We sat down recently with Lucas Davis, the design director for Bethesda's upcoming free-to-play game which has anexclusive beta kicking off soon in Australia and New Zealand.
Right out the gate, you’ve come out with your plans for the beta, the rollout of game modes and characters, the launch, how you intend to monetise and how you’ll be tackling post-launch DLC over the game’s lifetime. It’s a gulf away from the secretive nature of many early pushes for games - why the difference?
A lot of it has to do with where our people have come from. There are people like Rich Vogel who have been in MMOs and live service games for decades now, so for Rich and the team it’s one of those no-brainer things.
We talk about this quite a bit back at the studio: a game is a service. The difference is that it used to be when you’re developing it, you’re coming out on a particular day, it’ll be in a box and anything after that is extra - is candy. We have a joke where we say ‘every day, BATTLECRY is the worst it will ever be from now on’. Every day, it gets better. Every day, you’re seeing BATTLECRY at its worst from now going forward.
That’s how we look at the game. We’re asking what we want to get in there tomorrow, what we want to get in there the next day, and a lot of those dates, they’re kind of ambiguous.
We’ve got our beta, which is a kind of solid date, and we know the cadence that we want to hit, and we know hundreds of features that we want to get in the game, then it’s just kind of prioritising and lining them up. Especially with the beta - getting feedback from the community. We’ve got enough stuff in our backlog to fill up the next several years, and we know that a lot of that stuff’s going to get immediately re-prioritised when we get our beta out and the community tells us: “Yes, we like this! No, we don’t like that! Yes, we want more of this!” and it’s just going to start shifting all of that sort of stuff around.
I guess that’s how we sort of look at it, is that it’s this ongoing thing where we tend to keep a couple of years worth of work in our backlog ready to act and then we just chew through it as fast as we can.
Why Australia/New Zealand exclusively for the beta?
A lot of really good reasons. One, there are other studios doing it down here. I can’t tell you which came first - the chicken or the egg of the situation, but whether a studio started coming down here and built up the fan base or whether the fan base has always been here, but we do have this really strong core fan base here.
They’re excellently vocal, they’re going to tell you exactly what they like and what they don’t like - they’re basically everything you could want out of a test market. It’s native English-speaking, so we can talk directly to the community and don’t have to talk through translators or anything like that. We’ve got offices here already - Zenimax is physically already here, so we’ve got the boots on the ground to handle any kind of problems or results we have.
So it's more or less for those kinds of reasons. Not only is it a good vocal audience, but it ties in with the rest of the world. We’re very confident that if we make a game and we get through the beta and Australia’s happy with our game that the rest of the West is going to be happy with our game as well.
Is it risky in this genre to put all your monetisation in aesthetic add-ons like costumes and character animations?
Perhaps, but also not really because if you look at all the big free-to-play games out there, that’s how they’re making their money. If you look at League of Legends, TF2, DotA, if you look at a lot of the games that are out there, they’re making their money primarily from these cosmetics and they’re doing really well.
People really do want to distinguish themselves, and it kinda harks back to the shareware days of the 90s. Try this game, and if your really like it you’ll look for ways to throw some money at the developer as a way of saying ‘Hey, I played this and its awesome. i want more of it, keep it coming.’
So for us, especially with our game, we’ve created this really powerful art style, we’ve put a ton into creating these characters. Even just looking at the Cossack Enforcer over there (gestures to a standee), he’s this really striking character and you’re going to see that character a ton on the battlefield, so what do you want to do to make him unique? Do you want a weapon that animates ten times cooler and folds up and transforms, do you want really glistening armour, so you want that kind of bold striking pose?
Sure, but there's a huge barrier to entry to some of those games that you mention, even just at a cultural level, which can put some people off. Do you see that as a problem?
Well that’s one of the things we wanted to achieve with BATTLECRY was to have a much lower barrier to entry. DotA and League of Legends are absolutely fantastic games, but they do have that high barrier to entry. There is an expectation that you’ve spent some time on a Wiki, you’ve read about it, that you’ve done some research, you’ve gone through som tutorials, you’ve maybe spectated a couple of games…
See, that just sounds exhausting.
Exactly. So with BATTLECRY, we didn’t want that. We wanted it so that in the first session, you’ve already gotten 60 per cent of the game, and by your second or third session you’re already at the 70 or 80 per cent mark, and then you’re going to spend hours and hours just learning the finesse and the skill. But you’ve got that bulk of the game and are enjoying it, and now with matchmaking, we have you playing with people that are the same skill level as you, so you’re all kind of learning it and picking it up together.
