One of the most critical decisions any developer makes when designing a game is how to sell it.
Not only what marketing approach to take but, even more important, what business model to choose. The traditional model, selling a game at a premium price and then discounting it over time, has proven unfeasible for a lot of developers and publishers, and morphed dramatically with the advent of DLC, digital distribution, and post-launch add-ons. The rise of free-to-play and subscription approaches means that a decision that was once a simple binary is now incredibly complex.
For Timo Ullmann, the managing director at Yager Development (the studio best known for its surprising narrative-focused take on the Spec Ops franchise, Spec Ops: The Line), choosing an approach for its latest game, Dreadnought, was a matter of jumping on an established trend at its zenith. The combat flight sim, published by Greybox and Six Foot, is currently in beta on PC and PS4.
“After we had shipped Spec Ops: The Line in 2012, we felt the time had come for us to explore F2P,” Ullman says. “We had been making games for consoles and PCs based on a more traditional business model for some time, but we were also watching the F2P space, and mobile as a platform seemed very interesting to us as well. Dreadnought was meant to be a F2P game from the beginning.”
Dreadnought puts players at the helm of massive, sleek, heavily armed spaceships and pits them against other players piloting their own powerful capital ships. The gameplay is remiscent of naval battles, where ships jockey for position to sweep their opponents with devastating broadside barrages. The multiplayer-heavy focus of the game and deep customization options for player ships lend themselves well to a free-to-play model reliant on microtransactions.
"You have to strike a delicate balance between offering players a great game that can be played for free and, at the same time, be able to afford keeping it running."
“It’s an offering to a big audience that loves spaceships and epic battles,” says Ullman.
But going free-to-play brought with it a number of challenges that the studio was unfamiliar with as a triple-A, "traditional" developer.
“F2P has been an interesting business model for us," says Ullman. "You have to strike a delicate balance between offering players a great game that can be played for free and, at the same time, be able to afford keeping it running."
One of the most dangerous stumbling blocks of a free-to-play model is the perception that premium players can gain an unfair advantage over free players by dumping money into the game, paying to win, but it’s a bugbear Ullman says his team has been keenly aware of through development, and something they’ve striven to avoid. “And that helps in other areas - it means we have a vested interest in keeping the game balanced, especially for players who don’t want to or aren’t able to spend a lot of money. You can progress through all of Dreadnought without spending anything.”
"With games-as-a-service, you may have people playing your game before it’s finished, or you may have a game that’ll never be finished, that’s designed to just keep evolving."
And for developers, a sales model isn’t just a consideration for the marketing department. Ullman says the challenge of a brand new approach to the business side of development meant changes that rippled through the entire process and affected almost every element of the way they built their game.
“There are a lot of similarities to traditional titles if you think about the actual gameplay, how assets like maps and ships are created, but there were a number of new challenges we needed to wrap our heads around: backend, servers, the whole integration of monetization within the game. The game is available 24/7 worldwide. As a team, we needed to organize ourselves in a way to deal with that reality.”
Make a free-to-play game doesn’t come with a hard, final ship date when you can pop the champagne and wash your hands of it. “With traditional games, you work like crazy toward your release date - you have to make that date. Then you might release a few patches or DLC packages, but that was basically it. Games-as-a-service development requires a different attitude - it’s more of a marathon. You may have people playing your game before it’s finished, or you may have a game that’ll never be finished, that’s designed to just keep evolving.”
"You’re getting instant reality checks on the decisions you’ve made and the work you’ve put in, which is really valuable."
But working on a living game has its advantages, too, particularly in terms of feedback. The Dreadnought team is constantly reading and reacting to player input and allowing the live environment to shape their game and its future.
“It’s a positive challenge - you’re learning a lot about your game while people play,” Ullman says. “Is the game stable, do the game mechanics work as intended, where do people spend time, are the game modes fun? You can react to what you see and adjust accordingly. You’re getting instant reality checks on the decisions you’ve made and the work you’ve put in, which is really valuable. We learned a lot when Dreadnought entered closed alpha last year; it helped us refine a plan for how to support the game after open beta, and that plan only continues to grow the more experience we have with people playing.”
While it sounds like the experience with free-to-play has been a net positive, Ullman says the future is wide open, and a return to more traditional models isn’t out of the question.
“The success of Dreadnought will surely influence what we do next, but at the same time, there are many business models, platforms and genres to choose from. We have new concepts in the making that could perhaps work well as F2P or games-as-a-service experiences. That isn’t to say we will only do one thing and one thing only going forward - only that we continue to find F2P attractive and are keen to apply what we’ve learned making Dreadnought to future projects.”