Gaijin Entertainment: "We're not the greedy bastards here"

Free games on consoles will have to hit higher standards, says CEO Anton Yudintsev

Whether by micro-transactions or rising retail prices, the cost of AAA gaming on consoles is creeping ever upwards. It was in the air as eager gamers lined up to push PlayStation 4 to record-breaking sales. It was on the forums and and in the comments threads as disappointed Xbox One fans balked at the prices attached to Forza 5's rarest vehicles. And while you'd be hard pushed to find a member of the game-buying public that sees it as a good thing, the trend shows no clear indication of reversing - or even slowing down.

Thankfully, on this generation of consoles the consumer will have options, and more of them than ever before. Now that the furious back-and-forth over resolution and quality of RAM has started to subside, it's important to consider that these consoles were designed to accommodate one of the most potent disruptive forces in the recent history of the games business: free, the wallet-friendly price-point that has flourished in the open environments of PC and mobile gaming.

But is the console audience ready? Anton Yudintsev, CEO of the Russian developer Gaijin Entertainment, believes that free-to-play developers will have to raise their standards to pass muster on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. After all, console gamers are the segment of the market that harbours the most suspicion of free-to-play gaming in general, and while World of Tanks and Dust 514 have already introduced the concept on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, much more will be necessary to earn their faith.

"Console gamers are more used to the concept of buying games, premium games," Yudintsev says. "But one of the reasons for that is that there haven't been enough [free-to-play] games at a console level of quality. Well, we are a console developer. War Thunder is console quality."

Along with SOE's Planetside 2 and Zombie Studios' Blacklight: Retribution, Gaijin's War Thunder will help to make the case for free-to-play in the early life of the PlayStation 4. According to Yudintsev, the team drew on its experience making console titles like Il-2 Sturmovik, and applied the lessons in player engagement and retention evident in the very best free-to-play games. It would be foolhardy, he says, for developers to assume that the console audience will accept technical and gameplay compromises in exchange for dozens of hours of free entertainment. They won't. If free-to-play is to become a fixture for the core console audience, it will be through a combination of best practices from both schools of thought.

"In terms of core gameplay, the production quality, technical excellence, most free-to-play games do not concentrate on that at all"

"In free-to-play, there is a lot of expertise in how to make a game design interesting for people to play for months, or even years - the meta-game design," he says. "But in terms of core gameplay, the production quality, technical excellence, most of them do not concentrate on that at all. There are exceptions, but most of them don't. "And that gives both sides an opportunity. They can take lessons from each other. It's a huge opportunity, and a lot of [console] developers don't see that. They either don't believe in the free-to-play model at all, or they think they know better. They know some things better, of course, but not everything."

Indeed, the demanding nature of the core gaming audience has pushed free-to-play behemoths like League of Legends and Dota 2 to ever higher standards of excellence, and that will be intensified on console. For Yudintsev, gamers are unlikely to separate 'free' and 'paid' in their minds when it comes to choosing how to spend their time. The casual gamer is far less discerning, but if you're making a free-to-play aerial combat sim - like War Thunder - it needs to stand up to comparisons with a series like Namco Bandai's Ace Combat. If you're making a free-to-play shooter, it needs to stand up to comparisons with Call of Duty and Battlefield. And the lingering mistrust of the free-to-play model and its accoutrements (i.e. micro-transactions) will only make that task more challenging.

War Thunder is only scheduled for release on PlayStation 4, but Yudintsev is convinced that both Sony and Microsoft are eager to see the free-to-play model proliferate, just as they are eager to secure the services of indie developers creating wildly diverse, reasonably priced games. Entertainment platforms need content, now more than ever before, and the simple fact is that there will be fewer choices coming from the blockbuster studios.

However, Yudintsev dismisses the notion that the PlayStation Network could become over-crowded and confusing to the degree seen on mobile platforms "Both Sony and Microsoft see [the iOS and Android app stores]. They see new ideas and new money, people spending more time and more money playing mobile. They want to change that," he says.

"On the iOS and Android markets, some of the games are brilliant - very simple, very casual, but amazingly good - but basically most of the games there are not good... The worst games on mobile phones are so bad that they would never pass the minimum requirements from Sony and Microsoft, and I think that's necessary."

Yudintsev clearly sees Gaijin as different from most developers building free-to-play games. The studio earned its reputation with games made for consoles and released through the traditional publisher system, and that has created a confidence within the company that it can meet the challenges posed by a new business model without sacrificing its foundational values. Indeed, the need to be directly responsible for the PR and marketing around War Thunder - implementing more efficient lines of communication with the audience - is something that every independent developer must now do in order to thrive in the self-publishing environment. Making games is far from easy, Yudintsev says, but it's all for nothing if you can't build and support your customer-base.

