Free to Play Deathmatch: Super Monday Night Combat, as interviewed by Blacklight: Retribution
The term “free to play” used to suffer from any number of negative connotations, but we're in the golden age of free to play shooters. I've written about my love of Tribes: Ascend, and Blacklight: Retribution and Super Monday Night Combat serve as further proof that you can release a solid, fun shooter that doesn't require an upfront purchase from fans who want to shoot other people. Each game is very different in both mechanics and aesthetics, so I thought it would be fun to get members of each development team to talk their game and ask questions about another title. This is the first story in our Free to Play Roundtable, and the questions were asked by Collin Moore of Zombie Entertainment, the team behind Blacklight: Retribution, and answered by Chandana Ekanayake of Uber Entertainment, the developer behind Super Monday Night Combat. Enjoy!
Collin Moore: What has been the most challenging part of transitioning from a console 3rd person shooter to a PC-only Free to Play game? Fan reaction? Backlash?
Chandana Ekanayake: Funny enough most of us at Uber had worked on PC games before MNC and we loved going back to it. There are tradeoffs for sure, but the freedom of development and updating on our schedule works really well with how we like to do things. Ideally we'd love to be on consoles as well but the platforms aren't set up for what we want to do yet. We have some die-hard fans on Xbox that are disappointed we're not on there and would love to see us back. We love having the ability to test out ideas during development and to get immediate feedback from players. There are features and systems we think will do well but the real test is what the players think. We also changed the game mechanics to give the game more depth. It's less run and gun deathmatch and more about strategic elements like pushing bots, leveling, staying alive, and working as a team. This has been difficult for some players of the original MNC but ultimately we felt it needed to change to expand the life cycle of the game. We have a long term plan to keep growing and adding to Super Monday Night Combat as a service.
Being an independent developer and without the support of a publisher, how difficult has it been bringing on departments such as Live Ops, Testing, Marketing/PR?
Yeah, shit gets crazy. That's the technical way of saying making games is hard especially when you're on your own. We've had multiple opportunities to partner up with publishers but there were always strings attached and we felt it would ultimately hurt the game and our studio culture. On the flip side, being indie means your work is never done, you make certain sacrifices, you go lean when you need to and roll with the unexpected, like launching your game before you're really ready. We have a dev team of about 20 with each dev having multiple skill sets and the experience of working together as a team for a while. It's the only way we're able to get anything done fast and react to the playerbase. As for specifics, we have some great tools for 24/7 monitoring, insight into our servers, details on games and players that we keep track of. Testing happens internally, with our alpha group of players and the general community at large since we update so often. Marketing/PR has been an interesting one because of how different the life cycle of a traditional launch versus the life cycle of a service based game like Super Monday Night Combat. Since the game is free, we're doing crossover exclusive content with certain media sites and other games in which the players benefit. Which reminds me, we should totally do a Blacklight/Super MNC crossover! It'd be rad for our collective players.
How have you handled the stigma of F2P games being viewed as “Pay to Win,” especially in North America? What sort of steps have you taken to combat it?
We've purposefully split up what's in the in-game store, which is all cosmetic and non-game changing items. Anything that's game play balance changing is unlocked with in game experience points, or Combat Credits. It's an on-going education but with the popularity of other F2P western shooters I think it's getting better for players to grasp. The market today and reception to F2P games is much different that what it was only a year ago.
How important was it to launch on Steam?
We've had a good relationship with Valve and utilizing Steam made a lot of sense for us. They completely understand a service-based approach to games and have been tremendously helpful in sharing ideas, information from their own experiences, and giving feedback to help us succeed. Steam players are also very savvy and accepting of Free to Play games. We've utilized various aspects of Steam including our upcoming Steam Trading. Trading will allow Super Monday Night Combat players to trade their items for other games on Steam or other items from games like TF2 that also participate in Steam Trading.
We are huge fans of the branding and community support that Uber has built with the MNC franchise, such as the t-shirts, figures, etc. and constant visibility at events like PAX. Was this part of the original plan or something that grew over time?
We felt this was a very important aspect for us as an unknown start-up when we were doing the first MNC. PAX East 2010 was what put us on the map and we've been to every PAX since. It's hugely important as an indie to build your brand and have direct interaction with your fanbase. The statues, shirts, bacon bracelets, and trucker hats are all for our fans. Some things resonate more with fans then we anticipated, like the love of bacon which is a pretty integral part of our game world. In Super MNC, a bacon pick makes you better at everything which ties in well with our over-the-top gameshow-like atmosphere. At the end of the day, we're big geeks and we love the idea of having toys made of our own characters sitting on our desks.
Fan feedback is super important to keeping your community happy and to continue to play the game. How do you balance endless feedback loops and tweaks to existing systems based on fan feedback versus moving the game forward and progressing it?
We are very active in our forums and try to iterate to our fans that feedback is important but that feedback is weighed against what we as the developers want to do with the game and technical concerns as well as bandwidth. At the end of the day, it's a judgment call and what's best for the game and our fanbase for the long term. We plan on being in this space for awhile.
Monetization is huge for free to play. Have you had any surprises? Are items that you thought would sell, actually selling? Have some items surprised you on how popular they are? What have you found to be more important in the successful sale of an item: the actual item itself; or how the item is sold and presented to users?
I know it might not be a big surprise but players like deals and bundles. Some of our best selling items have been multiple character bundles and themed bundles. The cosmetic items like Uniforms, Taunts, and weapon skins for more popular players also sell well. Players tend to invest in one or more characters and we want to give them enough options to customize that Pro to their liking. Since we rotate free Pros out every week, we see a sales spike when that Pro is out of rotation which usually means players get to try out the characters for a week and want to keep playing that character. Sometimes we run experiments like where we offered an item bundle at a ridiculous low price of $0.50 OR 50 Combat Credits. 50 Combat Credits can be earned playing a single match. Players chose to unlock the bundle with in game currency versus real money by a factor of 5000/1. So what did we learn from that? We learned that players like unlocks with Combat Credits that are priced reasonably well and that our recent Shopping Cart changes were easy to use. We do these kind of experiments to from time to time to gauge interest as well as add value to our players. We'd like to thank both teams for their time, and more of this roundtable is coming in the near future. Be sure to give these games a try, the only thing you have to lose is your time.