Robot wars: Free-to-play PC hit Robocraft, two years after launch

From The Terminator to Titanfall, it’s impossible to escape the impending robot apocalypse.

Droids have long held a special place in the public conscience – just look at the recent excitement surrounding the reveal of a toy based on upcoming Star Wars gizmo BB-8.

So it’s perhaps little surprise to find that a game allowing players to put together their very own mechanical marvel has proved to be a hit.

That title is Robocraft, the first free-to-play effort from Portsmouth-based studio Freejam.

Launched in April 2013, the DIY droid-battling MMO has since passed one million subscribers, and boasts a ‘Very Positive’ user review average on Steam out of more than 42,000 comments.

We’ve always been fascinated by robots since their earliest appearance in movies and TV shows, like Robby from Forbidden Planet, R2-D2 and Robot Wars,” recalls Mark Simmons,Freejam CEO and director for the game.

With Robocraft, we wanted players to be able to build a robot along creative and engineering principles, and send it into action.

"We were inspired by LEGO and Meccano, where you can build practically anything from all the different components.”

"A community can quickly go from understanding early adopters to a large, demanding majority."

Mark Simmons, Freejam

Somewhat fittingly for a game that involves constant tweaking and rebuilding in pursuit of perfection, Robocraft itself remains in the midst of creation. It has been in Steam Early Access for the last two years, with a full release planned by early 2016.

Our pre-alpha launch was a single-player version with robot building and a simple battle arena,” Simmons says of the game’s progression.

We knew we’d a lot to do and wanted to evolve the game with the community. After adding multi-player, we’ve been expanding every few months with new gameplay based on internal or community ideas: testing them, gathering feedback and changing or improving accordingly.”

Early Access has come under much discussion, with some critics questioning whether the service has been devalued by the troubled journey of some games to a full release – leading Valve to update its regulations regarding the system late last year, in an effort to ensure developers are able to deliver on their promises and avoid player complaints regarding poor quality, half-finished titles.

Our launch on Steam was amazing: a really slick and easy platform and partner to work with, fantastic for player feedback and insights,” Simmons weighs in.

Perceptions are polarising – early adopters get that an Early Access game is in development, while the player majority expect polish, stability, no bugs, no dramatic changes. What’s amazing is how quickly a community can go from understanding early adopters to a large, demanding majority.”

One factor that may have helped Robocraft in avoiding the short lifespan and drop-off in player interest suffered by so many of its Early Access peers is its free availability.

As Freejam’s moniker suggests, the studio has dedicated itself to a free-to-play philosophy. However, players can sign up for ‘Robocraft Premium’, a monthly subscription that provides faster levelling-up and gathering of the in-game RP currency, which is used to buy new parts.

Simmons says that offering such a service helps the game to avoid the criticised ‘pay-to-win’ pitfalls of many free-to-play mobile and PC titles.

Since we knew from the start we wanted to evolve Robocraft closely with the community, it made sense to go free-to-play – asking for funding support up front didn’t seem right,” he explains.

Our players have responded positively to Robocraft Premium, appreciating that it’s a time saver – not pay-to-win – that benefits everyone playing in matches with the Premium players.”

Free-to-play is proven as a valid model; it’s appreciated by players and is an effective solution for developers.”

"Player-created content is now a cornerstone for any successful game."

Mark Simmons,Freejam

Robocraft is just one title in a long lineage of construction games to have emerged in the wake of Minecraft’s success.

But with build-it-yourself games seemingly becoming commonplace – even Fallout 4 has elements of crafting and construction – is it a trend set for eventual exhaustion or, instead, a bold new step for the games industry as a whole?

It’s a zeitgeist, for sure, though I’d go further and suggest that player-created content is now a cornerstone for any successful game,” retorts Simmons.

Not only as a core in-game feature, but with modding, services like Steam Workshop and other facilities for creating and sharing.

"It’s a whole other level of shared engagement between content and the consumer, that only gaming – well, maybe cooking as well – can offer.”

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