"We wanted to attract more people, and we've been successful. That's more than any flight simulation game in the last decade"

"We're a relatively small studio - we have around 100 people - and for us the biggest challenge isn't to maintain the game after launch. We actually like that," he says. "We can enhance it, and improve it. That's good for us. I'm not sure it's good for big, major studios, but we can be very flexible.

"The bigger challenge was marketing and stuff like that. When we started the open beta, we actually didn't have any marketing team at all. We had one person, and he was responsible for marketing, for PR, for everything. So although there were a lot of technical challenges - server size, maintaining those servers, stuff like that - that's part of the job that we like. We're a development studio. We have about 100 people and almost every single one is on development. Even now, our core marketing team is four people."

As of the start of November, almost exactly a year after it started, War Thunder's open beta on PC had attracted 5 million players. For Yudintsev, it was a confirmation that Gaijin's diligent efforts to breathe life into the dwindling flight genre by making it free were not in vain. "Ten years ago, flight simulation generally was rather popular," he says. "Three years ago, it was so niche we could almost know everyone by name, and mostly it was the same players as ten years ago.

"We wanted to attract more people, and we've been successful. That's more than any flight simulation game in the last decade."

But will the same be true on PlayStation 4? The response to Forza 5's micro-transactions have fanned the flames of the whole free-to-play debate among console gamers, and the value proposition presented by 'free' games is once again under close scrutiny. Yudintsev shakes his head. In a world where Call of Duty takes $1 billion in less than a week, it's the studio trying to give a good game away for nothing that is called upon to explain its methods.

He pauses, and smiles. "We're not the greedy bastards here."

The interview with Anton Yudintsev was conducted in September.

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Latest comments (13)

Paul Shirley Programmers 8 years ago
No, his studio is trying to give away a spending opportunity to as many people as possible, with a belief the game must be good to succeed in both distribution and monetisation. Smoke&mirrors that fools no-one, with nothing to do with the validity of questioning the monetisation strategy and it's that strategy alone that determines degree of 'greedy bastard'.

COD has a pretty plain 'greedy bastard' strategy, soak customers up front then try soaking them for DLC, maybe greedy but not underhand or particularly manipulative. It's perceived manipulation that annoys so many in F2P.
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@Paul WOT is a good game whether free or paid. Their f2p model works well because it's not greedy, and rewards players who choose put time into the game instead of money. It even penalises players who pay their way to the top because of its matching system: "Best tank in the game? Into the higher level games you go!" whereupon they get their ass handed to them by all the players who actually earned & learned their way to the top. It's not perfect, and not without some greed obviously (the elite ammo thing is annoying) but to me it proves the model can work and deliver a fun game at the same time.
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Paul Shirley Programmers 8 years ago
@Barry: I cant comment on whether their strategy is good or evil. I comment on their complaining about being asked to justify the strategy along with other misdirection and evasion. There are plenty of greedy strategies, pointing to someone else with a different strategy is no way to explain your own different business.
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Show all comments (13)
I lve the Forza games but balked at the ingame initial gut feeling is F2P on console is yuck!
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Tom Keresztes Programmer 8 years ago
Well, at least it would have been nice to fix issues with Il-2 Cliffs of Dover instead of just dropping it and leave the community to patch it up.
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Andrzej Wroblewski Localization Generalist, Albion Localisations8 years ago
League of Legends, War Thunder... both sharing a very decent balance between free-to-play and pay-to-win. I myself find that a very good reason to just open my wallet and feel "invited" to pay for the game, not "forced" -- as with e.g. Bigpoint.
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Brian Smith Artist 8 years ago
"In a world where Call of Duty takes $1 billion in less than a week, it's the studio trying to give a good game away for nothing that is called upon to explain its methods"

It might be F2P but you can't really describe it as giving a good game away for nothing.
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Sean Kauppinen Founder & CEO, IDEA8 years ago
Greedy bastards employing all those game developers and trying to run a sustainable business (sarcasm). Development needs to be paid for somehow and most free-to-play games don't succeed in covering their costs. Perhaps less people would bitch about it if we went back to demos and then gated games that way, or there were lite versions of everything on the App stores. Probably not since we've evolved past that.

The concept of free-to-play creates both server liquidity in a large audience, and a pay what you will opportunity. It is it's own marketing tool for maximizing distribution to an audience that doesn't want to pay before they play. I can't imagine any company being able to give full games away for free without a business model, unless they are indies in it just for the art. The fact of the matter is, free-to-play games don't need to justify themselves and everyone should stop trying to.
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Nicholas Pantazis Senior Editor, VGChartz Ltd8 years ago
@ Barrie It became far more time consuming in Forza 5 to earn the top cars than ever before, which feels even worse now considering how many fewer cars there are in the game than Forza 4 (less than half). In addition you have to pay in-game money to unlock cars you paid real money for in the season pass, which is such insane levels of bullshit. They are trying to make you pay real money to get in-game money to unlock cars you already paid real money for in a game you already paid real money for. Holy crap that's dirty.

