Sometimes, the best way to sell a product is to give it away for free.
That might sound crazy on first reading, but over here at Edge Case, our recent Steam free weekend promotion seems to have been the catalyst of a successful few months for the studio. It wasn’t just a case of throwing the game up on Steam and saying “here you go, help yourself” though. This was a promotion that was months in the making, and even with all that planning, mistakes were made and lessons learned.
We’ve been doing things a little differently over here, stepping away from the usual models of promoting a game, and embracing a fully open development approach was just the first part of that. Giving away Fractured Space for a whole five days, with all new players able to keep it forever, was similarly uncharted territory for us.
While we are eventually planning on transitioning to a free-to-play model when the game launches in the ever-elusive ‘1.0’ state, we are on a paid Early Access structure currently and opening the gates, if only for a set period of time, was a scary undertaking for us.
Introduction to Fractured Space
Just by way of introduction, our game Fractured Space is a MOBA-like 5v5 PvP space combat title, featuring huge capital ships duking it out in colossal space battles. Diverse ship designs and a constantly shifting meta give the game an intense tactical edge in amongst the explosions and flying plasma. We’re probably about 30 per cent of the way towards being ‘complete’ at this stage, with the game being constantly tinkered with as new content is added. [end boxout]
Where the traditional behind-closed-doors, publisher-led method of trailing a new game would entail a fairly typical drip-feed to press via a carefully orchestrated PR campaign and structured news beats, we decided to try something a little different. After all, we’re just a relatively small team (numbering in the low 20s) operating out of a former bathroom showroom in Guildford – not for us the glass and chrome motherships of our neighbours EA or Ubisoft. There are legitimate questions about the value in adopting the same practices, and so we chose to open the doors to the public like an Unreal 4-using Willy Wonka.
What is open development?
We do things a little differently here at Edge Case, and though we’re headed into slightly uncharted waters, the team have gotten full behind our open development philosophy for this project. We could go on about this for hours, but in a nutshell, it’s essentially the process of hiding absolutely nothing from the public as we go through development of Fractured Space.
Our designers are active on the forums and teamspeak servers, the artists live stream their work on Twitch, and our two full-time community managers put on several direct interaction events every week. We stream the game every Thursday, taking questions from the playing public, and host a dedicated developer Q&A every other Wednesday to give fans a peek behind the curtain.
Well, perhaps it’s more appropriate to say there is no curtain, as we share pretty much everything we have to show – players can even vote for features in upcoming sprints via our Trello board (a kind of public to-do list/calendar). It’s a bit different to the traditional publisher/PR-led behind closed doors approach, but we’ve thrown ourselves fully into this way of doing things, finding a really rewarding way to work along the way.
Heading into the promotion, we were boasting a manageable (but relatively modest) 1,000 daily active users (DAUs) for Fractured Space, on a pleasing retention rate of around 40 per cent from the previous day. In terms of concurrent users, a pretty vital element for an online-only PvP title, we were peaking between 75 to 150.
This would typically come during our weekly Thursday playtests, during which the community team would stream the game, and our developers would interact with the players over Teamspeak. These sessions would have the team discussing upcoming updates to the game, current issues and… Early Access was proving a neat fit for our open development stylings (essentially a very transparent and community feedback-driven development ethos, through our forums, streams and an online dev schedule), but what we really needed was more eyeballs on the game to really let it fly.
Obviously, as much as we love our players, we weren’t giving away our game purely out of the goodness of our hearts – there were some definite objectives in mind. First and foremost, it was a scalability test. The game’s code had been holding up pretty robustly at our current numbers, and the chance to stress test it with a larger pool of users would be of massive value to the ongoing development of the game. With that said, timing was always going to be key on this one.
After all, we are in very Early Access, with the game really still in an Alpha state, so we had to make sure the game was polished enough to show off to vast numbers of new players. Every little piece of data we can hoover up is useful in one way or another, from player behaviour, to information about match length and the stats of each ship, all go back into designing the game.
Of course, attracting a new flock was always going to be a nice side effect too, especially since without players in a PvP title, there’s no game. So with one eye on rolling out our fledgling drafting system ahead of full matchmaking, we sought to bolster our congregation as much as we could. A rudimentary drafting system was put in place, and extra servers set up in the EU and US to cope with the anticipated increase in traffic. The studio went a little Helm’s Deep on that Thursday afternoon.