In terms of the free-to-play model, there will be lots of folks who are absolutely happy with the armour they start off with, and we’re even going to have some that you unlock in the game. Even the looks aren’t going to be completely locked behind a paywall. You’ll be able to come in and earn some of that, and change your character out. If somebody comes in and has a ton of fun and never pays us a dime, that doesn’t matter because the people who do are having a heck of a good time playing with those other people.
Has there been much publicity around the game up until this point? You don’t seem to have made a big song-and-dance kind of announcement.
We just started showing it last year. Pretty much trade shows are the only kind of place we’ve shown it off. We just kind of set up in the booth and consumers have been able to kind of discover it in that way.
That, and we’ve talked about it a little bit on our web site and in other places, but for us, the beta really will be the first big push into the world where we say ‘Here’s the game and now you can play it.’ It’s really one of things where it’s a preferred method for us because I can say a lot of the buzzwords, I can say ‘Hey, it’s team-action combat, it’s fast and frenetic, you can jump into it, the pacing’s really good…’, but until you sit down and play it for the first time, that doesn’t matter. For a lot of people, they’ve only really got the few examples they’ve seen in the world of games similar to this, so they don’t really have a good kind of basis for understanding BATTLECRY.
So will you start monetising during the beta?
We will, so there’ll be phases of the beta. The first phase of the beta is where we want to really push the progression and all the kind of earned stuff, so that’ll be the first initial phase of the beta. Then once we get that balanced good and we’re happy with that balance then we’ll kind of open up the cash shop and we’ll kind of be able to balance that aspect of the game. So basically, we’ll have like three or four aspects of the game that we want to get finely tuned, and we’ll be bringing them all online in stages.
The core sample will be there the entire time, the core game plays and then that progression will get turned on, and at some point the cash shop will be one of those things.
The game is packed with spectator options - how important is it to you that the game be successful as a spectator’s sport? Is that a vital component to you of the game’s ability to succeed?
For us, the answer is maybe. For BATTLECRY the core game, we expect that most people are just going to jump into it, enjoy the experience, and just keep playing it. In terms of eSports and tournaments and spectating, those are tools we want to give the players and ultimately see what they do with them.
Absolutely we would love to see that side of things take off, but no, we’re not relying on it to take off to make the game. We imagine more or less that if we give the players the ability to spectate, give them the private rooms, give them the ability to have tournaments and if we make that easy then some sort of eSports element will evolve out of that. What we’re waiting for is for the community to pick it up and do that, have them tell us what the format should be, how they want it done and then we’ll just kind of support that. Once we see a pattern emerging, we’ll support that, build tools around it and customise it towards what we see the community liking.
As opposed to imposing an eSports structure. So you're being more humble in giving people the tools and being ready to adapt?
Yeah, and from a theoretical point, I think you can impose an eSports style community in a top-down sense, but I think you have to choose your priority. Is your priority the eSports community and you’re caring less about anyone who isn’t involved in that, or vice versa. You kind of have to pick who your number one fan base is.
Do you think you’d run the risk of focusing too hard one group to the detriment of the other?
From the high level ‘anoyne making a free-to-play game’ perspective, then yes, you can run that risk. For us in particular, I think that’s why we talk about having so many plans on the table and that backlog of features that we absolutely want to get to with BATTLECRY. Honestly, with the beta, the community response is what we’re waiting for before we prioritise those features.
For us, that’s how we mitigate that risk. Step one is to make a really good core combat experience, let’s get good progression in there, let’s let you customise your warriors.
No matter what fan you are, you'll want that. Whether you’re just looking to have fun with your mates in the evening or whether you want to form a league, either way you want that core game, progression, customisation and load out selection.
That’s the core of what we’re delivering in the beta, and then we’re putting player response in charge to prioritise the things that we’ve envisioned for BATTLECRY. We want to see if the community agrees, and see if they think those are a good set of ideas.
Is the current build only giving the classes on offer because those are the only ones which are ready to show, or because three is enough of a choice to matter without being overwhelming - a good testing number if you will?
With this build it’s a good amount for trade shows. We’ve got all five classes for the beta ready, but we’re just playing those at home. Some of it also is just the time it takes to prep and build for the trade shows. The build that you’re playing now is one that we actually prepped late last year and our next build is an internal friends-and-family one, then we’ll roll into the beta properly.
So it’s a little bit of both. People can get into it with this many, they can understand it and they can start forming this strategies with the classes in the very first session. But it’s also giving us more time at home to play with all five classes and get that balanced out in our play tests.
Thank you for your time!