This past Summer, Pixonic pulled the sheet off of a project that caught the War Robots community almost completely by surprise. Turns out they’d been quietly working on a virtual reality version of the game. War Robots: the Skirmish put you, the player behind the cockpit of one of the mechs of the well-established mobile PVP game, and while it was of a brief duration, it certainly suggested what lay in store for the future of the franchise.
Our goals with this project have defined its scope. We see it as the first intro chapter to the whole War Robots VR installation. With this being our first take on VR ever, we didn’t go for a long full-blown game. Instead, we opted for kind of a short playable teaser. -A. Mostovoy, “War Robots VR- Yes, it’s for Real“
By whatever internal metrics Pixonic uses to make these determinations, The Skirmish teaser was adjudged to be a smash hit. “We keep reading your feedback,” Pixonic posted on the game’s Steam page, “and honestly we’re floored. None of us expected the response to be that astounding. After such reception and so many ‘full game when?’ threads we thought: maybe we should actually turn The Skirmish into a full-blown game?”
For those in the community who wondered why Pixonic felt the need to crowdfund the game rather than directly produce it, Pixonic had an answer for that too.
After many years working on the mobile version of War Robots, we’re basically putting ourselves to the test. We’ve even formed an independent studio in the company to build War Robots VR based on different values.
Compared to the mobile industry, expectations are different for PC and especially VR titles. After The Skirmish, an experiment we brought to life as an independent team, we are confident that we can make the transition to a full-fledged game for bigger platforms.
Now, to get greenlit and deliver War Robots VR, our team has to prove that a project like this is something people truly want to see released. This is where we need your support most.
And so on November 13th, Pixonic launched the Kickstarter for their first foray into a “full-fledged game” backed by a number of exciting reward levels for donors. Those wanting the full picture can check out the page, but by most any yardstick it’s a fairly ripe offering lush with incentives not only for the VR game, but for the mobile one as well. New, custom backer skins for robots. Premium gear like Inquisitors, Dashes, Tempests, Shocktrains, Embers, Scourges. Piles of ingame Gold and Premium. For the big spender, there’s even the option to create their own unique skin for a bot. I mean, what do you give the gamer who’s got everything, right?
But even at its most basic, it’s a terrific value. The $25 “Sergeant” level doesn’t just get you a copy of the game, but you also get 500Au and 30 days Premium in the mobile game. Deduct the value of those, and Pixonic is essentially pre-selling War Robots VR for ten bucks.
Given all this, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the Kickstarter is taking off like a rocket. A reasonable buy-in for the game. Loads of goodies at a wide variety of pledge levels. A great-looking first-person experience from a terrific property. And- not least- an existing daily user base of 1.5 million souls. Talk about a product that can move itself!
You wouldn’t be surprised…but in fact, the data offers a different conclusion.
BY THE NUMBERS
At time of writing, in ten days the Kickstarter has raked in $16,697 from 191 backers, with only 20 days to go. It’s worth noting here that Kickstarter has an all-or-nothing policy, meaning that if Pixonic doesn’t secure its funding goal of $130,000 by the end of the campaign, the money is refunded back to the backers.
What this means is that the campaign is 33% done, but has only secured 12.84% of its funding target. If nothing changes, they will barely be one-third funded at the close, and this campaign will fail. Now in fairness, like an eBay auction much of the activity can happen as the campaign goes into the home stretch. Not only that, but VR is not yet a mainstream technological platform, though buried in the campaign page is the assurance that you can play the game in a regular, non-VR mode.
In the positives department, one might reasonably conclude that Pixonic’s package of incentives is well-put-together, as the average backing per donor is $87.42, well in excess of the “basic level” of $25. But all in all, it’s the conversion rate that seems the most alarming. Out of an active consumer base of 1.5m people per day worldwide, less than two hundred have signed on one-third of the way through?
How can this be?
Given that we’re on the outside looking in rather than at the boardroom table, we can only surmise and deduce. But it’s a bit of a conundrum, isn’t it? As mentioned above, there are some technical reasons that might keep some folks away, namely those who don’t have any access to (or possibly interest in) VR games. The fact that there will be a non-VR mode isn’t highlighted well on the page.
