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.
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.