My week with Tribes: Ascend: enjoying free to play without the pay
People want to give you things when you’re a member of the press. Hi-Rez Studios sent Tribes: Ascend reviewers a code that gave us 3,000 gold, which is worth roughly $30. The idea is that reviewers should see more of the game without paying our own money or spending the time needed to unlock items by playing and earning XP, the in-game currency that can't be bought with actual dollars. “A good way to think of it is similar to the fast pass tickets that are available in theme parks,” a member of the Hi-Rez studios press team told the Penny Arcade Report. “Some people choose to wait in line to get on a ride but those that want instant gratification can pay a little extra to get a fast pass ticket which allows them to go to the front of the line. The fast pass holders will get there quicker than those who choose to wait in line but everybody rides the same ride so essentially it is a time or money trade off.” I have neither money nor time. I’m going to bank the 3,000 gold I was given for a rainy day, and see if this is a pay-to-win game or if I could have a good time without grinding for points and spending money. How badly outclassed will I be if I only play one of the free classes and don't have any of the many available upgrades?
First, I’m going to abuse my authority
I like to try to keep my journalisms as objective as possible, but in this case I'm going to shed some moral authority in exchange for sweet, sweet loot. I went to the Tribes: Ascend Facebook page in order to “like” the game. That earned me 250 gold, or a little over $3 worth of in-game purchases. That’s not going to be enough for much of anything, is it? I also have over 16,000 Twitter followers, and Tribes: Ascend offers you the ability to earn certain bonuses by signing up your friends and family. I created a referral link and posted it on Twitter, asking people to play the game. Yes, I was promoting a game for my own selfish needs, but I enjoyed what I played in the beta and Tribes: Ascend doesn’t cost anything to try out, so at worst it seemed a moral gray area. 36 players created accounts, and 14 of those players have actually tried the game. The referral program doesn’t begin to reward you until players reach level 6, and so far only one of the players I signed up has hit that goal. Still, I just made 5,000 easy XP! There will be a few items in the store that can only be purchased with gold, but Hi-Rez assured me those items will be aesthetic. If an item gives you an actual advantage while playing, it can be either purchased or earned. So after a little work, I’m at 250 gold, and 5,000 XP. Not a bad amount! What does that get me?
Let’s start as the Pathfinder
The Pathfinder is one of the three character classes available from the beginning, and its combination of Light Spinfusor and shotgun as your opening weapons means you don’t have to be a genius to hit anything. It’s easy to cut through the ammunition with the Spinfusor though, so let’s buy the first two upgrades for the weapon. Now we have an extra five rounds to fire, and we’re doing 20 percent extra against armored targets. The extra ammo upgrade cost 1,000 XP, and the added damage to armor cost 2,000 XP. Not bad! I also have 250 gold at this point, so I’m going to go ahead and purchase the bolt launcher, a weapon that does slightly more damage than the Light Spinfusor. Outside of these two small improvements paid for by social networking and pyramid schemes, my character was stock.Tribes: Ascend brings the skiing mechanic back from previous Tribes titles, and this makes the game unique. Hold the space bar when you’re standing on a sloped surface and you can “ski” down that hill, building up speed. That speed will continue to propel you across the level until you another incline saps your momentum or you hit an obstacle. By using the jetpack that’s mapped to your right mouse button you can avoid either outcome, and skilled players will soon be flying around the levels at remarkable speeds, peppering their enemies with fire. Battles are a graceful map of swooping arcs in the sky as players fly over and around each other, shooting at their opponents. This style of locomotion requires a different way of thinking about combat; you become a mobile turret, and your forward momentum allows you to turn to the left or right and engage the enemy as they race to keep up with your movement. While fleeing from a firefight you can turn around and fire at your pursuers as you race to safety. There is nothing else like it on the market, and these mechanics are a large part of why taking Tribes into the free-to-play space works so well. I never felt overwhelmed by superior firepower, even with my entry-level character. A battle is won with skill 90 percent of the time, and by improved arms 10 percent of the time. Those numbers are obviously made up, but a player can drop $50 worth of upgrades into their account and still be murdered by someone who understands the physics and rhythm of the game. I was a level 2 player with almost no upgrades, and I was able to hold my own against tricked out level 22 characters. There are some advantages to the equipment you can buy, and unlocking more character classes gives you more options, but you can become a terror on the field after a little practice with the basic weaponry. The gulf between advanced and beginning players in Battlefield 3 is much wider than in Tribes: Ascend. You are screaming across each of the game's open, inviting levels, aiming at other players moving just as quickly, using weapons that fire physical projectiles that take time to reach their target. No amount of unlocks or buffs are going to save you if you can't size up a situation and learn how to place your shots to connect with your target. These are not easy skills and they take time to master, but watching advanced players find the perfect slopes to gain speed and ski to the flag at blistering speeds is inspirational. You become galvanized when playing with better players, not discouraged. In a matter of hours, my friends and I went from confusion to grim determination to something approaching competence. Near the end of my session I was placing in the top 50 percent of my server, and I grabbed the #1 slot during one blissful team deathmatch session where everything seemed to go my way. My experiment proved successful: It is absolutely worth playing the game without putting in real-world money. Not only that, but there is much fun to be had learning the game’s interesting movement system and getting used to the faster pace of the shooting. By the time you feel comfortable with how the game controls and you have skiing and flying skills of your own, you’ll have enough XP to begin to unlock other classes, weapons, and perks.You can pay for advantages, but skill will out. It’s very possible I’ll feel differently after a week or more of playing, but I set out to see if the game pushed back at players who didn’t get their credit cards out after the first few hours. It does not. The game will not work if the player economy wasn’t at least partially unsatisfying to players who don’t pay, and it’s always tempting to get out the wallet to unlock something you want rather than to grind for it. This game, however, is happy to have you if you simply want to play and unlock items organically. You'll find situations where the gold value doesn't seem to match up with the XP cost of an item: the Bolt Launcher is 240 gold (approximately $3 on the $10 for 800 gold tier) but 42,000 XP. That would take you a significant time to earn in the game, especially with an XP booster, making that $3 a very attractive price point. To the game’s credit, the first purchase I made with my gifted 3,000 gold was the buff that allowed me to gain XP at double speed. It’s simply more fun to gain XP by playing the game rather than buying your way into new upgrades.
