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Hi-Rez's  Tribes: Ascend  challenges free-to-play shooter expectations
Hi-Rez's Tribes: Ascend challenges free-to-play shooter expectations Exclusive
May 2, 2012 | By Kris Graft

"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."

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William Johnson
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You know, I'm pretty happy Hi-Rez didn't try to force this in to the console space. I have become very disenchanted with the closed space of the consoles recently...maybe not that recent...since its been a few months since I've even started up my Xbox...

And what I'm REALLY happy about is that Tribes doesn't use some BS pay-to-win model where your guns expire after a few hours... not going to name any names... but the game in question maybe published by a company who's name starts with an E and ends with an A.

Anyway, I'm having a blast with Tribes: Ascend. I really hope Hi-Rez is making a pretty good chunk of change out of it. This really is the way to do free-to-play.

Joseph Anthony B. A. Tanimowo-Reyes
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No "obvious" free-to-play? What happened to DLC? One could easily use the DLC options on consoles for the same purposes.

Nathaniel Marlow
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I pre-purchased it during the beta for $30 when it wasn't free to play yet, and when it went free to play they just dumped a generous amount of premium currency onto my account. I would maybe be a little annoyed by that, but it's a really great game and doesn't even try to beat me to death with microtransactions.

Also, the account in that screenshot has 6,112,400 XP.

Jeremie Sinic
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Sounds like you get Free-to-play (no "pay-to-win")! Definitely need to check it.

Alan Wilson
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Looks like another hit on the way for Georgia :)

matthew diprinzio
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As a gamer I hate free-to-play games. They always feel like glorified demos. Honestly, i'd rather just pay full price and get a complete game.

Kris Graft
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You can essentially do that... pay $49.99 (the highest-priced package), and get a bunch of gold to unlock items permanently. I haven't added up how much every item in the game would cost, but it looks like you can unlock pretty much the entire game.

matthew diprinzio
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I don't just mean item wise, I also mean in terms of the scope and design.

With free-to-play, $49.99 gets a me a short MP game with just a ton of cosmetic/weapon combinations. If I spent that towards a new CoD title I'd get a full fledged SP campaign, fully fledged multiplayer with dozens of weapons, attachments, perks, etc and Co-Op.Like I said, F2P games feel like glorified demos with micro-transactions to me.

William Johnson
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@matthew diprinzio
To be fair, to actually get EVERYTHING in a CoD game costs you $120, after all the DLC. On top of that, you have to now pay yearly to get the next new thing and to get new balancing and features in the game.

A free-to-play game can update balance and add features when ever the developers feel like it, and you can actually get all the content for free. So if you put the time in, you are paying less. And assuming you are going to enjoy the game and play it a lot, the game is essentially paying you to play it.

matthew diprinzio
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I thought with CoD Elite you get all DLC for free? So that's like an extra $10 annually? That's still a way better deal than all these F2P games.

Wow, I sound like I work for Activision.

Honestly I think F2P is a huge fad right now. I really haven't seen any major games really take off with that business model and I think that's because consumers know the majority (if not all) are pay-to-win and provide shallow experiences.

matthew diprinzio
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I also think F2P is just an inherently flawed business model for competitive games. If your only method of revenue is to sell items, then of course you'll end up overpowering items even if you never intended to. Otherwise, if there is no real incentive to buy them, you'll be out of business.

As a gamer and developer, I would FAR rather buy/sell a game for a flat fee then put my efforts towards adding new content to attract new players -- not nickel and dime my existing fan base. Because as a gamer, I know that the dev has already made money from me and has no further reason to unbalance the game for me to buy shit. Anything they add is likely to enhance my experience so I can market the game for them via word of mouth/recommending.

F2P, imo, would work far better for single-player. Creating a rich narrative that sucks me into the world and never lets go is a win for me and the developer.

Kyle Redd
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"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."

That's the understatement of the year right there. The idea that non-paying Tribes players are on a level playing field with the paying customers is a joke, and HiRez knows it. Some of the new weapons, like the just-released Plasma gun, cost either 100,000 exp, or about $8.00 in cash (!!). A semi-decent free player will generously earn around 500 exp per 10 - 20 minute CTF match. That means if you want to unlock one of the game's most powerful weapons, you can either shell out a ridiculous amount of money for it (seriously, $8 for a single gun?!), or you can hunker down and play for about 50 hours, all without buying anything else along the way.

I suspect the critics were likely given "complimentary" accounts with a bunch of gold gifted from HiRez so they wouldn't think too hard about how expensive everything is. This is very much a pay-to-win game and any claim otherwise is ludicrous.

Steven Lin
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That $8 gun is not going to "win" you a team-based game, and semi-decent players should be able to pull in 1000-2000 exp a match, not 500...

The Le
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I've played over 20 hours of the final version of Tribes, and I think this is very true. A team with just a couple people that paid full price can wipe out a team that didn't pay a dime. The extra weapons that you pay for are extremely powerful.

matthew diprinzio
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oops double post

Wiz 1974
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I was sceptical when I first signed up for the Tribes Beta. Other than LoL and TF2 I really hadnt seen any F2P games where it wasnt painful to play without buying something. However I have to say in my opinion Tribes is a really good example of how F2P should be. I would easily put it up with TF2 and LoL in those terms. Sure its going to take me a lot longer than paying customers to unlock everything i want. But I know going into it that if I am going to be, lets say thrifty here, that I am going to have to work harder. Atleast I know if I put the effort in that I will get that reward. And I feel a lot prouder knowing I put that effort in and the reward means a lot more to me. However a couple of my workmates here have spent the money to unlock everything and they are happy as larry.

I think if any company looked at these 3 examples of F2P games then we are in for some great games in the near future.

Jamie Ottilie
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Tribes is not a pay2win game - get over it - you can play quite well with any of the weapons and it is absolutely skill based - it has a steep learning curve and a very different play style then traditional FPS's and I for one am glad that HiRez did such a good job with the Franchise. Free2Play isn't supposed to mean free forever - it costs millions of dollars to make games as good as Tribes - Free2Play means come take a look at our game - consume lots of content - decide if you want to spend money to get serious about it or continue to play casually without paying. They did an amazing job of updating all the goodness of T1 and fixing many of the flaws. I get so tired of people complaining that F2play games aren't really free - OF course they aren't really free - if you invest 30-40 bucks in Tribes you get more content and a better multi player experience then most retail games and HiRez will continue to invest and drop more maps/weapons/content/character classes.

The Le
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The game is pretty unbalanced. All the focus is on Offense, so playing any kind of defense is almost impossible. Generators are ALWAYS down due to this odd focus.

But biggest problem is the Infiltrator class, which makes you invisible to everything on the map. It heinous. The F2P aspect isn't bad, but the game isn't balanced at all. Doesn't really feel like Tribes anymore -- it just feels like Quake II with jetpacks.