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The Creative Assembly: Losing The Race To The Bottom

The Creative Assembly: Losing The Race To The Bottom

Thu 01 Nov 2012 8:00am GMT / 4:00am EDT / 1:00am PDT
OnlineDevelopment

The team behind Total War Battles on the "mid-core" revolution and the value of fighting the trend towards free-to-play

In exactly two months, the games press will ply the world with endless articles declaring the best releases of the year. Generally speaking, these lists are utterly predictable mixes of the same group of AAA blockbusters, with an indie darling in each half of the top 10 for balance. This year will be different.

Right now, my personal list would begin with Trials Evolution, Fez, Mark of the Ninja, Journey, Hotline: Miami and The Walking Dead, with the only AAA product threatening to crash the top 5 being Dishonored. In their brevity, accessibility and value, these games represent the very best of what the digital market can offer. They have the sort of focus and personality that is almost always lost over the course of 30 feature-packed, cinematic hours.

"A company like Sega, we need to be better than a lot of the companies out there: you need to set the bar high, to set the standards; a code of conduct almost"

Nick Farley, lead artist

This view was put to me by Renaud Charpentier, lead designer of Total War Battles: Shogun, an iOS offshoot of the popular strategy IP and the first game from The Creative Assembly's digital team. I met Charpentier and Nick Farley, the game's senior artist, at Unity Technologies' annual Unite conference. Both are in high spirits, if somewhat bleary-eyed, after picking up the "Golden Cube" at the previous night's awards ceremony. Not bad for a first try, though perhaps understandable given The Creative Assembly's experience and resources.

"The three main leads of the project, we are all industry veterans," Charpentier says by way of explanation. "I would say the most helpful experience was console development, because all these handheld platforms are fairly close to consoles. They are, in fact, consoles, so you have the same kind of being very wary with your memory management."

"An iPhone is basically a PlayStation 2 and a half," Farley adds. "It's got a lot of memory, the processing speed is really good, but shader-wise and what you can do CPU-wise, it's more akin to high-end PlayStation 2 level."

Certainly, Charpentier, Farley and lead programmer Mattijs van Delden have crafted a truly impressive product, one that harnesses the strengths and sidesteps the weaknesses of the hardware. And it took time: Charpentier recalls the moment he first sat down to plan Total War's entry into the digital space, just him and a blank Word document. From that point, assembling a team and producing the game took 18 months; at its peak, there were between 15 and 20 people working on the project, including sound designers, animators, technical artists, video team and the company's mo-cap studio.

1

Most iOS developers would consider these resources luxurious, but Charpentier and Farley view them as near necessities. They have few illusions about the world in which the iOS and Android versions of Total War Battles: Shogun must exist: a vast, crowded landscape of micro-games, very few of which were made with the time and consideration they have invested, very few of which cost more than 79p.

"We live in the land of the clones at the moment," says Farley, referring to the huge number of mobile and social games. "There are so many clone games out there, and we really want to avoid that. A company like Sega, we need to be better than a lot of the companies out there: you need to set the bar high, to set the standards; a code of conduct almost."

"I think we're devaluing our product by selling it so cheaply. We're devaluing the experience, and we're dumbing down the experience"

Nick Farley, lead artist

At present, Total War Battles is on sale for £2.99 ($4.99 in the US), which, however absurd it may seem, puts it at the very top end of pricing on both iOS and Android. Charpentier and Farley understand that this makes their game an exception, and the overall trend towards tiny price-points and in-app purchases is the cause of some concern. Eventually, the free-to-play model may find a better balance between generating revenue and quality of experience, but, in Farley's view, at present it is responsible for many games being under-produced and over-simplified. Can that environment really support a game selling for the princely sum of £3?

"I don't think it can even support games selling for 79p," Farley replies. "When I was first buying games for my Atari 800 XL 8-bit computer the cheapest game you could get was £1.99, and that was 1984 or something.

"This is personal, and I don't represent Sega by saying this, but I think we're devaluing our product by selling it so cheaply. We're devaluing the experience, and we're dumbing down the experience. I've got nothing against Tiny Wings, I've got nothing against Angry Birds. I mean, Cut The Rope is a fantastic game, but that should sell for £4, not 79p... When you sell a game for so little you have to sell millions of them to make the economics work."

But that was never part of The Creative Assembly's plan. The week following our interview, Total War Battles launched on Steam, and it's fair to say that it seems more at home in an environment where quality is at least as important as volume. In Charpentier's terminology, Battles is a "mid-core" product, very much in line with Limbo, World of Goo and the games mentioned at the beginning of this article. In his view, this new sector is where all of the most interesting work is being done.

