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Why  Sins of a Solar Empire  dev Ironclad went free-to-play
Why Sins of a Solar Empire dev Ironclad went free-to-play Exclusive
February 27, 2012 | By Kris Graft

February 27, 2012 | By Kris Graft
More: Social/Online, Exclusive, Business/Marketing

Sins of a Solar Empire was built in the basement of a house by a small group of dedicated game makers, collectively calling themselves Ironclad Games. By the time the strategy game launched in 2008, the Vancouver-based team had grown from its three founding members to just 10 developers.

That small team size wasn't reflective of the game's scope or its sales. With more than 2 million units sold, Sins of a Solar Empire is an example of the success a small team can achieve with a little bit of innovative game design and a whole lot of talent.

Not content to keep doing the same thing, Ironclad (now with 12 people) last week announced Infinite Games-published Sins of a Dark Age, a fantasy-themed free-to-play PC game that, like Sins of a Solar Empire, is a hybrid of two strategy genres.

Whereas Solar Empire was an expert mix of Civilization's 4X gameplay and StarCraft's real-time strategy, the online-focused Dark Age mixes the action RTS (a genre established by Defense of the Ancients) with the traditional real-time strategy genre.

Without seeing the game yet in playable form (it's eyes-on only at next week's Game Developers Conference), the most striking element about it might be the use of the free-to-play business model. Ironclad saw admirable success with 2008's retail- and digitally-distributed Solar Empire, but the market has changed drastically in the past four years. Now, microtransaction-based revenue streams are a proven option for online games like Dark Age, more so now than in 2008.

Blair Fraser, one of the original three Ironclad cofounders, told Gamasutra in a phone interview that the studio "played a crapload" of free-to-play games as homework for Dark Age. "We played all the Zynga stuff, even the more 'hardcore' strategy games," he said. "We've obviously been looking at what other people have been doing in the PC space."

Fraser said that during the course of free-to-play research, he didn't like everything he saw. One of those negative trends, he said, is the ability for players to pay to win in some free-to-play strategy games.

"The number one thing that we didn't want was to be selling in-game power, especially in strategy games," said Fraser. "Strategy games should be your skill, your brain, your tactical and strategic thought against someone else's, or against the enemy AI's strategies.

"If you're just going to allow people to go 'Here's a bunch of money. I win,' that just defeats the entire purpose for us," he added. "That might be a great way to make money, but it just doesn't jive with what our concept of what a strategy game is.

"We're not just in this to make money. We wouldn't have all quit our jobs and started up a small company if it was just about making money. I could've easily moved into banking or whatever."

Some free-to-play strategy game makers have adopted the same motto -- that players shouldn't have to, or be able to, pay to win. But then they go and make a game that requires excessive grinding in order to "unlock the fun" of new units and powers, a grind so heavy that it drives some players to spend money. Fraser wants to avoid that grind in Dark Age.

For Fraser, going free-to-play is partially about putting the studio's creative work in front of a larger audience. "The artistic side of us wants as many people as possible to play what we poured our hearts into, and giving the game away is a great way to do that," he said.

But it's not all about artistic expression, as Ironclad is a business, after all. Free-to-play offers a low barrier for potential customers, and a potentially large player base. Fraser explained, "You need the volume, the Blizzard-level number of people to make that 'get-in-the-game' experience as short as possible.

"If you don't have that critical mass, that whole premise is going to fall flat on its face. The best way to get that volume was to give the game away, and hope that people are willing to support the work that you're doing, and that they are interested in additional content," he said. Paid items in Dark Age will include new heroes, commander, factions and skins.

In the game, players take the role of a commander who builds up his base, builds up defenses, and builds up an army that will charge and assault enemy fortifications and forces. Fraser said, "At the same time [the player] has a number of human players who are controlling these powerful heroes who lead the army, gather resources in a different way, get gear and level up. It's this really interesting synergy between the two roles that makes this stand out as something different."

Being different will be important. The action RTS/MOBA genre has seen increasing popularity, as Riot rules the space with League of Legends, and Half-Life house Valve is coming out with Dota 2.

"We thought there would be upcoming competition, but we didn't think there would be as much as there is," said Fraser, looking back at when Ironclad originally decided to create Dark Age. "We think most of our competition is on the same path, to an extent."

"We feel our hook and our differentiation and innovation in both types of strategy [genres] are quite different. In my mind, the two big juggernauts are Dota 2 from Valve, and League of Legends, the market leader. I think we separate ourselves quite a bit from both of those, and everyone else is following along that path, so we're not worried about that as much."

