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Developer Roundtable: Triple-A, Free-to-Play

February 4, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3
 

Lots of rather vocal players toss "pay-to-win" accusations around. From a game-design perspective, how do you monetize your game effectively without being labeled as P2W?

TH: I think at the end of the day it's all a matter of degrees and perception, because in the West, the client downloadable games at least are rarely in-your-face pay-to-win, so it's a matter of degree and perception. And for us, because Tribes is known as this high-skill-level game, there are really three rules that we had.

First, you can acquire anything that affects the gameplay by playing the game, so it's really a time-for-money tradeoff. Second, we wanted anything that you could unlock to really be sidegrades -- not necessarily better weapons, but just a different play style. Third, just the way the game is designed, whether it's free-to-play or not, it does really depend a lot on player skill.

Very specifically, you're moving around like crazy, you're having to lead your opponent with most weapons over a very, very large battlefield. So a skilled player with just the free weapons can and will beat a new player that has all the items unlocked just because of the nature of the game.

MH: Nobody wants to be a pay-to-win, but it's almost impossible to define what pay-to-win is, because it's a really personal decision that you're going to make. Some people are going to be real hardliners about it, and will call your game pay-to-win if it has anything that costs real money that will give you a boost to how much experience you earn, or unlock an item that does anything noncosmetic for you.

Other people, I guess, are far more liberal in their definition of what they think pay-to-win is, to where if I have to pay money to buy a tank that does twice as much damage, then that is pay-to-win. The tank, to us, would be a really egregious example of P2W, and we would absolutely avoid doing anything like that. But because it's such a personal decision for the player, it's really hard to make those kinds of determinations.

We've done our best to make sure our business model is completely fair, and I think we have a really fair non-pay-to-win business model that still allows people to make shortcuts and unlock items in a fair way. But of course, since it's your own personal opinion, there are still going to be people out there who say that we're a pay-to-win game. You can't please all the people all the time.


MechWarrior Online

BE: You have to be very creative and disciplined about adding perceived value, without adding too much of any power. We found a nice balance with our Hero Mech design; a unique BattleMech variant can be designed with special properties, which are not viewed as overpowered, and thus not P2W.

When are you "done" building an F2P game? Do you ever really get finished?

TH: That depends. The thing that's the biggest change is that in the packaged-game business, what people defined as "done" actually equals "start" for the free-to-play game business. You're really only starting once you have real gamers using your system. The analogy that I think is accurate that people talk about a lot is that packaged games are like movies and free-to-play games are more like a TV series. So when's a TV series done? Well, sometimes it's a commercial decision, sometimes it's a creative decision, sometimes it's a production-related decision.

MH: For certain aspects of the game, I think you certainly do. We're always striving to achieve balance and create new exciting things for our players to enjoy. So nothing ever really finishes. One of the things I was telling people a lot just before the game shipped is that I have no idea when the game's going to be done. And that isn't really an important question to me because we're continually adding stuff, constantly thinking about things that can go in the game.

So "finishing" the game isn't really a concern. We have years of tasks in the backlog right now for things that we plan on adding to the game, and that can be a bit intimidating at first when new people are coming from more traditional game development into making these longer-term games... It takes people a little while to get used to the fact that you don't just ship a project and then just move to the next product; you're continually working on building out and enhancing the game that you just made.

Once you've gotten used to that, though, it's a great feeling because the sky's the limit. There's never a "We only have a few months to get this game finished" thing. It's a "Well, maybe next year we can really work on that cool thing that's going to take a lot longer than two months out" thing. There's never a closed door.

BE: I'll let you know when it happens! (Perhaps never…) MechWarrior Online is a living, persistent game.

How does a free-to-play game's dev cycle compare with a more traditional boxed/one-time purchase dev cycle?

TH: I think that with free-to-play games you typically go out into the marketplace earlier. Once you feel like your most critical mechanics are there, then you're more likely to go out and have players earlier in the cycle, then you're adding scope, both features and content, for a much longer period of time. The most successful free-to-play games out there continue to get content updates four or five years after the players first started playing them.

