Free for All: Why Both a Success and a Failure Went Free

How can Team Fortress 2 and APB have anything in common? A story about a hat-based business.

What does an immensely popular first-person shooter from 2007 have in common with one of 2010's biggest failures? The gameplay, setting, and genre of Valve's Team Fortress 2 are a stark contrast to Realtime Worlds' APB. What they do share is an economy entirely based on selling goofy hats, powerful guns, and strange items. These two very different games started at full retail price but have since become free games supported by cash shops. So how can two games head down divergent paths but lead to the same result? During GDC 2012 we went to two lectures within hours of each other and learned why both games went free-to-play.

Changes were made to classes to attract new blood while keeping current players happy.

For most games, switching from a paid business model to a model based on handing out free copies and solely monetized through cash shops is a sign of desperation. Such was the case with APB, the Realtime Worlds-developed massive multiplayer third-person shooter. Issues with the gameplay and a lack of focus hindered the game's popularity and revenue. Just four months after APB's 2010 release, Realtime Worlds was out of business, the servers were shut down, and all game properties were sold off to K2 Networks.

The original development of ABP sans marketing cost over $70 million, while K2 Networks acquired the game for a mere $5 million. To further help K2 reestablish the game as its own, new development is being handled by the company's in-house studio Reloaded Productions, and the game has been rebranded as APB: Reloaded. K2 hopes to earn $60 million minus upkeep by using its free business model. While going free as APB has is the typical story of recovering from failure, Team Fortress 2 became free from its success.

However, it wasn't the new weapons or gameplay changes that started to shift TF2's business model. It was instead something else that came with the Sniper vs. Spy update: the introduction of hats.

TF2 was initially released in October 2007 either as part of The Orange Box or as a stand-alone version on Steam. The game sold well on its release, but numbers steadily decreased with time. There were the standard spikes in revenue each time TF2 went on sale over Steam, but the largest influx of new players came from class updates. The first of these updates was for only a single class: the medic. Three new weapons, achievements, and other changes to the medic class were mainly to entice current players and gain further press coverage. Future class updates were developed by syncing the needs of both new and current players.

Valve achieved its goals by teasing the updates with videos, brochure ads, and comics weeks before the scheduled release. Oftentimes the final design of an update wasn't set in stone, and the developers read forums closely to see what fans wanted or expected. When the sniper's huntsman bow was revealed, players thought it would be cool if the pyro could light the arrow, letting the sniper deal fire damage. Valve hadn't thought of this itself and quickly added the feature in time for the Sniper vs. Spy update. However, it wasn't the new weapons or gameplay changes that started to shift TF2's business model. It was instead something else that came with the Sniper vs. Spy update: the introduction of hats.

Players gained hats at set intervals of time. The first formula for drops required players to accumulate nearly 120 hours of game time on average to obtain even one. Thousands of people were logging into TF2 for dozens of hours a week and gaining no drops. This caused hats to become rare status symbols and prompted rampant cheating to gain as many hats as possible with as little effort as possible. To combat this, Valve changed the algorithm to drop both hats and weapons around every hour and 40 minutes, ensuring around seven items awarded each week. With the huge influx of hats and weapons floating around the game, it made perfect sense to shift the game to free-to-play and open an in-game shop.

Things might look pretty, but balancing gameplay is another story.

K2 Networks recognizes Valve's success with turning Team Fortress 2 free-to-play, but isn't looking to copy its methods. K2 already has experience with successful free-to-play games, such as Korean-developed War Rock and Sword of the New World: Granado Espada. In fact, it has been at this so long that within the United States K2 has trademarked the term "Free2Play." Foremost, what succeeded in a first-person shooter isn't going to fully work for a massively multiplayer online game. Reloaded Productions is doing what it can to create new appealing content for its fan base, but some of APB's problems are deep rooted within the core game, and changes will take time.

Problems first arose from lack of environmental controls. Maps in ABP are made procedurally, making it difficult to tweak sniper spots, choke points, and other strategic locations. If the designers wanted to move a building even a few centimeters, the whole map would need to be scrapped and remade. Oftentimes these maps would also have a lack of signposts guiding players toward key locations. This initially left players lost and confused after clearing the tutorial. As a result, a steep number of users wound up quitting after the first 10 levels of gameplay.

K2 Networks found that those who won their first match in APB: Reloaded were 30 percent more likely to use the cash shop.

Another big hurdle for Reloaded was fixing APB's mission system. Changes were made to make losing or quitting a mission less frustrating. This was done by reducing penalties from abandoning missions and making it faster to lose an uphill battle. Matchmaking was also overhauled to make sure players of equal skill levels and equipment are pitted against each other. Players are further distributed on a skill curve and are ranked to help place them in matches they are more likely to win. Even something as slight as not showing the enemy's threat level greatly alters a player's perception of difficulty and balance.

