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Pixel Toys embraces games-as-a-service with Warhammer: Realm War

CEO Andy Wafer on converting Warhammer 40k: Freeblade from premium at the 11th hour, and building its successor for free-to-play from day one

For Pixel Toys, Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Realm War represents a number of firsts, and its array of augmented reality features are far from the most important.

The studio's two founders, Alex Zoro and Andy Wafer, met at FreeStyle Games, a studio best known for riding the success of music games with the DJ Hero series. Previously, Zoro had worked at Rare, and Wafer spent many years at Codemasters; fundamentally, they were console developers who were enraptured by the potential of the rapidly expanding smartphone market, which promised audiences that could be counted in tens of millions rather than hundreds of thousands.

Like many others who moved into mobile from that background, Pixel Toys' early strategy was based around bringing console sensibilities to a space in which few games seemed concerned with technological excellence.

"Back in 2014, we thought we could make a premium game and sell it to Warhammer fans on the iPhone for $4 or $5"

"Obviously you can't just make a console game on a phone - it's a very different experience, especially in the way the business mechanics work now on mobile," Wafer said, when we met at Gamescom in August. "But we were very much geared around really making the most of technology.

"That was our niche, and we had people who were capable of delivering that. Taking that and applying it to the business mechanics of mobile - free-to-play, which we've had to learn over the last six years. We thought we knew about it in 2012 when we started the company, but if I could talk to myself six years ago I'd be like, 'You don't know shit.'"

Wafer now sees the studio's first mobile release, Gunfinger, as an "experiment" in bringing console-esque shooter gameplay to mobile devices. It launched in 2014, and Wafer admitted it was "immediately clear, even at that time, without huge marketing capabilities new IP [on mobile] was difficult."

For the team at Pixel Toys, the library of IP at Games Workshop seemed the perfect solution: franchises in which they had a great deal of personal interest, and which had a built-in audience of loyal fans who were prepared to spend money on a variety of products, from tabletop games to video games to intricately detailed figurines. A deal was struck, and work on Warhammer 40,000: Freeblade started soon after.

"With the new game, from the outset we wanted to make it multiplayer and social first and build the experience around that"

"Back in 2014, we thought we could make a premium game and sell it to Warhammer fans on the iPhone for $4 or $5," Wafer said. "That was the plan at the time, but towards the end of development we realised that the market had changed significantly in the time we'd been making the game.

"So we made the game free-to-play, and we made some changes to help facilitate that. But the core game experience was designed around a different business model."

Freeblade monetised well, Wafer said, but it wasn't designed to be operated as a service. When players had the opportunity to spend money, they did spend money, but certain irrevocable choices placed a hard limit on the game's true earning potential.

"Players engaged with it really well, they loved the experience and the content, but in terms of playing for multiple months or even years? We added multiplayer levels and functionality to Freeblade, but fundamentally it was a single-player game. With the new game, from the outset we wanted to make it multiplayer and social first and build the experience around that."

This is the most important of Pixel Toys' firsts: despite having a (qualified) hit with Freeblade, Realm War will be the first time that the studio has made a Warhammer game with the free-to-play, GaaS model in mind from the very first day of development. And as anyone working in mobile will tell you, that can make a huge difference to a product's commercial potential.

It is also one of the first video games to make use of Games Workshop's Warhammer Age of Sigmar setting, which debuted in tabletop form in 2015. According to David Solari, Pixel Toys' marketing director, Age of Sigmar has proved very popular among Warhammer enthusiasts, which should provide a boost for Realm War in the marketplace.

"I don't think it's an issue for Marvel. When people love the content they want as much of it as they can get"

For those who don't follow the evolution of Warhammer quite that closely, Pixel Toys has made an undeniably slick fusion of card battler and multiplayer strategy, enlivened by a handful of features that make use of AR technology - another first for the studio. One feature allows the player to view a detailed, 3D character model for any card in their collection, vividly evoking the classic Warhammer experience of collecting figurines. Another was a replay system, Battle Replay, which saw the tablet become a dynamic camera through which finished battles (either your own, or those of other players) could be viewed.

"We can see the applications for content creators," Solari said. "You can easily imagine that being used for broadcasting in the game."

Such features are important for standing out in the crowded landscape of the mobile app stores, just as having a license like Warhammer provides a valuable direct line to an audience of potential customers. However, nobody could accuse the Games Workshop licensing division of standing idle, and it's worth noting the volume of video games based on its IP now hitting the market.

In 2014, when Pixel Toys started working on Freeblade, six games were released. This year, there are 11 scheduled, though Real War is one of only two based on Age of Sigmar. Nevertheless, it's clear that fans of Warhammer, in particular, have never been better served by the games industry; the niche is growing ever more crowded.

"I don't want to comment on other people's games, but it wasn't an issue for Freeblade," Wafer said about the challenge this presents for Pixel Toys. "It's a very well rated game, and the people that like this stuff, really like this stuff. Hopefully we'll be able to export it to new people, too."

"I don't think it's an issue for Marvel. When people love the content they want as much of it as they can get, in as many different ways as they can."

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