The problem is as old as massively multiplayer games themselves: How do you properly balance a game for competitive multiplayer when every character is, in effect, a super hero? The team at Behavior Interactive thinks that it has come up with a solution in their next title, Warhammer 40,000: Eternal Crusade.
According to Games Workshop's lore, in the dark future of the 41st millenium there is only war. And since the early days of the franchise, that war has traditionally been fought between the Emperor's finest, known as the Space Marines, and the green-skinned menace known as the Orks.
The Space Marines are the 40K universe's Jedis — all-powerful, god-like warriors armed to the teeth with weapons they consider to be holy relics. They are few in number, but they're also one of the most popular factions in the universe. Any multiplayer game can expect to have a bumper crop dropping in from orbit.
But it's the Orks who, in the 40k lore at least, should be more numerous. They're supposed to be a plague on the galaxy, reproducing quickly and overwhelming the planets that they invade by sheer numbers alone. In effect they're the exact opposite of the Space Marines, and any battle where the two factions fight against one another will be an asymmetrical affair with three, four, or five times as many Orks for every Adeptus Astartes in the field.
Miguel Caron, executive producer on Eternal Crusade, says that the numbers his team is seeing tell him that more than 40 percent of his players will want to be Space Marines. With three other factions in the game, including Orks, that makes things a bit uneven.
But by folding the 40K universe's lore into their business model, Caron says the team found a solution.
Right now, fans of Eternal Crusade can pre-order the game and reserve themselves a few character slots in the employment of the Emperor (or as a Chaos Space Marine, or as an Eldar). The point of entry is about $40, a package that comes with many perks including around $40 of in-game currency.
But, starting today, fans can pre-order at a lower level — $15. This Ork Pioneer Pack gives them a single character slot and reserves them a billet on the side of the Orks with special cosmetic items, as well as some in-game currency and other perks.
Then, once the game goes live sometime in 2015, the rank and file Orks will be a free-to-play faction, with premium players in the roles of Ork leaders. The experience of playing on the side of the Orks will be so unique that even premium players will want in on the action, helping to thin the herd of over-eager Space Marines at any given moment.
"The primary goal that the designer had in mind," Caron said, "is that we want to give our current premium players a reason to keep one extra slot for the Boyz — for their free character. We want to create such a different experience for that free character.
"Sometimes, if our premium players only have 15 minutes to play and they don’t want to play with their main character ... they’re just going to start the game, use their Boyz, go kill some stuff for 15 or 20 minutes and then go to a movie with their wife after. But we’re also trying to create an experience that is fun without prodding people to need to be a premium player.
"The objective is to really create a mini-experience within the whole Eternal Crusade experience."
In any free-to-play game there are those players that are willing to spend money, and those that are not. The spenders — like the Space Marines themselves — will always be fewer in number. That natural consumer process will help to balance the game's factions, filling the ranks of the Orks with free-to-play players.
The side effect will be a kind of organic role playing on each side of the battle lines. Paying players will feel more privileged, while the horde of free-to-play players will feel obliged to knock them down a peg or two.
"Games Workshop told me that the Ork Boyz were inspired by the Manchester United soccer hooligans," Caron said. "So the Boyz themselves have a very peculiar culture; they only follow their boss because they don’t want to get eaten or killed by their boss.
"The Boyz will always try to gank on the Space Marine. They’re always trying to exploit the system."
"The Boyz themselves, to follow the lore, will always try to have an unfair fight. They will always try to gank on the Space Marine, and make sure that they will win. ... They’re always trying to exploit the system."
Caron hopes that by leveraging the 40K lore his free-to-play concept will take care of many of the customer service issues as well.
"If a premium player called customer support once the game is live and says, 'You know, I have five Boyz ganking on my spawn point, and I have an issue with that. Can you advise them please?' My customer support rep is going to say, 'Uh, sir? It’s because they’re Boyz. They’re just doing what Boyz do. Talk to your other Space Marines and have them remove the Boyz from your spawn point. That's how they are.'"