GamesBeat

Online Warmongers’ founder on building a balanced free-to-play shooter (interview)

Online Warmongers is a company looking to bring the production values and quality of a traditional retail game to a free-to-play shooter. Over a million players have now experienced the beta test of its War Inc. Battle Zone game, and around 200,000 users are logging in every month. With the game due for full release in April, Online Warmongers’ founder Sergey Titov spoke to VentureBeat about building a balanced free-to-play shooter and his vision for the future of the game.

VB: Can you tell us about the background to the game and the team you’ve put together?

ST: When I left Riot Games (I had been serving as Technical Director since the company’s foundation until the summer of 2008), I decided to concentrate on online and free-to-play markets. At this point there was a boom of F2P [free to play] games in Asia, Russia and partially Europe, with some very weak waves hitting the United States. I founded Arktos Entertainment Group – my own investment and online publishing company – and bought out the shares of my partners in Void Production LLC, a Russia-based high-end technology development team.

I then set a goal to our CTO [chief technical officer] to build the best online game engine possible, tailoring it for FTP game requirements. By mid-2009, we had a pretty solid foundation — an extremely reliable and scalable server and backend architecture, and a client that not only provided a fast and very powerful rendering core, but was lightweight and scalable across platforms. In fact we had the client running on PC, Xbox 360, and PS3, and by the end of 2009 we were ready to take the next step – it was time to make a game using our awesome technology.

We had two game concepts; the first being a modern shooter with Battlefield-style game play. I am a huge fan of the Battlefield series, as are some of the Senior team members, and we’ve been dying to bring this type of experience to F2P. The other game idea was a Mech based combat game. The Shooter won.

At the same time we were talking to a few of our friends who were working on the Call of Duty series and also Star Trek Online, and they wanted to start their own company. So this is how Online Warmongers Group and War Inc. Battle Zone were born.

VB: What differentiates your game from other F2P military shooters, such as Alliance of Valiant Arms or Battlefield Play4Free?

ST: As I’ve said before, our goal was to bring traditional retail production value and quality to an F2P game. As gamers, we feel that there are two camps in free-to-play shooters. On one side we have several games that are fun to play, but they feature dated graphics and really low production values. On the other side we have Battlefield and Call of Duty – very high-end, very solid games, but they require the player to pay $60, then grind endless hours, days, and months just to unlock a new decent gun, for example.

We wanted the best of both worlds. We wanted to make a game with premium quality, like modern graphics and high production values, yet we wanted to have all the perks of a free-to-play game. We wanted to be able to speed up our progression by spending a little cash, and we wanted to be able to bring in our friends without having them pay $60 each just to enjoy playing together.

This is what War Inc. Battle Zone is about. We offer a retail quality game in a free-to-play form.

VB: You say that War Inc is balanced to ensure that competitive and loyal players are rewarded. How do you preserve this balance while ensuring that players are still rewarded for their in-game spending?

ST: This has been the hardest thing to solve, and I really hope that we’re almost finished with this task. Basically, when playing War Inc. Battle Zone you always have a choice between spending time on the game and investing some real-world cash to speed things up. Our monetization is built upon that concept.

Yes, paying users will enjoy more convenience perks, as they can create highly customizable private games (basic users have a limited set of options there). They also have early access to new guns and gear, and they have access to some unique items that do not give them an advantage in the game but clearly identify them among players. They have more cosmetics customization options and so on.

It’s clear that our design works – around half of the top players are free players, while [the] other half are paying users.

VB: War Inc was entering its final beta testing period in December 2011. Is this still ongoing, and if so, do you have an expected date for leaving the beta stage?

ST: We launched our first very limited closed beta in April 2011. We launched our first open beta in July 2011 and went into Stage 2 in December. We have very solid plans for an official release of the game in April 2012.

VB: What kind of numbers do you have playing the game at the moment, and what percentage of players do you find spend money on the game?

ST: Since we launched open beta, slightly over 1M users registered and played the beta version of the game. Today around 200K players are playing the game every single month. As for percentage of paying users – I’ll just say that we’re making around $0.40 per day per daily active user.

We understand that still being in beta and actively changing the game design lowers our numbers and conversion rates. This is why we’re working as hard as humanly possible to get to the point when we can safely say, okay we’re done developing Version 1 of the game and we’re ready to officially get rid of the “Beta” stigma.

Interview continued on Page 2

VB: How do you go about building a persistent community in the shooter genre, something that might come more naturally for, say, an MMORPG, filled with quests and associated collaborative gameplay?

