If you needed convincing that Ubisoft is serious about the whole free-to-play business model, just take a look at Ghost Recon Online. Developed by the companyís Singapore studio, the success that the AAA franchise has enjoyed since launching its public service back in September has been, to onlookers, unprecedented.
Not to creative director Theo Sanders, however. As he explains to me, Ghost Recon Online
was not developed in the same way as other free-to-play shooters on the market. Instead, Ubisoft Singapore listened carefully to the concerns of core gamers and adapted the business platform to cater to them.
The result is a downloadable, free-to-access game that doesnít give players artificial advantages based purely on the depth of their wallet. After a year of closed beta, a few months of open beta and some time out in the open, the developer has certainly had time to reflect on the gameís success and how far free-to-play will influence future titles.
SPOnG: Ghost Recon Online has been available for a couple of months now - shortly after its public launch, you guys worked hard to release a patch that added a bunch of content. What sort of feedback did you guys receive right from the start?
For the first patch, we added a brand new map, new weapons, arctic camouflage and around 400 different bug fixes and optimisations. We reacted pretty quickly to the open beta community, for sure. The nuclear decommissioning plant map, in particular, was our first symmetrical map - all the previous maps were asymmetric, and we learned that symmetry was important once we started introducing features like clans and competitive play.
One of the big topics to come out of the community right away - and I guess itís true for any shooter - was the weaponry. The balancing and progression of some of them, to be specific. The Mark-16 assault rifle, for example, was notorious for being overpowered and available at too low a level. We nerfed that pretty significantly [laughs].
SPOnG: So far, how has the reaction been from the community in general?
Overall, weíre extremely pleased with the reaction. Itís good that we had this passionate core community right from our closed and open beta days. None of us in the development team were really sure what would happen once we opened the game up to the world. Whether we could maintain that really close engagement and feedback loop. But so far the community has embraced the game. We havenít lost that feeling of having a tight-knit group of people.
SPOnG: How have core gamers, in particular, reacted to it? Thereís generally a bit of a negative buzz about free-to-play.
Itís been really good feedback, and a lot of that stems from the business model itself. We made a few choices - fairly unique choices within the free-to-play shooter genre - which really alleviated some of the concerns that the core community had.
For instance, almost all of the items you can purchase using free currency. Normally, in a free-to-play shooter, you have a certain percentage of items - around 25-50 per cent - that can only be acquired using real-world money. That really pisses players off, because they feel like theyíre missing out on part of the game unless they stump up the cash.
Another example - in many other free-to-play shooters you end up renting weapons. Guns that only last for 24 hours, or a week maybe. You spend your time earning the currency, buy the gun and a week later itís gone. That really kind of sucks. So every item that you earn in the game, regardless of whether youíre paying with free or premium money, is permanent.
Players were also concerned that you could skip level progression by paying. Weapons, armour and things like that are level-locked in the game, and we decided to keep the same level lock regardless of how much money you spent. So these three things combined have really created something that people seem to think is really fair. Weíve not really had an issue with our community.
SPOnG: What are the benefits of free-to-play for you guys, and whatís the experience been like exploring this business model?
I think one of the best parts of free-to-play is obviously the sheer accessibility of it. So imagine youíre playing a mp retail game on a console, and youíre really enjoying it and you want to play with your buddies.
You have to somehow persuade them to part with their £60, go down to the store and buy their own copy. Whereas with f2p game, you have almost have an instant gratification. Hey, go download this game, half hour later youíre playing together.
Besides that, itís just generally a good opportunity to play a game and decide whether you like it or not, before making that full-term commitment. So itís really... being a team-based community-based game works really well with the free-to-play model, and itís super-accessible and really easy to get your friends into.
SPOnG: The game was due to release on Wii U at the same time, but now youíve pushed it back. Can you remind us why you took the decision to delay the console version?
Originally we had one development team working on both SKUs. Going into the launch of the PC version, we realised that this was an Ďall hands on deckí situation - we needed an all-consuming effort to make the initial release a success. So we decided to focus the entire dev team on the PC SKU.