But with the lowest package set at only twenty-five bucks, which includes $15 worth of goodies for the mobile game…
Sometimes when you rule out the what, all that’s left is the who. When Pixonic proudly unveiled the Kickstarter on their Facebook page, it’s probably fair to say that the reception fell a touch short of their hopes.
There’s a longstanding adage in business that states, “it takes months to find a customer, but only seconds to lose one.” The underlying message is that a business cannot take their customers for granted, unless they simply aren’t interested in retaining them. At the very heart of this is the concept of credibility. Defective products can be replaced, poor service can be made up for, but if a company loses the trust of its customers, then that can be the hardest fence to mend.
There are two ways to assess credibility. The first is, does a company do what it says? This one’s pretty straightforward to measure. You look at the promises a company makes, then look at their track record of follow-through and fulfillment. You can always underpromise and overdeliver, but do the opposite and you will erode the trust of your consumers.
The other is, does a company mean what it says? This one can be a little tricker, because as consumers we work with imperfect information. We’re not present in the boardroom, so we have to rely upon what the company wants to share with us regarding aims, ambitions- and ethics.
It’s important to distinguish how these two overlap, as well as how they don’t. Consider the following cartoon from The New Yorker.
Sometimes what a company says it will do isn’t in the consumer’s best interests. We’ll be diving more into that aspect of the game in our next piece, but today we just want to look at word and deed. The is, not the should.
What’s in a Phrase?
Let’s start with one of the more sardonic catchphrases in the community.
Fans of Blizzard’s stable of games will almost certainly be familiar with a meme whose origin likely predated 1994’s Warcraft: Orcs & Humans by at least a decade. Encapsulating the perfect intersection of sarcastic cynicism and weary resignation, “soon ™” is a common response to any question of timelines for new features, bug fixes, or anything else that isn’t right-this-very-minute.
While soon(tm) hasn’t taken hold in the War Robots community, thanks to Pixonic we do have a local equivalent:
“We hear you.” So how did a statement intended to be an encouraging affirmation become a much-derided mantra of perceived obliviousness? How did we arrive at a place where even the comments section on a simple Facebook charity plea becomes a lightning rod for invective and aggrievement?
In short, how did something like this happen:
To understand Pixonic’s current situation, we need only to go back to the start of this year. As we’ll see, Pixonic’s fall from grace didn’t simply happen overnight in a massive breach of trust, but rather was steadily eroded over the course of time.
Before the implementation of the current matchmaker system, pairing in War Robots was hangar-based, with unofficial “tiers” of Bronze, Silver, and Gold being determined by the levels of your bots and weapons. Because gamers are- by their nature- min/maxers, it didn’t take long for many to find the lines and abuse them. Low-level Gepards with high-level Magnums became emblematic of the practice of “seal clubbing,” and the War Robots community was in distress (albeit a distress that seems positively quaint compared to the present).
To fix this, Pixonic elected to use the opportunity to implement a root-and-branch overhaul rather than fine-tune the pairing system. And in a piece posted at the end of January on their official site, Pixonic explained that there were three primary objectives guiding the change.
- Better balancing
- Better rewards
It’s important to remember that comparatively speaking, these were still the Halcyon days of Pixo’s credibility. Statements like, “you may expect some wonky matches in the upcoming week or two, but it all should settle down once players spread across their respective skill tiers” were still (more or less) taken at face value.
But one week became two. Two weeks became four, and still for many, the matchmaker was a complete mess. Despite promises of transparency, Pixonic could offer few assurances to calm the community. “Better balancing” was a complete canard, as horror stories of shambolic mismatches abounded on community outlets. And the rewards were a mere pittance, offering little incentive for players to upgear and upleague.
Cynicism began to proliferate. Perhaps this wasn’t a game enhancement after all, the mutterings went, but rather an attempt to force players into upgrade cycles rather than letting them play at the same level to their heart’s content.
In hindsight, a strong case could be made that this was perhaps less cynicism and more foresight, but Pixonic continued to enjoy the benefit of the doubt. By April, with little sign of resolution or abatement, Pixonic was in damage-control mode. They called for a community summit to give voice time to a number of the game’s more influential or prominent voices, and on 25 April the two-hour conference call (which I was part of) highlighted the near-unanimity of the community’s frustrations.
We heard you was the subtext of the next official article on the War Robots site, where Pixonic conceded the following points.
