When Trion Worlds set out to make its next game, the company thought it was building something for the free-to-play business model. But to the publisher’s surprise, it turns out it was actually making something quite different.
Atlas Reactor is getting a $30 price tag because, according to Trion chief executive Scott Hartsman, the development team realized recently it didn’t end up making a fun free-to-play game. Instead, Trion found that people had the most fun when they didn’t have to think about the business model and could instead focus on learning the nuances of the different characters in the competitive turn-based strategy game. Shifting away from free-to-play is something we’re seeing a bit more frequently on PC. The success of military shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and the excitement for class-based shooter Overwatch, both of which have a premium price, shows that the consumers on the PC side of the $99.6 billion gaming industry — one where free-to-play does well in online games like League of Legends and Dota 2 — are still willing to pay upfront.
Hartsman explained to GamesBeat that the plan for Atlas Reactor was to make it free to download, with a heavy emphasis on in-app purchases. It’s a strategy game where everyone takes their turn at the same time, and you try to position your character around the map so that it has a strategic advantage to win the next turn. This is something that could easily adopt the model that the multiplayer online arena battler League of Legends uses, where players get a free rotation of characters and the option to unlock their favorites with a purchase.
But that didn’t work for Trion.
“We had previously assumed that Atlas Reactor would be free-to-play because our last two games were free-to-play,” said Hartsman. “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.”
This shift to a premium price means that the development team can focus its efforts on aspects of the game that people are already enjoying. Essentially, the game designers can make the core action more balanced and exiting as opposed to ensuring that people have a reason to engage with Trion’s e-commerce systems.
The premium price also ensures gamers will have a more varied and interesting experience.
“This lets us unlock all of the characters in the game,” said Hartsman. “In a game that is based around matchmaking, you get vastly better matches when more people have access to more stuff.”
In a lot of free-to-play games, most people never pay for anything. That means in a game like the Xbox One fighter Killer Instinct, you’ll end up facing the same free characters over and over if you go online. That can grow stale quickly, and publisher Blizzard made the same argument for charging $60 for Overwatch.
“Business models aren’t a religion for us,” said Hartsman. “For us, it’s all based around logic.”
In the case of Atlas Reactor, the CEO explained that his team could not logically ignore what is best for the game, what the audience actually wants, and what fits the strong suits of the development team.
“This is a case where we looked at all three of those and saw that free-to-play doesn’t fit,” said Hartsman.
This doesn’t mean Trion has stripped Atlas Reactor of all in-app purchases, but Hartsmas says that they’re basically only leaving in optional downloadable content like different character animations and taunts. Again, this echoes the business model of Counter-Strike, Overwatch, and the online car-soccer game Rocket League.
But all of the core features, characters, and maps will come with the $30 retail package, and Trion is already seeing that people are willing to pay that price or more. The publisher has had some started packs up for sale on its site for a while, and they all applied to when the game was still free-to-play. And Hartsman noted that a significant number of players seemed willing to pay up front to unlock as much content as possible. This is one of the key factors that gave him confidence that a premium price was the right move.
“What I really want is to be hand-in-hand with the audience being led by what they’re saying and by what they’re doing,” said Hartsman. “This is a case where what they’re doing is matching what they’re saying to us perfectly. And I love that.”
At the same time, Trion doesn’t view this as a renouncement of free-to-play. Hartsman just didn’t want to prevent Atlas Reactor from growing into the game that the designers were already making and gamers already wanted.