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Games are transitioning to ongoing platforms and away from packaged product releases. This is the live-services trend, and it’s something that every blockbuster publisher is talking about as the future of making games. For developer Tripwire Interactive, the studio responsible for cooperative shooter Killing Floor, this isn’t some new moneymaking fad. The company has always worked that way due to its origins as a team of modders.
In 2005, Killing Floor debuted as a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004. It’s a horde-style shooter when players take on waves of undead creatures. After working on the mod for years, Tripwire eventually used Epic’s Unreal Engine to build a standalone version of Killing Floor that launched on Steam in 2009. Since then, Killing Floor has continued to sell as Tripwire has found ways to keep it fresh through regular updates. The studio has also found ways to generate revenue through downloadable content that it sells through Steam.
“Live services” or “games as a service” (GaaS) mean a lot of things to a lot of people, but one thing is always the same: publishers and developers want to keep players coming back over and over for as long as possible. To do this, game makers almost always rely on free updates that give fans reasons to boot the game up again. This is the standard model on mobile, and it’s something we see publishers like Blizzard and Ubisoft embracing and having a lot of success with.
For Tripwire, it has enabled it to maintain the relevance of Killing Floor for more than a decade. I spoke to Tripwire vice president Alan Wilson and Killing Floor 2 boss Bill Munk about this and more, and they explained that they can’t help but make games this way.
“It wasn’t just about us doing a few new maps,” said Wilson. “Being an ex-mod team, we’re used to the idea of trying new stuff, even in a ‘released’ state, then getting the feedback from the players, adapting stuff and trying it again. I’m not sure that we’ve ever really registered that this was not the ‘accepted’ way of doing things. But it is a very mod-centric approach.”
Wilson also said that this enables players to connect on a deeper level. They see Tripwire implementing their feedback into the game, and that makes them feel involved. But new content is still the strongest way to keep up engagement levels, and that is where Tripwire has excelled.
“With Killing Floor, we’ve added all sorts of new things over the years,” said Wilson. “We started with seasonal events, which have been wildly successful. We also introduced new weapons, new game modes, new characters, etc. At one point, we stood back and did a complete re-balance of the game — working very heavily off player feedback we had collected.”
That experience fed into Tripwire’s Killing Floor 2, which launched November 2016. The company knew how to make a game that could last, but it also had a chance to start fresh armed with years of lessons.
“The biggest change from Killing Floor to Killing Floor 2 is the amount of stuff we’re including in the content updates,” said Munk. “Right now, we’re able to add so much more content-wise for Killing Floor 2 simultaneously for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. For the most part, our content updates are hitting the mark for what we’ve envisioned doing as we’re always looking for ways to add more and more value to each update.”
Munk explained that Killing Floor 2’s add-ons have come in the form of weapons and events, but it is now experimenting with fresh characters, features, and modes. Feedback is still key on all of this, but the studio wants to find every way to give players what they want.
“We’re extremely excited about what we have in the works for the future of Killing Floor 2,” said Munk. “And look forward to surprising owners with this continued cadence of free and regular content updates.”
You can read my full interview with Tripwire Interactive below.
GamesBeat: How did you maintain the long sales tail of Killing Floor over the last decade?
Alan Wilson: We learned a lot from our experience with Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, Tripwire Interactive’s first game (released on PC in 2006). When we first met up with Valve in the very early days of Steam, they advised us to “update the game — and just try new stuff out.” As a new development team that had previously been a mod team, this made absolute sense to us, as that’s what we’d been doing anyway. In those days, most games were “fire and forget,” only getting updated if something was actually broken. So, with Red Orchestra, we did a series of free updates for the game. And, naturally, when we released Killing Floor on PC in 2009, we started to do the same. Killing Floor had been a mod before we took it on so that, once again, it was natural for us to keep updating it.
Free content updates to the game obviously made the players happy and kept them coming back. We tend to look at it as “critical mass.” With co-op and multi-player games, people often look at how many people are playing before making a buying decision. Pretty logical — you need to be sure there will be others to actually play with. So you need to maintain the player counts above that critical mass. Then, people are happy to buy.