- The matchmaking system failed to deliver the desired transparency
- The new system robbed veterans of being able to effectively squad with newer players
- The rewards system was inadequate
- The league system introduced an element of “grindiness” where one did not before exist
- The metagame greatly narrowed in terms of build viability
In fairness, Pixonic didn’t promise fixes for everything in a matter of days. For instance, they hinted that a custom game mode was in the works and would be available in the Summer, which would address #2 above. And if it took a little longer (custom matches dropped in the Autumn), they’d try to keep us updated.
But it wasn’t enough. Many have pointed to the community roundtable as the moment when their faith that Pixonic had a genuine and sincere regard for the feelings of its players came to an end. Much was discussed, the observation went, but little was done. Not every promise would be easy to fulfill, but how hard would it be to simply double league rewards as an interim measure of good faith?
Pixonic had noted that if it went well, there might be more community roundtables forthcoming.
As Summer approached, there still remained a solid amount of goodwill for Pixonic despite the bungled matchmaker rollout and general lack of responsiveness or transparency. As many of the game’s problems could be explained away by incompetence rather than malfeasance, it wasn’t automatically seen as a full betrayal or a bankruptcy of trust.
That would come soon enough.
Rise of the Fall
The matchmaking changeover dented Pixonic’s credibility, but it it didn’t break it. I mentioned above that there are two ways to lose credibility, and these were sins of the more benign sort. Pixonic might not be doing what it said, but for many of us in the community we still felt at the time that they meant what they said. That sincerity went a long way, and “give us time to fix it” didn’t then seem too much to ask.
At the same time, the seeds were being sown for a much more rapid break of faith.
The Halloween Event of 2016 had seen the introduction of the prize chest, which would be brought back for occasional Events including Christmas, the Lunar New Year, and the Third Anniversary celebration this past May.
From the outset, Pixonic employed some of the psychologically manipulative tactics mobile game developers use to bait their playerbase into increasing their spending, not unlike casinos. Sure mobile developers can’t hide clocks, build maze-like interior layouts, and offer free drinks served up by attractively-clad staff (pity, that), but there’s plenty they can do.
One example employed from the outset is the “spinner.” When opening a chest, a player is greeted with the animation of a row of prizes zipping past. As if on cue, you’d often see the prize wheel slow to a crawl, juuuuuust missing out on a premium prize like a Lancelot, and landing instead on some chump’s prize like a Noricum. Like some carnival sucker, the hope was that you’d cry out, so close! Lemme try one more time…
Meanwhile, names of winners would flash at the bottom of the screen, listing what exciting prize they’d won. Speculation was widespread as to whether or not the winners were real people or just fake names designed to stoke prize fever. Even after a few folks validated having won, skepticism remained. The writing was on the wall for Pixonic, but they plowed ahead with the monetization initiative, while core game elements went unaddressed. All the while, the faith the community once had in the company has dwindled.
Slowly, War Robots players were waking up to the feeling that they were no longer seen as a valued player community, but rather as marks to be squeezed for every last bit of disposable income. Wallets with legs. And the hits kept coming.
Dashing to Disaster
Nothing cemented the divorce more concretely for many than the way Pixonic rolled out the Dash bots. They did a commendable job whetting the appetite for the Kumiho, Haechi, and Bulgasari well before release, and the community was suitably excited by the time they arrived. And then the sticker shock hit.
With the Dashes– and the Inquisitor– Pixonic abandoned any pretense of “boiling the frog” with more gradual price increases. With the advent of the Brit Bots in August of 2016, the pricetag of $50 seemed to be the ceiling for what a single premium bot would cost. The Wild Bunch, released a few months later, moved the needle up a bit. The Medium bot, the Doc, would cost around $50, while the heavier Butch weighed in at $100.
Any hope that the new releases would be in line with the past group of “super-premium” content went right out the window. The Dash bots- nominally Medium bots (though Pixonic has said that the weight-class system is somewhat archaic), were more than double the Butch, and you could get an entire video gaming console for what the Inquisitor was listed as.
And that’s to say nothing of the new weapons, the Tempest, the Scourge, and the Shocktrain, which individually could go for around $100. Then came the rollout of the “Mark II upgrade system,” which would let you re-upgrade your top-level gear to become 20% stronger, as well as the “component system” of accumulating bot tokens to assemble a complete “super-premium” bot.