MH: One of the things that I love as a designer working on a free-to-play game is that my job every single day is to come into work and figure out ways to make the game awesome, and make the game more fun. Because at the end of the day, if people are logging in every day and enjoying it, then we have a chance to maybe get them to buy some cosmetics, or buy a membership because they love playing the game. That's a really great feeling. I don't really need to worry about making a demo that's going to trick people into buying my $60 game, I just have to worry about making sure that the game is really, really fun -- and as a developer, that's really, really fun.

BE: So far, the free-to-play dev cycle is completely different than the traditional boxed/console model. There's always more work to be done. As time goes on, further refinement of our processes will lead to segregation between live ops and feature development. Eventually a portion of the team will be shared to work on regional versions, and new game concepts.


Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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Comments


David Lee
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It's nice to get varying points of view within a relatively compact piece--nice job putting together good information from three developers.

Alex Boccia
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Tribes Ascend was my favorite game for over five months until it started succumbing the freemium imbalance around may of last year. I wish they would have just had us pay forty dollars for the game outright and the game balance could have stayed. I remember HiRez said they weren't going to sell weapons and then after a few months (the huge menu update) they started to. Planetside 2 has level barrier issues, such as squads being unable to take down large bombers because nobody has leveled high enough to get the proper anti-air weapons. Really disappointed that both of these otherwise great games settled for the freemium plan. I feel like they lost most of their original playerbase (i.e. me and 20 of my friends all bailed on Tribes when it went bad) and their design choices became heavily influenced by how it would benefit free to play, and not that players.

Kyle Redd
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I'm not sure Ascend would've been worth $40. It's a multiplayer-only game with a few basic game modes and only 10 maps or so - comparable to something like Team Fortress 2 (which originally cost $20 at launch). But I agree with pretty much everything else you wrote.

The Le
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I loved the Tribes franchise, but Tribes Ascend was "pay to win" mess that put a tremendous focus on Offense. I really wanted to like it, but there were far too many problems. Here's an honest review:
Part 1 Review:
http://gamecrazy.com/blog/detailed-review-tribes-ascend-part-1/
Part 2 Review:
http://gamecrazy.com/blog/detailed-review-tribe-ascend-part-2/

Kyle Redd
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"we wanted anything that you could unlock to really be sidegrades -- not necessarily better weapons, but just a different play style"

This bit by Todd Harris is really hard to believe. I put over a hundred hours into Tribes Ascend, and it was very obvious throughout that time that the different weapons were absolutely not "sidegrades" by any sense of the term. That's why, for example, the Sentinel's Falcon sidearm (which most players use) costs twice as much as his shotgun sidearm (which almost nobody uses). If the weapons are meant to be roughly equal, why would there be such wide variation in their prices?

Kaitlyn Kincaid
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wrt the comment by Todd Harris on being able to take f2p games to market earlier... yes and no.

I was in the T:A early beta. Back then we had XP and we had Tokens. Tokens unlocked classes and XP unlocked stuff inside that class, you earned both at the same time. When they changed their progression system, they converted all tokens to XP and had just the one system.

The issue was, because they had promised never to reset players XP, they suddenly had players with over 10,000,000 XP (to put that in perspective, at the time the most expensive item was 170k, and that has since been lowered to just 50k). There are players with so much XP from that one conversion that they will NEVER need to buy anything ever again.

Carrying over progression from beta to live has to be one of the most foolish ideas I've seen come out of a marketing department since I read the fine print on my cellphone contract. If your game is 100% solid enough that there are no possible progression exploits, no progression adjustments, no "cost" adjustments, nothing.... why are you still calling it a beta? And if you can not guarantee 100% security on those systems, you should not be allowing players to carry over progress.

Beta is a time for finding bugs, if you tell players that they can keep any progress from testing, then what incentive do they have to report exploits? None. Firefall (by Red5 Studios) had an XP exploit last year, it went un-patched for weeks and players made total use of it to advance themselves far faster than they should have. Not only does this mean fewer "xp booster" sales later, it invalidates their progression testing. Since players were advancing so much faster, R5 has less data to go on to see if their progression rate is accurate.

Beta->live carry over is a bad idea and needs to stop, in f2p and everywhere else

(NOTE: this applies to "beta", not "early access")


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