How things change. A few years ago the words "free to play" used to strike fear in my naive mind. I'd think of exploits, affluent winners and infinite credit card debt. No more. Now I associate free to play with a game I can play... for free. It's a payment model that Hi Rez studios controversially adopted for Tribes: Ascend, the competitive team-based shooter that's just gone into open beta.
Executive Producer Todd Harris has the payment model to thank for the boost in the player base of their previous MMO-shooter, Global Agenda: "Just before going free-to-play, we had a very generous free trial, but by changing it from a free trial to free-to-play, we increased the number of people who download and play dramatically. That was a good learning for us... we thought we did an effective job making the game free-to-play, but not pay-to-win and the community tended to agree with us."
The community are right. After a few hours in Tribes: Ascend, it's obvious that Hi Rez' priority isn't in milking players dry via microtransactions. "Going into Tribes Ascend we wanted a big group to try it," says Todd. We wanted it to be competitive in terms of the PvP and in not being pay-to-win. We wanted to put more of our resources into the development of the game versus the marketing of the game. Free-to-play lets people try the game first."
It also means that Hi Rez could spend less on marketing, and more on development. "We don't have to convince them with television ads to plop down fifty bucks ahead of time, we'd rather rely on word of mouth and a free download to let people try it for themselves."
It was probably a daunting prospect. After all, it's easy to piss off a Tribes veteran. Early feedback from the community prompted Hi-Rez to lower the amount of hitscan weapons and even redefine the class system entirely. As a result, the community appreciated the tweaks and got back on board. Todd seems proud of Hi Rez's open attitude.
In fact, he says very few games can afford to exist in a vacuum: "I think gamers are fairly cynical when it comes to advertising and marketing. They want to be shown and not told. They're very hands on and sceptical, and they should be, because there's so much product out there and so many choices. So I think there'll continue to be a handful of franchises with the name recognition and the known IP to host blockbuster events; those are kind of fun to celebrate, but they're the minority."
The latest issue of PC Gamer comes with a beta code for Tribes: Ascend and 350 gold - enough to unlock a specialist class, or pimp out one of you existing ones. Subscribe , or grab your copy of the March issue .