Hi-Rez Studios describes itself as a "AAA independent", working in Atlanta with a team of 50 on Global Agenda, the Tribes licence and new project Smite. It's a self-funded and self-publishing business, built by co-founders that came to video gaming with a background in online services - essential since Hi-Rez moved Global Agenda to a free-to-play model.
In this interview with GamesIndustry.biz, co-founder and chief operating officer Todd Harris discusses the switch to free-to-play and how it affects the way the studio operates, as well as his thoughts on free-to-play on consoles and why the upcoming Tribes game is heavily PC focused.
Q: How are you finding the free-to-play market, because that’s relatively new for you guys?
Todd Harris: Yeah, it is. I mean I’d say the thing that is in our blood is the whole idea of software as a service, and doing the continual updates, and so Global Agenda went through a variety of business models. At one time I think we considered every one of them. But the thing that was really constant was our commitment to updating the game. And so we considered subscription, we never actually charged subscription and it was buy-to-play for a long time. But even as buy-to-play we were continually doing new updates into the game, and saw free to play as a way to better monetise the updates that we were doing and also just expand the user base.
It’s still early in the first phase, but we're certainly very pleased with how things are going. We’ve basically tripled the number of accounts being created so more people coming in the front door, just based on our choice to go free and we've implemented Agenda Points, which is our form of virtual currency. So we're very encouraged so far about the model and how it fits with Global Agenda.
Q: Do you think you’ve finally found the right business model?
Todd Harris: Yeah, I think it fits the game the best. It probably would have been best served to launch with it, but again I think we’ve got a reputation with the community around updating the game constantly and that’s why there’s a lot of good will, and now free-to-play is a way to just grow the user base and keep the existing users attached to the game. So yeah, I think it is the best model.
Global Agenda went through a variety of business models. At one time I think we considered every one of them
Q: It’s quite relevant to all kinds of media businesses isn’t it? If you can show that you’re adapting to what the customer wants then it’s not such a huge issue as long as you move quick enough for the consumer.
Todd Harris: Yeah, and that’s kind of in our DNA. I mean actually myself and the other co-founder of the company, before Hi-Rez Studios we were involved in a software service business. This wasn’t to consumers it was to businesses, and actually retail businesses, and retail businesses doing things like managing their inventory, managing their workforce specifically and those business requirements change quickly, suddenly there’s a new labour law requirement and that needs to be implemented. And we did that through online software as a service and that was very successful and so really that’s kind of how we’ve always thought about games. A little less consumer product on the shelf orientated and more online, constantly keeping up with changing requirements, only now we’re able to let gamers help us steer the direction of the ship, versus business requirements.
So from the beginning we really built the studio around how can we stay close to customers? How can we make sure we’re delivering the sort of features and content that they most enjoy playing? So that’s how we’ve run the game and free-to-play, I don’t think it’s the only way to deliver, but certainly a good fit for Global Agenda.
Q: How has going free-to-play changed the way you work as a development studio? As actual creators of a product?
Todd Harris: Well I think, again, always take cues from the community in terms of surveys and in game metrics and it’s a little early but certainly we’ll be looking at what players are choosing to spend their dollars on as another factor along with how players are spending their gaming hours. So before we would look at in-game metrics and see how much are people enjoying the PVE versus the PVP and which types and which weapons are being used and under used, and now we have this whole other source of data on what people are choosing to spend their virtual currency on, and that will help guide some of our choices as far as development priorities.
Q: Is it difficult managing that data and acting on the appropriate parts? You must be inundated with data and metrics.
Todd Harris: That’s right. Before we’d look at it in terms of game balance and in terms of which weapons are under represented or over represented in classes, now there’s just a whole other dimension of virtual item pricing, so we’ll soon understand how much players are motivated to buy only cosmetic items versus gameplay items and of course there’s all sorts of dimensions beneath that that get more detailed.
Q: The free-to-play market is becoming more popular and standards in terms of service and development are constantly improving, so how does a company like yourself stand out in that market?
Todd Harris: As a studio the AAA high production values is where we differentiate. There are other entries getting there but certainly the traditional association with free-to-play is a little bit… lower production values, shall we say? Lower graphical fidelity? And so as an Unreal 3 user, and this is where the early investment and Global Agenda as a non free-to-play game perhaps helped us, because we think it compares very favourably with other AAA titles out there. And that’s something we’ll maintain as a studio so high production values, specifically great looking graphics and good gameplay, and fast performing game code. All those things are a part of our studio brand that might be a little bit different from niches carved out by other free-to-play folks. And then specific to Global Agenda there’s things as far as the genre being sci-fi and the gameplay being shooter oriented instead of slower paced that’s also helped us stand out I think.
Q: Recently Sony Online Entertainment put Free Realms on PlayStation 3 as a free-to-play game. Do you think there’s a market there? Would you like to see free-to-play expanded on the current consoles? Do you think that’s possible?
