Naughty Dog, purveyors of fine action-adventure games including the upcoming survival action game The Last of Us, made a bold move yesterday. They decided to make the core multiplayer component of their most recent game, the globetrotting epic UNCHARTED 3: Drake’s Deception free.
In a world of microtransactions and freemium stigmas, gamers naturally had questions about this decision. Why free-to-play? How will this affect the game’s community? We caught up with UNCHARTED 3 Game Director Justin Richmond, who gave us an inside look at the company’s thought process behind giving away the core multiplayer mode of one of Naughty Dog’s most popular games.
Why free-to-play? What new opportunities does this model present?
“Free-to-play takes away a huge barrier that exists for many players.”
Justin Richmond, Uncharted 3 Game Director: One of the biggest issues with multiplayer games, particularly multiplayer games that are part of a larger package (such as in the Uncharted Series) is barrier to entry. The free-to-play model takes away a huge barrier that exists for many players. With this model, people can check out the game without having to pay a dime, and in fact play it in perpetuity without ever paying a cent. This just isn’t something we can support in the traditional releases.
We have a thriving player base, with nearly a half a million unique ID’s logging on to play Uncharted 3 every month. This model will hopefully add to that community and show players that never took the chance how active and fun that community is.
F2P has a certain stigma to it – lots of “freemium” games are built around coaxing the player to spend money in order to make the game easier, or gives them an unfair advantage. How will U3′s foray into free-to-play avoid these frustrations?
“Players are getting the full Uncharted experience”
JR: We wanted to give the players the ability to pay for the specific parts of the game they are interested in playing. If you want to only play the core competitive multiplayer, you can just pay for that. If you just want co-op, you can pay only for that part.
We feel that the a la carte model gives our users the most flexibility and choice when it comes to playing Uncharted 3. If a player downloads the free-to-play experience and really gets into it, Naughty Dog recommends that you go ahead and purchase the Digital Game of the Year edition of Uncharted 3, simply because this is by far the most bang for your buck. You are basically getting the entire single player campaign for free with this purchase.
We are steadfast against the idea of pay to win, and we worked hard to maintain the balance of the game. This new player group is also getting to experience the full player base. The free-to-play version puts players in the same matchmaking as the full retail game. This means that players are getting the full Uncharted experience, not some watered down version.
How do you create a high-quality free-to-play multiplayer console experience? Did you look at any other developers for inspiration?
JR: We looked at what other people had done with their free-to-play models, and decided to strike out on our own in many ways. The a la carte model is something that has never really been done on the PS3. We spent a long time evaluating and making sure that it was our best choice. At the end of the day, we feel it gives our players more options than any other game when it comes to this model.
What kind of transition can current players expect?
“We will be giving out a few surprises for players that have been playing before free-to-play”
JR: The current players will experience no difference in their gameplay at all, other than an influx of new players in the system.
As a thank you for supporting the game, we will also be giving out a few surprises for players that have been playing the full retail disc before the free-to-play version was released. The only real transition is that we will be resetting the leaderboards in the interest of starting fresh with the new player base.
PSB: What kind of success has UNCHARTED 3 multiplayer seen in comparison to that of UNCHARTED 2, and how do you think F2P will influence that?
JR: Uncharted 3 has had great success compared to Uncharted 2, and we hope that the free-to-play version will keep that going. We aren’t just sending this version out to die, either. We have long term plans in terms of content releases and support as we move forward.
Are you battening down the hatches, so to speak, server-side? What kind of technical commitment is required for something of this magnitude?
JR: We did spend time shoring up our tech, and figuring out if a la carte options were even going to possible. Fortunately, our programmers are awesome and they managed to get everything sectioned out and running in a way we were all happy with. It was definitely not something that we took lightly, and we are really pleased with the results we have achieved.
Naughty Dog has mentioned that The Last of Us will also feature a multiplayer mode of some sort – is free-to-play something you’d consider down the road for it, too?
JR: I can’t really comment on The Last of Us right now, as we are still actively working on it. But I will say that if this endeavor goes well, it is something we will certainly be looking at for future products.