Robert Bowling: Why Breach & Clear fell out of love with free-to-play
Model was 'getting in the way' of gameplay
The game would hit devices with a limited number of units and theatres of battle for players to choose from, with additional units and levels to be added at a later date without charge.
Monetisation for the release was set to be driven by the purchase of premium items, with Bowling keen to express both his interest in and support for free-to-play - despite the fact that it posed distinctly different problems to the triple-A, boxed retail approach that he was used to.
It came as a surprise, then, when Bowling announced in June that Breach & Clear - due to launch this week had switched from free-to-play to the more traditional paid model.
So, what brought about this seemingly last minute change in approach? Did Bowling's views on free-to-play shift during the game's development, and has there been any impact on the design of the game itself? We tracked Bowling down for his take on the future of Breach & Clear.
Pocket Gamer: When did you first get the feeling free-to-play was not going to work for Breach & Clear?
Robert Bowling: A little after PAX East, as we were developing a little further.
Originally, it came to a point where we were making too many decisions in favour of free-to-play that impacted gameplay too much.
We were experimenting with the event model where players would hit 'wait walls' where they either have to wait until they can play again, because their unit is traveling, or they could speed up that wait time and play with that unit immediately.
Otherwise they would be forced to play with some other unit that was already at the location they were deploying at, as well as other events where you could participate in - but you had to be at a certain level, and then users may use consumables and play a lot over the weekend so that they could level up, things like that.
Breach & Clear
Ultimately, a lot of these experiences seemed to lead to a situation where, you get into the game, you play for a little bit, you start having fun, you're having a really good time, and then you would hit a wall.
That was bad for the gameplay that we were trying to deliver - from a single player standpoint. So to improve that single player experience, we decided that the best way to go about it would probably be to remove those walls, and just let the player, as soon as they hit that stride, let them continue through it.
Why did you use 'wait walls' at all? What was the motivation for considering that as part of the design for Breach & Clear?
We talked to a lot of partners on a lot of different platforms that were interested in bringing Breach & Clear to their audience - a lot of established mobile platforms and publishers here in the US domestically, as well as in Asia.
A lot of them suggested the switch to the event model, rather than employing expanded content. And so we experimented with not having content that was completely out of the reach of every player unless they paid.
Instead, we made the content available to everyone. The payoff was that you either had to wait to make use of the content with those 'wait walls', or wait until a specific event occurred where you could earn that content or pay your way through that wait wall.
That's what the switch did, and that's where it ended up impacting gameplay to a point that was unsatisfactory to us.
Why didn't you just dismiss those suggestions about wait walls and proceed with the plan we discussed at PAX East?
We were experimenting with both. It was a very fluid thing.
Ultimately, it turned out that we liked having that deep progression system, we liked having the unlocks that you could earn every weapon in the game, every team in the game eventually.
It just felt much better to earn all that stuff through gameplay than to keeping something behind the pay wall at all times.
We experimented. That's why we even ended up even experimenting with the event model.
Ultimately, out of the three different models - going premium, doing a paid DLC add-on, or making everything ultimately available but holding some stuff back with wait walls - the best solution in terms of core gameplay, keeping that the most fun and the most addictive ended up being the premium option.
Did you find that the premium weapons, gear and consumables that you were going to offer in the original plan weren't necessary for mission success? Did you fear players wouldn't have enough motivation to make those purchases?
They were always designed not to be necessary for mission success. Very early on, we made a decision not to do anything that was 'pay to win'.
They were always there for diversity, really, and for just mixing up your styles, because they would have different attributes and different skills and different efficiency - they may be faster, they may have better aim, things like that.
So it was really about just giving a different experience, not necessarily getting an easier experience with the paid [content].
It was always meant to be more optional for people who just wanted to expand their experience. That kind of thing.
So that never really played into it. But it was one of those things where it would be more rewarding for the player if they earned that through the gameplay rather than just buying it.
Did you ever consider doing both at the same time? Players who wanted to unlock the weapons could use experience points, but other players who wanted to get to that content faster could have paid for it...
