Getting a better Signal: Bringing F2P to 360 with Ascend
How Signal Studios brought a new model to the end of a cycle
Whether by design or disdain, this console generation has been remarkably resistant to the otherwise ubiquitous charms of the free-to-play movement. Experts have cited the audience demographic, the payment complexities and sheer bullheadedness on the part of the platform holders. Others have warned of the devaluation of product or the exploitation of players: a creeping iniquity which, once admitted, can never be cast out.
Predictably enough, once the first free-to-play titles began to populate the console landscape, it quickly became clear that we were unlikely to be witnessing any extinction level events for AAA boxed products. Games like Free Realms, Dust 514 and Happy Wars have all come to consoles without making too much of a splash and without burning down the mansions of the big publishers just yet. Some have seen more success than others, but none have so far earned the sort of headline sums generated by CSR Racing, Clash of Clans or Candy Crush. Now, with the console cycle drawing rapidly to a close, it would seem an odd choice to release an ambitious free-to-play title with little promotion, especially from the back of a critically and commercially successful IP.
Signal Studios doesn't like to sit still, however, and a beneficial relationship with Microsoft means that what could have been seen as a big risk can be framed as an opportunity instead. Hence Ascend: Hand of Kul, a free-to-play 360 release featuring an asynchronous multiplayer, persistent meta-world, roguelike systems and, of course, microtransactions. Read on for what Signal founder D.R. Albright III makes of it all.
Q: After getting such critical and financial success with Toy Soldiers, what made you choose something so radically different for your next IP?
D.R. Albright III: Ascend was proposed to Microsoft well before Toy Soldiers: Cold War was released. Actually, the first time we showed a prototype to them was during the development of the original Toy Soldiers. A lot the original Signal people had come from Snowblind Studios so we had previous experience working on RPG's such as Champions of Norrath. We also felt there was a bit of a hole on the service for a hack-n-slash RPGs. Of course, all that changed over the last three or four years but ultimately it wasn't really that much of a departure for us.
Q: It's a unique blend of styles and genres, how do you sum it up for people?
D.R. Albright III: Ascend, at its core is a third-person hack-n-slash, loot collecting RPG. It also has compelling multiplayer features that give it all a bit more depth. On top of that, it's free.
Ascend has multiple layers of RPG levelling. It's all about laying the basis for compelling reasons to keep playing. You are referring to the meta-war where players chose from three different alignments - Light, Dark and Void. Each one of these alignments has different attributes, equipment, and buffs. As an example, Void has more spells available and those spells do more damage.
"I figured there would be opportunities in free-to-play on console so we basically started pushing Microsoft"
As you play through the single-player game and level up, you Ascend your character to your chosen God into the meta-war, which increases your level cap, offer certain awards, give you a permanent buff, and also sends your character out into other player's games where they become NPC player bosses. If you are Void, your Ascended Champions will go find Light and Dark players to invade. These champions will take over shrines and altars which feed the meta-war. All of this is tracked on a dynamic map, there's a constant ebb and flow of which alignment is control of the game. To some degree, we are already driving live events based on this.
We definitely already see people latching on to one God or the other and continue their loyalties to that faction. That said, a really good way to dig deeper into the RPG system is to start with one alignment, Ascend your character and then re-align to a different God with your newly created character so that you can start building a sort of uber Caos born from the different attributes of all three alignments.
Q: Although the genre, playstyle, and multiplayer focus are all very different from Toy Soldiers, it's the choice to go free-to-play which really sticks out to me. What was the thinking behind that?
D.R. Albright III: Very early on in the development of Ascend, I figured there would be opportunities in free-to-play on console so we basically started pushing Microsoft to allow Ascend to have the free-to-play business model. Part of the motivation was the obvious success of the model on PC and Mobile, but also, as we watched the sales of Arcade games, it seemed pretty apparent that the idea that you could just slap out anything on Arcade for $15 bucks and sell a million copies was dying. Of course, there are a few anomalies such as Minecraft or State of Decay, but it's getting harder and harder to get consumer attention without offering a lot more for a lot less, and you can't get much lower than free. I felt like the future of Ascend really depended on being successful with free-to-play business model. The trick was convincing Microsoft into accepting that - which to their credit, they did and now there are even more free-to-play games on the service and some big ones coming such as World of Tanks. I would also point to Happy Wars, which is quietly becoming very successful on XBLA.
Q: It's a big responsibility, and a lot of eyes are on you in terms of seeing how this model works on console. Do you feel like there's a lot of weight on your shoulders?
D.R. Albright III: The weight is more felt trying to keep 50 people employed and the responsibility of that, not so much what people outside of Signal think of the experiment. I believe the trick of the free-to-play market on console is understanding that your dealing with a different crowd, making sure your game doesn't have a lot of annoying pay-walls and pop-ups, and ensuring that the experience is just as good as or better than what folks can get for $20 upfront. The console crowd won't accept the same free-to-play mechanics they are used to on different platforms. If you look at console, there's a really high retention and insane conversation rates because they're usually pretty hardcore people. They are paying for a console, they are paying for a high-end internet service and they are also paying for Xbox Live. Hopefully, what you lack in user-base you can make up for in conversion rates and we are pretty much already seeing that in Ascend.
Q: Retrospectively, would you have made Toy Soldiers free-to-play?