ST: All online games are social by definition. Our goal as developers has been to create an ecosystem that allows players to communicate and brag to each other, as well as to foster team play and team competition.

We have several systems in place, such as the Friends feature already available in a game, and others are coming in the next two months, such as the Clans system, the Clans Warfare meta-gameplay, Tournaments, and Factions.

We have really concentrated on making sure that players will WANT to play together, forming clans, and being very active in a game. For example, by playing with others, by supporting your clan, by inviting your friends, and by helping new clan members, you’ll be able to earn our in-game cash currency – which is not available except by purchasing it in the cash store.

By joining a Faction and helping your Faction to win more battles, you’ll be able to access gear and items that are not available in the store.

VB: What was your target market for the game when you launched? Is this the same audience that has ended up playing the game?

ST: We launched the beta offering Battlefield-style conquest gameplay and a third-person perspective. Throughout the beta, we added a special gameplay mode for eSports teams. Expanding the game to hardcore Counterstrike fans, we added several smaller maps, making it more appealing to a younger audience comfortable playing Call of Duty games. Finally, we just announced that we’re adding a first-person mode with a very extensive visual customization system for weapons.

As you can see, we started with a very clear idea about what we were making, but over the last seven months we’ve progressed and expanded far beyond this. We’ve added features that will make the game more appealing to a wider audience, and we’ve added features that are not found in other games.

VB: War Inc featured in the World Cyber Games Russia tournament last year. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

ST: Most of the credit should go to our partners at Syncopate for pulling this off. When we were approached with this idea, we made a special mode in the game tailored to seasoned cybersports players. This is how the Sabotage game mode was born. We consider it an improved version of the diffuse bomb game mode from Counterstrike. We’ve been working with a leading Counterstrike team in Russia to make sure that mode is ready for primetime.

More will be coming this year, adding a global telecast system, a commentator mode allowing you to broadcast matches to a wide audience live over internet, and a special module to manage tournaments.

VB: Have you explored ways of opening access to your game to PC users with less powerful systems? Are there channels that could make your game accessible to a wider demographic? (Perhaps thinking of streaming tech such as Gaikai or OnLive).

ST: This year at CES, I’ve been using my 11” ASUS Zenbook ultrabook to show the game. It was running in 720p resolution at 25-30 frames per second. Yes, you have to turn off most of the high-end graphical bells and whistles, but even at low settings our game looks better than most Asian or Western F2P shooters.

On the other hand, if you have a pretty powerful computer, we’re offering all kinds of visual effects and tricks you expect from a modern, high-end game, like volumetric shadow casting particles, 100 percent dynamic lighting and deferred shading, depth of field effects, antialiasing, physically correct materials rendering, and dynamic ambient occlusion.

And, yes, we are constantly looking for ways to make our game accessible to more people. Right now we’re designing a version of the game that is specifically tailored for cloud streaming services like Gaikai or OnLive. In fact, Arktos Entertainment Group’s engineering team has plenty of experience developing game streaming solutions, seeing as it was our bread and butter in 2008-2010, so it’s a very natural fit for us. We’re working with leading TV manufacturers to bring our game to TV sets in late 2012, early 2013.

VB: With the upcoming release of Dust 514 on PS3, there may be further potential for F2P gaming experiences, particularly shooters, moving to home consoles. Do you see this as a viable avenue for exploration in the future?

ST: There are more than 100 million users who’re playing on consoles, so yes, this is nicely sized market. That said, there are a number of problems that need to be solved. Actually interesting that you’ve mentioned Dust 514, which is not a FTP game – as far as I know you have to pay like $15 or so to buy game. And, yes, you’ll get that money back in the form of in-game currency, but in a nutshell it shows problem number one – there’s no way to release true FTP game on consoles, i.e you have to charge something for your game. This effectively kills your biggest advantage of being a free game. It’s not a simple “download and play” deal for players anymore. They have to commit financially; they have to spend money before they’ll be able to play game. You can’t invite your friends easily anymore.

Another potential problem is user base segregation. I have all the consoles at home, I have a PC. I play on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC. Will I be able to play with my PC friends if I’m playing the Xbox version of the game? Will I be able to communicate with my friends playing on Xbox if I’m playing the PS3 version? All those questions have nothing to do with game design and technology, but have more to do with platform politics that need to be addressed first.

I personally and firmly believe that we will get there. In fact, our company has had a version of our game running on the PS3 that lets you play with PC users for about nine months now. But I really can’t say when this PS3 version will be available to players.