Paying your way in Tribes: Ascend
What price victory? Hi-Rez Studios COO Todd Harris on the psychology of microtransactions and the dangers of "pay-to-win" gaming
It's no secret that free-to-play is going great guns, and there's no surer sign of its success than the number of upcoming first-person shooters embracing the freemium business model. Tribes: Ascend is one of several big-budget teamplay shooters to adopt a microtransaction model, and has pipped the similarly-supported Planetside 2 to the mark with its open beta, which opened last week.
Although development is ongoing, it's a very promising start, deftly balanced both in the balletic action of its firefights, and the clever web of incentives and discounts that underpin its business. Developer Hi-Rez Studios has been careful not to raise the ire of its competitive FPS fanbase, who are suspicious that players might simply "pay to win", or worried that their wallets might be bled dry in surreptitious, tiny increments. To allay such fears, everything in the game can be unlocked by earning XP during play, without ever delving into the store. Meanwhile, the items with the clearest benefits can only be unlocked with XP.
The store-bought gold remains the quickest route to access new classes, weapons and perks, but these items' XP price is not always directly proportional; some actually offer a better deal in XP than they do in gold. And in some instances the reverse is true: an alternative weapon will have an XP tag many times higher than its gold equivalent.
We sat down with Todd Harris, COO of Hi-Rez, to discuss the intricacies of pricing and what sort of player-behaviour that shapes in the game itself.
Q: Did you have an overall plan for how you'd go about pricing things and what things you were looking to incentivise with that?
Todd Harris: Our general philosophy is to encourage people to unlock new classes quickly, and perhaps more easily, purely with gameplay time. So they're priced as a discount, in terms of their XP cost relative to their gold cost, with the thought that players could try a lot of different roles without as much friction, fairly easily with gameplay hours. we make everything gameplay accessible. And then when you upgrade weapons that requires time commitment [i.e. you can't ever buy upgrades with gold], and it's not something that's immediately unlocked. You can accelerate that with purchased XP boosts.
Q: Why make the upgrades purchasable with XP only? From a business perspective it seems like you are sacrificing revenue.
Todd Harris: You're right! But at least at this point with free-to-play, there's a lot of concern particularly among hardcore competitive PC gamers around whether a free-to-play game will be pay-to-win. We've made multiple statements around wanting to have a balanced game, and we think we have a balanced game. But managing perception is very important.
So I think putting a gold price on those upgrades themselves potentially would be seen as pay-to-win. I'd argue at the end of the day Tribes is such a skill-based game that it wouldn't necessarily be the case. But perception's important, and we want the game to have a big community, and we think there's an opportunity to have competitive FPS players enjoy the F2P model, so we're just being careful.
Q: Were there examples where you rebalanced an item's stats in order to make it feel like something that it was fair to purchase rather than earn through XP?
Todd Harris: If you look at something like weapon alternatives for players - not in every case, but in most cases, the community feels they are sidegrades, that they offer a different playstyle. There are certainly ones which people might call out, but I think people would say they are the exception rather than the rule. That's our philosophy there - we'll continually introduce new weapons, but have them be sidegrades which support different playstyles, and the same would be said for perks. We're still adjusting balance, but the idea is that those perks which players unlock with gold are player-role specific.
Q: Gold prices and XP prices are not to be directly proportional. So, an expensive item might only cost twice as much gold as another, but ten times the XP. What thought went into those decisions?
Todd Harris: That's true. We definitely see that players are rational in identifying good deals. This may change, but right now, in terms of what players spend more gold on versus XP: they use their gold on weapons first and foremost, perks secondarily and classes third. And that's because they can rightly see that classes are a better deal as far as unlocking them with XP. So they are following the price indicators there.
There's a lot of concern among hardcore competitive PC gamers around whether a free-to-play game will be pay-to-win. Managing perception is very important.
Q: But from your perapective, why would you set certain things to be a better deal in either XP or gold?
Todd Harris: To have variation on the battlefield. So classes offer the best deal in terms of XP. As you probably know we moved from two free classes that were both mediums, to three free classes: one light, one medium, one heavy. So the short answer is to help support balanced games. Right now, everyone has the option for a light, medium and heavy in every game for free, and then for players that have accumulated XP they can, and really do, unlock classes with that XP.
In fact if you look at the Sentinel [the sniper class], we have it discounted compared to the Infiltrator [the' saboteur class]. So you get the Pathfinder for free - that's the most core light role for capturing the flag and chasing. Then with XP alone, you can easily get some Sentinels to participate on the battlefield. The Infiltrator, one might argue, is a little more niche and special case. Certainly people can make it a full time job, but really [the disparity of cost between classes] is to support diversity of roles on the battlefield.
Q: From the point at which you have unlocked a class, is the level of investment equal among the classes?
Todd Harris: As a general principle it is. There may be some small exceptions, but from a design standpoint it's intended to be the same.
Q: Would you consider making an unpopular class cheaper or easier to level up?
Todd Harris: I think we'd be open to that, but right now we're seeing really good diversity with regards to the classes people are playing. Obviously we have to balance the business and the game design, but we think a fun game comes first. You need that before you can have the business success, and a fun game of capture the flag depends on the right roles being filled. So I guess you could say our pricing, with classes being a good deal for XP and certain classes being discounted, is to help players fill those important roles.
Q: How much does it cost to trick out every class in the beta? Would you be paying a similar amount to a boxed game?
Todd Harris: I'd have to run the numbers. A boost is the best deal in Tribes: Ascend which goes unnoticed. Because the way we work is with your first real money transaction you get VIP status and get 50% more XP, and then if you buy a boost you get another 100% - so you end up getting three times the experience in every match. So we've seen a number of players buy one boost and be able to get maxed out, at least for the playstyle they enjoy.
In terms of 'how much time or money does it cost to unlock everything', we don't really think about it that way. Instead we challenge ourselves to have unlocks that players will feel are good value based on the time or money spent. And we want to deliver more content on a continual basis that players will choose to spend time or money on.
That said, a few scenarios: buying the $50USD/$35GBP "Premium Pack" a player gets 5500 Gold, a 60 Day Booster, and Lifetime VIP status. Playing over the next two months, since boosted and earning more XP, he could unlock every current class and get every current weapon for every class playing 300 hours, without even spending any of his gold. If he chose to spend the gold he could achieve that goal in 200 hours of play.
Many players are not interested in playing every class, however. Say instead I want to go deep in a new class but want to get there quickly. So perhaps I'll get the $30USD/21GBP Elite Package. That includes 3000 Gold, a 30-day booster and Lifetime VIP Status. I could then unlock a new class like Technician, acquire all the current weapons for that class, and then upgrade all of those weapons to max stats in about 30 hours of play - using the gold and Booster included in that package.
Q: It seems like the [heavy defence class] Doombringer doesn't get as much XP per match as something like a Sentinel, because the Doombringer's role is to soften up enemies and disrupt their strategies, essentially delivering kills to other allied players. Are you looking at other ways to reward such support classes?
Todd Harris: One of the main tools that we have is the Accolade system. We can grant XP through that. There are only a subset there at the moment, but you get credits which contribute to XP for things like repairing your generator - that's an example of maybe an unglamorous role, taking care of the base. But certainly we'll keep looking for classes that need that boost, if they are not just dealing death - because Tribes is about a lot more than your kill-death ratio.