Warface Interview With Peter Holzapfel

In the realm of videogames, a simple combination of words can inspire joy, apathy or a series of scoffs. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and while “free-to-play” may inspire disgust to some, it’s a whole new realm of possibility for others. Back at E3 I found myself enamored with Warface – a free-to-play MMOFPS from Crytek that showed you don’t need to have a powerful rig to conjure console-standard graphics. The micro-transaction model felt carefully considered and far from a cynical attempt to encourage players to empty their wallets, and the gameplay was simple to become accustomed to and dangerously fun to play, whether competitively or co-operatively. Peter Holzapfel has been working at Crytek as a producer for over three years, and considering his close attachment with the upcoming MMO, interviewing him was an opportunity I couldn’t miss.

What have you learned since the launch of Warface in China and Russia that will make the transition to a global audience much easier?

We’ve learned all sorts – it’s been a very interesting challenge because the game is so popular. We didn’t expect so many people to join our servers, so that was something that we can carry over to all the territories. There’s a lot of polish that went into all the different levels I’d say, obviously when people play it the amount of telemetry we get allows us to improve the game continuously, everything that is happening is statistically evaluated, and we can say “here there’s still problems with spawn-camping”, and in general balance and tweaking, all those things are design and technical. Business model wise, it’s just interesting to see that our initial idea of what people would want to buy in the game is actually true, so everything that is a convenient item that allows for faster progression, like random boxes where they get items quicker that are specifically tailored to their class. With the action points, we weren’t entirely sure whether they would work and if people would accept them, we were hoping that they would and so that worked out pretty well too.

When I saw Warface back at E3 it was possible to do and unlock everything without having to pay. How difficult is it to encourage players to use micro-transactions without skewing the player base to the point you have to pay to win?

There are different things at work there. Generally, when you give someone a game and they like it a lot, if they invest time in it then they’re already completely involved, that’s our philosophy on it; as soon as you invest time you’re already investing a precious resource because there’s a lot of games out there and a lot of stuff you could play. Building a good game that people will want to invest time in will then at some point move them to “okay, maybe I should invest some money too because I have so much fun playing it, and it’ll help me to progress faster in the game”.

That’s kind of the philosophy behind it, but there’s also social things, like the resurrection points in co-op; you can completely avoid them if you play well together as a team and you don’t have to use them ever if you wait to get resurrected, but a lot of people are impatient and want to get back into the game instantly or don’t play well together as a team but don’t want to let their team down. Then they come back from curiosity, something that drives them to go “hey, I wanna see what’s in there”, you can get all the items without paying, but people are curious. There are a lot of things that we’ve learnt about creating a very strong game, at least from our point of view, and as soon as people have fun playing it they will at some point spend money on it. Not all of them, obviously, but that’s fine.

You’ve been quoted as saying “free-to-play is the future”, and that all Crytek games in future will use that model. What was the incentive to adopt that over a more traditional retail structure?

We still have to see, I mean definitely from our point of view it’s something that we decide from franchise to franchise where it makes sense, but we believe that it is something that’ll get stronger and stronger in the future. What bought us to actually adopt that structure was a multitude of different things, so at the core we think that it’s just something that is very fair for us as Crytek and the players. As Crytek we can continuously grow a community with this model, it’s not that we have to rely on a super massive launch and potentially at some point the community will drop off, it’s more that we can continuously, and we want to have a strong community at the start obviously because then you can give the game traction, but we also want the community to grow instead of just continuously improving it. From a games point of view, we feel that players cannot be convinced to buy a game by marketing if it’s a really mediocre game, we have to build it to be a good game because if people come in and see it’s not a good game, they’ll just leave, there’s no risk attached for them. Coming back to what we talked about before, if they stay and like it then they’ll spend money for it because it’s what people do. Also from our perspective, they want to give something back if they see developers actually doing a good job and giving them a good time, so they’ll invest.

Do you feel that using the free-to-play model gives you a greater creative control over your IP?

As Crytek we have always been in the luxurious position that we’ve always had a pretty strong control over our IPs, it’s more about the developer in general. I can’t speak for other developers but from our point of view we’ve always had a lot of control over our IPs. What we like about it is that we can develop our IPs over time better this way.

