Why Tribes Ascend is free to play – Hi-Rez’s Todd Harris explains

Hi-Rez Studios’ Global Agenda was one of the first western, subscription-based MMOGs to drop its monthly tithe in favour of a free-to-play economic model. The massively multiplayer shooter/RPG hybrid immediately gained a swathe of new players, and gave Hi-Rez the confidence to underpin its next two titles – hyper-competitive jetpack FPS Tribes Ascend, and Dota-alike Smite – with the same payment model. We spoke to Hi-Rez’s COO, Todd Harris, about the switch to free-to-play and the success that followed.

Imagine we’re back in 2010 when free-to-play had more negative connotations than it does today. What made you guys make the leap and switch Global Agenda over to F2P?
It was things we were hearing from developers out of Europe, to be candid. We saw free to play as something that came out of Asia and had a reputation of games that were not that good. But when we were originally looking at Global Agenda and talking to publishers in Europe, we got a lot of feedback saying “hey, this would be a great free-to-play game.” At the time we were sceptical of the model, but we decided it was worth listening to them and doing it as an experiment. We thought it would increase the number of players in Global Agenda, and also good learnings for future games. We were curious about free-to-play, as we knew we had other projects planned.

How quickly did you see the rise in profit and community?
We saw an immediate bump. Part of that we attribute to the PR and coverage of the change. We were early in embracing free-to-play, so it was also pretty new. We also had a nice “apples to apples” comparison where we had very close to the same game. Version one [subscription-based], you could play a trial but then you had to buy. And version two, it was free – but there was still a pretty significant pay-gate. If you played beyond level 15 and you liked the game, most people ended up putting down a transaction and getting elite status. We saw the conversion percentage was the same, and many more people came to try it when we advertised it as free over advertising it as a free trial.

You were one of the first to embrace free-to-play in the west. When you looked at the eastern model, what did you identify about wanting to change?
The main thing was the perception – and in many cases reality – of pay to win. For our western audience, we saw that there should be horizontal progression - cosmetic items or ‘sidegrades’ – or that we thought players would embrace a time and money tradeoff where everything could be earned, but it’d just be faster if you chose to pay. We made anything affecting the gameplay be earnable by actually playing the game. Focus on letting paid players have access faster, or give them cosmetic items. Global Agenda was actually set up really well for that. We’d put in a lot of cosmetic features even before [going] free-to-play.

Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris

Did you notice any cultural differences between audiences?
Not so much between Europe and America. I think both of those groups appreciate a more fair battlefield. Our learnings from the Asian cultures were that up until recently – I would say – there was nothing wrong with pay to win. It was almost: “why would I pay for something if it wasn’t much stronger? That wouldn’t be good value, it’d be stupid.” But I think that’s changing in the east with the success of games like League Of Legends. I think there’s a new norm being developed.

When you did switch Global Agenda, were you surprised by the immediate success?
It was an experiment, so we didn’t know what to expect. But I’d say it was surprising that the percentage of people who decided to pay was basically the same, and that many more people decided to play the game.

Were Tribes and Smite designed to be free-to-play?
Smite was conceived as a free to play game. Tribes Ascend went through a little more evolution. We actually went through three phases. We were originally going to make an MMOG – something more like Global Agenda or Planetside 2 – with Tribes. We announced Tribes Universe, and the thought was that would be an MMOG. We hadn’t even thought about pricing at that point. Then we decided the combat was so much fun and so central to Tribes that we really wanted to narrow the scope on an online multiplayer experience – not get into anything else. That became Tribes Ascend with the focus on combat, that was originally going to be a single price point release – an arcade-style experience on XBLA, PSN, and PC. But then at the same time we were seeing what was happening with Global Agenda’s free to play change, so we moved Tribes to a free-to-play model. Then when we saw how well that was working with Tribes Ascend, SMITE, from the beginning, was designed around free-to-play.

If Tribes Ascend was a pay-once game as previously intended, how would it have been different?
It would’ve had less content, less variation. It would’ve probably been just as competitive for the small number that play it that seriously, but I think it would’ve been more niche. Tribes was a niche franchise comparatively – I think the free-to-play model let us broaden its reach quite a bit. We feel more people have played Tribes Ascend than have played all the other Tribes games to date, and I think the free to play model is a big part of that.

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