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Making free-to-play games isn’t always about getting players to spend money. A big challenge is ensuring you can keep the people who never spend anything feeling satisfied with their experience. And that’s what developer Robot Entertainment is focusing its efforts on right now.

Robot Entertainment recently released its Orcs Must Die: Unchained free-to-play game on Steam in an open-beta test, and it’s already getting a ton of feedback that is helping to shape its future. This is the third entry in the series, and — for the first time — it combines freemium elements and competitive elements to the originals tower-defense action. The core of Unchained is still the same with players setting up traps and using weapons to fight off waves of computer-controlled enemies. But now it also has a competitive mode similar to multiplayer online arena battlers like Dota 2 and League of Legends. Robot is planning to use this game as its latest attempt to generate long-term steady revenue from the $99.6 billion gaming industry.

GamesBeat talked with Robot chief executive officer Patrick Hudson to find out the state of the latest Orcs Must Die and what fans can look forward to.

Check out our edited interview below.


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GamesBeat: Do you want to run down what’s happened down so far, how you’ve gotten there, and how you feel about it?

Patrick Hudson: When we started making this version of Orcs Must Die, for us it was a natural progression of the franchise. We tried to be responsive to the fans of the first game. We felt like we caught a little bit of lightning in a bottle with a mish-mash of genres and gameplay that ended up being really fun. It found a great, loyal following. We did it very quick with a small team, just a single-player game because that was all we had scoped. Fans were clamoring for co-op. We did a pretty fast following sequel. That went well. The fans liked it. There were a lot of calls for [player-versus-player] and a bigger multiplayer experience. That led us into doing Unchained.

We bit off a lot, a significantly larger game than the first two. The team grew to do that. We were in closed beta on this game for certainly longer than we expected, but we kept it small, kept that closed beta small and intentionally off of Steam. We tried to iterate with our core fans and listen to what they liked and didn’t like in our PvP gameplay that was new. That was going fine. But it was certainly hard work. Once we got that settled down and felt pretty solid about where the PvP game was going, we fractured off a new team that started developing [players-versus-PC (PVE)]. We knew that not all of our fans were looking for the PvP experience. They still wanted the classic OMD gameplay. That’s what led us to our survival mode. That came on later than we expected.

We shipped the first map of that late last summer. Then frantically worked to add content to that mode of the game. We finally got a stable enough base on both sides of the game that we felt like we wanted to bring more people into it. For us that naturally led to bringing it to Steam and an open beta there. We built Orcs Must Die on Steam. Steam is definitely the dead center of our market, where we’ve had great success in the past. Now we’ve been at it for a couple of weeks with the Steam fans and a much larger community playing and giving us feedback.

GamesBeat: Do you feel confident about where you are with the PvP game, having translated the Orcs Must Die gameplay from a single-player experience to a co-op experience and now to what you have today?

Hudson: We’re polling the fans now and seeing what they’re playing. What surprised us in our first poll — we thought there’d be a pretty bifurcated audience, between those who preferred playing mostly PvP and those who preferred playing mostly PvE. We were surprised that the overlap was significant there. People are playing both sides of the game. Over time people will probably move to one mode or the other, whatever may be more their cup of tea. But on both sides — for us, on PvP, we always thought about that as basically turning two games of Orcs Must Die head to head against one another.

So far we’ve been happy with the feedback on that. The game has been fun. We have people moving up into really high levels at the competitive end of the game. We’re seeing some outstanding matches that are a lot of fun to watch. Probably because we worked on PvP for as long as we did, we feel pretty solid about that mode. PvE is where we’re getting more feedback from our traditional fans on things they’d like to see us do to make it feel more like the progression they were thinking of from Orcs Must Die 2 going forward.

That’s where there’s a lot of iteration happening inside the studio — listening to the fans, making adjustments, rolling out patches. Overall just bringing a lot more content to the PvE side of the game over the next few months.

GamesBeat: Where is that content today? Do you feel like you have plenty ready to go? Or is it in a state where, as you’re getting feedback, you’ll have to go back and solidify what the content will be to satisfy your core group of fans?

Hudson: There will be some changes that aren’t really foundational changes. With the five-player multiplayer game, people are saying they don’t quite feel as powerful as they did as the hero in Orcs Must Die 2.

“How can you guys address that and make me feel a little more powerful?”

“When I had the crossbow in Orcs Must Die 2 I felt like a really powerful hero. When I’m in there with four other people I don’t feel quite the same. How can you address that?”

We’re taking steps to address that type of feedback. We feel good about that stuff. That stuff will naturally happen throughout development and all the patches going forward. On the content side we have lots of new heroes teed up in development, new maps teed up in development for PvE. Next week we have our first content patch. That’ll have a new hero and a new map for PvE.

Then the pace will accelerate there, on both map content and heroes. We’re bringing in some of the classic stuff that people liked from Orcs Must Die 2, like weekly challenges, that aren’t yet introduced in Unchained but are in a near milestone coming up.

GamesBeat: What’s been the most useful stuff you’ve heard from the betas you’ve been running?

Hudson: It depends on which mode we’re looking at. On the PvE side it’s seizing on the fans — we’re going to get all the Orcs Must Die fans in early. As you would expect, they’ll be sensitive to the feeling they’ve known from the previous games. How does combat feel? Do I feel powerful as a hero? There’s a lot more content in this game than in the previous two games. Can I find the content I want and get to it and earn the content I want to keep enjoying the survival mode? That’s been super useful.

