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You Can Play For Free, Friend, If You're Good Enough

Wind-Up Knight's experimental take on the popular freemium model, but one that rewards hardcore players in the process.

“That player is motherfucking hardcore,” exclaimed Chris Pruett, chief taskmaster at Robot Invader.

Pruett was reacting to someone actually discovering everything--S-ranked, they call it--there is to find in their first game, Wind-Up Knight, within 24 hours of being uploaded to the Android marketplace.

It’s remarkable for a couple of reasons, least of which is that creative director Casey Richardson, who designed much of Wind-Up Knight, figures it would still take him, even now, four or five hours to hit that same achievement.

You gain more powers over time, as Wind-Up Knight eases you into its advanced mechanics.

Wind-Up Knight represents an interesting experiment on the part of Pruett and the three-man crew currently behind the Mountain View, California-based Robot Invader. The game is available for free, and it’s possible to experience all of the content in the game without spending a dime, but doing so requires expert precision on the part of the player, and a heck of a lot of patience. In order to unlock everything in Wind-Up Knight, a player must S-rank the entire game, scooping up all the collectables.

The game is a variation on the runner, a genre largely popularized by the likes of Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride. It’s more complicated than other runner games, allowing players to jump, duck, hold up a shield and even slash a sword.

Robot Invader read about, talked over and studied the different sales models currently employed with mobile games, but from the perspective of a bunch of hardcore players. Many games were taking advantage of time-based systems to forced players to start paying up, the foundation behind the success of socialzed games like FarmVille and the rise of its creator, Zynga.

“We played a lot of mobile games where they’re designed around an artificial waiting period,” said Pruett. “You can continue to play the game for free if you want to, but after a certain point, you can’t actually do anything unless you wait. And because you’re impatient, you don’t want to wait, then you spend some money to get out of the waiting period. The real reason the waiting period is there is not because some game design requires it, but because they want to get people to pay.”

In theory, Pruett has nothing against a company employing this strategy for their game, but the frustration arises over modern monetization systems being pushed upon games where it didn’t make sense. That wouldn't be the case for Wind-Up Knight, and so they began to brainstorm, knowing that one cannot sustain a company long without income.

Love it or hate it, FarmVille works for a bunch of people, but its model isn't applicable to every game out there.

“We wanted to ensure that that type of gamer, that the person who is incentivized to go back and improve their score, and really become highly skilled at this game, that that kind of gamer, as a reward for their awesomeness, is able to continue for free,” said Pruett.

This is the interesting middle ground Wind-Up Knight landed on, and there’s surprising nuance to it.

The game is divided into four worlds (“books”), and buying each costs $1.99, which means it’s ultimately more expensive to buy each book as you go along, rather than paying for everything up front or taking advantage of the one-time offer.

You can buy every level outright for $3.99, but the first time you boot up the game, when you’ve finished the fourth level, a one-time prompt appears and asks if you’d like to pay $1.99. That offer will never appear again, but if you’re already digging the game, Robot Invader will knock off $2.

If you play Wind-Up Knight on an Xperia Play, the controls actually get mapped to the buttons.

There’s even more to it, though.

If you collect nearly enough of Wind-Up Knight’s in-game currency, notes, but are only a few off, you can purchase additional notes for $1 to push you over the edge. And if you’re patient, you can download an in-game advertising application, Tap Joy, that will hand out free notes over time.

“You have the people that are willing to spend money, don’t really care, and they can just do it--they just want to see the end of the level, right?” said Richardson. “Those are the people that will pay for it. But you also have hardcore people that want to collect every single thing. Generally, we think those people don’t really want to pay too much for stuff--those are your hardest of hardcore. There’s a way you can game the system, but we build it into the game.”

The downside to having these many options is the potential for confusion amongst users, which Richardson admitted has been a challenge since Wind-Up Knight launched in late October.

“Still a LOT of confusion over the purchasing model,” he said. “People that get it, really appreciate what we're trying to do, but unfortunately it's a little complicated for most and, at least the vocal minority, are just naturally suspicious.”

Wind-Up Knight is at over 500,000 installs, which means it’s doing pretty well from Robot Invader's perspective, and the team is looking into ways to simplify how the in-app purchases are presented to make it more presentable to everyone.

Robot Invader is also working an iOS version that should be available in the near future.

Patrick Klepek on Google+
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Posted by patrickklepek

“That player is motherfucking hardcore,” exclaimed Chris Pruett, chief taskmaster at Robot Invader.

Pruett was reacting to someone actually discovering everything--S-ranked, they call it--there is to find in their first game, Wind-Up Knight, within 24 hours of being uploaded to the Android marketplace.