The game fixes are the first step if APB hopes to succeed. Players will only spend money on a game they're invested in. K2 Networks found that those who won their first match in APB: Reloaded were 30 percent more likely to use the cash shop. It should be easy for K2 to fill its shop with an array of clothes, cars, and weapons. APB has a plethora of editors to design the look of characters and their gear, and even a full music editor to make custom death tunes. However, the main concern is to not introduce items that imbalance the game.

Both K2 Networks and Valve know that players should never have to pay to win or even perceive that it's possible to do so. Every new item--whether it's a fancy new car or a knife that steals identities--needs to be a side grade rather than a straight upgrade. If a gun from the cash shop has high damage, it needs some kind of counterbalance to not outclass other weapons players could find for free. Where the two companies disagreed was just how consumers should be able to purchase these new items.

Using Steam, Valve lets users pay with common local currencies, such as US dollars, pounds, and rubles. They feel that this encourages users to spend more because there is no conversion rate nor will customers be stuck with small remainders of an online currency. K2 is more traditional, requiring players to use G1 Credits on its GamersFirst website. The G1 is designed to be usable with any of K2's games featured on GamersFirst and can sometimes be obtained from free promotions. It's not just a matter of how players are paying for items but, in some cases, how they are trading with others.

I'll trade you a sweet shield for gift copies of The Witcher 2 and Civilization V.

Team Fortress 2's in-game store has pioneered Steam trading that lets users exchange items from TF2, Portal 2, and Three Rings Design's Spiral Knights with one another. Steam users can even trade games that they have received as gifts on Steam. Not only is this a quick system, but it reduces the risk of third-party item sales. K2 Networks could easily learn something from this model. In fact, APB: Reloaded has already hit Steam's free-to-play section, and we feel that it could prosper by integrating Steam trading. Still, K2 doesn't seem to be keen on supporting a system other than the G1 Credit and GamersFirst site.

The overall key to success as a paid game gone free might lie in stigmas and consumers' expectations. Team Fortress 2 had a huge advantage right out of the gate. It was a sequel to an incredibly popular first-person shooter developed by a company with a near-flawless track record. APB may have been first developed by the successful Realtime Worlds, but it was venturing into a completely different genre with a brand-new intellectual property. Because the game bombed once, many are wary of investing time or money in APB: Reloaded. It's rather simple: make a fun game first. Team Fortress 2 was able to stand on its own worth, strong enough to support a free business model. APB: Reloaded is dependent on free-to-play for its very survival.

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Discussion

33 comments
CatAtomic999
CatAtomic999

@ icetone, then *you* made your computer crash, not TF2, and not some guy on Youtube.

icetone
icetone

TF2 made my computer crash because of some guy I listened too on youtube to make the frame rates go faster >:(

Kos1c
Kos1c

APB was one of the worst games I've tried twice to see if I could like it. First time around I reached around lvl 6-8, and got bored. Because It was more fustration over fun. The next time around, I joined with 3 other friends of mine. We groupped up, and di a bunch of missions. Every mission we were in, we were faced against people much higher level. Usually 4 of us vs two guys, who had powerful weapons, and were 4-5 levels higher then us. With gear perks etc. We all instantly quit that same day, since it was just unbalanced. Being owned by two guys, without a chance of killing them was pointless. Because of this system, I am unlikely to ever try a free2play game again, since if you want an avantage you need to spend the cash. When I'd rather spend the cash on owning agame, and farming the loot with friends.

shayeskingston
shayeskingston

even though TF2 went free to play after i payed for it, i don't mind. it feels like i got my money's worth. the amount of content and awesome stuff they gave us for free is amazing. the whole in game shop is just to keep up the content keep the player base full. that's why you have such a great and successful game 5 years on.

tiggerlu
tiggerlu

PVP gives games like TF2 great longevity, you play with or against friends and it's always unpredictable. You can't script that into MMOs or PVE games no matter how good they are. I've been playing another great F2P called World of Tanks for over a year - just like TF2 they do everything right to keep things relatively fresh and interesting.

xReikenx
xReikenx

Actually APB does have pay to win items. For example the only way to get a permanent gun in that game is to shell out somewhere in the neighborhood of 25USD to buy a permanent 3 slot weapon. Then there's the "gold" weapons that are slightly modified, pre-slotted weapons that they also sell. They look different as well as generally performing better than the games rented weapons. They could make that issue go away by just allowing players to buy permanent weapons in game with in game cash. I know lots of people argue "I make that kind of in game money in a day or two of playing :D" But not everyone has that kind of time and not everyone can justify paying 25 USD for a single weapon in a game.

Udaff4ik
Udaff4ik

@Thepedobear com'on, stop crying about it being free... It was released in 2007 and obviously was slowly dying in 2011, it was really a genius idea to give it a 2nd breath! You just bought a game for 30$ in 2007 not a "life time elite club TF2 membership", you should be grateful that after 5 years you still have lots of people to play this game online with!