But it wasn’t just about us doing a few new maps. Being an ex-mod team, we’re used to the idea of trying new stuff, even in a “released” state, then getting the feedback from the players, adapting stuff and trying it again. I’m not sure that we’ve ever really registered that this was not the “accepted” way of doing things. But it is a very mod-centric approach. It also allows the players to feel included in the process. With Killing Floor, we’ve added all sorts of new things over the years. We started with seasonal events, which have been wildly successful. We also introduced new weapons, new game modes, new characters, etc. At one point, we stood back and did a complete re-balance of the game — working very heavily off player feedback we had collected.
Beyond all our own work, of course, we’ve always encouraged the modding and mapping community to go wild with Killing Floor and have made the tools available to them. We also regularly sponsor maps and mod contests for our titles to keep our community excited about continuing to create. I don’t think we even know how many maps have been created for Killing Floor over the years. It must be hundreds and hundreds by now. There have been total conversion mods, like Defence Alliance and other new and unique gameplay mods. Because we’ve supported these efforts as well, we have been able to show the game getting new content, love and attention for many years. And given how many (potentially cynical) money-raking schemes there have been over the last decade in the games industry, I think people appreciate our efforts.
GamesBeat: I’m sure it’s a combination of factors, but can you speak to the effectiveness of specific tactics like free weekends, discounts bundles, and Steam sales?
Alan Wilson: They all work in their own way, but if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it is that any of these things has limited effect on its own. With the first Steam Summer Sale Killing Floor was involved in (which would have been 2009), there were only a few hundred games on Steam in total — and not all of them were included in that sale. Now, there are something like 15,000+ games on Steam and every single one of them seems to be in the Summer Sale. We recognized early on that our mod-style tactics of doing “new stuff” around these events made a big difference to the reaction (as indicated by the sales uplift) during an event. So we always planned each event carefully — and we still do. Simple example from the Steam Holiday Sale at the end of 2017: We ran a Twisted Christmas event with a significant free content update for Killing Floor 2, but nothing different for other titles such as Rising Storm 2: Vietnam. The result was that we saw the uplift on Killing Floor 2 through the sale period as 2-3x higher than our other titles.
But this was all learned off the work we did over the years with the first Killing Floor. We were already used to the idea that we’d combine a new (free) content update with a free weekend along with a sale and PR efforts around it all. The new content brought back existing customers back to the game to check it out and the free weekend added in usually around another 100,000-200,000 players over the weekend. We’d see peak concurrent player counts hit 25,000 over the weekend (keep in mind that this is when Steam had only one-tenth the subscribers it has today). Finally, with the sale happening at the same time, it would fuel a buying frenzy.
This started back in 2010. Coming into the Steam Holiday sale that year, we decided to try out adding in a “special/seasonal event,” that became “Twisted Christmas.” We changed up the whole game by replacing the standard enemies with humorous winter holiday themed variants, adding new content, adding in some extra (purely cosmetic) DLC — and the sales uplift was huge, resulting in a 10x increase. The cosmetic DLC almost became something that players would buy, almost just as a “thank you” for all the free stuff we were giving away. As ex-modders ourselves, we couldn’t resist adding in some DLC packs created by the community, as well as our own. The first weapon pack we did for Killing Floor moved 116,000 units in its first week. This fueled the creation of even more content by the community.
We’ve offered bundles of titles, title-plus-DLC, and so on, for a while. Those are a convenience for some people. But we don’t find they actually get taken up in large numbers on Steam. However, we have seen specialist pieces, like Humble Bundle move some large numbers of units. We did one that included Killing Floor some years back. It moved well over 100,000 units, but at a fairly ruinous price. In fact, the sales were so good that we were finding Killing Floor keys re-selling on “dodgy” key sales sites for weeks afterwards, at a buck or two a copy. While it was a good way to pull in some extra players, it was not as helpful for generating revenue on a game that was still selling strongly!