It’s remarkable for a couple of reasons, least of which is that creative director Casey Richardson, who designed much of Wind-Up Knight, figures it would still take him, even now, four or five hours to hit that same achievement.

You gain more powers over time, as Wind-Up Knight eases you into its advanced mechanics.

Wind-Up Knight represents an interesting experiment on the part of Pruett and the three-man crew currently behind the Mountain View, California-based Robot Invader. The game is available for free, and it’s possible to experience all of the content in the game without spending a dime, but doing so requires expert precision on the part of the player, and a heck of a lot of patience. In order to unlock everything in Wind-Up Knight, a player must S-rank the entire game, scooping up all the collectables.

The game is a variation on the runner, a genre largely popularized by the likes of Canabalt and Jetpack Joyride. It’s more complicated than other runner games, allowing players to jump, duck, hold up a shield and even slash a sword.

Robot Invader read about, talked over and studied the different sales models currently employed with mobile games, but from the perspective of a bunch of hardcore players. Many games were taking advantage of time-based systems to forced players to start paying up, the foundation behind the success of socialzed games like FarmVille and the rise of its creator, Zynga.

“We played a lot of mobile games where they’re designed around an artificial waiting period,” said Pruett. “You can continue to play the game for free if you want to, but after a certain point, you can’t actually do anything unless you wait. And because you’re impatient, you don’t want to wait, then you spend some money to get out of the waiting period. The real reason the waiting period is there is not because some game design requires it, but because they want to get people to pay.”

In theory, Pruett has nothing against a company employing this strategy for their game, but the frustration arises over modern monetization systems being pushed upon games where it didn’t make sense. That wouldn't be the case for Wind-Up Knight, and so they began to brainstorm, knowing that one cannot sustain a company long without income.

Love it or hate it, FarmVille works for a bunch of people, but its model isn't applicable to every game out there.

“We wanted to ensure that that type of gamer, that the person who is incentivized to go back and improve their score, and really become highly skilled at this game, that that kind of gamer, as a reward for their awesomeness, is able to continue for free,” said Pruett.

This is the interesting middle ground Wind-Up Knight landed on, and there’s surprising nuance to it.

The game is divided into four worlds (“books”), and buying each costs $1.99, which means it’s ultimately more expensive to buy each book as you go along, rather than paying for everything up front or taking advantage of the one-time offer.

You can buy every level outright for $3.99, but the first time you boot up the game, when you’ve finished the fourth level, a one-time prompt appears and asks if you’d like to pay $1.99. That offer will never appear again, but if you’re already digging the game, Robot Invader will knock off $2.

If you play Wind-Up Knight on an Xperia Play, the controls actually get mapped to the buttons.

There’s even more to it, though.

If you collect nearly enough of Wind-Up Knight’s in-game currency, notes, but are only a few off, you can purchase additional notes for $1 to push you over the edge. And if you’re patient, you can download an in-game advertising application, Tap Joy, that will hand out free notes over time.

“You have the people that are willing to spend money, don’t really care, and they can just do it--they just want to see the end of the level, right?” said Richardson. “Those are the people that will pay for it. But you also have hardcore people that want to collect every single thing. Generally, we think those people don’t really want to pay too much for stuff--those are your hardest of hardcore. There’s a way you can game the system, but we build it into the game.”

The downside to having these many options is the potential for confusion amongst users, which Richardson admitted has been a challenge since Wind-Up Knight launched in late October.

“Still a LOT of confusion over the purchasing model,” he said. “People that get it, really appreciate what we're trying to do, but unfortunately it's a little complicated for most and, at least the vocal minority, are just naturally suspicious.”

Wind-Up Knight is at over 500,000 installs, which means it’s doing pretty well from Robot Invader's perspective, and the team is looking into ways to simplify how the in-app purchases are presented to make it more presentable to everyone.

Robot Invader is also working an iOS version that should be available in the near future.

Staff
Edited by selbie

Interesting way of using the F2P model

Posted by Trejik

Cool concept.

Posted by Blubba

A good article always starts with a good motherfucker

Posted by CaLe

Instead of letting good players play for free, they should let them make money by obtaining rare items that only the most skilled can obtain, then selling them for real money on a marketplace. The harder to obtain the item (or level or whatever), the more money the player can sell it for. Of course this type of game would have to be 100% exploit proof, which is another issue to be addressed.

Posted by TerraDelu

I'm sure it has been said before, but the content that Patrick brings to the site has been really, really great. I always look forward to his pieces, as they bring a perspective to the industry that I can't seem to find elsewhere. Thanks, and keep it up!

Posted by YoungFrey

I was half-expecting this to be about EVE Online which lets you buy subscription time from other players for ingame currency. But that story isn't exactly news.

