April 11, 2017 9:30 AM | Thomas Faust
Aquiris Game Studio, a developer from Brazil, might not have the kind of setup you immediately think of when you hear the term "indie". The company has done a fair bit of contract work for publishers in the past and just recently started to self-publish. One of their creations, however, underwent an unusual and noteworthy transformation from Free-To-Play browser game to standalone indie shooter.
At the beginning of their career, Aquiris was working on tech demos for various companies. In 2010, they were approached by publisher Rumble Entertainment to develop one of their demos into a browser F2P game with a heavy "pay to win" slant. The game was called Ballistic, and it became an instant success, ending up with 5 million registered players participating in fast-paced firefights on portals such as Facebook and Kongregate.
When the game saw falling player numbers and further complications arose because of incompatibilities between Unity and modern browsers, the IP fell into Aquiris' laps. This was only fair - the studio developed all the code and art, and a contract clause ensured them the rights in the case of discontinuation.
However, it also left them wondering what exactly to do with the game. They certainly didn't want to continue with the existing F2P mechanics, which had been implemented at the publisher's request. Instead, they agreed to turn the game's business model on its head and make a premium game out of Ballistic.
This was kind of a risky move: continuing the game as-is would have meant relatively easy money, but it was not how Aquiris envisioned its future. So they used their new-found independence to recreate the game as they wanted to make it. Ballistic was rebranded as Ballistic Overkill and released on Steam's Early Access. In the last 15 months, new maps and classes have been released. Furthermore, the game has lost all its F2P trappings and was built around the new premium model.
The community's role in all of this cannot be understated. Using Discord, Trello, and the official forums, Ballistic's most loyal players have actively shaped development. Considering that the biggest challenge was retaining the playerbase from the game's F2P days, this kind of open development was the right move. By the studio's estimate, roughly 20% of old players have made the jump to the new version. Along the way, the game has piqued the interest of another player group: streamers seem to enjoy its "pick up and play" mentality and are actively contributing to Ballistic Overkill picking up steam.
As the market is certainly saturated with online multiplayer FPS games, from heavy hitters such as Counter-Strike: GO and Overwatch to Free-To-Play alternatives which don't require any initial monetary investment, Ballistic Overkill seems to have picked the right path. With a $11.99 price tag, the game isn't too expensive, and the learning curve is fairly moderate compared to the opaque and often frustrating newcomer experience of competitive games.
Matches are short and even if your team faced insurmountable odds, a constant stream of experience points will trickle your way. These points will eventually lead to more class unlocks and customization options, keeping you engaged and curious enough to try out new character classes.
Steam market integration should also lead to higher engagement. Currently, you're awarded a crate which contains a random weapon skin after two hours of gameplay (with a 48 hour cooldown). These crates do not require further microtransactions in the form of keys to open them, and the contents can be freely sold by players on Steam's community market.
This is a clever move, as weapon skins seem to be in demand and Aquiris earn a small fraction of each transaction - all of this without enforcing further necessary spending from their players. Cosmetic skins have also been released at a rather steep price, but these don't offer any actual advantage in the game.
Depending on the time of day, Ballistic Overkill can feel somewhat lightly populated, but in most cases, you can jump into an ongoing game right away. While it may not be buzzing like a beehive with activity, player numbers generally feel healthy. With seven classes, ten maps, and four game modes, there's enough content to keep you busy for a while. Nevertheless, more game modes and "more casual and experimental modes" are planned - whatever that means.
The story of Ballistic Overkill may be an uncommon one, but at the end of the day, going indie and completely turning the game's monetization model on its head might have been the best move for Aquiris. Even if the chances of multiplayer shooters surviving alongside established big IPs are somewhat slim, this game just might have enough staying power to establish itself as a "pick up and play" title. And sometimes, that's exactly what you want.