In a meeting the day before the Steam promotion was about to kick off, we were setting our community goals. The more new players we attracted, the more rewards we would unlock for all those who took part over the weekend. We had put our estimates at around an eight to ten times increase of regular figures, based on similar Early Access titles which had taken the free weekend approach. We decided to set the three unlockables at tiers of five, ten, and 15 thousand new users, and even allowed ourselves to ambitiously talk about our chances of hitting the first milestone within 24 hours – it turns out our projections were pretty far out.
Let Chaos Commence – The Free Weekend Begins.
Well, it seems we were a little modest in setting our goals. The Helm’s Deep feeling seemed to be on-point, with our servers besieged on all sides. Smashing through the final milestone before we had our first coffee of Friday morning, we ended the weekend having attracted just shy of 270,000 new downloads. Time to get those artists working on the free weekend rewards. About 25 per cent of new players played on more than one day of the weekend, so it seemed we were landing significantly more shots than we anticipated.
Concurrent users were the real showpiece stat here though, seeing a 400 per cent increase on the peak CCU for the previous week. Whereas before we’d have to spend several minutes waiting in a playtest for the server to fill, now we’d be racing to get into one before the servers filled to the brim. It completely smashed the 80 per cent increase we’d predicted. More servers were hurriedly ordered in Singapore to cope with our emerging playerbase in that part of the world, and we battened down the hatches to see how the game would hold up. We wanted a stress test, but we had no idea…
Well, that escalated quickly
Not only did we see a huge boost in the raw numbers, but for a short time we were in fact in the top 50 trending games on all of Steam. Being up there and rubbing shoulders with giants on the week that Grand Theft Auto V launched on PC was no mean feat, and for the spell during which Fractured Space appeared above the latest Call of Duty, we were in dreamland. Watching the Delta DNA and Steam stats grow was much like the feeling taking a non-professional club all the way to a Wembley final on Football Manager. But after the initial rush of seeing our humble game fly up the charts, it was time to get started on the real work.
So all this data was very nice, and certainly put a spring in our steps (being a small team of about 24 in a pretty makeshift studio and appearing in the top trending games on Steam will do that to you), but what came of all this after the dust settled?
Well, though we had occasional server problems over the course of the weekend thanks to the hordes of new players (the hamster powering the wheel just couldn’t keep up with the pace as our regular 1,000 daily active users became just shy of 60,000 at the peak), no really disastrous issues reared their heads. Considering the huge step up in scale our game was experiencing, this was encouraging. The worst we had to contend with was a scary period of around 30 minutes of downtime as our third-party servers went kaput, but this was solved in relatively short order.
Thanks to careful monitoring of the game’s performance over the weekend, disruption was kept to a minimum, with a couple of strategic server resets stepping in to keep lag under control at relatively quiet moments. A few weaknesses were dug up, with a couple of code issues and problems with our third-party account management becoming known, but lessons are learned through hardship, and all this identified areas for improvement. We also, suddenly, had a massively increased install base to work with – that community suddenly became a lot harder to manage. There was naturally something of a tail off, but numbers remain healthy even now, thanks to the few days in which we gave the base game away for free.
Perhaps the biggest win of all though, was in the reception we got. The Free Weekend generated 64 new articles on our radar, with the likes of PC Gamer and PCGamesN giving the game positive write-ups, as well as a healthy reception in the German-speaking world from sites such as 4players. Our number of Steam reviews shot through the roof too, but the average percentage score didn’t drop anywhere near as sharply as you might expect.
The chart below shows the number of reviews, and the average scores over the weekend. So while we did drop a little below the mythical 80 per cent positive mark on the Steam store, an average drop in score of around five per cent is a small hit to absorb. So while the number of reviews shot skyward in a big way, the average score stayed relatively static, which when considering the game’s positioning as a MOBA-like title, with the famously discerning playerbase such a genre typically garners, that’s something to be pleased with.