Posted by Argo15

Interesting!

Posted by Addfwyn

@CaLe said:

Instead of letting good players play for free, they should let them make money by obtaining rare items that only the most skilled can obtain, then selling them for real money on a marketplace. The harder to obtain the item (or level or whatever), the more money the player can sell it for. Of course this type of game would have to be 100% exploit proof, which is another issue to be addressed.

Diablo 3?

Posted by Ravenlight

Neat. I'd like to see more game explore non-traditional pricing models.

Edited by CaLe
@Addfwyn: I don't see that as a skill based item selling system, but more a time and luck (drop %) based one. Something based on skill would be much more interesting to me. 
 
Maybe I'm wrong though and the more difficult levels of Diablo 3 really will be completely skilled based, meaning it would be this idea in practice. Time will tell.
Posted by EscapingMinos

Neat story! Good work, Patrick!

Posted by Maitimo

It's a cool idea that's probably doomed by the fact most of the people who pay for freemium stuff are the kind of obsessives that are landing the free stuff here.

Posted by MeatSim

Well that is a fascinating take on the Free to Play model.

Posted by MideonNViscera

Reminds me of the arcade. The more you suck, the more you pay haha

Posted by UltimAXE

Someone hurry up and adapt this to console game DLC.

Posted by darkjester74

Always great to see devs willing to innovate on their revenue models.

Posted by lockwoodx

These models have never been successful because they are a magnet for cheaters and hackers. When you put something free into the system, players will work the system at any angle to achieve that free prize and ultimately ripping off the company trying to market the product.

Posted by MindChamber

Hey patty, spell check nigz,

for a minute there I thought "hat one" was a name of a company.

Posted by Gordo789

Wind-Up Knight? Pshhhh, I'm going to play some Clockwork Knight on my saturn instead.

Posted by Vexxan

I like this idea. 

Posted by SaturdayNightSpecials

Wind-Up Knight's experimental take on the popular freemium model, but one that rewards hardcore players in the process.

I don't like this sentence.

Posted by Jayzilla

@MindChamber said:

Hey patty, spell check nigz,

for a minute there I thought "hat one" was a name of a company.

thanks for the unnecessary racism Tiger's caddie.

Edited by MindChamber

@Jayzilla: lol, lets ignore the fact that Pattys as white as they come.

most people that get uptight and offended by remarks like that, are usually as racist as they come.

News Flash: Woods has a black ass.

Posted by Paliv
@Blubba
Posted by Paliv
@Paliv
@Blubba
Sorry that was just a mis-tap or two on the phone.
Posted by ajamafalous

You could play all of Spiral Knights for free if you wanted to. There is an artificial time wall, but eventually you could get good enough that you can buy more "time" with the in-game currency quicker than you spend it to make more.

Posted by jozzy

Interesting, but not a fan of these convoluted paying schemes.

Online
Posted by Brackynews

So, it's Leadercore? >_< (Leadercore is a ® TM of Brackynews LLC.)

Wind-Up Knight represents an interesting experiment on the part of Pruett and the three-man crew currently behind the Mountain View, California-based Robot Invader. The game is available for free, and it’s possible to experience all of the content in the game without spending a dime, but doing so requires expert precision on the part of the player, and a heck of a lot of patience. In order to unlock everything in Wind-Up Knight, a player must S-rank the entire game, scooping up all the collectables.

Wait wait wait wait... earning marketplace unlockables is not new at all. All of the other points in the article about the Tap Joy integration, the one-time discount, etc, that sounds like the new ideas to me. The experiment/risk Robot Invader is taking is that the game is free to begin with, whereas Burnout Paradise is not. The system might not earn them money, but the completionist players that like this system might end up spending just a little money on other games they can't finish as quickly. It is interesting.

Posted by Cretaceous_Bob

But luckily, Hat Two was a plentiful source of income that could sustain the company for years.

Posted by patrickklepek

@Cretaceous_Bob said:

But luckily, Hat Two was a plentiful source of income that could sustain the company for years.

+1

Staff
Posted by Kyle

<3 Wind-Up Knight

Posted by VisariLoyalist

did you guys know eve online is essentially free to play now if you're good enough? If you regularly make more than 400 mill isk per month you can play for free by buying PLEX that other players have payed irl money for.

Posted by csl316

sure, i'll give this a shot.

Posted by bunnyfiend

Reward the core audience. That's awesome! Just hope the outsiders are willing to pay.

Edited by TatsurouXIII

this actually sounds like a good idea. Kinda makes you wonder if there could be $60 games operating on this principle. Think about it, you buy something like I dunno, Skyrim and they go: if you can beat the game 100%, unlock everything, do everything, reach max level etc, we'll give you your money back. I'd give it a shot.