Personally, my problems with F2P aren't huge, but still exist. I feel like I'm being nickle and dimed. I feel like the experience is never seamless, because I'm constantly reminded "Hey, stuck? Pay for this to move on! (or play for ungodly hours you don't have time for)." If PS4 and Xbox One focus heavily on in-game microtransactions, I suspect I'll spend a lot more time on my Wii U and 3DS this generation. I want to buy a product and own it. Not constantly be reminded that I could be paying more.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nicholas Pantazis on 4th December 2013 11:27pm

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Forza seriously broken. seriously
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Anton is perfectly correct. How many publishers spend fortunes on acquisition only to pour players into flawed F2P games? If CPI is hitting $7 over Xmas; what would be a reasonable investment in creating an engaged player? $1? $2? Trouble is that it's usually very close to $0! If you know your players you will build successful and profitable games.
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Jamy Nigri V.P. Biz Dev & Publishing, Super Cool Games & Awesome IP!, Jagex Games Studio8 years ago
@Paul [and anyone interested in F2P]. Making great games is hard, really hard, and both WoT's and WarThunder have made great games! Huge Congrats to both teams...and a thank you for the hundreds of hours of game play that I have loved!

Currently, I have over 15k battles in WoTs and 4k Flyouts in WarThunder [and growing], and have studied both their business models as a gamer and as part of my daily gig. What I have found [with examples]:
1. The Grind: we normally associate some level of grind with boring, but in both games, the Fun = Combat which is the 'alleged' the fun is playing the game and it moves you deeper into higher tier opportunities.

2. Balancing the Buying: I bought a premium tank in Wo toT's in the beginning [shout out to Barry Meade's comment] and was rewarded with the following beautiful benefits:
- immediately matched with high tiered tanks, and got my ass handed to me [which was awesome]. If anyone claims they can pay to win in these games, they haven't played them. Higher tiers means tougher machinery and more XP'd opponents.
** Caveat re Gold Ammo: in the beginning, every mouse click cost money and there was an advantage that Wargaming has since fixed. Gold Ammo is now accessible to all via Gold OR XP Silver [and was nerfed for game balance along the way].
- the paid tanks were never as good as the tanks one had to EARN...which feels like the right thing to me and felt fair.

3. Are they truly Free? Absolutely!!! One can play and enjoy both games forever, for free. The only advantage to paying is converting free XP to be used to level more quickly, with the benefit of flying airplanes you aspire to more quickly or tanks you wish to fight with.

4. Is Production Value High? Absolutely!! Great graphics, sound, performance and realism...I have played both games from several different continents [on EU servers] and enjoyed them every time. They are definitely high quality games.

Comment re Monetization: I have heard people discuss quite openly that one day soon, someone will write a white paper on the Monetization Strategy that both Wargaming and Gaijin they should be a defacto way of monetizing F2P games. I agree. No artificial gates or payment barriers. No advantage to paying [other than saving time to get to higher tiered battles].

Re other companies and their F2P strategies, there are so many that are plain shite that it does hurt the impression F2P game development...but let's tip our hats to two TRULY free game experiences [WoT/WarThunder] that are of GREAT production value!
All the best and thanks for the read :)
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 8 years ago
We should do a mental split. On the one side, there is playing a game for free. On the other side, there is fully enjoying a game.

If your goal is to recover development costs, you either charge upfront and the player fully enjoys from there. Or you do not charge money, in which case you include your hooks that somehow improve the normal level of enjoyment, to paid levels of enjoyment.

What you monetize with that strategy makes no difference. Be it winning, character looks, or progression pace, it does not matter. Anybody can see that while they play for free, they are not fully enjoying for free. If a game is given away for $0, it boils down to not being a microtransaction asshole about it and you'll be fine. Or you create mechanisms exploiting human behavior like con men and crazy cults, in which case you are fine for the time being.

If you put microtransactions in a $60 game, it pretty much depends on how much joy you get out of those $60 before you are asked again to pay. Look at Guild Wars 2, if you stretch it out enough and mostly friendly, then you get mostly away with it in your community. Look at Forza 5, approaching it with the day one DLC attitude of a console game and you get microtransactions from hell. You'd be a fool trying to argue with Microsoft before release about this, publishers will only ever learn from their own experiences.
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