Sometimes, early movers in an emerging field are enthusiastic advocates and driven believers, people with a vision and a passion for realizing that field's potential. Other times, early movers are in an emerging field not by design, but because it seemed like the only way forward.
Such was the case with Piranha Games, the Vancouver-based developer of the free-to-play MechWarrior Online.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz recently, co-founders Russ Bullock and Bryan Ekman recounted the studio's 18 year history, starting with its humble beginnings as a team working on an unauthorized Die Hard mod in the Half-Life engine. Like many a mod team since, they received a cease-and-desist order from the people who actually own the rights to the property they were using (Fox Interactive, in this case), but instead of walking away from the idea, they spent eight months making demos and negotiating with Fox to make an official version of their project, which wound up being the 2002 PC shooter Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza.
"It had been 11 years of work-for-hire and it was a tough slog out there. We'd been making games and learning a lot, but it's really kind of impossible to get ahead"
As Bullock said, that project started them on an 11-year run of pure work-for-hire, a stretch that saw them produce games for Electronic Arts, Activision, and Take-Two, among others. Over that stretch, they worked their way up from smaller projects to ports of bigger games. The end of their dedicated work-for-hire stint was 2011's Duke Nukem Forever, for which they handled multiplayer of all versions and ported the PC edition to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.
"It had been 11 years of work-for-hire and it was a tough slog out there," Bullock said. "We'd been making games and learning a lot, but it's really kind of impossible to get ahead. And like every developer, over the course of all those 11 years we were always dreaming of how we'd step out from work-for-hire and manage to make something on our own."
And they knew exactly what they wanted to make: MechWarrior. But as with Die Hard: Nakatomi Plaza, there were complications. Microsoft owned the rights to the series, having acquired them when it bought MechWarrior creator FASA Interactive in 1999. Microsoft also shut down FASA Interactive in 2007, and then in months later licensed the rights to MechWarrior out to Jordan Weisman, FASA founder and co-creator of the BattleTech franchise that spawned MechWarrior in the first place. Piranha came to an agreement with Weisman for a traditional MechWarrior game, but the terms of Microsoft's license agreement with Weisman meant it could only release on Xbox and PC.
"This was right after the economic collapse of 2008 and a lot of publishers we'd been visiting were more careful and cautious," Bullock said. "As excited as they were to see our pitch for this MechWarrior game, to tell them they couldn't ship on Sony's platform and it was just PC and Xbox, that ultimately meant to them it was essentially an Xbox-only pitch. PC wasn't what it is today, Steam hadn't strengthened that aspect yet. That led to us not being able to get that game off the ground."
Unable to get that version of the game made and unwilling to toil forever in work-for-hire, they hit a breaking point in 2011.
"We specifically said to each other that it was either going to work, or it was going to be the last game that Piranha Games made"
"That's when we decided," Bullock said. "We were just starting to see this free-to-play market emerging from a North American standpoint, with games like World of Tanks and some others being very successful with what seemed to us as very full featured, client-based games, and we had the conversation that maybe we could do this with MechWarrior. We specifically said to each other that it was either going to work, or it was going to be the last game that Piranha Games made. At least that's how I remember it."
Ekman remembered it much the same.
"It was really a flier, but we really believed in both the brand and the model," Ekman said. "We felt it was something we could do that was sustainable for us as a small company, something we could build on and really turn into a long-term product, not just a one-and-done in two years."
While the game was free-to-play, they recognized a pent-up demand among fans of the franchise, and launched a Founder's Program preorder campaign that let people buy their way into the beta testing period at $30, $60, and $120 tiers, with each one offering a range of perks including in-game currency, exclusive mechs, and the player's name in the credits. The Founder's Program was a hit, bringing in more than $5 million in funding before the game launched its open beta phase.
It may have seemed odd at the time to be promoting a free-to-play game and charging people for early access to it, but such offerings are increasingly common today. It's part of why Bullock has grown to dislike the term "free-to-play," saying it implies one absolute way to handle the business model, when the reality is far different. These days, it's not uncommon to see AAA games-as-service charge full price up front and then build an ongoing experience around mechanics that would have been the very heart of a free-to-play game in years past.
"I think that line has blurred somewhat," Bullock said. "The biggest difference is if you're going to be a AAA game that is going to have free-to-play business elements within it, it does certainly insinuate your initial release is a complete and finished product. It's not an Early Access product. It's not an open beta. It's full featured, but just happens to have microtransaction business model aspects within it. Whereas I think free-to-play and Early Access and these concepts continue to give players different ideas. 'You're going to be involved in the development process. You're going to be there early, when there aren't that many features. And through the community and your feedback, you're going to help guide what features are made and how those features are made, to a degree, throughout the development process.'"
Of course, when MechWarrior Online debuted, those expectations hadn't been set, either for players or developers. Bullock admits that probably made the game's progression "rougher and harsher" for users because it was essentially embracing the Early Access model when players didn't know what that entailed, and Piranha had no understanding of how best to communicate changes to the player base.
"We've stopped viewing things as a free-to-play game or a boxed retail game. We just look at what the right way is to get the project financed and supported."
"Setting expectations to our community must be one of the largest areas we learned in," Bullock said. "It's such a huge concept of learning how to interact with them in a way that doesn't create confusion or misunderstandings."
Despite the success Piranha has had with MechWarrior Online and its first foray into free-to-play, the studio hasn't embraced it as the one true path forward for its business. Its next project is actually MechWarrior 5, which Bullock describes as "a single-player game through and through, more of a traditional point-of-purchase product." There's a co-op mode in the game, but no competitive multiplayer of the sort MechWarrior Online offers.
Beyond that, there's no guarantee what sort of business model Piranha will use. Bullock and Ekman are certainly happy with how MechWarrior Online has done for them and the studio, all talk of future free-to-play games from them is presented as a hypothetical scenario.
"When it comes to the financial models for getting games done, we've stopped viewing things as a free-to-play game or a boxed retail game," Ekman said. "We just look at what the right way is to get the project financed and supported through its lifetime. That might include an initial purchase price, post-launch expansions, it might include microstransactions. To categorize games is no longer necessary the way the industry is. Most games use one or more models to support themselves. That's the big shift of the last few years. You're loosely lumping into one greater category, but for the most part, many releases are using multiple sources of revenue."
For Piranha, the takeaway from MechWarrior Online isn't that free-to-play is the way to go. It's that the way to go is making the game in whichever model lets the game be made.