EDIT: OR!!! Beat Dark Souls without dying and we'll PAY you extra.

Posted by flippyandnod

Interesting story and a good article.

But the article doesn't quite explain how true free play works. If each book costs $1.99, how do you get started? Can you somehow earn the first book for free too? It would seem like you'd have to buy the first book before you can start earning.

Additionally, when talking about getting almost enough notes that you can buy the next book for $1, there is an implication that if you got enough notes you wouldn't need to pay even the $1. But it should be made explicit.

Additionally, while I like the idea of this game, it isn't quite as unusual as it is made out to be. Most F2P games have a concept of sweat equity, that you can earn your way forward if you put a lot of effort in. Alternately you can put money in. Games tweak the sweat equity value to optimize income. If effort is too effective, people won't pay and if effort is too useless, people won't get hooked in the first place.

Many games, as mention have built-in slowdowns over time so that even if you want to put in a lot of sweat equity, you still end up with your progress slowed. Removing this element is the part which maybe makes this game an experiment and I welcome it.

I played TinyTower well past the point where it was clear that the game was trying to de-emphasize effort. It slowed to a crawl, I'd have to only play for 15 mins every 8-12 hours, the internal delays were just so huge I couldn't go any faster. And then they actually updated the game to make sweat equity even less valuable! I rage quit and deleted the game.

I may try to download this on my Android tablet tonight, or I may wait for the iOS version for my phone. It's too bad either way I'll have to make do with crummy virtual buttons.

Posted by patrickklepek

@flippyandnod said:

Interesting story and a good article.

But the article doesn't quite explain how true free play works. If each book costs $1.99, how do you get started? Can you somehow earn the first book for free too? It would seem like you'd have to buy the first book before you can start earning.

The first world is free. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

Staff
Edited by Mexican_Brownie

@Buzzkill:

Yeah while this model is very interesting, but I think it only lives and dies in mobile/iOS/Android/Social games. I doubt anyone would ever try and make a "$60 game" using this type of model, too risky. It's a shame because rewarding the skilled and devoted players of your game is a great idea.

Edited by lockwoodx
@Mexican_Brownie said:

@Buzzkill:

Yeah while this model is very interesting, but I think it only lives and dies in mobile/iOS/Android/Social games. I doubt anyone would ever try and make a "$60 game" using this type of model, too risky. It's a shame because rewarding the skilled and devoted players of your game is a great idea.

and besides EVE online, to be perfectly honest I haven't seen this kind of model used since MUDs... and there's very good reasons why. In the mobile market where DRM is more strict I suppose this could work...  but, I'd rather see studios release betas onto the market at no charge and reward players for testing them with discounts on the completed product.
Posted by Jasta
@patrickklepek

You should check out Chris's website dedicated to horror games as well. He has a wealth of knowledge on pretty much anything that's designed to scare the shit out of you.

  
Posted by Dooops

@Blubba said:

A good article always starts with a good motherfucker

lol , I read the first line and said to myself 'I'm in!!"

Posted by Lively

@MideonNViscera said:

Reminds me of the arcade. The more you suck, the more you pay haha

This.

Posted by csl316
@TatsurouXIII said:

this actually sounds like a good idea. Kinda makes you wonder if there could be $60 games operating on this principle. Think about it, you buy something like I dunno, Skyrim and they go: if you can beat the game 100%, unlock everything, do everything, reach max level etc, we'll give you your money back. I'd give it a shot.

EDIT: OR!!! Beat Dark Souls without dying and we'll PAY you extra.

If you're really dead set on getting $60 back, instead of getting everything in Skyrim just work for a day or two.  It'll take CONSIDERABLY less time.
Posted by MadLaughter

Interesting idea. Hopefully it really is skill and precision, not just knowing where things are, otherwise a FAQ could undermine the system.

Posted by prestonhedges

Wow. Video game developers are now surprised when players beat their games without paying their way through.

Posted by EVO

@Jasta: Wow, that website is really interesting. Thanks a lot dude.

Posted by Giantstalker

Saw the thread title, came expecting an article about EVE Online. Left disappointed.

Online
Posted by xxizzypop

@gladspooky said:

Wow. Video game developers are now surprised when players beat their games without paying their way through.

I think you're missing the point of what the developers were reacting to -- the idea that someone had, in it's utter entirety, seen, collected and experienced everything that was in their game within the first day. I'd be fairly surprised too, especially if I was unsure about how well my game was going to do.

Posted by Crunchman

There's kind of a similar thing in EVE Online, where you can purchase PLEX (playing time) with ISK. It costs a lot of ISK but people manage to accrue enough each month.

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