In the future, who knows? Weíll happily revisit Wii U or other SKUs, but for the time being itís not being worked on.
SPOnG: Was there a danger of one or the other being a diluted experience, or having a compromise in quality if you continued working on both?
I think in terms of the game quality, there was never really a risk because we were pretty happy with the core mechanics of the game and where it was going. To be honest, it was fun to play on both platforms.
But for a game like this, itís not so much about the quality of the game you launch on day one, but about how well you react to the community. Youíre really delivering a service in addition to a product. For us to be able to deliver that service effectively, from a technical as well as a community and customer support perspective... the team wasnít ready at that point in time. Instead, we decided to do one of those versions really well.
SPOnG: Would you still like to see a free-to-play future on consoles? Is that something that you believe will naturally happen?
I do see it as a possibility. I think all the platform owners are starting to understand a little bit about what free-to-play means. And theyíre starting to see the benefits of the model, too. Nobody really saw that a couple of years ago, even outside of the console sector.
Three years ago, when we started working on Ghost Recon Online
, we were telling people that we were trying to make a free-to-play AAA game. They looked at us as if we were nuts. At that point in time, if you wanted a good game, you bought a retail version. If you wanted a crappy one, you played free-to-play.
Thatís very quickly changing - not just at Ubisoft but across the industry. There are some really great games in different genres, that would be classed as premium experiences using the free-to-play service model.
SPOnG: There are a lot of technological transitions taking place. How do you see the landscape of gaming panning out over the next couple of years? Will free-to-play be the dominant force? Or will it be social, mobile? Or a combination of all of those?
I think they all have their own place in the industry, but what I do see happening quite clearly is that the lines between them will be more blurred. Weíll see more traditional games adopting elements of... I wouldnít necessarily say the business model of free-to-play, but the whole idea of delivering a game as a service.
Itíll be about being a long-term thing that youíre doing with your community, adapting the game and moving on. Which is not traditionally a strength of the console platforms.
I also think that, in the opposite direction, free-to-play games will be adopting more of the big blockbuster elements that you would traditionally associate with a console retail game. But I think they will still occupy distinctive spots on the gaming landscape at the end of the day.
SPOnG: What challenges and hurdles do you see facing FPS development over the next few years? Ghost Recon Online is one of the first major console IPs to adopt the free-to-play model. Is free-to-play a differentiator to you in a world dominated by Call of Duty and Medal of Honor?
I donít see the free-to-play model as much of a differentiator, because I think there will be a lot of convergence. And even during our open and closed beta, we had a lot of people coming directly from Xbox - Call of Duty
players. I donít believe that there are two different types of consumers - that a gamer will only play this or that.
The real challenge remains, for any real shooter game, to differentiate itself and have something unique to offer. The genreís been around for about 15 years, and a lot of game types have already been done very well. So I think to be relevant, regardless of whether youíre a retail or free-to-play game, you have to offer something interesting and unique.
SPOnG: So if you donít consider free-to-play much of a differentiator, what would you consider are the things that set Ghost Recon Online apart?
I think the thing that jumps out most at players right from the beginning is a whole idea that it contains a very accessible teamplay mechanic. So, I used to play in a really hardcore PC competitive clan. I was in tournaments, the lot. And I had a fantastic time - it was one of the best gaming experiences in my life.
But since then I got a job [laughs]. I have other commitments in my life that donít allow me to be practicing with my clan, devising strategies for ten hours a day. So we wanted to find a way to distill some of that pure fun of playing with a team. Having shared accomplishment, as opposed to individual accomplishment (running and gunning). Making a much more accessible and intuitive game to a wider audience.
Pretty much all of the game mechanics and game systems in Ghost Recon Online
revolve around that central idea of organic team play. And I think thatís something we set out to do as a design goal - and weíve had the validation from players that it actually works.
SPOnG: Thank you for your time!
My pleasure. Thank you!
Ghost Recon Online is available to play now.