New UK studio Freejam explains the pitfalls of making an indie eSports game, and how it's avoiding them
Making a multiplayer-focused game is always a big challenge for indie developers starting out, particularly for their first game.
That’s not to say it hasn’t been done of course, the leading example being Facepunch’s hit Steam Early Access game Rust. But the road is paved with many that have fallen before it.
New UK developer Freejam has taken on the challenge however, and what’s more, they’ve gone free-to-play. The game is called Robocraft, currently in a playable alpha, which its creators describes as the illegitimate child of Minecraft and World of Tanks.
The team consists of ex-Climax veterans and includes Mark Simmons, Sebastiano Mandalà, Edward Fowler, Brian O’Connor and Richard Turner. Game director Simmons tells Develop despite working on IP for the likes of Square Enix, Microsoft, Sony and Konami, the developers wanted to work on their own creation, a story increasingly familiar in the game industry.
“Working on major well known IP’s is one thing, but when they aren’t ‘your’ IP’s then you don’t get the full feeling of satisfaction when the user enjoys your game. That’s what we wanted,” he says.
Their debut title, Robocraft, is designed as a team-based eSport game that allows users to build their own tanks by piecing together blocks and verious tank parts.
"I know what you’re thinking 'oh no, not another minecraft clone', but we’re different,” says Simmons.
“We set about creating a credible team based eSport about the idea of building high fidelity battle machines from cubes. The cubes form the chassis, and then the user adds components such as wheels, jet thrusters, hoverblades, laser cannons, etcetera."
When I ask why the focus on user generated content for such a title, Simons says: “It really started out as the answer to a question: How can our little team of five developers deliver an epic team based MMO eSport without being able to produce tons of content?”
The free-to-play venture has worked out well for the team so far, attracting 300,000 users during the last three months, with 20,000 users playing each day and 2,500 joining on average every day.
Simmons says the developer was able to achieve this in part thanks to well known YouTubers in countries such as Poland sparking increased interest in the title, once again highlighting the importance of user videos and allowing players to create their own Let’s Play content – and letting them make money from your IP.
But being an indie, how do you attract enough players for a multiplayer game to ensure users will always find someone to play against while also keeping them engaged for the long-term? Simmons argues that’s why the team went free-to-play, but admits the problem was still tricky to tackle early on.
"If you’re free then you’re likely to attract more users, even if they aren’t paying.,” he explains.
“It has come with it’s own issues though. Servers cost money, and if your users aren’t paying, then getting more users actually costs you more money. Luckily our user payments are covering the cost of the servers now so we haven’t got this worry anymore.
Of another solution to the issue of ensuring there are enough players, Simmons adds: “When we initially released getting enough users was a major problem. To fix it we had to release a ‘countdown timer’. The counter counted down from three minutes and every time the counter got to zero we launched a battle.
“This way, although there were not many users online they all went into battle at the same time, which ensured we had enough users to fight each other. We switched over to a ‘battle-whenever-you-want’ system when the user numbers were high enough."
Much like Wargaming claims World of Tanks is free-to-play and not “pay-to-win”, FreeJam also claims their title is playable “without spending a penny”. He admits that players can accelerate through the game by purchasing a premium membership, and users can also purchase cubs and components, but the latter is only available to those that have earned points through gameplay.
“Users can purchase cubes and components directly but only when they have unlocked the license for that component using Tech Points - which you have to play to earn,” he explains.
“There is no way to just put $100 down and get a fantastic Robot right away, even paying users must fight to progress. Users can also purchase a few items which are real money only, but they are cosmetic only, there are no pay for only items that can get you a competitive advantage. We’re really trying to play the F2P thing in an ‘indie way’, i.e. fair and not aggressively.”
Robocraft is currently in alpha phase, and the developers plan to take the title onto Steam Early Access having successfully gone through Steam Greenlight in just five days. The team will be hoping to follow up with similar success of other UK developers such as Facepunch, Chucklefish and Ndemic Creations on Valve’s digital store.