooter with jetpacks. We liked that gameplay, so first we wanted to make that type of game. Second, we were fans of the game, so we looked into buying the IP and we ended up doing that so we could make a Tribes game. It was originally envisioned as a one-time purchase, but then throughout the development cycle we shifted toward making it free-to-play.
MH: When we first set out to make PlanetSide 2, we knew that F2P was on the table as a possibility, and as we built the game out more and more, we found all the ways that it fit, and I think one of the things that's fascinating about free-to-play is how well it fits a lot of different types of games. So as we were building the game out it became more and more clear that free-to-play was the best option for us.
BE: When Piranha Games first started working with the MechWarrior IP back in 2008, our intent was to make a traditional console product. In early 2011, we acquired the Xbox and PC licensing rights, and quickly decided to scrap the old brick-and-mortar design in favor of taking MechWarrior in a new direction. And thus MechWarrior Online was born.
How does your game convert a free-rider into a paying player?
TH: What someone gets value-wise is two categories of things. One of them is cosmetics. We have cosmetic skins, so you can make yourself look a little more badass, but it doesn't affect your actual game. We also have voice packs, which have been kind of nostalgic for the Tribes players; the early games had these built-in voice quick-key commands that let you taunt or call out tactics, so we offer custom voice packs for those.
Then the second thing is you get more variety faster by paying. You can unlock additional classes, so if you want to play a stealth infiltrator class, or a technician who deploys things, you can unlock new classes and new weapons for those classes much more quickly if you decide to pay.
MH: With PlanetSide 2 one of our keystones is ensuring that we have fair competitive gameplay. So one of the things we decided is that anything that can affect gameplay in any way can always be unlocked through gameplay. You can go and purchase items, but you can unlock those items through gameplay too. I think if you're making a competitive free-to-play game, that's a must-have.
The main thing we're doing with monetization right now is convenience. People who might not have 40 or 50 hours to play games anymore (like you might have had if you were me when I was in college) can use microtransactions or purchase a membership to unlock items more quickly. So the convenience factor is really key, and also we have lots of cool cosmetic things.
Since those don't actually affect gameplay, those are sold pretty much exclusively for Station Cash (currency purchased with in-game money - ed.) in the game, and we find a lot of people actually have those so they can be a little more distinctive. For us, though, the most important way to turn a free player into a funded player or a paid player is to just have a fun game.
We know that having a game that people can log into every day and have fun in every day -- have an enjoyable experience -- that's the thing that convinces them to spend money more than anything else, including even what we can offer them to spend money on. The players feel like the game is fun, and they want to be able to support the developers of the game, and we see that being a true thing within our community.
BE: First, we focus on getting the player engaged and teaching them the mechanics of what makes MechWarrior Online fun and refreshing. Then, after a player has learned the basics of piloting, tinkering in the MechLab, and customizing their BattleMech, they discover a cash store filled with fun or advantageous items to purchase. That said, it's still possible to have a free and fun MechWarrior Online experience.