Universe at Price War


Who knows how the current trend for free-to-play games (including Quake Live, below) will eventually pan out, but us gamers can at least reap the benefits of publishers’ mad money-juggling experiments in the meantime. The latest announcement is a mystery new game from Petroglyph, they of Universe at War (quite good) and Star Wars: Empire At War (not quite as good), and who famously have a few of the original C&C chaps amongst their noble number.

No idea what the game will be as yet, and I’m only presuming it’s an RTS based on their track record, but it’ll be funded by micro-payments (which are like money, but with a different name), and will be published by new firm True Games. So, wait, all the other games are false?

Gamesindustry.biz has a few further details. While UAW wasn’t exactly a runaway success on PC, Empire at War did pretty well, and UAW is now also out on 360, so we’re presumably not talking about a developer who’s taking weird risks cos they’ve fallen on hard times. It’s thus an interesting move for a big studio to make – DICE at least has the near-infinite coffers of its owner EA to fall back on if Battlefield Heroes doesn’t pay off – which hints we know only a fraction of the story.

Can a free-to-play RTS work? Does the very concept of being supported by micropayments hint at horrific imbalances in favour of the more monied? Or could Petrogylph be trying out an MMO instead? Why am I asking so many questions? Why is caviar so expensive? And will there ever be a boy who can swim faster than a shark?


  1. ImperialCreed says:

    Saw the headline and presumed twas about some horrificly large price drop for UAW. Which would have been nice.

    Anyway – micropayments in something like Bf:H seems pretty straightforward. New skins, equipment, maps etc. How does that translate to an RTS?

    Get an extra level to your tech tree for a fiver? New defensive structure pack for two fifty? Different tank unit skin for fifty pence? Suggestions anyone?

  2. Jigglybean says:

    PS – UaW is out on XBOX – Sega just didnt tell anyone. I have close ties with Petroglyph and they are a great bunch of guys with lots of superb ideas. UaW had just touched on those.

    I personally love the idea and *could* be an RTS fans dream. Empire at War was going to be epic – the space battles are awesome – but many features (like diplomacy) were removed.

  3. Heliocentricity says:

    do the micro payments change the balance?
    if they do, i wouldnt even humour downloading a free game.
    purely cosmetic? Sure, i’ll try it one day i might even pay £2 to paint a lolcat on the side of my aircraft carrier, or make my soldiers dress like mcdonalds staff.

  4. Andrew Armstrong says:

    That’s the problem with “micropayments” (or rather, paying sodding money, I wish more journalists would say that…thanks Alec!), as you said Heliocentricity – if it affects balance (which a new unit or technology would) it’d be problematic to balance the game at all, for the “non micropayment” crowd.

    While if it is paint jobs – well, many games allow that customisation already. Paying for something that is standard already is a bit of a tough sell, even on a console with hard drives now. Hell, even DS games allow custom icons in many multiplayer ones (like Mario Cart), while others allow complete reskins of everything, even if only you can see it online.

    I think RTS games might work for map packs, new campaigns, and whatnot, but other things don’t seem to fit. Even the map packs and campaigns might suffer if of too low a quality, or being too expensive so no one gets them making them useless for multiplayer.

    No RTS has done it so far either, so as ImperialCreed said, what pricing? what items? what on earth could an RTS really sell?

  5. Grant Gould says:

    Someday an online game is going to figure out how to charge for access to games not filled with obnoxious and profane 12-year-olds, and it will make amounts of money micropayment that will defy description.

  6. Kieron Gillen says:

    Andrew: A side. For example, Dawn of War where you could play Space Marines for free, but have to pay for access to all the rest.


  7. Gurrah says:

    And will there ever be a boy who can swim faster than a shark?

    Stop asking stupid questions Gareth or I shall block your workspace with folders!

  8. Zeno, Internetographer says:

    Micropayments are a load of shit.

  9. Andrew Armstrong says:

    Kieron: I guess that would work – although it’d be pretty harsh paying for the assets on the disk and not having access to them, as it were. However, if you had a good choice and variety of sides (like, a dozen) and they were balanced (difficult!) it might be a way of having payments.

