Last night, we brought you the first look at Phantom Army, the upcoming (2014) free-to-play third-person shooter from Zombie Studios (Blacklight: Retribution, Daylight) and SmileGate, makers of the massively popular CrossFire.
I talked with Zombie studio head Jared Gerritzen about the game, how the North American opinion has refracted back into worldwide free-to-play design, growing global markets that outnumber the United States, and more.
"You lost me at free-to-play," some say. I frequently find the same voices that bemoan the free-to-play pricing system also damn cyclical sequels in the same breath. Why? There's nothing inherently wrong with the free-to-play model, but a lot of shoddy implementations have conditioned people to cast aspersions on the phrase. Of course, those are outnumbered by, say, Riot's legion of League of Legends fans, for example.
"You're supposed to put out new stuff," Gerritzen said, talking about the freedoms of the free-to-play model. You're not supposed to put it out there and let it sit. You don't have to put out a new game every year, just make sure the game is constantly evolving." It's the same kind of development cycle people wish certain genres, like sports, would head to.
I asked, why a new shooter rather than a new Blacklight. One answer was that Blacklight: Retribution isn't done; Phantom Army comes from a separate team in the studio. "We still believe Blacklight has many, many more years and we have plenty more ideas.We wanted to make another franchise we believed in the way we believe in Blacklight." And this is true. Retribution is coming to PlayStation 4, still totally free-to-play, for example.
The other answer was that this game occupies a different space. No mechs and rail guns. Phantom Army is more grounded, with familiar weapons like AK-47s. It's also in third-person, with an action-figure-inspired visual and a focus on positioning and movement.
"It's very fast," Gerritzen explains. A clamber system allows you to see your character leaping over barricades and ducking into holes while sprinting around the map in ways that bring Brink to mind. The game is about getting to position, finding cover, and strategically moving yourself based on positioning and the varied ranges of the weapon you choose. Couple with changing maps, it could make for a dynamic system. "'Fast to action' is what we want to try to do, but because of the cover system it allows you to get to the action, then chess/checker your way around."
Before a bout, one team chooses one L-shaped map portion, the other team chooses theirs. A random square in the middle completes the map, which comes together "almost seamlessly." Gerritzen explains that once players in competitive shooters learn a map, "they just run their routes." He's hoping that the ever-changing map system will keep players from getting bored because, "you run across a border and you change your play style."
The focus is pared back on nailing the meat and potatoes of running and shooting, though players can nab specific abilities and power weapons will be available on the maps that can turn the tide of battle.
Gerritzen is unveiling the game at the Brasil Game Show, which is happening this weekend. "It's really interesting how Brazil has really exploded for the PC market -- well, for the gaming market," Gerritzen said. "We joined with SmileGate, who has honestly made one of the biggest first-person free-to-play games in the world, in order to make a game that is for the world market, not just western territories
"I don't think a lot of people really think about it...it took me literally going to all these different places to understand that. Brazilian players are just as hardcore [as Americans], same with Australia and Shanghai and Singapore and Korea. It’s kind of that western mentality of 'the US is the biggest, the US is the best.' There’s a lot of other territories growing and thriving so well that it's stupid to not pay attention to them."
It's true. I spotted (and groaned at) banners for Crytek's Warface over two years ago. It's finally launched in the West, but boasts millions of players in Russia, China, and elsewhere. Just look at World of Tanks' success.
"Doing free-to-play is not easy -- figuring out a monetization plan that works, that isn't just pay to win," Gerritzen explains. "'Let's charge the fans for this premium gun' - I hate that mentality." Gerritzen says that some of the less fair, pay-to-win, and arguably broken systems of free-to-play have come into contention as the price model has become popularized in North America. Gerritzen says some of the more unfair and unsavory practices have started to come into question elsewhere, as well, as players echo American complaints.
We'll see if Phantom Army becomes a competitive shooter juggernaut that stands side by side with CrossFire. Coupling the company behind CrossFire with Zombie, which has done very well with free-to-play and Blacklight, the change of pace third-person shooter should prove interesting.