By Nathan Grayson on May 28th, 2012 at 2:00 pm.
By most accounts, Tribes: Ascend‘s existence is quantifiably a Good Thing. It is, after all, a PC-exclusive (!) high-quality free-to-play first-person shooter (!!) that’s in no way spit-shining Call of Duty’s combat boots or leaping just high enough when it barks an order (!!!). Almost paradoxically, it’s managed to be both slavishly devoted to the series’ jetpack-jousting legacy while also paving the way for a new breed of F2P FPS. So much gloriously gleaming new, however, makes any lingering flecks of dust and mold stand out all the more. So sure, Tribes may be better than ever, but try telling that to a spinfusor-less Soldier whose already glacial XP gain has basically flatlined because the teams he joins keep refusing to work together. That in mind, I spoke with Hi-Rez about how – if at all – it plans to fix its capture-the-flag flagship’s most fundamental flaws.
“It is a constant balance between delivering more content, additional small features, and additional polish,” began Hi-Rez COO Todd Harris. “Given the long beta process, Tribes emerged fairly polished and feature-rich at launch, but there is always a hunger for content. The majority of our experienced players have found a few favorite classes and now want even more weapon options for those classes. So new weapons are our top priority. We’ve delivered four content updates to date with more on the way. Beyond that we’re working on small enhancements like clan tags. We have been doing patches every two-to-three weeks, so that lets us deliver new things quickly.”
In many ways, then, Ascend’s following a roadmap drawn up by fans. That, however, can be a double-edged sword – given the very likely possibilities of class biases coloring demands (“Nerf the Raider/Infiltrator/Brute! Also tell them they’re ugly and have dumb faces”) and improvements focused on new players getting swept under the rug. Harris, however, argues that separating the good from the bad and stark raving mad has gotten a lot easier over time – even with thousands of players taking a rocket-powered battering ram to Hi-Rez’s walls for even the slightest of balancing oversights.
“The community’s feedback has been very valuable,” he acknowledged. “Early in alpha and beta, the challenge is to maintain your core vision for the game and incorporate the specific fan suggestions that support that vision. For example, we wanted to maintain class-based combat but incorporated fan requests for customization without losing the idea of classes.”
“Now that the game is out, fans pretty much get the vision. We continue to receive feedback but we have the advantage of being able to collect and analyze the playdata from every Tribes: Ascend match ever played. So, there may be a fan perception of say, a certain weapon being over-utilized, but we can see that is not actually the case based on the match statistics. We use the forums as a canary in the mine. Those expert users are often the first to pick-up on issues and improvement opportunities. But we always cross-check against our game vision and the actual play statistics before implementing changes. So when it comes to fan suggestions our philosophy is ‘trust, but verify.’”
But while fans hammer their forks and knives against their plates and constantly demand more, Hi-Rez isn’t afraid to shift around what’s already there – well, to an extent. The biggest elephant in that particular room – or expansive outdoor skiing future funpark, as it were – is almost certainly exceedingly slow XP gain for non-paying players. And while double XP weekends and things of that sort help, Tribes’ item unlocks still present a rather intimidating series of (often literally) uphill battles. It’s a frequent complaint, but Hi-Rez notes that – while it won’t ever rule out major tweaks – there is a reason for the current skew.
“Right now, the XP pricing makes it quicker to unlock new classes compared to unlocking alternate weapons for your existing class,” explained Harris. “The intent was to support players in filling those multiple classes and roles on the battlefield. But we’ll continue to look at that approach as well as the unlock rates themselves.”
“We spend most of our energy trying to make the actual game as fun as possible. Free-to-play works best when the game can grow through positive word-of-mouth. Once you have a fun game, there are all sorts of things to try in terms of bundles and merchandising and sales, and we’ll continue to try things like Deal of the Day to see what players like best. But if the gameplay isn’t good, than the business model doesn’t really matter.”
And while the gameplay is, in fact, very good, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Teamwork in Tribes, for instance, tends to be pretty hit-or-miss, which can lead to some rather lopsided matches when one side decides personal space bubbles should be at least a mile wide and the other met at a synchronized swimming and advanced military tactics convention. Granted, the issue of failing to provide strong enough in-game incentives for teamwork is hardly an issue restricted to Tribes, but that’s no reason to avoid addressing it. Unfortunately, Hi-Rez seems to have bigger fish to fry right now.
“In general, we incentivize teamwork primarily by having specialized classes and game-modes like CTF that are objective-based with the win going to the best team independent of kill/death ratios,” said Harris. “But Tribes is so skill-based that when a player first joins there is enough to learn around how to ski, and positioning, and how to lead with projectile based weapons, etc. Our first priority is to make sure it is satisfying to learn and master those fundamental individual skills. Then players who want to be more competitive inevitably learn the teamwork dynamics. It is like a real-world sport in that respect.”
Ultimately, then, adding to Tribes is – as ever – like juggling. While wearing a jetpack. And being fired upon by someone in armor that’d be a couple sizes too big for your car. While the formula’s not perfect, barreling recklessly through problems could send the whole thing careening off a cliff. Its fans want new things, but they prize the basics above all else. And so, for now, Hi-Rez is taking things one day at a time.
“We are very conscious of [offsetting balance and key mechanics],” emphasized Harris. “The [Infiltrator's] Jackal and [Raider's] Plasma Gun were both over-powered upon release. Each introduced new mechanics and were not well vetted enough. But we reacted very quickly and adjusted those weapons within two days. Since then we’ve improved our internal test processes around new items. There is no guarantee, but we are deliberate around maintaining balance – both before and after a weapon’s release.”
So probably don’t expect any major, sweeping changes too terribly soon. But then, Ascend’s still quite young, and anything can happen. Even real jetpacks. In the meantime, though, we still have a a PC-exclusive (!) high-quality free-to-play first-person shooter (!!) that’s not utterly beholden to Call of Duty (!!!). I have now officially used up RPS’ entire supply of exclamation points. That’s got to be worth something, right?