D.R. Albright III: Probably not. We sort of dabbled with the idea of a free-to-play version, but TS is its own unique game and the market was different then. Toy Soldiers stands on its own and people have already proven that they will pay up-front for that. I would imagine any future Toy Soldiers games as being some sort of hybrid, pay up front, but still embracing that it's a service game in a lot of ways. With Ascend, people might not understand the game immediately and there is also a lot of competition for RPG's now, for example Diablo III was recently released on Xbox and that's a game you just don't want to try and compete with if you are Signal Studios. One way to mitigate that is to launch with a different business model.
Q: What sort of discussions did you have with MS beforehand? Did they have a lot of input into the project and how it was being managed?
D.R. Albright III: Microsoft is not very invasive in the creative process. As a publisher, for the most part, they leave you alone creatively and are pretty good about allowing you to make your game. During the time we were trying to get that business model approved, they were definitely heavily involved because there were no other games that were free-to-play and it was a platform policy issue. That took some convincing, but to their credit, they were pretty supportive of it all. That happened a few years ago and while we were waiting for the decision, we sort of just proceeded in development "as if" and it all worked out in the end.
"They were definitely heavily involved because there were no other games that were free-to-play and it was a platform policy issue"
Q: You've mentioned before that you have a close relationship with MS which brings some benefits - does that work both ways? Are you more amenable to them than you might be to other publishers?
D.R. Albright III: We have worked closely with Microsoft on three IP's together and all those games have been pretty successful. Part of the credit goes to them and we have done certain favors for their group. For example we added a Facebook implementation on Toy Soldiers, or Smart Glass support for Ascend. Neither of which we were obligated to do.
That said, we are winding down our contractual obligation to Microsoft, and are already working with another publisher in mobile and looking at others for the future. We would always approach those relationships the same way.
Q: Given the reputation which Sony is garnering for being so indie friendly, would you ever consider working with them too?
D.R. Albright III: Yes, we would definitely work with Sony. I think people forget that we are an independent studio because all our games have been published with Microsoft. We have talked to Sony before and we would definitely work with any publisher that wants to partner with us on any new IP's that we come up with.
Q: How are the smartglass features for Ascend coming along?
D.R. Albright III: For Smart Glass, we just provide hooks in code and artwork to Microsoft. There is a group at Microsoft that is doing most of the work for that. It basically displays player boss information when you get invaded, dungeon maps, and some other relevant in-game data that a player might not be able to see on the TV.
Q: What's your target ARPU?
D.R. Albright III: So far, the ARPU for Ascend is pretty good, but I really couldn't get into specifics since that is all confidential information. Microsoft might tell you though.
Q: Are you expecting a funnel model, complete with whales and freeloaders, or do you expect a flatter spending curve?
D.R. Albright III: We are already seeing the funnel model and definitely have some whales that have purchased well over 60 soul packs. We also have all the community posts letting people know how to farm the game and tricks to increase the free income. I think free-to-play is supported both ways. You need the free players to build the community and that are passionate for the game. Of course, you also need the spenders to financially support the game. We don't have any favoritism to either one of those types of players and value them both.
Q: Are you able to talk about the cut which MS takes? Is it on every transaction?
D.R. Albright III: It's your standard publishing arrangement, which isn't anything I can be specific about.
Q: You've got a direct real world to in-game cash conversion: how do you stop that becoming play to win?
D.R. Albright III: I think that is what protects us from being pay-to-win. In my mind, you can only have a game a pay-to-win game when there is a secondary premium currency and having items in your game that require players to purchase them with that currency. In our game there is nothing you can't get for free because we offer the currency for free through gameplay. The only benefit a spender has in Ascend is speeding up the process.
Q: Were there any difficulties in setting up a microtransaction system on XBL?
"There were quite a few challenges setting up the whole free-to-play system on console and we're still working through a lot of those"
D.R. Albright III: Yes [laughs]. There were quite a few challenges setting up the whole free-to-play system on console and we're still working through a lot of those challenges. I'd say I vastly underestimated the work involved. There are the different development environments, the title update process, the certification process, trying to get policy changes and exceptions, trying to update the game rapidly with a bunch of these walls in front of you.
We are using TMS servers to mitigate some of that process. We can change levels, we can add events, we can add equipment to the game, and we can fix bugs on a daily basis. This is really unusual for a console game. That said, we still have to go through the TU process when we need to change the executable and that can take a while. Obviously, that's a handicap in the free-to-play market. We are working with Microsoft to improve that process.
Q: Do you think it's going to get better/easier to develop and manage a free-to-play game next gen? Do you have any ideas about the new dash or how arcade and indie games will be positioned?
D.R. Albright III: It should be significantly easier based on the rumour that the development and product environments will be the same. One of the issues you have on the 360 is that you are dealing with three different environments; product, certification, and partnernet all at the same time. This really causes problems and delays when you are trying to properly manage a network service game and respond quickly to issues. It will also help that the console makers have opened up to and are changing policies pretty quickly to accommodate different business models.
D.R. Albright III: I don't really know how the storefronts look, I would hope that all the downloadable games content is integrated into the same store front whether it's arcade, indie or AAA. To me that is the most straightforward store front to have.
Q: Free to play has come under fire as a potentially 'exploitative' model. Do you have any mechanisms in place to limit spending?
D.R. Albright III: I know free-to-play has a bad rap in some people's eyes. The issue I have with this is that developers and publishers don't drive the market, consumers do. If you look at mobile, there is almost no way to have a profitable game if it's not free-to-play. With very few exceptions, consumers simply won't download mobile games that aren't free on mobile. We're not making free-to-play games because we want to rob people; we are making free-to-play games because it is rapidly becoming the one of the only viable business models for games that aren't retail with $100 million dollar budgets.