Today, publisher Trion Worlds announced that upcoming competitive real-time strategy title Atlas Reactor is moving from a planned free-to-play business model to a paid one. The developer had planned for players to purchase characters and skins for the title, offering four different buy-in packs with various levels of beta access, characters, skins, and other bonuses. Instead, all current and future characters in the game will be free and Trion is pivoting to allow more rewards, like skins and taunts, to come from gameplay.
"Your reactions have been extremely positive towards Atlas Reactor's cosmetic and boost-based microtransaction system. We don't monetize power, and everything that impacts gameplay (such as Freelancers and their Modifications) can be earned via gameplay. We are proud of this system: you get a ton of play options, and it's fair," wrote Atlas Reactor executive producer Peter Ju.
"During Closed Beta, we've been figuring out how to best tune our Free to Play game to create a sustainable business. To make it viable, we would have had to do some things that run counter to your feedback, making the game less fun."
Trion will be replacing its current Founder's Packs with three different game editions. The lowest will be the $29.99 Atlas Edition, followed by the $59.99 Freelancer Edition, and the $99.99 Trust Edition.
Atlas Reactor isn't the first competitive title to switch from a free-to-play business model to a paid one. Lawbreakers, the arena shooter coming from Cliff Bleszinski's Boss Key Productions, switched to the paid model back in March. According to Boss Key chief operating officer Arjan Brussee at GDC, the title's smaller roster of heroes didn't lend itself to the free-to-play model of buying characters. Bleszinski himself also acknowledged that a number of fans simply dislike the idea of free-to-play.
"We did a lot of discussions and even more research. There are some core free-to-play games that do well, but for us, we didn't want to go down the well of players buying 'energy' or other sleazy things," Bleszinski said, according to reporting by Polygon. "A lot of core gamers have a negative reaction when they hear free-to-play because they think they'll get ripped off."
There's nothing particularly wrong with free-to-play as a business model. I've played great free-to-play titles and paid for games that simply didn't give me enough bang for my buck. For a game like League of Legends, free-to-play makes a ton of sense and doesn't harm the game's design. The problem is with the rise of mobile and games like LoL and World of Tanks, many developers and publishers started to feel that the only way offer up competitive titles was through the free-to-play business model. That works because "free" vastly lowers the barrier of entry, letting new players jump in quickly and get acclimated. Certain MMOs work well with the model, like Star Trek Online, Neverwinter, Rift, or DC Universe Online.
Not every title needs to be free-to-play though. That idea is a shackle that prevents some games from reaching their potential and I'm glad that developers are starting to realize this. At the same time, developers are starting to realize that $60 doesn't have to the only price point you offer major games at. In the Lawbreakers press release announcing the shift in business model, Boss Key acknowledged that the game wouldn't be $60. The recent Ratchet & Clank reboot game was the fastest-selling title in the franchise and while it's a great game, I'd guess part of the success is due to the $40 price point.
What looked to be the first real step in this shift back towards paid competitive titles was Blizzard's Overwatch. The hero shooter sprang from the wreckage of Blizzard's Project Titan and everyone expected it to be free-to-play, especially with the wild success that was Hearthstone. So when the company revealed in November of last year that Overwatch was not free-to-play, it surprised the industry. For Blizzard, the move was driven by Overwatch's gameplay, which lets players switch heroes to help with certain situations and team composition.
"We really made the decision on the business model based on what we thought was right for the gameplay," Overwatch game director Jeff Kaplan told Polygon. "If you've played a lot of Overwatch, you know that hero-switching [mid-match] is a core part of it - it's a really fun dynamic part. The difference maker between ... Overwatch and other games is the fluidity in the team compositions and matching what the other team's doing."
"A lot of the free-to-play models that we were exploring involved people not having access to enough heroes to make those team compositions actually viable. We really didn't want to change the core gameplay and limit it in some way just to make the game free-to-play," he added. "We saw a lot of feedback coming from the community, almost like a fatigue with, like, 'I'm trying to figure out how I'm gonna play this game. I really want [to play as the heroes] Mei, Widowmaker and Reaper, so what formula do I need to figure out in order for that to happen?'"
Like Atlas Reactor, Overwatch offers multiple editions. On PC, players can pick up the basic edition for $39.99, or the Origins Edition for $59.99. On Xbox One and PlayStation 4, Origins Edition is all you get.
At the time, people seems to be worried about Overwatch's prospects, given the quick falloff of other premium competitive games like Evolve and Titanfall. The game seems to be weathering the storm just fine though, to the point that Activision Blizzard expects Overwatch to be Blizzard's best launch since Diablo III.
"We expect Overwatch to be Blizzard's biggest launch since Diablo in 2012. We also believe Overwatch will resonate well in eSports, which provides yet another vector for audience expansion," said Activision COO Thomas Tippl in a recent investors call. "In fact, eSports is not only a driver of audience expansion, but also importantly drives growth in terms of time spent with our franchises."
Blizzard knows what others have seemingly forgotten. If your game is good, people will pay for it and then they'll pay more on top of that. This is the company that offers up World of Warcraft with a business model that includes $50 paid expansions, a $15 monthly subscription free, and additional microtransactions on top of that. The company sells special pets for $10 and exclusive mounts for $25; I've dipped into that well a few times and I know I'm not the only one.
Charging a specific price for Overwatch and allowing players to unlock everything through gameplay doesn't preclude selling additional skins and other services if players want them. Companies have to move beyond such rigid thinking. A competitive title doesn't have to be free-to-play. Premium titles don't have to be $60 only. And there's room for both business models to bleed into one another.
The correct business model is the one that's right for the game you're making, not the one that fits expectations.
"We had previously assumed that Atlas Reactor would be free-to-play because our last two games were free-to-play," Trion CEO Scott Hartsman told GamesBeat. "That's been the dominate model for the last four years or so. This is our sixth game, and we've learned a lot about free-to-play games and what fits and what doesn't. But what we've learned from this game that people assumed would be free-to-play - and that we assumed would be free-to-play - is that it is actually vastly better suited to a premium digital model."