M-S-M-S
M-S-M-S

TF2 is just a great game. This is why it is so successful. No mystery, in my view.

Kaine852
Kaine852

@Thepedobear well, I think the game would be 50% dead by now should valve have not released any new updates. Also the sales of the game were getting slower, so by making it F2P, Valve is inviting more players to spend money on cheap items and hats, thus were kinda/sorta paying them to make more updates and keep the game a live...based on my opinion.

ThePedoBear
ThePedoBear

Calling it Team Fortress 2 is useless now. "Competitive Hats 2" is more like it.

ThePedoBear
ThePedoBear

Team Fortress 2's F2P model is a slap in the face for the player's who paid an original $30 for the game when it launched. The only big difference between F2P, and the 'Premium" account is some extra slots or something stupid like that. You can ONLY do this if you purchase ANYTHING from the store. There's an item that allows you to expand your inventory to 1000 spaces for $2.49. That's a JOKE. And this is what existing players get that purchased the game.. "To thank you for your years of support, we will be giving players who have purchased TF2 a special Proof of Purchase hat (USELESS COSMETIC ITEM) to wear on any character in-game." Are you kidding me? So my \$30 original purchase was compensated for cosmetic product that took your design team half an hour to make? And for anyone to become a premium member, you have to spend $1.00 (the lowest priced item)?! Thank you, REALLY, thank you. Shady business models like this are KILLING the PC gaming industry. Take a f*cking hint from Riot's (creators of League of Legends) business model.

knooon
knooon

TF2 is the best game ever it is fun expressive and it's hard to become Bord of the game quickly

manciuxl
manciuxl

Team Fortress 2 was better when people played it for fun and not for hats

sune_Gem
sune_Gem

I played TF2 because it went free, I imagine a lot of people did the same. It had a big name for itself from the start, and making it free to play made all those people (such as myself) who was on the fence about buying it have no reason to not try it.

Caldrin
Caldrin

APB was a great idea but needed more dev time, sadly the UK government does not like game companies like most othe EU countries and there was no grants available to help the company out... So they had to release with what they had and sadly that was an unfinished game people initially brought it because it was such a good idea but soon realised i was not where near rdy for release and quite.. company went under. TF2 is a totally different type of game and already had a decent fan base from the origional game..

Death_Blade_182
Death_Blade_182

You heard that developers? If you want your online game to succeed just add hats and you're all set.

masakri50
masakri50

I remember the free2players when they first started out. I really hope I didn't look that dumb when I first picked it up when I was still a teenager. Free2players were free2kill.

Nodashi
Nodashi

Team Fortress 2 rules, APB sucks. Problem solved.

Leonagard
Leonagard

What I have to say is Lord of th Rings Online! the best FREE2Play game ever!... Turbine is the best company running this model!

Spider-buns
Spider-buns

I'm In loVe with team fortress but by making it free it killed the privacy and fun that I had with people who PAYED for the game

Tacoholic23
Tacoholic23

Finally someone else says what I've been saying since TF2 went f2p....It completely ruined the game, I could handle the ridiculous amounts of promotional stuff, but making it free just killed it...

rbok6
rbok6

@rastotm I agree. Cross fire is still one of the few soild and well balanced Free-to-play games out there. But Cross Fire is not Korean? It's Chinese.

rbok6
rbok6

That's what I always say. If a Free-to-Play game is so unbalanced then It doesn't deserve to be called Free-to-Play. The same is happening with Battlefiled Play4Free.

djames12345
djames12345

team fortress 2 is a really good game :D

cheamo
cheamo

It's cool that they've kept supporting TF2 for so long with new items and stuff, but honestly I don't think it's improved at all since the day it came out. I kind of think they took it too far and now there are wayyy too many items/weapons guns/etc. IMO. Still one of my favourite shooters ever, and the Orange box was such an awesome deal when it came out.

rastotm
rastotm

Korea proved the potential of F2P a long time ago, the counterstrike clone crossfire being a perfect example. It's actually a major game in the World Gaming League these days.

fatee
fatee moderator

I'm okay with "free to play" so long as real life cash doesn't give you an edge when you get down to business. World of Tanks is probably one of the best examples of free to play done right: Money can purchase better tanks, but the BEST tanks are earned from playing FREE. As for the leveling system: you can pay a monthly fee to level quicker, but you are always paired with like-level people, meaning someone who pays zero dollars will almost always fight people their own level and can still obtain the best tanks in the game.

MasterTheHero
MasterTheHero

Success on the gamespot mainpage is misspelled as Sucess, interesting article though.

gamingfrendly
gamingfrendly

team fortress2 is one of the best online games in a 32 players server at 2fort you can see some very funny crap going on

kex72
kex72

@moremoneythanu The ****?

moremoneythanu
moremoneythanu

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moremoneythanu
moremoneythanu

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