Ghost Recon Online: how one of Ubisoft’s biggest brands went free-to-play

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Ghost Recon Online didn’t start out as a free-to-play game. That’s usually a bad sign. The mechanics are intrinsic to the structure – everyone says you can’t just crowbar them in. But then, Ghost Recon Online started way back… And in this sector, way back means three years ago.

When lead producer Theo Sanders joined Ubisoft in 2009, the company was simply looking to re-think the Ghost franchise for an online-savvy PC audience. Back then, free-to-play was still the preserve of the Asian market; Western publishers were watching it, and EA was doing deals in the region (launching Fifa Online in Korea in early 2010), but global implementation was a distant prospect.

Sanders was brought in because he had a peculiar range of working experiences. He specialised in strategy development for new markets, or markets that didn’t yet exist. He helped to establish Blizzcon as one of the key fan events, then worked in product development at games peripheral specialist, Razer.

“There was no clear definition of the business model, or the service model or anything, at the beginning,” he says. “Ubisoft wanted to rethink how Ghost Recon was being addressed on PC, and with online they saw an opportunity, even in 2009, to deliver a good, interesting customer experience that was maybe a bit outside the norm. There was a general vision: we’ve got a great IP that has resonated for a decade – what can we do that would make this a highly relevant experience for the PC audience? That was pretty much the mandate I started with.”

Now, we have the open beta of Ghost Recon Online, a tactical multiplayer shooter, complete with slick visuals, interesting classes, persistent upgradeable characters and, of course, an in-game purchase system. Some gamers have questioned the paucity of opening options – just two game modes and four maps. But you get the feeling Ubisoft is being super-careful, edging its way into the sector.

“The development process was pretty difficult,” says Sanders. “In a retail game you’re shooting towards a fixed target. There’s a certain quality bar and a certain delivery day. With a free-to-play game, you have to build scalability into your design from the beginning.

“And that’s not just from the monetisation side of things. What you’re basically proposing to a consumer is, come check out this game, participate in its community and help it evolve to the next level. If your systems, your technology, even the very fundamental design of the game can’t react well to consumers, you’re going to be in trouble. From the beginning, you’re thinking about what happens after you ship”.

The crux is the payment model. When work started on the game, Sanders and his team looked at what was happening around them in Singapore, South Korea and China where free-to-play games often had rather basic gameplay and “exploitative” mechanics and figured it wouldn’t work in the West. So in Ghost Recon, while gamers can buy weapons to improve performance, all virtual items are available with the free in-game currency, and there’s no rental, so once you have them, they’re yours to keep. Furthermore, characters can level up from 1 to 30 opening up new weapons and items on the way ­- and you can’t accelerate progress by paying.  It’s a pretty smart, subtle system. It has to be: no one wants the ‘pay to win’ label hovering over them.