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"The plan was to address the entire digital space, and you obviously have to start somewhere," Charpentier says. "Smartphones are just the harder thing to do, so it was a good first target, but our plan for what to do next was really to become a digital team that will address all the devices and stores that you have access to. Whatever you have in your pocket - a netbook, a laptop, a Microsoft Surface - it will be fast to download, and it will have deeper gameplay.

"There are many tap-tap casual games, but that's not what Total War is about and it's not what Creative Assembly is about. We're doing mid-core games, and there's a lot of room for that. Casual games on smartphones and Facebook are introducing games to many people, but over time they will want something more."

"If you looked at Zynga two years ago you would think that everything in the future was going to be free-to-play. But Zynga is already in trouble"

Renaud Charpentier, lead designer

The very fact that their product stands out against the backdrop of iOS and Android should work in its favour, and, along with other high-end releases like Infinity Blade, it will help seed a healthy market for premium smartphone games - the kind of market that is already flourishing on services like Steam, Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network.

The rise of free-to-play can seem inexorable at times, almost suffocating, but Charpentier believes that an up-front price-point still holds value for the consumer. The act of paying is akin to a contract between producer and player; a tacit reassurance that the product is genuinely worth paying for.

"I see players in forums saying that if it's a free game they won't even try it - it won't be worth the time to download it and play," says Charpentier. "They are being pushed to spend money on in-app purchases all the time, and in the end some people won't think that the experience was worth it. These people are turning towards higher priced games. Plants vs Zombies, which is not a million miles away from what we're doing, did very well on iOS for over two years, and they still sell it for £3. PopCap never went Freemium with it, and I don't think they will. That's good for us.

"The first place all that started was not on iOS; it was on Facebook. If you looked at Zynga two years ago you would think that everything in the future was going to be free-to-play. But Zynga is already in trouble, and it has proved that customers became vaccinated against those tricks... It was clever, a very clever business trick, but I'm not entirely sure it was a clever step [forward] for business in gaming."

12 Comments

Ben Gonshaw
Game Design Consultant

26 26 1.0
I'm happy that both consumers and the industry are waking up and smelling the questionable ethics in F2P (even if they are game forum users, which marks them as a particular and relatively small demographic).

The Zynga-style F2P model is grounded in creating a psychological dependence and then milking it for every last penny. Like gambling. I'm inclined to think that the core mechanic of 'pay to fix our hobbled game' should have an age restriction and a government warning on it.
Witness Zynga building more pure gambling products as an indicator of their business model in general.

As developers we create extremely compelling experiences - and there's a line that's crossed when we begin to exploit that compulsion.
We are game creators, not gaming/gambling operators.

'Paid for' is the classic alternative, either upfront, or subscription. It has been historically successful - but it's still hard to get demo users over the barrier of conversion into the paid for version.

There are other ways to innovate content vending business models without falling into the Zynga mechanic - (wanna buy any TF2 hats or the next episode of Walking Dead?) - and there are more innovations yet to be leveraged.

People may have F2P fatigue - but there are always ways to refresh models and avoid old pitfalls and make them both relevant and profitable.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Gonshaw on 1st November 2012 2:44pm

Posted:A year ago

#1

Greg Wilcox
Creator, Destroy All Fanboys!

1,993 902 0.5
I predicted that freemium and F2P would indeed devalue games from a few standpoints to the point where too many people (starting with casual users who have NO clue what goes into making any sort of game whether it be a quickie budget basement indie app or a bloated AAA release) would start believing EVERY genre or type of game experience would need to drop in price to the point where both the delivery system and lack of effort required to acquire these games automatically "entitles" the end user to think they don't need to pay much if anything up front.

I do wonder how far this business model has been thought through, as you can only monetize a product until the day people are unwilling to even pay a bare minimum and even then, they'll just try a demo and stop before they've spent a cent because the game they're playing is a re-skinning of something they've already grown tired of. Or got tired of paying for bit by bit...

Posted:A year ago

#2

Brian Lewis
Operations Manager

97 38 0.4
I find the comments more interesting than the article. F2P doesn't devaluate the product, it sells it in smaller increments. What has devalued the products is the P2P approach... with the same price point as the F2P model. Instead of selling the game in increments of 99 cents, they sell the whole game.

Like the OP has said, products like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope have just crashed the pricing for everyone. F2P at least tries to sell 4.99 worth of goods, these games set a price cap at .99

Posted:A year ago

#3

Ben Gonshaw
Game Design Consultant

26 26 1.0
I totally agree, F2P does not devaluate product. Rather there's a general issue with the F2P model that consumers are becoming increasingly wise to. The price point of F2P is unpredictably high.

Sure, it's free when I start, but I'll soon hit the wall. That wall hides a (product) lifetime of never ending micro-payments. I cannot judge how much the experience will cost me and I know how addictive these experiences are, so I'll stop before I start, regardless of whether the value might be worth the payment.