But the key for us is to strategize every single event as noted above. It just isn’t enough to go “Oh, the game is in Green Man’s summer sale. We’ll get loads of money.” Given the challenge of discoverability, you have to ask yourself “How is my game going to stand out above all the rest?” — and then plan something that will help you achieve that.
GamesBeat: How have the updates changed during the life of Killing Floor 1? What did you think content patches would look like when you released the game, and what did they look like over the last couple of years?
Bill Munk: The biggest change from Killing Floor to Killing Floor 2 is the amount of stuff we’re including in the content updates. Right now, we’re able to add so much more content-wise for Killing Floor 2 simultaneously for PC, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. For the most part, our content updates are hitting the mark for what we’ve envisioned doing as we’re always looking for ways to add more and more value to each update. Over the last few years we’ve focused on adding new weapons and events initially for the updates and that’s definitely going to continue. But on top of that, we’re also starting to add new characters, features, and game modes as we gather feedback from the community. We’re extremely excited about what we have in the works for the future of Killing Floor 2 and look forward to surprising owners with this continued cadence of free and regular content updates!
GamesBeat: What did you learn that you applied to Killing Floor 2?
Bill Munk: We learned so much from the initial launch for the first Killing Floor and subsequent post-release content support. One of the biggest hurdles we needed to solve was how we handled memory so that we could keep adding content, like new characters with their own unique voices along with character customization. In Killing Floor, adding stuff like this was much more difficult due to how we had everything structured.
You need to remember that when Killing Floor first came out we didn’t know it was going to be a huge success and that we’d be supporting it with post release content over five years later!. During the Killing Floor 2 design process, we built all these features in from the ground up knowing that we wanted to support it with new content across multiple platforms for years.”
GamesBeat: How do things like tax credits in Georgia affect decision making?
Alan Wilson: The tax credit situation here in Georgia has certainly provided fuel for our company’s growth. The R&D tax credits also don’t hurt — but they don’t come close to what the state provides. It wasn’t until about 2010 that we actually crossed the minimum threshold (which was then $500K in applicable salaries, since reduced to allow smaller companies to take advantage of these credits), but it can make a significant difference. A marketable tax credit of 30% of your spend in Georgia, up to a cap of $1.5m for any one company. Take off your state tax liability and sell the rest for around 87-90 cents on the dollar, and that can leave you with an extra $1m in working capital. For us, the key change in decision making is an enhanced ability to recruit. That’s where the money goes: recruiting extra talent. It’s a very simple positive feedback loop. Extra working capital allows us to recruit more great people, which allows us to produce more, which allows us to sell more, which all goes into fueling that consistent growth.
It isn’t one of those things where we go “because of the tax credits we’ll be able to do X, which we otherwise couldn’t.” It isn’t about buying more computers and gear or whatever; it’s about employing (more) great people. It both enables us to do more, faster and better, which is very important in video games. It’s definitely a major benefit to us being based in Georgia, without question.
GamesBeat: And what’s next for Killing Floor 2?
Bill Munk: Right now we’re putting the final touches on our first major content release of 2018 … The Infinite Onslaught Content Update is coming the end of March on PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One — and we’re really excited to bring this one to the fans. Our community has been asking for an Endless Mode for quite some time and now we’ve finally got one.
To make things even more fun in Endless Mode, The Patriarch takes over in the role of The Trader. His commentary is quite colorful and we think players will enjoy the new voice work.
We’ve also got some new weapons, including the MAC- 10 SMG from the first Killing Floor. The decision to bring this classic weapon from the first Killing Floor to Killing Floor 2 was based on a vote from our very own community! So it’s always exciting when we’re able to work with our most regular players to make decisions like this. We’ve also got the Husk Cannon and the AF2011-A1 pistol. Another blast from the past is the addition of a new playable character, the fan favorite D.A.R. (Domestic Assistant Robot) from the first Killing Floor.
On top of all of that, we also have several new maps, achievements, and loads of other goodies. The free Killing Floor 2 Infinite Onslaught Content Update will be coming later this month, but PC players can opt-in to the update’s beta right now on Steam for an advanced preview look at all of this new and upcoming content.
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