Will using the free-to-play model make it more difficult to showcase the capabilities of CRYengine 3?

The idea behind this was is that since this is a global brand with a lot of minimal target specs in different territories, it really helped us to get the optimisation of the engine from Crysis 2 and continue those optimisations for Warface, that was a big step for us to widen our target audience in terms of minimal specs, but it scales up very well. It’s not the hunt for the bleeding edge, but it’s still CRYengine and the stronger your machine the more beautiful it will look because that’s what CRYengine does. You’ve seen it, and I think it looks pretty gorgeous.

Have you found the model a tougher sell to the more hardcore fans who are all about Crysis and that bleeding edge?

It’s an interesting question; a lot of what we do is trying to convince people that free-to-play is actually cool for both developers and players. We run into this in Western territories, but what’s funny about it is when people play the game here, they’re often not aware it’s actually for free. So when they stand up and come to us and ask “when is this going to launch and how much will it cost?” and we then say it’s for free, the perception turns; if they’d have known it was a free-to-play game they would have been “oh, it’s not that good” or “I’m suspicious here” so it’s going to be a bit tricky. But, if they play it first and they go “woah, that’s for free?” then it’s a completely different game. That’s also why we’re trying to get away from the term “free-to-play” because it focuses on the business model, whereas we like to call it “Crytek quality for free”, because then the focus is on Crytek and the game, and actually this is the business model we chose because of the reasons we discussed before.

Have you generally found that Western audiences aren’t as used to the Quality-For-Free model as other regions?

It’s changing, but in general, yes, of course. In Asian territories this is the most relevant business model, because it’s fully accepted and super successful there. The companies that have grown there over the last years are massive, I mean if you compare them to western publishers and where they are now, they’re completely on the same level or even beyond. So in terms of business model they are ahead of us in many ways, in terms of quality perception they’re catching up, and they’re very influential in bringing this model over to the west, so I think we’re going to have a transition phase and it’s not going to be very long, it’s going to change very fast.

At E3 I was told that there was a desire to add regular challenges, have you since considered using community-created play-styles or challenges, so for example on some maps you can only use explosives on a given day?

Interesting. So if we want the community to create challenges that they can then play? That would definitely be an option. It’s something we want to figure out when it’s out there, like if people think that’s a good idea and it makes sense for us to include it then it’s definitely an option. We haven’t really thought about it yet, but that’s a good thing, we’re really focusing on getting the game done and integrating it with G-Face and making this a really good experience so then all these other options can arise.

Have the community sprung any surprises on you in terms of what they can do? I remember being told that as a result of the PvE missions players had come up with guides on how to kill the Juggernaut characters. Is there anything else where they’ve really surprised you with their reaction to Warface?

I would need to check! It’s generally amazing what people can do, and it’s very rewarding for us developers to see what they can come up with. What you mentioned there, the fact that they’re helping each other and communicating with each other and building different techniques to beat the game is just fun to watch, and it’s nothing that we plan for, so it’s just a continuous dialogue. On the one hand we want this direct dialogue where we get feedback from the forums, but this is also indirect dialogue where they come up with it and we see it and it’s like “Ah! Interesting”.

With games like Warface you need constant content to maintain the community that you’ve built, so has Warface had more dev time on it in comparison to say, the original Crysis?

I’d say it’s pretty much on par. Warface has been in development for maybe two to three years, I’d say, and the team has grown over time and now it’s roughly a hundred people on our team, and different teams that vary in size based on how high the effort is going to be to bring it to a specific territory. It’s a pretty significant workforce, and I’d say it’s the same level of development.

E-sports have grown internationally over the past few years; do you think that Warface would be a perfect game to push into that scene?

Of course! It’s going to be the perfect game for that! Yes, we are thinking about it, and yes it will be; it’s not going to be something we do from day one because, again, we want to first get the core experience right, and then when people love it and play it we want to gradually turn it into this, but hopefully fast. We get a lot of feedback with people going “this would be a perfect e-sport title”, so our own perception matches the public perception. It’s a great way to involve the community and keep long-term motivation for the game, and spread it faster along with G-Face, the social network surrounding it, if we then integrate shoutcast into that and all those bits and make it accessible to people that are in this network to just participate in it then it’s a very nice goal.

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