For now, the real concern might not be in competition, or whether the studio has the game development chops. The biggest unknown is the new business model. "There's obviously a little bit of concern [about giving away too much content for free]," said Fraser, "but I don't really think anyone has really tested how far you can go with that. ... Maybe it's too much, maybe not, but we're going to find out!"

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Cordero W
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"Why Sins of a Solar Empire dev Ironclad went free-to-play"

I hate seeing articles like this, as if they need to explain why they given in to the model. It's the modern model for mmos and the probably the most profitable at the moment. This can all be reduced to just one sentence, and save the space for a more important exclusive.

Kris Graft
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@Codero I don't really believe that the shift -- as you essentially say -- came because everyone else is doing it and that's how you make money. It actually is a bit more complicated than that, and there are nuances and steps toward that business model that are different for every developer. Mr. Fraser was quite keen on giving the details for Ironclad going free-to-play, and if you don't appreciate/aren't interested in that, I suppose that's your call.

Joe McGinn
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There's nothing inherent in free-to-play the prevents great and fair gameplay, both of which are obviously important to these guys (and to Riot, and Valve). If anything we need more real game developers showing how to do it right. Not everyone in free-to-play is making cynically manipulative Zynga skinner boxes.

Sounds to me like Ironclad are doing it exactly right.

Joseph Cook
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I genuinely think free-to-play is a quality business model for both customers and developers, and think the notion that free-to-play = pay-to-win is absurd. Tribes Ascend and countless others have demonstrated that the model can be extremely fair to people who don't pay anything, while enabling people to pay for variety instead of advantage.

However, I'm not sure I buy into Blair's reasoning here. It seems like, if anything, for-pay indie games on the PC have only increased their sales in the last 4 years since the original Sins, not fallen away. Whether it's Super Meat Boy, Bastion, Minecraft, Binding of Isaac, Dungeon Defenders, Orcs Must Die, or otherwise, small developers have seen a ton of success on PC, many times specifically because of Steam. Sins got most of those 2 million sales long before Stardock sold Impulse to Gamestop, long before Sins was on Steam, so a new game on Steam from Ironclad seems like a guaranteed success in the making.

On the contrary, it seems like free-to-play is rapidly becoming the latest trend that developers think lead to automatic success. While most MMOs have seen a ton of success immediately after going F2P, the financial model will hit critical mass before too long, and every F2P game will be fighting for customers' free time instead of dollars.

I don't know, maybe I'm completely off-base here, but it almost seems like Ironclad is following a trend and designing a game to a business model, instead of designing the game first and applying a business model they already know, and would give them practically guaranteed success.

Matt Robb
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Sounds to me like they're simply taking the common "unlockables" mechanics and making the unlock method money instead of some other alternative. Not quite the same as designing to the business model.

Jeremy Reaban
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Ultimately though, most F2P games do come down to a "pay to win" model.

It's just some hide it better than others.

With that said, I still think it's a good model for casual players that will likely reach the end game (or a certain point) and leave. It's just those that love the game end up getting soaked for all they are worth.

Jason Carter
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@ Jeremy Reaban
Done well, that's not always the case and is a big reason why Riot Games is having so much success. You can play the game, and unlock any of the characters you want, get all the runes you want, and play competitively with someone who sinks 100$ a month into the Riot Points system.

Yet somehow, while enjoying the fact that LoL is free and wow I can play it without having to pay and not get punished! I still end up spending more on LoL then on a normal MMO. Why? Because I like my character lookin smexy. And because I have a job.

But the point is that even though it is for just cosmetics ro not having to farm out the in game points to buy the champs you want, Riot makes their non gameplay oriented items attractive and THAT is why they are leading the market.

I'm honestly very impressed with their business model and how they have handled it.

Joe McGinn
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This is you right Jason? ;-)

Total agreement with your analysis btw. Riot shows how to do it right.

Jason Carter
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@Joe - Yes... unfortunately yes it is XD

Kris Graft
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I think another good example of F2P and strategy is Robot Entertainment's Hero Academy on iOS. The "Council" class is included for free, but for 99c each, you can buy other classes. The game is still balanced to where you can beat paid classes with that one free class. As far as I can tell, paid classes aren't grossly overpowered. You simply pay more because you want to add meaningful variety to an already balanced strategy experience.

Evan Combs
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That model is really somewhere between a demo and F2P. You can play the whole game for free, but if you want to experience the whole game you have to pay extra. Not a bad model in my opinion