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MercurySteam: “Going free-to-play has been a nightmare... but it's working”

The Spanish studio on its failed business model for Raiders of the Broken Planet, and its rebirth as Spacelords

Enric Alvarez, owner of MercurySteam, is in self-critical mood.

We last spoke with him at Gamescom 2017 as the studio was preparing for the most important month in its history. Last September, it made Metroid: Samus Returns for 3DS - a critically successful remake (or reimagining) of a 1991 Nintendo game. It also went it alone with its own game called Raiders of the Broken Planet.

Metroid may have taken all the headlines, but Raiders was the more interesting of the two projects. The four vs one online shooter attempted a new business model - part free-to-play and part episodic. Players could try it for free and if they liked it, buy a full campaign. The first expansion was available at a budget price, with four campaigns planned from the outset.

"It was like in the old days, when you have a demo and if you like it you buy the full thing," Alvarez tells Gamesindustry.biz. "But for some reason, people today tend to be very cautious when spending money. And if you are not backed by a huge marketing campaign, or if you don't have a very known IP, or an incredible track record doing exactly the same thing, people don't tend to pay attention. And that's what happened.

"The people who played the game mostly loved it. They are still playing it. But it was clearly a mis-step our side."

MercurySteam boss Enric Alvarez

Alvarez is candid about MercurySteam's mistakes with Raiders of the Broken Planet, to the point where we almost wanted to defend his efforts. The gamble around the new business model didn't pay off, but there's no shame in trying something new and it not quite coming off.

"Yes, we tried something that we never tried before," he agrees. "This directly meant that we knew very little about what we were trying to do. And when you try something, and you know little about it, your chances to go wrong are significant. This pretty much summarises what happened.

"A significant part of our business model was turning to the players and saying that we are only giving them the first campaign, and then later we're adding the second, third and fourth. This in theory is interesting, but in reality it isn't. It certainly allowed us to improve and polish the game. We have incorporated all the things we've learned, and all the feedback we've had from the previous campaigns, into the subsequent ones. But as a pure business model, it didn't work. People were expecting a bigger game with more options, more characters, more stuff.

"The other issue was that the game was in sort-of no man's land. It was kind-of a premium product, but not 100%, it was kind-of free-to-play, but not 100%. People didn't get it. Not to blame the people, for we were to blame. We had to offer something more appealing."

"When you try something, and you know little about it, your chances to go wrong are significant. This pretty much summarises what happened"

Despite the challenging year, MercurySteam believe in the game it has built and has set about relaunching it. It has given it a new name in Spacelords, it has a new campaign and, even more significantly, the game has a new business model - it's fully free-to-play.

"From a technical point-of-view, going free-to-play has been a nightmare," Alvarez continues. "From a store point-of-view it's a nightmare as well. We're dealing with different stores, different rules, different people... having to synchronise everything. Our gamers are cross-platform, so it needs to be synchronised so people can play together. It is a monumental effort from a technical perspective to keep thing consistent. In terms of gameplay, we have a brand new campaign. It is easily 25% more content compared with previous campaigns.

"From a free-to-play perspective, we adjusted the economy and the progression. It's completely different to having a paywall at the beginning, where a game is $60 or $10, and then you play. We now want people to play for a long time. We want to keep them engaged, and to feel immersed and to stay committed. We want a lot of things that are now tougher to achieve, because when you download a game that is free-to-play you don't have any specific commitment to that. It is as easy to download as it is to delete, and you don't feel like you've lost anything. So you need to seduce people from the beginning with a mix of graphics, gameplay, charm, characters and so on. You need to drive people through the first hours in a very specific way, that we didn't need to do before.

"We're learning, by the way. This is new for us as well. We are taking a lot of ideas from people doing the same thing - successful projects that are going through exactly the same process we are going through."

Spacelords is a four vs one multiplayer online shooter

Alvarez says the decision to move to free-to-play took place in April, following the launch of the third campaign.

"The numbers started to look great since the third campaign," he explains. "That was accompanied by a total overhaul of our progression system. We moved from having no progression system to having a progression system. So from the third campaign onwards, things were looking very, very good in terms of acquisition, conversion, retention and all the things that matter when talking about free-to-play.

"The base game was essentially the same. But that third campaign is what motivated us to do the final step and take us into the direction of free-to-play. The rebrand was kind-of necessary. We were a little bit scared. But I think people have been very positive about it."

MercurySteam added free-to-play specialists to the team to help facilitate the move to the new business model, and it has fundamentally altered the studio's approach to development.

"We hired experts with years of experience in this area, which helps us to not screw this up dramatically," Alvarez tells us. "Of course we keep committing mistakes, but I think A-B testing is the only way to learn, especially in free-to-play games. You try one thing, you realise if it works or not, and then you move it forward or remove it and put something else in. You need people who have done that before.

"I don't remember the last time we decided something just because of the gameplay. We always have to consider the progression, the conversion, the acquisition, the monetisation... you need to look at everything from so many different angles, that you can't just rely on your personal taste, or your intuition. You need to get a lot of people into a meeting and look at every single aspect from different angles. We don't have the capacity to infinitely try stuff over and over and over. We need to look from different angles with every little thing that we think will be good for the game, even down to the tiniest detail like the HUD or the menus."

""I don't remember the last time we decided something just because of the gameplay. We always have to consider the progression, the conversion, the acquisition, the monetisation..."

The move to free-to-play is already paying dividends, at least in terms of user numbers on console. PC is another matter entirely, with MercurySteam struggling to attract decent numbers on the platform - which is why cross-play is proving so important.

"We still have an issue with Steam because of how the store works," Averez says. "All the criticism that we had at the beginning of Raiders of the Broken Planet, what they really didn't like, is that they thought they were downloading a free-to-play game, but it wasn't. It was a huge misunderstanding. It was our fault. So cross-play, in our case, is absolutely essential. Why? Because it helps us have enough players. The console versions are now much bigger than PC. Much, much bigger. So thank god we are able to mix people from Steam with PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Because this is what allows us to have a reasonable amount of concurrent players around the game."

MercurySteam is still a multi-project studio, and Alvarez was quick to move us on from asking about future work-for-hire projects post-Metroid. The company's focus is Spacelords. It has 100 people working on the title and the developer is convinced there's an audience for it, and one that it hopes will grow now the game is free.

"It's been a long journey but its just the starting point. Moving to free-to-play, changing the name, launching the new campaign and polishing further the game, it's not enough," Alvarez concludes. "We need to move forward. We need to take care of the people. We need to have a plan for the next year or two years. Of course, if the game works... if it doesn't work, then it doesn't make any sense. But for the moment, the numbers are promising.

"This is where we should have been a year ago. We screwed it up. But at the same time, we have used all this year to learn, and to polish and refine the game to a level that, if you download Spacelords now, you won't believe the game is free. It has AAA production values, no doubt about it, it is pushing the boundaries in many ways, by mixing melee with shooting, and introducing the stress concept in a shooter... we think we are the first game to do that. We're offering a four vs one experience that actually works. So there are many reasons why Spacelords is worth being in any gamers' library, and now it is for free.

"Now our job is to, on one hand, keep our players happy. And on the other, get as many new players as we possibly can. This isn't going to happen by magic. The free-to-play market is very tough and the competition is fierce. More and more big studios and publishers are now trying this AAA free-to-play way. So we need to try our best and keep pushing forward. That's all we know how to do."