What does and doesn’t work with the free to play model in Tribes
So why go free-to-play? Last night I was playing with six players I knew in real life, and it was very easy to put together that group. The game requires no monetary investment to begin playing. The game’s servers were overloaded with players enjoying the game, and those players are a very real asset; they keep the competition strong and satisfying. The upfront cost of a new game is serious deterrent when introducing your friends to something they may not be comfortable playing, and free-to-play games remove that obstacle. Still, the value judgments people place on free-to-play games are very different than what’s expected in retail games, and I’ve often invited skeptics to simply buy $50 worth of gold and unlock damn near everything they’d need if they don’t like the free-to-play model. The problem is that when you have a mass of gold before you begin playing, the Skinner box of character progression is broken. Players will stay with the game much longer if they make small purchases and unlock other items and abilities by playing. Using my mass of gold was so unappetizing when I began because I'm comfortable hitting the button to get my pellet of food, and enjoying the gradual rewards for my efforts. This isn’t a bad thing, as video games are designed to deliver pleasure by spiking into those reward centers in our brain, but that doesn’t work if we’re simply given a giant plate of food and asked to gorge. We’d leave the table very quickly, and we’d likely feel ill. Players buying extra character classes, weapons, and items will only keep the game going for so long, but Tribes has a long and wonderful history from which to draw. Would fans be willing to pay for a version of the popular Team Rabbit mode from previous Tribes? How about the ability to rent private servers? The ability to add new maps, game modes, characters, and rules could keep the game going forever. The vehicles, as they exist in the current game types, feel underutilized. There is definitely room for different variants where vehicles become more important, if not central, to the game’s mechanics. Hi-Rez can charge for all of it, keeping you interested enough to pay $5 or more here and there for the next few years. The magic of free-to-play is that instead of paying $60 for a new game all at once, you pay smaller chunks multiple times, and the hardcore players will end up spending much more than that $60 while both the player and developer of the game feel like they’re getting the better deal. This is the goal of every free-to-play game: The magic balance of inexpensive, but frequent, purchases of content and options that goes on forever. This is why there is such a large push to get your credit card information into the game. You as the consumer have to make the conscious decision to get out your wallet, type the numbers and information into your client, and make that initial purchase. That’s not going to happen quickly or easily. The game gives you a reason, however: Tribes confers VIP status to anyone who makes a single purchase in the game, no matter how small. The VIP bonus gives you an extra 50 percent to your XP after every match. Instead of making 2,000 XP during a match, you’ll make 3,000. This will allow you to earn more upgrades much faster, and all you have to do is make a single purchase. Easy, right? Of course, after that initial purchase everything else becomes an impulse buy. It sounds good from the business side of things, but Hi-Rez stumbles in this area by selling you gold, not items. This is the Microsoft way of doing things on Xbox Live, and it’s enough to drive players crazy. Let’s take the Technician class, which gives you the ability to lay down turrets. It’s a wonderful support role in the game, and it’s one of the less expensive classes to buy: 160 gold or 7,200 XP. You can get that in the game in short order, or pay a few dollars to get the gold. The problem is the minimum purchase is $10, and that gets you 800 gold. Not a terrible deal, that’s 80 gold per dollar, but you’re always going to be stuck with unused gold. Why not just allow us to purchase the character class for $2? The sliding scale for purchases makes it hard to give things in the game a “real” value, since everything is relative to how much you spend. $50 gets you 5,500 gold, and for that transaction you get 110 gold for your dollar, not to mention a “free” 60 day boost to your XP. There is no set gold-to-dollar conversion. It's maddening. “Unfortunately, I don't have any official word on the possibility of buying classes and items directly,” a Hi-Rez representative said. “The devs have a mile long list of things to add to the game so right now it's a matter of implementing and polishing all of the highly requested features such as custom servers.” Holding your breath would be ill-advised. Hi-Rez makes more money this way, but it seems harder to talk myself into paying $10 for gold than it would to buy the character for $2. Players don’t have the ability to make frequent, smaller purchases for content in the game, and that’s a shame. The lowest you can spend is $10, and the highest is $50. I’d love to see the floor lower and the ceiling higher; players would take advantage of each side of that deal. Another very classy touch is the ability to test out every character class and weapon in a training mode before you buy, which takes away the fear that you'll spend gold or XP on an upgrade you end up hating. The ability to test drive everything before a purchase should remove many cases of buyer's remorse. The price of skins has also been adjusted downward after the beta after the Hi-Rez received player feedback. Tribes: Ascend does much more right than it does wrong. You can play a large amount of the game without paying anything, and if you’d like to progress faster the money you would have spent on a retail game will get you damn near anything you’d want in a single class; $15 will go a long way to negating any kind of advantage other players have over you. High-Rez has a rich history to draw from to keep the game going and the players engaged and spending. This is one of those situations where free-to-play has been done very well, and we’re excited to see what is coming down the line. If you’d like to play the game, I’m going to abuse my authority even more and offer you a very easy way to sign up….