    They’d have to be different though, since otherwise; “Why would I want to try this side? They’re the same as the defaults but black!”, etc.

    Kinda like expansion packs, although without the expansion or pack parts since you have them in the game but not available to play until you pay.

  10. Kieron Gillen says:

    I was more talking about an entirely free downloadable Dawn of War, which was released with the 3 other races you could pay for.


  11. Jigglybean says:

    Its a weird circle. XBOX/console gamers happily pay their subs for XBOX LIVE/online servers and downloadable content but probably wont pay for MMOs.

    However, PC users wont pay for their servers but will for MMOs. The time will come when the free lunch for PC gaming servers will end. Publishers simply cant afford to run these servers from a product that has a one off source of income.

    Personally, I ‘donate’ money to a server I play on 24/7 for a couple of games I play online, because I feel I am getting value for money.

    Microsoft are trying with their ‘Games for Windows Live’ – a half-baked effort to encourage us to pay to play online. EA are looking to offer free clients with micro payments for other parts of the game – Battlefield Heroes is just a taster of whats to come.

  12. Rook says:

    I was pretty sure that most games on xbox live don’t actually have centralised servers, rather are all user hosted. The money you pay is just enabling you to click the online button.

    PC users aren’t getting a free ride off of companies, most servers are either community, or company sponsored. If companies weren’t profiting off of them in some way (e.g. advertising, mindshare, sales etc) they wouldn’t do it.

    And more to the point, if a company like arenanet can have worldwide servers, with client and patch downloads, constant updates and a decent level of support and sponser tournaments off the price of a single boxed copy, then you can bet a fair few other titles ought to be doing the same, rather than shoehorning in advertising, downloadable content and other less than stellar moneygrabbing ideas.

    Still, I’m all in favour of free games with micropayments, and complaints of price gouging for advantages should be heard by developers and publishers. A game where winning is synonymous with paying is not likely to be a successful outside of a dedicated hardcare.

  13. RichPowers says:

    Jesus Christ Himself could design the best game in the universe and I still wouldn’t play it if it used microtransactions.

    I like to pay for my game upfront and be done with it. No nickel and diming, billing me for $3.68 one month and $13.45 another.

  14. Noc says:

    Now I’m curious about what kind of game Jesus Christ would make.

  15. Lh'owon says:

    Not, I fear, one I would enjoy. I mean, The Whole Point Of Games™ is to shoot virtual people in the face. And I just can’t see Jesus being down with that.

  16. Mo says:

    I was pretty sure that most games on xbox live don’t actually have centralised servers, rather are all user hosted. The money you pay is just enabling you to click the online button.

    Not true. XBL stores all the lobby data, and hosts quite a few dedicated servers. Best of all, it hosts game demos, videos, and all the downloadable content. The latter is for free. You can’t imagine how wonderful that felt after going through the “download a demo hunt” I’ve been doing on the PC for years. XBL is a great service.

  17. SirNuke says:

    Could God make a game so bad even He could not enjoy playing it?

    And what’s up with the “wah, we have to pay for servers”? I can hardly think of any games I’ve played that couldn’t have been supported by the community. Additionally, if I’m paying more for the games online service, I damn better well see a significant reduction in the upfront cost of the game.

    MMORTS? Lots and lots of fractions, with persistent territory? Sounds like an interesting possibility [speculation], and I’m always interested in what the Westwood reincarnates do next.

  18. Noc says:


  19. Veerus says:

    Imagine Starcraft being released for free as it was.. with a full campaign and stuff. The only catch is that when you go to play multiplayer on battle.net, you have access to only one race (assigned randomly and permanently so you can’t switch and to ensure that all races are being played). If you want to play the other two races, you pay money.

  20. RichPowers says:

    The argument that subscription fees or microtransactions are needed to support servers is total crap. If Guild Wars 2 can offer MMO-like elements sans subscription fees, what is WoW’s justification other than profit? Because Blizz still charges for most new content, in the form of expansion packs.

