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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.

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“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.
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.
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.
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.

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