The upcoming release of Orcs Must Die! Unchained marks new ground both for the franchise and for its developer, Plano, Texas-based Robot Entertainment. Unchained marks the first time Robot's flagship franchise has gone free-to-play, and the first time the studio has put this much emphasis on a game using the business model.
Not that long ago, changes like that could have inspired developers to jump ship, but Robot Entertainment CEO Patrick Hudson told GamesIndustry.biz that he hasn't had any talent retention issues tied to the studio's switching focus to a free-to-play project.
"You're seeing the trends, and everybody in the industry has seen the trends for a long time," Hudson said. "I think it's probably different today than maybe it was let's say five years ago. If we'd shifted full-scale into free-to-play, social games, making games that we don't want to play, that would certainly have driven off talent, but we've all seen that there can be really great games that we enjoy playing that are free-to-play and treat their customers fairly. I mean, we're not blazing trails here. Other developers have done a great job already here. There are good role models for us out there, and that probably wasn't the case five years ago, I would say."
"The [free-to-play] stigma still exists, and within the industry it will be a long time before it goes away. It probably won't ever go away completely"
Hudson said his staff had no shortage of developers decrying free-to-play models in the past, but strident positions have softened over time. It's tougher to decry the practice of free-to-play when you're spending hundreds of dollars annually on World of Tanks, he noted, or spending your spare time with League of Legends and Warframe. However, the scenario at Robot can't necessarily be extrapolated across the industry.
"The stigma still exists, and within the industry it will be a long time before it goes away," Hudson said. "It probably won't ever go away completely. There have been a lot of crappy games with crappy free-to-play pricing models."
Interestingly, Hudson suggests the resistance to free-to-play could ultimately make the model even better for players and developers alike.
"I know excellent, experienced developers that will not play nor make a free-to-play game," Hudson said. "I know other developers that are pursuing them reluctantly because they feel like they don't have a choice. It's these developers that will tread carefully between fairness and fun, and we'll hopefully see new models and innovations when it comes to pricing content."
Back to Robot's situation specifically, Hudson said his biggest challenge with free-to-play is planning for the future. When Robot Entertainment was wrapping up work on the original Orcs Must Die, Hudson said it freed up developers to start working on Hero Academy, its first free-to-play mobile title.
"That's very exciting to plan for your next game inside of a studio," Hudson said. "And now we can't do that. We don't know when our next game will be. We know we want to at some point start something new, but it has a lot to do with player demands and the success of our new game."
If a free-to-play game takes off, a studio can spend years supporting a thriving player base instead of moving on to original challenges and new titles. For example, Riot Games was founded in 2006 and has yet to announce a second game after League of Legends. Hudson can't even be sure if Robot Entertainment's next project after Orcs Must Die! Unchained will continue the company's foray into free-to-play.
"We don't think of ourselves as just a free-to-play developer," Hudson said. "It happens to work well for Orcs Must Die. We knew we wanted to continue to expand that franchise into a bigger multiplayer game, and there was an excellent chance for us to take it to a bigger scale globally... It just made sense for this game, and that doesn't mean we wouldn't go back and do something with a totally different business model in the future."
"If most people think of Texas-based game developers, you automatically think of Austin. But I think Dallas has probably always been just as big..."
Whatever the studio's next project will be, Robot's location should give the studio immediate access to a talent pool deep with relevant experience. When the company needs to bring on new people, it doesn't have to look far for qualified candidates. Case in point: When Hudson hired Paul Hellquist as Robot's new lead designer earlier this month, he had to look literally just down the road to fellow Plano studio and Borderlands developer Gearbox Software.
Dallas has a lengthy history as a hub of game development, Hudson said, noting that two of the biggest PC games ever made--id Software's Doom and Ensemble's Age of Empires--were made there.
"The success of those games and those studios spawned a lot of other game developers around them," Hudson said. "As people left those companies as they matured and started their own studios, I think you've seen a really great proliferation of game development here in Dallas."
Robot Entertainment is one such studio, itself having emerged from the closure of Ensemble. Other veterans of the Age of Empires studio went on to create Words With Friends studio NewToy, CastleVille creators Bonfire Studios, and so many other developers that there is a fan website devoted strictly to keeping up with them. At this point, the Dallas-Ft. Worth area has produced successes across a wealth of genres and platforms, yet the development scene there tends to be a bit overlooked, Hudson said.
"It doesn't get enough credit, and I'm not sure why that is," Hudson said. "If most people think of Texas-based game developers, you automatically think of Austin. But I think Dallas has probably always been just as big in terms of number of people making games, and probably if you did the math, maybe bigger than Austin."
Orcs Must Die! Unchained is currently in closed beta testing. It is expected to launch on the PC and PlayStation 4 later this year.