Those of you who watched Microsoft's E3 2012 press conference may recall Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Studios, introducing teaser trailers for three new games. At the time, none really caught the eye: such is the way of CG teasers. There was Lococycle, from 'Splosion Man developer Twisted Pixel, and Matter, a Kinect game from Hollywood director Gore Verbinski. The third, Ascend: New Gods, from Toy Soldiers developer Signal Studios, promised persistent asynchronous multiplayer across Xbox 360 and Windows Phone.
But there's more to it than that: it's Xbox 360's first truly free-to-play game.
A thirdperson, fantasy action-RPG due in 2013, Ascend casts players as one of the Caos, a breed of warriors created solely to serve the will of the Gods. You'll pledge allegiance to one of the three deities, battling your way across an evolving land in their honour. You won't be playing as the same character throughout: Signal says the "largest rewards" are reserved for those prepared to sacrifice their warrior. It appears you then respawn, with new abilities.
At this stage, there are few details on how the multiplayer will work – though the reference to a singleplayer game where you can leave your mark on another player's gameworld naturally calls to mind FromSoftware's masterful Dark Souls – but it will be playable on console and mobile, your progress carried over between platforms.
More importantly, there's no indication of how it will be monetised. It's over a year now since Microsoft was reported to be considering changing its stance on free-to-play games on Xbox Live, the sticking point apparently being how the sale of virtual items was handled. Microsoft would doubtless want its standard cut of every Marketplace transaction, virtual goods and all, and it may be that Signal is, quite simply, the first studio prepared to acquiesce to that demand.
Either way it's a sign of a surprising, yet welcome, shift in thinking at Microsoft's Redmond HQ. The rapid rise of free-to-play in the past 18 months has been impossible to ignore, and Microsoft has surely taken note of Sony's F2P dabbling.
Kid-friendly MMOG Free Realms hit PSN last year, but it was DC Universe Online that was most successful: Sony Online Entertainment's superhero MMOG saw huge increases in player count and revenue after it turned its back on the monthly subscription model.