The Culling has dusted itself off and is back for another go at grabbing a piece of that battle royale pie, but its resurrection got off on the wrong foot when it came burdened with a new monetisation model that hinged on people buying tokens and passes to play more matches.
Developer Xaviant said it had shifted its monetisation approach "to ensure that players will be able to visit the island for years to come," but by only offering one match a day before players had to shell out, it was hard to imagine the island attracting many visitors.
Since the announcement, the one-game limit has been bumped up to ten, and director of operations Josh Van Veld says he's embarrassed that the relaunch was unveiled with those settings.
"In retrospect, it was really obvious that one was not going to give us the flow of players. But you have to remember, we were kind of terrified of everybody coming back, overloading the servers, costing us a tonne of money and not spending anything. So we were afraid to turn that dial."
That was what happened last time Xaviant relaunched The Culling, when it was rebranded as The Culling: Origins, a free-to-play deal.
"We onboarded a million new players very quickly," Van Veld recalls, "which was overwhelming in some ways, and at the time, we didn't have visibility right away into their spending habits and everything else. It took us a while to kind of realise what the monetisation looked like relative to our AWS costs, but we were spending tens of thousands of dollars every month."
Despite the large number of players, the developer wasn't able to cover its costs through cosmetics and crates, so The Culling was shut down. While it got a chilly reception when it was announced, Van Veld thinks the new model could still be the solution, giving Xaviant a more consistent income to keep the studio and game afloat. The issue, he claims, was that the developer didn't expect players to want to return daily.
"We definitely weren't looking at it from the standpoint of somebody who says, 'Hey, if this game is around for a year, I'm gonna play it every day for a year.' We don't know if those people exist."
Instead, Van Veld and the team expected players to play periodically and only make a few purchases. Maybe they'd save up a stockpile of tokens and occasionally dip into it when their free matches run out, or they'd buy a pass and play lots just for a month. If that was the case, players would only be spending a few bucks, but for consistent, returning players the costs could ramp up.
"I guess a lot of players were telling us that they consider themselves long-term players and they were not thrilled—especially if there's somebody who purchased the game previously before it was free-to-play—about the idea of having to spend what they feel like is a significant amount of money on an ongoing basis."
Perhaps as a consequence of having already shut the game down once, along with The Culling 2, Xaviant's expectations for the relaunch are rather restrained. As well as being surprised that players would want to keep coming back regularly, Van Veld says it doesn't have any aspirations to become "a huge player in the genre," and just wants enough people to keep matches full and the game maintained.
"We tried the model of getting huge and we couldn't afford to make it work. I think if we were backed by a big publisher and had deeper pockets, when we had all of those original free-to-play players, we probably could have done something with it, but we were not equipped to ride that storm out for six months and then grow it."
Aside from the increase in the number of matches you can play before spending tokens, Van Veld doesn't mention any other specific changes coming, though he says there are plenty of places where tweaks could be made. There could be some kind of pass for long-term players, while the cost of tokens and the existing passes could be adjusted. Xaviant won't, however, change the model entirely.
If he could go back, Van Veld says that he'd pitch it differently and simplify things, believing that the model works but that the messaging was garbled. It doesn't seem like a model that's particularly easy to express in a way that's appealing, however, especially when compared to the more conventional free-to-play method.
"If you like it or you want to try it, please join us to try it out, see if you like it enough to spend money on it, and if you do, we'd love you to keep playing it because, at that point, you could make a purchase and then have that opportunity to play, say, ten matches a day every day for as long as you want to. If you love it more than that, go ahead and buy a reasonably priced pass, and that'll let you play as much as you want. That'll be something that you can decide to re-up whenever you want to, and if you stop playing you'll never spend another cent. I think that would be simpler to understand and present."
It still seems like a hard sell for a game that's got some big competition. The smaller matches and the focus on melee and traps set it apart from other battle royales, but we'll have to wait and see if that's going to be enough to make The Culling something that Xaviant can keep supporting.
The Culling is out on Xbox One now, but Xaviant has plans for a PC version. The Xbox One community was always larger, apparently, so Xaviant is still considering how to give PC players a better experience, like adding crossplay. It could even bring back the PC version with only private matches and no monetisation. With so much up in the air, it doesn't seem imminent.