Crytek taking free-to-play seriously with Warface

Crytek, the company known for its graphically intensive Crysis games, is transitioning into a developer of free-to-play games. The company's first foray into the market is the first-person shooter Warface.

Developer Crytek Kiev wants to make this game as accessible as possible while maintaining the quality its games are known for, producer Peter Holzapfel told me during a recent press event. That entails removing barriers to entry and building a mechanically sound shooter, and rethinking four major aspects of the development philosophy: design, technology, business model and distribution.

Warface is the most scalable game Crytek has ever built. It runs on the company's CryEngine, but features a browser-based client in conjunction with Crytek's GFACE social gaming platform. Holzapfel explained that many gamers missed out on the Crysis games because they didn't own a PC powerful enough to play them. Warface, he said, can run on most computers manufactured in the last four years.

"Browser-based" and "free-to-play" are terms that still carry a stigma for core gamers, who hear those phrases and immediately expect a mediocre, pay-to-win title. Crytek is hoping to erase the preconceived notions that players may have about such an experience by "creating a high-quality product and then growing the user base from there," said Holzapfel. Since Warface is a free game, he added, people simply won't bother to play it if it's not a quality product.

In the case of Warface, spending real money is a way to save time, not a shortcut to success. Playing earns in-game dollars, but you can purchase Warface Points, which can be used to buy the same upgrades that dollars buy. Holzapfel told me that Crytek expects players will mostly spend real money on cosmetic items and boosters for the rate at which they earn experience points.

Warface's competitive multiplayer component will offer small to mid-size maps for up to 16 players. The PvP experience is oriented more toward core gamers; in fact, said Holzapfel, Crytek has plans in the distant future to make Warface a player in the eSports scene, since the company believes the PvP mode can support high-level competitive play.

"Shooters are never going to be casual," said Holzapfel. But Crytek Kiev is accommodating less skilled players with Warface's co-op mode, in which up to five players can team up for battles against AI opponents. It's not going to be easy — the tougher situations will demand teamwork — but the studio's design decisions in co-op are meant to make it more accessible.

Teammates will appear with a red outline, making it easy to tell them apart from foes and keep track of them on the multiplayer map. And Crytek Kiev built the enemy AI to attack players, pushing them to continue moving forward. According to Holzapfel, the developers don't want players to merely stay in one place and pick off enemies popping out from behind cover. "The arcadey-ness is stronger in the co-op," he told me. The idea is that players who might initially feel intimidated by competitive action will learn the ropes in the less intense co-op mode.

Warface's co-op mode is also where Crytek Kiev is looking to keep its players engaged on a regular basis. Every day, the developers will update the game with a new co-op mission, and it will only stick around for one more day; on the second day, the mission becomes easier. On any given day, you'll only be able to play the current mission and the one from the previous day. Crytek wants to "encourage logging back in" daily, said Holzapfel, instead of providing players with a list of missions from the start that they might just complete quickly. The co-op missions evaluate your skill, and the top 10,000 players will receive bonuses.

"shooters are never going to be casual"

It seems that Crytek is attempting to do a free-to-play game properly, and that the developers will support Warface with content long after release. First and foremost, the company wants to deliver "Crytek quality for everyone," said Holzapfel, who added, "It's quite a quality for free."

Warface launched in Russia and China last year. It is set for release in North America, Europe, Turkey, Australia and New Zealand later in 2012, through a publishing partnership with Trion Worlds.

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