  21. sigma83 says:

    MMO-_like_, not MMO-true, unless GW2 has somehow snuck in the ability to do persistent worlds without my noticing. In which case, fie!

    WoW vanilla had 12 major content patches before expansion, and this expansion has already had 4. Since expansion they’ve added 3 new raid dungeons, a new fiveman, 2 new zones, which isn’t as much as the expack, obv, but still plenty of stuffs.

  22. Mr Pink says:

    sigma83: I think you’ll find that GW2 is going to have a persistent world, and still no subscription. Should be interesting for the MMO genre.

  23. cliffski says:

    I don’t see how micro payments for non MMO games can ever work. If its an attempt to defeat piracy, it won’t work because the moment one person unlocks the content, everyone will be downloading it from some dodgy site.
    micro payments wont work in games requiring balance like an RTS or FPS, because people will feel like its unfair. I guess what I’m saying is that there are a lot of us happy to pay our £35 for a decent RTS game, without a lot of monkeying about with micro payments. Just make a game we like, give us a free DEMO, and put it up for sale on-line so we can buy direct from the developer and be playing on day 1.

  24. sigma83 says:

    As a business model I really don’t see how that works. Servers need a buttload of electricity and water to keep running, and all that payment has to come from somewhere. They do knock out plenty of expansions, that generates some revenue, but how do they pay the pills?

    I totally meant bills.

  25. Mr Pink says:

    I’m not 100% sure sigma. I think I read somewhere that they say that they spend time writing very efficient net code, which means that the running costs of servers are drastically reduced. As you say, they release plenty of expansions, and if enough people buy them then I guess that must cover the costs…

  26. Kieron Gillen says:

    Mr Pink is right, or at least that’s what they claimed when I interviewed them.

    We wrote a little piece about GW2 over here and the possible impact it may have.

    (I suspect that dropping bandwidth costs also helps, making subscription fees actually more profitable. It strikes me a little like magazines – originally when they started doing CD or DVD covermounts, it was very expensive. However, as time progresses, the costs fell hugely – so while sales were going down, the profit margin increased in a way which helped compensate)


  27. Rook says:

    Not true. XBL stores all the lobby data, and hosts quite a few dedicated servers. Best of all, it hosts game demos, videos, and all the downloadable content. The latter is for free. You can’t imagine how wonderful that felt after going through the “download a demo hunt” I’ve been doing on the PC for years. XBL is a great service.

    Yes, quite a few dedicated servers would be pretty equivalent to most games not having dedicated servers, maybe if you could subscribe to certain games online on a game by game basis based on the quality of the service provided that might be worth something. But with everything else being free with xbl silver, you’re essentially paying to press the online button.

    Personally, I don’t find having to check out gamershell or gametrailers that difficult and certainly don’t want to be spending to £40 a year to get around that.

  28. Dean says:

    I suspect one of the reasons WoW can’t work on a non-sub basis is it’s such a massive, sprawling thing with millions spent on development, that Blizzard had to sell a whole bunch of copies to break even. Server costs were probably factored into subscription income, so more cash could be spent on up front development.

    Also, if what the preview of Guild Wars says is true, it could produce an interesting dilemma, see even if your netcode is mega-efficient, there are still costs. But it’s manageable for GW as the sub numbers are reasonable. If GW2 somehow managed to do the sort of numbers WoW did, you’d need more servers and more bandwidth and more GMs and more tech support and suddenly you face the possibility of the whole thing collapsing.

    I don’t think there’s anyway WoW could be run without a sub fee, as the sheer scale of support needed is incomprehensible.

    Oh and as for micropayments, annoying in something like this – not bad for games as a whole though, as a matter of principle. Guitar Hero, Rockband, etc where you only pay for the songs you want, would be a good model.

  29. tacticus says:

    Jigglybean when the frak do publishers host the game?
    the closest i have seen is releasing a free server for the game and getting gamespy to host a matchmaking service