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Hi-Rez Studios' Todd Harris

How has free-to-play changed the Global Agenda developer, and can we ever expect F2P on consoles?

Hi-Rez Studios describes itself as a "AAA independent", working in Atlanta with a team of 50 on Global Agenda, the Tribes licence and new project Smite. It's a self-funded and self-publishing business, built by co-founders that came to video gaming with a background in online services - essential since Hi-Rez moved Global Agenda to a free-to-play model.

In this interview with GamesIndustry.biz, co-founder and chief operating officer Todd Harris discusses the switch to free-to-play and how it affects the way the studio operates, as well as his thoughts on free-to-play on consoles and why the upcoming Tribes game is heavily PC focused.

GamesIndustry.biz How are you finding the free-to-play market, because that’s relatively new for you guys?
Todd Harris

Yeah, it is. I mean I’d say the thing that is in our blood is the whole idea of software as a service, and doing the continual updates, and so Global Agenda went through a variety of business models. At one time I think we considered every one of them. But the thing that was really constant was our commitment to updating the game. And so we considered subscription, we never actually charged subscription and it was buy-to-play for a long time. But even as buy-to-play we were continually doing new updates into the game, and saw free to play as a way to better monetise the updates that we were doing and also just expand the user base.

It’s still early in the first phase, but we're certainly very pleased with how things are going. We’ve basically tripled the number of accounts being created so more people coming in the front door, just based on our choice to go free and we've implemented Agenda Points, which is our form of virtual currency. So we're very encouraged so far about the model and how it fits with Global Agenda.

GamesIndustry.biz Do you think you’ve finally found the right business model?
Todd Harris

Yeah, I think it fits the game the best. It probably would have been best served to launch with it, but again I think we’ve got a reputation with the community around updating the game constantly and that’s why there’s a lot of good will, and now free-to-play is a way to just grow the user base and keep the existing users attached to the game. So yeah, I think it is the best model.

Global Agenda went through a variety of business models. At one time I think we considered every one of them

GamesIndustry.biz It’s quite relevant to all kinds of media businesses isn’t it? If you can show that you’re adapting to what the customer wants then it’s not such a huge issue as long as you move quick enough for the consumer.
Todd Harris

Yeah, and that’s kind of in our DNA. I mean actually myself and the other co-founder of the company, before Hi-Rez Studios we were involved in a software service business. This wasn’t to consumers it was to businesses, and actually retail businesses, and retail businesses doing things like managing their inventory, managing their workforce specifically and those business requirements change quickly, suddenly there’s a new labour law requirement and that needs to be implemented. And we did that through online software as a service and that was very successful and so really that’s kind of how we’ve always thought about games. A little less consumer product on the shelf orientated and more online, constantly keeping up with changing requirements, only now we’re able to let gamers help us steer the direction of the ship, versus business requirements.

So from the beginning we really built the studio around how can we stay close to customers? How can we make sure we’re delivering the sort of features and content that they most enjoy playing? So that’s how we’ve run the game and free-to-play, I don’t think it’s the only way to deliver, but certainly a good fit for Global Agenda.

GamesIndustry.biz How has going free-to-play changed the way you work as a development studio? As actual creators of a product?
Todd Harris

Well I think, again, always take cues from the community in terms of surveys and in game metrics and it’s a little early but certainly we’ll be looking at what players are choosing to spend their dollars on as another factor along with how players are spending their gaming hours. So before we would look at in-game metrics and see how much are people enjoying the PVE versus the PVP and which types and which weapons are being used and under used, and now we have this whole other source of data on what people are choosing to spend their virtual currency on, and that will help guide some of our choices as far as development priorities.

GamesIndustry.biz Is it difficult managing that data and acting on the appropriate parts? You must be inundated with data and metrics.
Todd Harris

That’s right. Before we’d look at it in terms of game balance and in terms of which weapons are under represented or over represented in classes, now there’s just a whole other dimension of virtual item pricing, so we’ll soon understand how much players are motivated to buy only cosmetic items versus gameplay items and of course there’s all sorts of dimensions beneath that that get more detailed.

GamesIndustry.biz The free-to-play market is becoming more popular and standards in terms of service and development are constantly improving, so how does a company like yourself stand out in that market?
Todd Harris

As a studio the AAA high production values is where we differentiate. There are other entries getting there but certainly the traditional association with free-to-play is a little bit… lower production values, shall we say? Lower graphical fidelity? And so as an Unreal 3 user, and this is where the early investment and Global Agenda as a non free-to-play game perhaps helped us, because we think it compares very favourably with other AAA titles out there. And that’s something we’ll maintain as a studio so high production values, specifically great looking graphics and good gameplay, and fast performing game code. All those things are a part of our studio brand that might be a little bit different from niches carved out by other free-to-play folks. And then specific to Global Agenda there’s things as far as the genre being sci-fi and the gameplay being shooter oriented instead of slower paced that’s also helped us stand out I think.

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Matt Martin

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Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.