I totally agree with the OP and your comments about P2P, it's like the bad old days of the cover tape, where 2 or more full games could be bought for the price of a magazine. This devalued full price products by default and heralded the demise of the 8bit era and the uncertain generational shift to 16bit.

With P2P, setting a consumer expectation of what $1 buys when that works at scale is fine – but it makes it harder to compete with those big volume sellers, as products shifting fewer units will struggle to make revenue. We’re in a similar uncertain period but this time with a mix of new models, platforms, scales and markets adding the complexity of this unpredictable transition.

This is an issue of saturation and perceived value in a market that over-satisfies demand. I admire what CA are doing. It works for PopCap and Chair, and I hope that the concept of paying a premium price point ($4-6!) to give users the feeling that they are buying a premium product can pay off - especially when the product justifies it.

Posted:A year ago

#4

Curt Sampson
Sofware Developer

564 278 0.5
I find it interesting that people don't seem to feel that games like Battlefield 3 and Call of Duty, by providing multiplayer for free, are devaluing the multiplayer experience. For the price of a two or three month subscription to World of Tanks, or hardly more than the price of the base game for World of Warcraft, you can buy a copy of Battlefield 3 and play on-line for free forever. (Well, for years, anyway, until they shut down the servers.)

Posted:A year ago

#5

Morville O'Driscoll
Games Blogger & Journalist

1,374 1,024 0.7
@ Curt

Certain games more obviously require an influx of new users to make multiplayer worthwhile for all involved (player and company running the servers). I play BF3, but if I'd been asked for a subscription fee just to play the standard maps, I would never have purchased it, and would have stuck with Bad Company 2. Multiply that effect across the gaming community and you'd have a game that would've come out the stalls and died in the first couple of months. (Much like SW: TOR, if reports are to be believed). It could also be argued that CoD and BF3 are essentially multiplayer only games, given their very short campaign modes, which means that, rather than devaluing the multiplayer experience, they're actually valued pretty high. (Also bear in mind that multi can't be played on pirated copies.)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 2nd November 2012 7:41am

Posted:A year ago

#6

Gunnar Lott
Communications Director

2 0 0.0
"We live in the land of the clones at the moment," says Farley, referring to the huge number of mobile and social games. "There are so many clone games out there, and we really want to avoid that. A company like Sega, we need to be better than a lot of the companies out there: you need to set the bar high, to set the standards; a code of conduct almost."
Well, I would find that much more convincing, if Total War Battles wouldn't borrow so clearly from "Alexandria Blood Show".

Posted:A year ago

#7

Bruce Everiss
Marketing Consultant

1,716 598 0.3
F2P with IAPs is still in its infancy, there are many different mechanisms and in a year's time there will be many more.
The relationship between the player and the game is a fine one. Badly done IAP comes across as exploitative. Well done IAP adds value to the experience that the player wants and is happy to pay for.
Just now it would be possible to write a book on IAPs. The varied mechanics and how they work can be fiendishly complex. Certainly it is eminently possible to create a FTP game with IAPs that is a smash hit but which still does not generate sufficient revenue.

Posted:A year ago

#8

Tom Pickard
Lead Environment Artist - Campaign Map

308 382 1.2
@Gunnar - Having sat next to the Battles team, I saw the development from the day it was a paper design pushing models along channels, to its final iterations and I can assure you this was an internal development that started over a year before bloodshot samurai was released, and in a simillar state to release for a good while, so whilst theres similarities which theres always going to be with any historical channel defence game they're both quite different in mechanics and gameplay.

Posted:A year ago

#9

Renaud Charpentier
Lead Designer

60 125 2.1
Yes, thanks Tom, I confirm: the core design of Battles and even the first playable was finished before we even heard about Samurai Bloodshow that was created by a team in Japan we never ever talked to.

Posted:A year ago

#10

Curt Sampson
Sofware Developer

564 278 0.5
It could also be argued that CoD and BF3 are essentially multiplayer only games, given their very short campaign modes, which means that, rather than devaluing the multiplayer experience, they're actually valued pretty high.

Well, I agree that they could be considered, if not essentially multiplayer-only games, games whose primary purpose is multiplayer. However, that's what brings me to the exact opposite conclusion here.

If you buy, say, WoW or The Secret World, you have to pay $60 or so for the game, and then (after the first month), make continuing payments of $10-$15/month to continue playing. BF3, on the other hand, is about $30-$90 (depending on if you buy it now or bought it on release day) as well, but has no fee for multiplayer, making its multiplayer cheaper even from the get-go, and a fraction of the price when considered over the course of a year.

Even compared to an F2P game such as World of Tanks, BF3 currently looks pretty good. The BF3 base game is about the same cost as 2-3 months of a premium subscription to WoT, and BF3 ogether with all the expansion packs is still well under the cost of a one-year WoT premium subscription.

Posted:A year ago

#11

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