Todd Harris: I think that is possible, and yes we'd like to see that expand. It’s not quite as far along as obviously the PC, so we continue to look at the PC as our focus in the short term. But really regarding free-to-play, and even just as we were saying the ability to constantly update the game regardless of the business model, whether it’s subscription or DLC, I think a platform that lets the developer update the game frequently will continue to win out. The PC and the mobile platforms are very strong in that regard and we’d like to see the consoles move in that direction also.
Q: I guess maybe it’s something for the next generation of hardware to do a little bit better and be though of in that respect. When the Xbox 360 and PS3 came out free-to-play wasn’t such a big market.
Todd Harris: That’s right, I think they’re having to evolve by necessity there. And there’s a hardware component but just as legitimate there’s just business model questions as well as certification questions that need to be worked out between developer entity, publisher entity and hardware platform provider.
Until the console allows for faster, more frequent updates and alternate business models then it's less of a sweet spot for us than PC
Q: So recently you guys bought the Tribe licence which is obviously very well regarded in the online PC community, what attracted you to that licence?
Todd Harris: Yeah we’re very excited about Tribes, we acquired it last October and certainly the things that attracted us are it’s known for being one of the original internet sports games, if you will. So having online multiplayer competitive play, team oriented play, that really distinguished it. The earliest versions of Tribes games had no campaigns whatsoever, so as a studio we enjoying making and playing online team based games and Tribes has that solidly, those credentials are established with the Tribes franchise. So that was certainly one element. There’s jet packs, we love jet packs and we’re inspired somewhat by the tribes jet packs at Global Agenda, so it’s great to be able to embrace those. We saw that the speed of the franchise, the speed and the vertical element, even though there’s a lot of first-person shooter games, there was nothing today that kind of matched the Tribes franchise as far as speed, embracing the vertical game space and combining twitch with teamwork. And so all those things just made it an attractive franchise and one that we thought deserved to be reintroduced to today’s gaming audience.
Q: So the game is for PC and XBLA, is that right?
Todd Harris: Yeah, we announced in the trailer PC and XBLA. I will say that our first initial focus is the PC as far as what we’re developing on, testing on, and as far as availability we’re focused first on the PC. One; because that’s where people associate the franchise, that was its home, and two; because we do want to be able to deliver updates for it, and as we were saying we think that’s the strongest platform for it right now.
Q: Are you working with a publisher on this are you putting it out to directly download from you guys?
Todd Harris: We’re self publishing.
Q: Is it difficult not having the marketing power that a big publisher brings to a project like this?
Todd Harris: I think we’ve got some good partnerships, some already established. We’re having conversations, so I think our reputation with Global Agenda and having a fairly sizable built-in community plus the Tribes name is making it less of a challenge to get attention. Certainly being a studio with one successful shipped title and the Tribes name, we’re getting a lot more attention than when we were just starting out, when we were having to invent our own IP with Global Agenda that no one had heard about and we’d never made a game as a studio before, so there’s certainly a lot more visibility this time.
Q: Does the console market hold much interest for Hi-Rez, because it seems to be that you’re very much PC focused?
Todd Harris: Until the console allows for faster, more frequent updates and alternate business models then it’s less of a sweet spot for us than PC.
Q: So would you like to see hardware manufacturer’s improve those areas, do you think that’s realistic in the current generation? Or would you expect the next generation to address those?
Todd Harris: I do think it’s realistic in this generation. I think as you mentioned Sony has already delivered an MMO with DC Universe Online, and now a free-to-play MMO and it feels like Microsoft will in the near future look at alternate models, there have been rumours of free-to-play on the Xbox - which I don’t know anything more about than you do - but it feels like there’s no reason that faster updates and specifically free-to-play models or alternate pricing models, those should be able to be developed on this generation consoles, and those things would be very interesting to us.
Q: Finally, how is business as an independent developer? It’s obviously a very tough market at the moment, especially for a company of your size, you have 50 members of staff, which is a big responsibility, as opposed to a smaller start-up with less ambitious designs.
Todd Harris: Well with our 50 we’re actually working on three unique projects. Global Agenda continues to have a team that updates it, Tribes, that has a team around it and we actually have recently announced Smite, which is in the DotA category, gods versus gods, that also has a team. So we deal with the challenge by having highly talented self empowered teams around each project, which is actually going well. I think being small is actually advantageous there compared to our experience with Global Agenda. Sometimes having less people involved lets decisions be made more quickly in the team and makes things run faster. So that's in our advantage and I think being built from the beginning around online distribution, to be honest, a lot of the bigger studios and bigger publishers are having to make a tremendous change to embrace these new models and new ways of thinking, rather than the fire and forget, get it to a retail store and the project is over. We’ve always thought the project begins when you get it out to consumers, and built a machinery around that. So we have our own challenges being small but I think a lot of advantages as far as culture and being nimble and responsive to what gamers want.