Dabe Alan

Between the STACs: how MechWarrior Tactics will monetize free-to-play Mech combat

Between the STACs: how MechWarrior Tactics will monetize free-to-play Mech combat

MechWarrior Tactics is the upcoming browser-based, free-to-play take on the classic MechWarrior board games, complete with a hex-based grid and asynchronous multiplayer. I had a chance to see it in action months ago and, for fans of the series, it’s white hot. Like all free to play games, however, the question is how it will be monetized.

“So you’re going to be able to buy STACs, basically booster packs, like Magic or Pokemon,” James Romanchuk, the producer of the game, told the Penny Arcade Report. They will also be selling aesthetic options for your Mechs, so your lance can have a unified look and color scheme, as well as a subscription where new content will be sent to you on an ongoing basis. The for-pay aesthetic upgrades and subscriptions will be detailed in the future, and there were few to no details Romanchuk was able to share on those fronts, instead focusing on the STAC system.

Let’s put it this way: your wallet is going to be in trouble if you’re a fan of collectibles or customizing your fighting force.

A tiered system

Every player will start out with a group of Mechs and items when they open an account, and a point system will keep each lance even, which should remove some of the “pay to win” aspects of the game. Buying new content will simply give you more options when it comes to outfitting your Mechs.

The STACs will be arranged in tiers, and the “bronze” level will contain things like heat sinks and basic items. Commodities. The higher levels will contain new Mechs, powerful weapons, and other upgrades. “Each pack is pretty distinct from every other pack,” Romanchuk said. “To make a full lance we found out that you’re going to need some ultra-rares, but also some rather common cards, heat-sinks and what not. So buying a platinum pack as opposed to buying a bronze pack is a very different experience. It’s not just bronze pack is less than or a budget version.”

You’ll want to buy or earn a collection of STACs at each level to create a well-balanced lance. “The bronze packs are going to have some critical components you need to fill out your lance, but that platinum pack will give you that flavor you’re looking for, that edge, and when you finally buy a platinum pack you’ll look at those cards and build your lance out of that, and then you’ll buy some bronze and gold and silver packs and get different tiers of items you’re going to need to fill out your lance.” You won’t always want to buy platinum packs, depending on what you need to improve your lance; lower-level packs may sometimes make more sense depending on the parts you need,” Romanchuk explained.

The lower level packs will sell for around a dollar in real currency, with the highest-level STACs selling for “under $5” in real-world currency. You’ll of course also be able to earn “scrap” by playing the game and use that to buy STACs. There won’t be a trading system, auction house, or system to scrap parts you don’t need at launch, although those things will come later. “Those will be highly prioritized in terms of what we want to develop,” Romanchuk said.

He also argued that doubles of cards and Mechs won’t be an issue. “Right now, if you get multiple of a Mech, you would be extremely lucky. We have such a large card pool that we’re launching with. It’s not in the hundreds, it’s in the thousands. If you do get three of the same Mech, it is an extremely, extremely rare occurrence, unless it’s common cards,” Romanchuk explained. “If you’re buying silver, gold, and platinum, the likelihood of you seeing two of the same of something, again, is pretty slim.” They’re also playing around with the idea of “leveled” items, so there could be heat sinks, but also double heat sinks or heat sinks that work more efficiently in hot or cold weather.

How do you balance a game with for-pay items? Carefully

“We’ll see people make super-awesome synergies with weapons and we’re like oh man, that’s just game-breaking, we need to do something about that. But we want to address that by changing the meta-game of how people build their lances. Each new content and theme release will hopefully introduce a new meta-game as well, much like Pokemon or Magic. We can start moving away from the idea that we’re just going to nerf your cards,” he said. “We don’t want to hand someone this collectible card that they’ve spent money and time searching for and dramatically change it, because that’s just unfair. But if we can change and tweak the stats of everything else, or everything else that comes afterwards, or that card in a way that’s not so game breaking, that’s what we’re going to do.”

They’re playing with different ideas for the subscription service. “We’ve looked around to see what other companies are doing with their subscription models, and we definitely want to do something a little different, and more valuable and exciting than just here are 20 cards for every month you subscribe to us at the lowest tier, or 100 cards at the highest tier. We’re trying to stay away from that, definitely.” As for concrete ideas of what that might be? Romanchuk refused to comment.

There are other options available to the team as well. Since the game is multiplayer only, you’ll need to be online to play, which gives the ability to control the flow of items. Could we see things like “pink slip” matches where you bet your lance on the outcome?

“Oh man, we’ve though about that, and that’s sounds like a lot of fun,” Romanchuk said. “I don’t know how many people would be down for that, actually. If we get enough support from the community, definitely, I think so.”

As players collect and create more Mechs with more weapons, the stakes for such matches will only go up. “Just imagine you’ve spent, over the course of your career, I’m just pulling from my League of Legends experience, if I had to trade a hero that I might never have access to again because I bought him way back in the beginning when the card pool was small and he was rare then and now it’s almost impossible because there’s 10,000 heroes that I have to randomly dig through? That would be a really harsh lesson to learn. We don’t know how popular that option would be.”

Why this system makes sense, and the pitfalls

The low cost of STACs, and the fact that the items contained are random, could make the act of buying new parts and Mechs addictive for fans of the genre; there’s nothing like ripping open a pack of collectible cards and sharing discoveries with friends. Combine this with the ability to earn STACs by simply playing the game and you have a good hook to get people to enjoy one more round. This is a unique way of handling in-game Mechs and items, and is reminiscent of the upgrade system found in Bioware’s Mass Effect 3. You can expect players bragging about their Mechs and endlessly discussing design and load out on the game’s official forum.

On the other hand, while the point system will keep the relative power of competing lances as close to equal as possible, those who spend money will have more tactical options available to them. This will become a much larger concern once themed content is released, as those who pay for high-level STACs may be able to outfit their Mechs with environment-specific items that give them an advantage. It’s hard to say how this will play out before the game is released, and of course as players flood the servers on release and begin to experiment there will almost certainly be adjustments made, but the pitfalls of the free-to-play model can be hard to avoid.

If you give the players too much for free, they will never want to pay, and your game won’t make a profit. Give them too little, or skew towards paying players too obviously, and players could revolt. It’s a balancing act, and one that’s ongoing as the game grows and tries new things. There is also the fact that this is a well-known and loved brand; the idea of buying new content packs and then spending hours outfitting, designing, and refining your lance before going into battle is bound to be attractive to MechWarrior fans.

Personally? I’ve been rubbing a $20 bill on my screen while writing this, hoping STACs begin to fall out. MechWarrior Tactics is scheduled for release before the end of the year.