"You get what you pay for." "Nickel-and-diming." "Pay to win.": I imagine it's phrases like these that must haunt the dreams of online game developers who plan on using the free-to-play business model in their shooters, MMOs and strategy games.
Even with the success of free-to-play games like League of Legends and Team Fortress 2, there's still an apprehensiveness towards this new business model among online action game players in particular. This demographic has certain expectations in terms of gameplay, graphics and network features. So free-to-play game developers have the difficult task of delivering on those expectations while working out the issues of an emerging business model.
With Tribes: Ascend, 53-person Atlanta, GA-based independent studio Hi-Rez is the latest game maker to challenge preconceived notions that online action game fans might have about free-to-play. The game officially launched a couple weeks ago to very strong critical reviews.
Tribes: Ascend -- the newest entry in a series that debuted in 1998 -- is an Unreal Engine 3-powered, class-based online first-person shooter that boasts sprawling landscapes, a "skiing"-to-jetpacking mechanic that provides for lots of speed, and projectile weaponry. That's a recipe for unique FPS gameplay that consists of a nice mix of skill and luck.
On the back of strong reviews and an open beta, the free-to-play game is gaining traction, according to Hi-Rez. "Launch went well," said Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris in a phone interview with Gamasutra. "At this point we have over 800,000 registered accounts. Servers are very, very active." The company plans on expanding the game's base in part by localizing it for other regions, as it's currently only available in English.
"It's really our belief that for an online multiplayer game, particularly, free-to-play is the best model for gamers and for studios," he said.
This is not the first time Hi-Rez has implemented the free-to-play business model. Its previous title, the third-person action MMO Global Agenda, launched in 2010 as a standard buy-to-play game with subscription options, but Hi-Rez made the decision to convert it to free-to-play the following year.
When the game transitioned to the new business model, Global Agenda saw an increase in players, and conversion rates stayed the same as before. "So that was a pretty clear sign to us that free-to-play would be a better angle," said Harris.
"Based on that experience, we really saw the potential in free-to-play, for gamers and for studios. With Tribes: Ascend, we really wanted to do a AAA, free-to-play game that's the level of production, polish and gameplay that we were shooting for. Fortunately, reviews have been good.
"Our philosophy is to focus first on making a fun an engaging game," explained Harris. "Second, by making it free you create a large audience to play the game. And third, you implement the store so that it doesn't give any gameplay advantage to a paying player, but it gives a time advantage or a prestige advantage -- the latter in the form of cosmetic skins."
Here's basically how Tribes: Ascend implements the free-to-play model: The game begins with three free available classes, and standard weapon loadouts. As you earn XP by playing the game, you can spend that on virtual items. If you pay some real money, you get in-game gold that you can spend to immediately unlock classes, weapons, upgrades, and other virtual items, saving time.
Weapon upgrades (such as increased damage) take relatively little time to unlock, which was surely done to keep the game balanced between paying and non-paying users. Totally new weapons would take hours to unlock if you don't pay, so like many free-to-play games, most everything is technically accessible for free, but you'd have to do a fair amount of grinding in order to unlock everything without paying. But the weapons that are initially available seem to stand up against later unlockable varieties. (And later weapons might not fit a player's play style anyhow -- for many, the initial weapons may work best.)
In other words, the way that the game handles microtransactions is much less offensive than I've seen in other free-to-play games. I've put about six hours into the game, and have yet to spend a dime.
But while that's good news for me and other stingy players, it raises the question of when is a developer giving away too much in a free-to-play game? What if the free content is so accessible that players don't bother paying?
"I wouldn't say that we were wary of giving away too much," said Harris. He drew an analogy: "... I think of it almost as a Express Pass to the paid user. When I went to Universal Studios in Florida, and I really wanted to get into that Spider-Man ride, I bought an Express Pass so I could get to the front of the line. I went on the same ride as everyone else, but I got to get there faster."
Harris was tight-lipped about just how much money the game is making, but he said, "Our goal is obviously to sustain a development team (Tribes' team has 15 people) to continue producing content, with some profit, so we can invest in new game projects. So we're very pleased that it's exceeding our expectations there."
The company's new projects won't likely include console versions of Tribes: Ascend. The game was originally planned for Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and PC, but once the game went free-to-play, and the open PC became the main platform, the team reconfigured the title to play best on PC.
"We do not have any plans for Tribes on console at this time," he said. "...The way it went is that we wanted to do the free-to-play model, and there wasn't a clear path to that on consoles early on. Based on that, we optimized the game around the strengths of the PC, and specifically a keyboard and mouse control.
"Once we decided it'd only be on the PC, we optimized [gameplay] around speed, a quick turn radius, and things that are optimized for PC game controls," he added.
"We're still interested in free-to-play on consoles, but at this point, we have nothing specific to Tribes on console. I do expect the consoles will see more and more free-to-play, certainly the new generation, and possibly the existing generation as well."