Many of the negative customer reviews correlated too, throwing up clear action points going forward – the tutorials on offer were hot topics, with many players not feeling they were communicated boldly enough to new users. With slight issues like this now being worked on, it should hopefully be a matter of time until we see that average percentage creep back up to pre-free weekend levels. The open development mandate no doubt helped to maintain this, with so many of the reviews remarking on the satisfaction players have of being able to talk directly to, say, a level designer, or gameplay programmer, about their ideas or concerns. This was definitely reflected in the feedback we saw, and the feelgood factor was firmly in place despite the non-stop nature of the weekend.
Steam reviews went up as expected, thought the average score reamained surprisingly consistent.
Another big win came from our press coverage. While going through Early Access is always a tricky proposition in this regard, the unique angle of our free weekend helped to get more outlets reporting on our game than had been since our initial announcement. The press are traditionally cautious in their approach to Early Access games, what with the element of uncertainty that comes with the territory. Unless you’re DayZ or Heroes of the Storm, it’s not easy to get noticed in the wild west of Early Access, so the unique angle that our free weekend gave the press to work with was undoubtedly a positive influence when looking at the overall reception.
When Fractured Space was revealed to the world, the combination of open development and (we like to think) the team’s story as a though-line from the Kickstarter success of Strike Suit Zero gave us a decent splash, with 91 mentions arriving on our radar screen, before tailing off for several months as we got our heads down to finish making the thing. We got 76 new mentions regarding the promotion from outlets across Europe, so that was a welcome spike – especially given the vastly improved state of the game this much further along production.
After the weekend, with more populated servers and the game creating a lot more buzz than it had before, we began to see more and more positive previews appearing around the specialist press. The game started to appear more and more around the enthusiast press too, with YouTube searches suddenly becoming far more fruitful, and we’ve even just started to put together our first clan vs clan tournament, to be streamed live on Twitch. For a game that’s still in Alpha, we’re pleasantly surprised to be this ahead of our own expectations.
While it would be fun to rest on our laurels for a while, it was important to take lessons from what we experienced over this crazy week. Matchmaking and allowing custom teams was a hot topic that shot up the Trello voting, and we adjusted accordingly. Being able to adapt at pace is definitely both one of the advantages and challenges of open development - while the free weekend highlighted priority areas that needed work, we were flexible enough to get straight to work on them for imminent patches.
It’s all well and good to bask in the warmth of the increased numbers, but if you don’t use all this raw data for anything, it can quickly become just a set of gimmicky statistics to show off with. The key thing, especially with an online-only title like ours, is to use every last scrap of data you can get to hone the game into the best possible shape you can.
So while putting your early-access, open development, PvP MOBA free on the world’s largest distribution platform for the best part of a week may on the face of it sound risky, we took a real run at it and were pretty delighted with the results. To hit the numbers we did, going toe-to-toe with million-selling franchise game Endless Legendon the same playing field, was quite the achievement for our ambitious studio, and the signal boost that has resulted has given us much to be optimistic about for the future. Numbers have stayed healthy, we’ve seen a decent increase in the amount of paying customers in-game, and Fractured Space is as competitive as ever.
So with this enlarged audience, higher profile and plenty of new player data, we have to choose our next steps carefully. We’re introducing two new ships in the next update, along with another batch of crew members, doubling the available characters for players to use. This increases the players’ customisation options massively, and with the new base system making significant changes to the game mode in the near future, we’re providing huge chunks of new content for all our new players to enjoy. As the player base has grown, so too will the game – it’s an exciting time for us all following the weekend of insanity that is going free on Steam.
Free weekends: The pitfalls
If we had to pick a downside to the method, it would probably be in the sheer amount of work required to keep up. Adopting as we do an open development philosophy, we did find ourselves losing a little dev time to dealing with the huge amounts of new players that needed guidance or had burning questions. While we do have two full-time community managers dedicated to this, being a smaller studio meant this really was a case of all hands racing to the pumps.
While this is all part of the job – after all, if you live by the sword, you die by the sword – it has to be said that a free weekend isn’t something to rush into. Real preparation had to go into the promotion, and if the worst thing you can say about something is that it gave you more work to do, then that’s a nice problem to have. Also, if you’re considering following a similar approach, then be ready to buy more servers…
Note: This article, along with the images therein, were first published in the April 2015 edition of Making Games magazine.