Several years ago, Blackbird Interactive answered a call from Smilegate. The Korean publisher of Crossfire was looking for a team to make a real-time strategy game out of the free-to-play first-person shooter phenomenon.
By that time, Crossfire had racked up more than one billion registered PC and mobile players since its 2007 debut, topping charts in China, Brazil, and Vietnam along the way.
"To my interpretation, the plan wasn't to bring more people into this epic-sized thing," Blackbird Interactive CEO Rob Cunningham tells GamesIndustry.biz. "They didn't need more people to be aware of Crossfire; they're doing pretty well in that department. I think it was more to expand the IP, seat it with a more global audience. They wanted to introduce a new faction into the franchise with New Horizon, and recapture what they felt was the charm and tactility of the old-school RTS."
The first order of business was for Blackbird to dig into the Crossfire IP and learn what makes it tick.
"If you're taking an established IP, particularly a popular one with a big fan base, and bringing it into a completely new genre with new gameplay and potentially a new audience, the primary goal is to make sure that what you're making is authentic to the parent IP, to make it a legitimate child," Cunningham says.
"What we found was when the IP holder isn't particularly protective or precious about the pillars of that IP, you can find a situation where one of the pillars may fall. Then you get a three-legged-stool-losing-a-leg situation and the whole thing will sort of collapse."
So what are Crossfire's pillars?
"One pillar is obviously the combat gameplay," Cunningham says. "But the nuanced version of that is that there's a clarity to the gameplay in Crossfire and a clarity to the world. Smilegate are sensitive to it not being too cluttered, overly detailed, or decorated."
Blackbird chief operations officer Eric Torin adds that Crossfire is all about multiplayer.
"This is a game that needs to live in a world that's esports accessible, so we absolutely focused on multiplayer maps, multiplayer rankings, leaderboards, that kind of thing," Torin says.
"When we initially created our monetization plan, we wanted to have at least an affordance where we could talk about what's possible with unlocking units, etc."Eric Torin
And Cunningham lists one more trait key to Crossfire.
"Another pillar is the monetization model, obviously," he says. "That's pretty central to the Crossfire IP. And of course, the factions and the world they've built in this near-future, arguably dystopian, militarized society."
Despite the free-to-play game's monetization being a pillar of the IP, the game Blackbird made, Crossfire: Legion, launched in May in Steam Early Access as a premium title, with additional monetization planned through microtransactions.
"We initially made Crossfire: Legion for a Chinese market," Torin says. "That was one of the key markets we were aiming for, but we knew we wanted it to be accessible globally as well. So when we initially created our monetization plan for this game, we wanted to have at least an affordance where we could talk about what's possible with unlocking units, etc.
"But upon releasing it to Early Access, the community was very clear that they were concerned about any kind of pay-to-win scenario, or that we might have a paywall between a player and key units."
In response, Blackbird announced last week that it was removing the store section of the game entirely and promised that all units will always be available immediately to all players, with no unlocking for gameplay-affecting items of any kind. The studio still plans to release downloadable content for the game, but not in the form it had been planning.
"There was a lot of internal discussion about what was appropriate and what was possible in the monetization space," Torin says. "We didn't want to forego the potential of microtransactions, etc., because that is something that's very much part of the Crossfire IP as a first-person shooter. But we weren't sure about how it would land with the community, and that's partly why we thought Early Access would be a good way to test what was possible. But because the response from the community was so aligned with 'Please don't do this,' we decided to make the change and roll it out as fast as we could."
While the game was designed with the Chinese market in mind, it hasn't actually launched there yet. (China has overhauled its approvals process for game releases in recent years and curtailed the number of games allowed to launch in the country.) So most of the feedback the team received on Crossfire: Legion -- and indeed most of the player base to this point -- has come from Western markets.
But that feedback has also led to the decision to take what was planned as a free-to-play game in markets where free-to-play is dominant and release it as a premium product instead.
"It is exclusively going to be a premium product where you pay once to play and that is absolutely the plan going forward," Torin says. "We still will have the potential of paid DLC as any premium product might have, but we will not have any kind of pay-to-win mechanic."
That new plan will allow for cosmetic DLC, but Torin notes that can be tricky with RTS games when something like a unit's color is already a key tool for designers to differentiate forces. He thinks the genre carries other complications for free-to-play-focused business models as well.
"I believe the RTS community biases toward hardcore game players much more than most other game genres because the barrier to entry is higher than it is for most genres," Torin says.
He cites the use of hotkeys and actions-per-minute required for competitive play as hurdles for newcomers, and adds that when matches have the potential to last for 40 minutes, the investment players make in starting a game is high enough that they want to be sure they don't lose for reasons besides their own capabilities.
"I think it's intrinsically, to some degree, a hardcore gaming market, and that player base is particularly sensitive to any kind of pay-to-win advantages," Torin says. "In that respect I feel like it just requires a very notably level playing field for players to feel like they're participating in a rewarding way."
As for how Smilegate responded to the idea of Blackbird making changes around one of the key pillars of the IP, Torin suggests it wasn't a sticking point.
"The whole point of collecting telemetry, interacting with the community, is you're collecting data so you're not guessing what the players want..."Eric Torin
"They've been great partners for us, and very involved in a lot of the key decisions," he says. "When we showed them the data -- this is what the community is saying and this is what we're proposing to do by moving to the premium packaged model -- they got right behind it.
"We needed to have a good case, and that was for us as much as it was for them. The whole point of collecting telemetry, doing surveys, interacting with the community through Discord and other channels is you're collecting data so you're not guessing at what the players want, but you actually have data that can back up any perceptions or course corrections."
Cunningham adds: "I think it's important to note that like any publisher or IP holder, they hold all the cards. It's their baby, their IP, they paid for the development of the game and they're in charge. So yes, it's a discussion. Yes, it's data sharing. It goes the same way with absolutely every IP we've ever worked on."
And while they doubtless would have preferred to get things perfect straight out of the gates, Torin sees the monetization about-face as an example of the system working properly.
"The whole point of Early Access is to respond to the community and have community feedback help us improve what the game is and the experience it provides the players," he says. "We don't want to be so proud as to think that we know best, and I think we got a very clear message from the player base.
"We just wanted to own our mistake, make the change and move to a premium everybody-gets-everything model. It was absolutely driven by feedback, and in my mind, that's what Early Access is for."