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Free-to-play resistance decreasing, says Robot CEO

"Crappy" efforts caused stigma, but Hudson says devs coming around

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.

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Latest comments (17)

Brian Smith Artist 4 years ago
News - Free to play game resistance decreasing says developer releasing free to play game. Surprised mode engaged, not !
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Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief4 years ago
Maybe not surprising, but it seems undeniably to be true.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
I'm surprised to hear about concerns of staff leaving due to a sales model change. Maybe for switching to making crap games, but not for how they're sold. Anyone who automatically equates one with the other you're probably better off without, especially as F2P is here to stay and will only get bigger.

A good developer should be able to make a good game regardless of how it's sold.
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Show all comments (17)
Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
And just to get mine in before the reaction starts...

If you think putting the various pay things in and spending time making choices that lead to maximum earnings, is "immoral" or "not game development", just stop and think about the last time you sat there for ages trying to making the prettiest box screenshots. Or the "not actual footage" trailer. That would be "using psychological tricks to get the most money in", only less obvious to the user and therefore less honest imo.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Paul Johnson on 19th January 2015 9:56pm

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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design 4 years ago
I never understood why people saw the F2P model as bad. As long as you do it right, it works perfectly fine. I prefer it over any other payment model when it comes to MMOs.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Exactly. There are some howlingly bad, aggressive wallet rippers out there and it's easy to point a finger at them and mock, as I have done myself.

But that's an abusive company, not an abusive sales model. The two things are not linked in any way and F2P can be done so that people can evaluate and play a game for free and then later pay some money out without needing a remortgage.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Just for a bit of disclosure, our Combat Monster game is airing on Steam tomorrow, and it's nearest competitor in terms of gameplay is in fact Hero Academy...
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Kenny Lynch Community Rep/Moderator 4 years ago
But you need some kind of manifesto for acceptable f2p practices. There should be assurances for players and as much transparency as possible about pricing, timescales, discounts, and so on.

I have seen often such things as high price items being offered for a large discount mere days after being first introduced, highly desirable items being sold at a price that is a factor of magnitude greater than equivalent items.

There will always be tension between those that have money and those that have time-but there is a truism that in MMO's there are three ways to progress: time, money & friends. If you have two of the then you will be fine. However, I suppose there much to be limits on how much time, how much money and how many friends.

Perhaps we need to start a hashtag? #free2playgate anyone?

Edit: I just handwrote this post on my new tablet and to be honest it is giving me something of a warm and turgid feeling somewhere...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kenny Lynch on 19th January 2015 11:29pm

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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
There should be assurances for players and as much transparency as possible about pricing, timescales, discounts, and so on.
I completely agree on this. We've kept our prices fully visible from the get go in Combat Monsters, and you can quickly decide how much play value you think you're getting for how much money. No repeating fees for fertiliser or more plays or to remove an artifical time barrier is I think the secret. I still don't get why people fall for that tbh.

Our time barrier is you need to play games to earn the currency you need for free That's called gameplay in my book. Bad F2P has the time barrier being some invented and utterly pointless "come back in a day just because" clause that you need to pay around. The only thing that depresses me more than seeing this lazy monetisation scheme implemented is that there's enough people out there falling for it so it actually works!
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Brian Smith Artist 4 years ago
@ Brook - Oh come on, there has been countless stories in the media documenting both customers burnt by the model and developers/publishers badly using the model. It's not hard to see why it has resistance. Personally I'm not opposed to it but that doesn't translate to me liking the model from a customer point of view. If all developers of the model were like the ones that post here I'm sure we'd have a fairer system but the truth is there are still products out there that are going for the throat and while they are a staple it will always have a dodgy profile to some extent.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Brian Smith on 20th January 2015 1:40pm

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Just make a good Free to play free. no fremium, no premium. no in app purchase :)
Just Freeeeee!
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
You sound like a typical mobile customer...
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.4 years ago
Just make a good game. I'll pay for the whole thing up front.
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Anthony Gowland Director, Ant Workshop4 years ago
Phew, well that's 5 of revenue sorted. Now to find the rest.
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Paul Johnson Managing Director / Lead code monkey, Rubicon Development4 years ago
Exactly. Making your game playable for a handful of bucks is a good way to get a lot of players and hopefully make some money. But if someone wants an option to spend 100 on something, it's bloody irresponsible not to provide it if at all possible.

All the navel gazing about how giving customers what they want being immoral makes me facepalm. Jealousy maybe?

(I wish I wasn't just playing devil's advocate when it comes to my own stuff)
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Adam Jordan Community Management/Moderation 4 years ago
There's resistance pure and simple because of the "cash cow" mentality that Publishers and Developers have.

In fact it's because of two things:

1) Publishers using the F2P model as a short term profit and not a long term gain

2) Developers not caring for the F2P title they have built or the community they have gained..

Coinciding with those two points, it's also because in some cases, developers move on too quickly from one title into another or that Publishers/Developers feel they don't need to expand their teams in order to tackle multiple titles.

I do agree that F2P resistance is decreasing but only at a slow rate and while certain publishers/developers are pulling out of the F2P running. In other words, if you already have a bad reputation, expect resistance. Sure you will have a following and usually a strong following at that but unless you are God among men, your F2P title(s) will be the spawn of Satan.

And yes I speak from experience considering I was part of the Community Team for Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, Battleforge, Lord of Ultima and Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances between 2009 and 2012. Still on the forums as a Community Moderator for Battlefield Heroes even now.
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Yuri Bialoskursky Game Designer 4 years ago
The beatings will continue until morale improves! :)

Sorry, the headline sounds just as equally absurd. It pretty much reads as if a robot CEO reported that resistance is indeed futile and that our free-to-play overlords are winning the war against your reluctance to be assimilated.
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