We did not. The two options we looked at were to go all the way with premium, or go all the way with free-to-play.
A hybrid model is not really something we experimented with because, with our development time and our resources, it was really going to be most beneficial for us to either focus one way or the other.
Then we'd look at player behaviour and trends after release and see what we want to do in the future with the Breach & Clear franchise.
Did your plans for a potential multiplayer component for Breach & Clear factor into your decision to switch to the pay to download model?
The fact that we had to focus this initial release on the single player experience definitely factored into it. We were looking at how could we make the most compelling single player experience.
When it comes to multiplayer, I think that is an area that would benefit a lot more from the free-to-play model in the future.
We're going to be using the player data and the player trends to see what consumables people are using, what units that they're favoring, what type of weapon loadouts they're favoring, all to take that data and see how that can work in a free-to-play model for multiplayer.
Players who enjoy shooters are often hostile to free-to-play. Did that motivate your decision? Does switching to a paid model validate this suggested conflict between shooter fans and non-traditional monetisation strategies?
I don't think it does. I think you can make a good free-to-play shooter experience that appeals to the traditional shooter fan. That's not why we made our decision.
We made our decision because of the progression and unlocking experience that we were trying to bake into the core gameplay. It works better by unlocking everything yourself.
With the experience we were going for, it just happened to work better, but I don't think that is an indication that you can't make a compelling shooter experience with a free-to-play model because I think you totally can.
In an interview with GamesBeat you're quoted as saying that you had to "step back and consider what our goal is. Is it to build a business, or is it to build a good game?" It sounds like you're putting those two things in opposition to one another...
Definitely not in opposition to each other. The big thing is, the main focus for Breach & Clear right now is to build a loyal audience to a new IP.
Typically for new IP to do that ,you have to build a very strong core audience - one that's typically not a large userbase.
If our aim was 'let's go for the most profitable model we can with the game', I would suggest we would probably use the free-to-play model, because you're going to get a lot more users in the door, and a lot more ability to monetise that userbase.
But we would have had to make certain sacrifices in favour of that profit that would have hindered a better gameplay experience.
While I don't think they are competing general, in the short term they are competing. In the long term, however, I think they actually benefit each other.
So you were sacrificing gameplay for monetisation. Have you not now done the exact opposite - sacrificed monetisation for gameplay?
In the short term, yes. I think in the short term we have to earn that userbase, which I'm confident we can do.
I think the sacrifices we made to improve gameplay will give us a stronger core audience at launch and lay the foundation - a stronger foundation - for the franchise moving forward.
But to do that, we've sacrificed the opportunity to attract a bigger userbase, which could potentially deliver a larger revenue stream.
In our interview at PAX East, you told us that free-to-play was a proven business model, and that you subscribed to the philosophy of "If it's a good game, people will pay for it." Has your thinking changed at all?
No, I think it's exactly the same. I think the free-to-play model is a great model, and the game experience that you're going for really has to fit that model. There's no way to force it.
Early on we were building the game for that model but, through development, as things change and you come to the realisation of what sort of experience you're going for.
What we had to do was we had to make the decision to either try and force it down the free-to-play path, or fall back on making a really solid premium game.
I think if you don't force it, and it really fits with the type of experience you're going for, it has been proven that it can be wildly more successful than a premium game.
You release Breach & Clear. Let's say that your initial install base isn't as large as you would like it to be. Can you ever see yourselves flipping back to a free-to-play model?
With the initial release? I would say no.
I think we would take the data that we're gathering and look at how we could, in the future, release a version that has not only the single player, but also more emphasis on bringing in a multiplayer audience. We could perhaps release that as a free-to-play version.
We would take the lessons we learn about player behaviour and what they're really gravitating toward and then further expand on the game with new content and a multiplayer focus, and let that be the free-to-play audience.
But, from a single player standpoint and the version that we're releasing, I think having a super polished, premium, single player experience is the only type of experience we want players to have.
Thanks to Robert for his time.
Dennis Scimeca is a freelance writer from Boston, MA. You can follow him on Twitter at @DennisScimeca.