The free-to-play market is exploding, and getting quite crowded in some spots. But there's still a huge market opportunity for AAA-quality free-to-play games aimed at a Western core audience, and a new company called Online Warmongers hopes to take advantage of that.
The company was formed by former Riot Games staff, led by Sergey Titov, who as tech director worked on a substantial portion of League of Legends' engine. He's now wrapping that expertise into new proprietary tech for Online Warmongers, the Eclipse Engine, which drives their new closed-beta free-to-play shooter War Inc.
Titov saw a few common situations in the free-to-play space that he didn't find practical: For one, working with external publishers, which in his view have little to offer free online games "And then there's that flood of games coming from Asia where the graphics are slightly outdated, and the gameplay won't exactly appeal to Western audiences," he tells Gamasutra.
"I felt like,'guys, let's do an AAA-quality title for the Western market, by Western developers, and that was how Online Warmongers started in 2009." The company is self-funded, owns and builds its own tech and plans to own and self-publish its IP. "There aren't many publishers who can provide anything significant to a free-to-play company outside a huge cash and marketing force."
That's what drove the company's partnership with A-List Games, a studio focused on marketing and other audience-building initiatives for digital games. The group also hopes to get European reach through a partnership with Moscow-based Syncopate -- which also helped War Inc. secure status as an official tournament title for the World Cyber Games in Russia.
Online Warmongers CMO Matt Candler, who since 1995 has worked in the industry with Activision studios, Pandemic and his own mobile developer, says he had an early interest in digital platforms. During that time, he met Sergey and was impressed by the technology.
"I was looking at the games market, and seeing licensed games were dying... there are still a few key prizes, but for a vast majority of the catalog, that didn't exist. Digital is really exploding; we're going back to a smaller-scale developer where there are still good profit margins," Candler says.
"We've got the technology, we've got a team of 25 to 30 people, we've got guys who have worked extensively in the industry... let's make a game that we want to make and then build it out a little at a time and drive our development," he adds. "Rather than spending $10 million for a 'when it's done,' we're going to spend a few million, get something playable and then use our data analytics to find out what people's behaviors are and use that to drive our development."
The company also feels making a skill-based game is an advantage when developing a business model for a free-to-play game, because players are motivated by the challenge of never having to spend money.
Says Titov, "Right now, we've been in closed beta for two months, and out of our top 100 players, more than half of them are not spending a cent on the game." A similar ratio persists with any size sampling of players. "More than half of the people don't spend any money, and yet they are still in the top and can compete with guys who spend literally several hundred dollars over a month."
War Inc. has a Los Angeles team as well as a team based in Russia, and most of the latter have extensive experience developing free-to-play games for the European and Asian markets. This can be a negative, as the team is skewed toward those audiences and development strategies, while Titov views the design expertise of traditional AAA creators in the U.S. as "more mature". But a compromise between both types of talent will benefit the game, the company believes.
"The good thing for us is that several of our team members [across both teams] have known each other for several years at least, and they have worked together in the past. In the end, we don't have most of the challenges that people who use outsourcers or have different offices have," says Titov. "We're still still a small team... when it comes to teamwork what's good about our company is they're all kind of doers. If they see a challenge they're not going to say, 'hey, I need my lead to tell me what to do,' they'll just say, 'let's do that.'"
"Sergey likes the Naughty Dog model of no producers, and if you have an idea, make it happen. It's a little bet better than a 100-man team with a lot of producers, and economically, too," adds Candler.