On the PvP side the biggest bit of feedback for us is that we can do a much better job of teaching and making sure players learn that gameplay. It’s adding a whole new mode on the other side of what you’ve experienced in Orcs Must Die before. Making sure people understand that gameplay, so they can enjoy it as they level up against more competitive players — there’s a lot more we can do there.

GamesBeat: How do you let people know what kind of game this is, where it fits compared to similar games, and how it compares to the other Orcs Must Die games?

Hudson: What we try to do intentionally is bring you in — if you’re a brand new player you come into the survival mode. You play our PvE first. We want to introduce you to that intentionally because it should be gameplay that you recognize. You’re placing traps and trying to stop enemy minions from getting to your rift. If you played Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2 before — and we absolutely want to speak to those people first – then that should feel familiar to you.

Then, if you feel comfortable with that and you want to try out siege, the PvP mode, you can naturally gravitate toward that on your own. We don’t try to put that up front in your face as a new player. We try to let you find it and discover it after you’re comfortable with the Orcs Must Die experience.

GamesBeat: How do you see this unfolding from here?

Hudson: For us, the way we think about Orcs Must Die Unchained is it’s a platform for the gameplay we’ve established in Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2. That third-person action tower defense gameplay that was pretty uniquely found, we think, in Orcs Must Die and Orcs Must Die 2. We want this game to be a platform for that experience. You can enjoy that on the PvP side and you can enjoy that on the PvE side. We have distinct development teams working on both.

They have to stay very closely coordinated, but we’re actively working on both. It’s not as if we have a monolithic development team that works on PvP for a while and then has to go work on PvE for a while. We’re pushing forward together on both tracks. That may mean, in the future, there are additional modes within those two groupings, but for now we’ll continue to add content, listen to the fans, iterate, and improve on both. We think they’re both a lot of fun, and we’re seeing from the early results, from watching how players behave inside the game, that they are migrating back and forth between the two experiences.

GamesBeat: How does the business model work?

Hudson: It’s a microtransaction model. It’s free. We wanted to get this game out there to as many people as we possibly could around the world.

We’re partnered with Tencent in China to hopefully reach a whole new audience we haven’t been able to reach before. Free-to-play was the way for us to get this game out there and get a lot of people into a multiplayer experience, into the matchmaker, keep those barriers low. From there it wouldn’t be all that atypical compared to any other free-to-play PC game these days.

There’s always a three-hero rotation. You can buy additional heroes as they come out. There are chests that will help you collect other content to move along faster. There’s nothing in the game, though, that can be bought but can’t be earned, except for a smattering of skins. Everything else can be earned through gameplay. Paying just gets you there a little quicker.

GamesBeat: So there are some cosmetics, and then progression boosters?

Hudson: Not so much progression boosters. It’s more like—there’s a free set of heroes and you can buy additional heroes. Right now we have 12 in the game and more coming with each patch. Then we have a crafting system in there for all the different content – the traps on the PvE side of the game, which is unique in Orcs Must Die Unchained compared to previous versions.

You can tier up your traps through different levels and make them more powerful so you can go and seek out harder maps and harder content to defeat. Over time you can acquire the crafting material, either through free drops in the game or by buying chests that drop those things a bit quicker. That will allow you to both craft and tier up those traps.

GamesBeat: I suppose that’s a big part of what you’re figuring out in these betas. Have you learned what players like about that sort of payment system and how they respond to the progression you’ve built so far? Have you started reworking the game based on that?

Hudson: What you want to listen to the most, for us — you want to please the free player, the person who loves the game but doesn’t want to pay or doesn’t have the means to pay. They still really want to enjoy the game, so how does the chase for that content feel? Is it fair? Is it fun? Do I feel like I’m getting things at a reasonable rate? Or does it feel like a painful grind?

That’s what we’re listening to most acutely right now and trying to talk to those fans and listen to those fans. Where do they feel like they’re putting a lot of time into the game and maybe not getting the rewards back out at a rate that they’d like? That’s stuff we can watch closely and react to and tweak and adjust. We already made an emergency patch last week to address some of that stuff.

The next two patches start to get to the core of making those fans happy.

GamesBeat: Is that something people can continue to expect — that the next update will have more tweaks in that range?

Hudson: Yeah, that’s by far the primary thing we’re working on. A combination of new content and responding to that feel on the content that you want to earn in the game. Is that happening at the correct rate? And not just for free players, but for paid players too. If I buy a few chests, am I getting the rewards I’m looking for? Does that help me have more fun? There are already a lot of changes coming in based on that feedback that we’re rolling out in the next couple of patches.

My head’s swimming from a production meeting where I’ve been talking about these topics for the last three hours. [Laughs]

We view a point in the near future where there’s a commercial release and then the changes are more about content at that time, less of these bigger changes we’ll be making in the next couple of patches. Right now we view having a brand new audience on Steam as more beta testers for us. We’re in a tight iteration loop. We’re trying to be responsive to what we’re hearing from this new audience and roll updates out there that hopefully address those things and keep that cycle going and get the game in a good spot where the fans—we’ve addressed a lot of the big things and we can ready ourselves for a commercial release down the road.

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