Last week, over three and a half years after its initial release, Digital Extremes’ free-to-play shooter Warframe broke its concurrent player record with expansion The War Within, hitting Steam’s top three on the weekend of release, recording a maximum of 68,530 players online at once and logging an incredible 1.2 million hours of playtime in a single day. Across PC and the more recent Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game, over 1 million of the 26 million players who have registered since the game’s 2013 launch had played by November’s halfway point, beating all previous monthly unique records with a fortnight to go.
Those are impressive numbers, especially for a game at a point in its lifecycle where it could certainly be forgiven for slowing down – and it’s no anomalous bump. Instead, a quick glance at SteamSpy’s graphs for the game show a steadily increasing number of players for the game, as well as a very healthy schedule of updates, patches and big content drops. Rather than leeching users to other games as it ages, Warframe is going from strength to strength.
Meridith Braun, VP Publishing at Digital Extremes, says that it’s been a tight compromise of strategies – resulting in a success which far exceeds the expectations of a game which was initially seen as something of a make or break exercise. Key to that, she says, has been a careful acquisition process, but not one which has come at the cost of long term curation and engagement of existing players.
“It’s definitely a balancing act between catering development to new players and veterans of the game,” Braun explains, “but after 3.5 years, the core of the game has grown so much that for new players there are literally hundreds of hours of missions, quests, customising and exploring game systems before they catch up to where veteran players are.
“Whilst many of our updates focus on adding new content and improving game systems that our veterans are most interested in, earlier this year we took a fresh look at the new player experience and released an update that refined some of the tutorials, updated the UI, tied quests together to help the lore flow better, and revamped the market for easier functionality. It was not our most played update, like The Second Dream or The War Within, but it served a long-tail purpose of making Warframe more inviting and easier to understand for new players. It helps them navigate to the really intricate depths of the game with the intent to retain them long-term.”
“We spend very little compared to other free-to-play games that focus a large amount of their budgets on acquisition”
Polishing the tip of the spear is a tried and tested acquisition technique, but it’s not usually a way of sidestepping the vast costs which many companies associate with gathering new players. Warframe’s marketing, though, was forged in a crucible of necessity, at a time when budgets were almost non-existent. As a result, the studio has learned to maximise the gain from channels which deliver users without draining revenue, although the financial success of the game has also enabled them to operate in areas previously well beyond their price range.
“We spend very little compared to other free-to-play games that focus a large amount of their budgets on acquisition,” says Braun. “Warframe was a passion project – the studio’s ‘Hail Mary’ pass, if you will. There was barely budget to buy an account server for the game, let alone to spend on marketing at the time. We turned to viral everything to get the word out: live streaming, social media, Reddit, forums, PR, knocking on partner’s doors for promotional opportunities. Once we launched in open beta and more players got a taste of the game, it was clear we had something unique on our hands. Since then our acquisition strategy has focused primarily on our update schedule and community involvement.
“We discovered early on that frequent significant updates – updates that added dramatic gameplay changes, enhancements and content, and transparency with our community, brought in droves of new players. Now that we have more wiggle room in our coffers, we work the usual acquisition channels – online CPA-focused advertising, social media, streaming, etc. – but nothing beats age old word-of-mouth between players telling their friends to join in on a game that only gets better and better over time.”
What’s perhaps even more unusual about the current high that Warframe finds itself riding upon is that it comes at a time when the AAA shooter market is crowded with a wide spread of very high quality competitors – many of which are under-performing at retail. The game’s peak numbers come at a point when there are brand new Battlefield and Call of Duty games at market, as well as extremely well reviewed releases like the Titanfall and Dishonored sequels.
“Warframe was a passion project – the studio’s ‘Hail Mary’ pass, if you will. There was barely budget to buy an account server for the game, let alone to spend on marketing at the time”
Braun very much sees free-to-play as playing a significant part in the difficulties which Warframe’s boxed rivals are experiencing.
“I think we’re seeing the F2P model disrupting the standard retail model for larger budget games,” she says. “The continued rise of AAA-quality, free-to-play games coming to market – and their ability to fill the long gaps between large IP releases – is taking a bite out of the big game market. Just this year it was great to see F2P titles like Paragon and Paladins launch to great fanfare and numbers, I’m sure they both had some effect on the big budget FPS games alongside Warframe.
“It’s hard to compete with free. Sure, we want people to eventually pay for the entertainment they’re receiving – but when you have the ability to try out a game for free for as long as you want, a game with equally great production value, and then decide if it’s a game that deserves your money, that’s pretty stiff competition. The larger games also aren’t built to be as agile and reactive to the market after they ship. Free games at their core are made to continually update and improve, offering incredible value and entertainment over a longer period of time.”
