When I first heard about Robocraft, I’ll admit I was a little sceptical. How did a small independent studio from the south of England build one of Steam’s most popular free-to-play titles, and yet somehow stay under the radar? What is it about building, driving and battling robots that keeps fans engaged? And what’s the secret behind this rise up the charts?
As it turns out, there’s been no shortcut to success: When I caught up with Freejam CEO and Game Director Mark Simmons at the recent EGX Rezzed expo in London, I discovered that their first alpha launched back in April 2013, with the small team rapidly pushing out updates every two weeks. But crucially, getting Greenlit for Steam Early Access has catapulted the game forward, amassing some 8 million registered players and some 55,000 (mostly positive) reviews.
This year, though, Robocraft goes through its biggest and most disruptive change yet. As Simmons explained, the studio is switching from a World of Tanks-style progression model, to a flatter Hearthstone-style approach. Just how would Freejam manage the transition while keeping the burgeoning community on-board?
MMORPG.com: Before we get into the now, how did Robocraft start out?
Mark Simmons: Well, five of us worked together at various companies - all at work-for-hire console development - and we all got a bit fed up with the thankless task of work-for-hire. By chance, some of us were involved in a pitch for Minecraft on another platform, and that involved some research of Minecraft, so that planted one seed. I studied physics at University, and decided to investigate Unity, and that was another seed.
This little prototype I made of these cubes you stuck together, then clicked a button and they dropped out of the sky, then you added some wheels to that and you could drive it around - that was this nucleus of an idea. We really felt we had something, so we decided to quit our jobs, form Freejam, and started that way.
I’d read this book called ‘The Lean Startup’, and the basic model – it was a San Francisco tech start-up thing – and basically the model was to build something very minimal based on a hypothesis, launch it quickly, and test the hypothesis. Measure it properly through analytics and various other means, and iterate that as fast as you could. So that’s how it started; we just had some blocks, some wheels, a demo and a website, and we let people download it and we iterated from there.
MMORPG.com: We last took a look at Robocraft roughly a year ago. What’s changed since then?
Simmons: The game has gone through a massive transition. When we started out, we had this really unique building system, but we decided that because we had such a unique block building system, that we should take a meta-game that everybody understood and was familiar with, so there was only one half they had to learn. And we were quite fans of World of Tanks, so the game was blocks and robots and World of Tanks.
We discovered through the course of development that a lot of bad stuff came from that decision. We felt that with World of Tanks, we call it a vertical progression system, where you start in tier 1, progress and get more powerful. But broadly, the game plays the same, you’re just fighting bigger tanks that are as strong as you are.
We decided that a better progression for Robocraft would be a flat or horizontal one, and examples would be League of Legends or Hearthstone, where all the characters or cards are equal to each other, but when combined in different ways give you interesting results. And we think that that Robocraft is more analogous to that; we think it’s much more interesting for new users to get parts semi-randomly and then figure out the best ways of putting those parts together.
So the transition - we’ve nearly finished it, we’ll be finished in about a month - is this change from a vertical to a horizontal model, and that’s come with some massive problems with the community.
MMORPG.com: How’s that actually gone down?
Simmons: There’s been a lot of bad, as you expect. We’ve had a lot of users who really haven’t understood why we’ve done certain things. And, to be fair to them, some of the things we’ve done have just been on the journey to the transition from one to the other, so they would appear on the outside to be just barmy and crazy things to do. I’m hoping, at the end of the process, they will see it was all part of a master plan and we’ve all finally got there.
But at the same time, Robocraft is one of those games where chaos is quite a good thing too. What tends to happen with Robocraft is: if it’s left alone, people find the best robots, and those are the de-facto best, and so creativity is hampered somewhat. And so, if a game changes in a significant way, then everybody – as much as they get frustrated – triggers a new wave of players racing to find the new best. And so that chaos actually creates engagement within the community.
People often ask me how you balance the game. And I think to some extent the game self-balances, because people find the best builds. When one player’s making one, others will try and find another type that will counter that build, so it’s self-balancing to some degree. And so what we want to do at a regular interval is just introduce a little bit of chaos that upsets the stability.
I think it’s been good and bad. I think we get away with it a little bit because of the nature of Robocraft. I don’t know if we’d get away with it so well if we weren’t that sort of game.