Blizzard probably has a few things to say about the notion that free-to-play games offer the best long-term player engagement and responsive improvement, and Braun freely admits that games like Overwatch share that strategy of player curation. Warframe, she says, also offers something else, though. Because it wasn’t a Blizzard game, born almost fully-fledged and slickly functional, early adopters have had the joy of watching it smooth out its rougher edges.
“When Warframe first launched it was a shell of the size of game it has become, and our players have stayed with our growth throughout its life-span. They enjoy taking the ride with us, being a part of the evolution, experiencing game development from the front seat. If you’re not thinking about long-term engagement and game service at the heart of your game design as a good part of the future of gaming, you may have yet to come to grips with the dwindling projections of one-and-done games.”
EA BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is off to a good start, “with more than 1.7 million active subscribers and growing,” according to CEO John Riccitiello. While player churn is always a concern in MMOs, DFC Intelligence does see long-term success for the title.
The market research firm noted that The Old Republic “has the potential to be a successful long-term online subscription PC game… despite a general decline in high-end subscription game products and growing competition from numerous free-to-play games like Riot Games’ League of Legends, War Gaming’s World of Tanks, and S2 Games’ Heroes of New Earth.”
DFC, which conducted the study in conjunction with Xfire, tracked game usage data from the launch of the MMO on December 20, 2011 through February 20, 2012 and also surveyed over 4,000 Xfire users in January 2012. Based on this data, DFC believes that Star Wars can indeed reach over one million long-term paying subscribers (defined as a subscriber that pays for over six months).
“The current trend among large massively multiplayer online games is to have strong initial sales, after which users quickly lose interest and are not converted to long-term paying subscribers,” said DFC Intelligence analyst Jeremy Miller. “While early signs are fairly positive, over the next few months the plan is to closely monitor usage and consumer reaction to gauge how well Star Wars: The Old Republic performs over time.”
Miller added, “The next three to six months will be critical to determine if the game can attract a large and sustained paying subscriber base.”
DFC said that this study is part of an “ongoing initiative” with Xfire to better understand the core PC gaming market.
“The Xfire user-base is a strong trend indicator for gaming titles like Star Wars: The Old Republic and World of Warcraft,” said Xfire Chief Marketing Officer, Juston Brommel, “One of the core product features that attract gamers to Xfire is the ability for users to track their game hours. This data gives Xfire and DFC terabits of insightful trends into which games users are playing and how often.”
Bethesda parent company ZeniMax Media Inc. estimates that the game has generated around $650 million since it launched less than six weeks ago.
The PC version has also sold strongly, outperforming other games by a factor of three-to-one in the month of its release.
“Skyrim is the fastest selling title in Steam’s history” said Jason Holtman, director of business development at Valve, in a statement.
“Bethesda’s commitment to and understanding of the PC as a gaming platform shows in the great review scores, spectacular launch, and continued high player numbers that Skyrim has received.”
Skyrim sold 3.5 million copies 48 hours when it launched in November. Since then, it has continued to sell strongly, despite being plagued by a number of technical issues.
Star Wars: The Old Republic will launch on December 20 in North America and December 22 in Europe.
The date was revealed by Bioware co-founders Dr. Ray Muzyka and Dr. Greg Zeschuk during a developer session at the Eurogamer Expo.
Muzyka emphasized the importance of creating a high quality product, and finding “a good window” that would give players time to play it.
“We’re getting more and more confident too because we’ve been testing for many months now with thousands and thousands of beta testers, so we’re doing exhaustive testing of all different aspects of the service,” he said.
“Taking all that feedback to heart and integrating it in and continually making it better, so we’re getting very confident in the quality now.”
The news that Blizzard’s Diablo III – which will also be a persistent online experience – won’t launch until next year may have contributed to the decision to launch this year.
“It would make sense mutually to probably not fall on top of one another, but our primary concerns, like [Blizzard], is to launch a great game first and foremost,” Muzyka added. “If we’re steering clear of great competitors well, so much the better.”
Sony Online Entertainment president John Smedley claimed that The Old Republic has a “legitimate shot” at 2 million subscribers. However, Smedley also said that it will be the last large scale MMO to use a traditional subscription business model.
“Why do I think that? Simply put, the world is moving on from this model and over time people aren’t going to accept this method. I’m sure I’m going to hear a lot about this statement. But I am positive I’m right.”
Courtesy-GI.biz by Matthew Handrahan