Here’s where credibility matters most. Pixonic was introducing massive changes to the game at a greatly accelerated pace, and many of these could be called “50/50 decisions.” 50/50 as in, that there were both positives and negatives, and what the community would choose to focus on would largely be driven by their existing predisposition. And what did they choose to focus on?
With a good-faith relationship, Pixonic would have had some wiggle room here, considering they stated their intentions from the outset.
We do this to ease Dash integration into the game as much as possible. This ability by itself might cause a huge shift in which robots are in favor and which aren’t, so we are giving them sort of a test run. Spreading these through Black Market initially will give us enough data to work with in terms of balancing without disrupting the gameplay too much. Thanks for your understanding and patience!
From end to end, the Dashes were emblematic of the frustrations the community had fostered. Their absurdly-high price tag was seen as clear proof not only that Pixonic put greed ahead of the community, but also that the company was pivoting to provide fan service to the high-spending “whales.” The game was in a mature state, where “whales” and long-term grinders had comparable levels of gear. That feeling of being able to spend your way into a safari-like experience of killing the local wildlife at-will was diminished as a result.
But with overpowered bots at overpowered prices, the whale community would be given another chance to feel like gods. If some of the community felt that that concern was perhaps a touch overblown, the immediate rollout of the mark II upgrade program only seemed to provide further evidence of the shift in the developers’ priorities. Once upon a time, this might have been viewed as simply granting new endgame content to a mature community, a positive, but this point was well in the rearview.
That the Dashes were themselves overpowered offered another sign of shifting priorities. The community had already piloted them plenty on the test server, and despite a number of adjustments on Pixo’s part (as part of the normal test server iterative development process), the consensus was that they were too pushed, too strong. The ability to use a second “dash” instead of one was particularly troublesome, since it gave the bots near-impunity. One could dash in, unload on an enemy, and then dash out of retributive danger before the dust had settled. One dash seemed much more balanced: you could ambush or escape- but not both.
As part of the test server process, testers are encouraged to submit feedback on their assessment. Many did. And while we don’t have access to what Pixonic sees, given Pixonic’s need to release what was effectively a disclaimer (quoted above) makes it likely that the general mood of the community was fairly representative of what Pixo was advised. “We told them they were too strong, and they released them that way anyway. Why?”
With little benefit of the doubt remaining, the answer appeared to be obvious. Pixonic would reap a windfall by selling overpowered bots to the whales. Then when either the whale market started to plateau, or the community outrage hit a tipping point (or some action-triggering combination thereof), they could point to their disclaimer as they dialed back the power of the Dashes.
Cynical? Of course it is. But that’s what happens when the reserve of consumer goodwill has run dry. Here’s another example: shortly after the release of the Dashes (and right as the “Boycott Pixonic” campaign was hitting its stride), some returning players who had been absent for awhile noticed that not only did they get a lump sum of Gold upon logging in for the first time, but they had special offers on the Dash bots for around 50% off.
While the case can be fairly made that not all players are entitled to all deals, just as I don’t expect my supermarket loyalty card to give me every possible promotion, this just added fuel to the fire. “Wait, so some guy who hasn’t played in a year gets the Dashes at half off, but those of us who play every day continue to be screwed?”
One more? Why not. Pixonic released another random generator for prizes, with a name that is either hilariously tone-deaf or a glorious example of chutzpah.
The “Royale” is another variation on the “random goodies” design, with a catch: you’re able to influence the outcome by “removing” up to four undesirable prizes from the available prize pool before spinning the roulette wheel. And like so much Pixonic does these days, the Royale is presented as positive (moar loots!), seen as unrepentantly negative (rigged cash grab!), with a reality that likely lies somewhere in between. In that sense, we’ll hold up the Royale as a symbol of the state of the relationship between Pixonic and their community, with the sincere hope that things can improve.
Ultimately, the Royale is free stuff. You exclude up to four items you don’t want, then get to “spin” the roulette for a prize. The first spin costs 0Au, so if all you ever did with these was spin the free spin, then you’d be up. You might not get a lot in return, but who cares, right? ALl you had to invest was about two minutes of your time, and in a game that’s nominally free-to-play, shouldn’t we be excited at opportunities to get something for nothing? (The answer is yes.)
And if you fancy pushing your luck on a given table? The cost for the second spin is 7Au, or USD $0.07 by our standard conversion. A nickel and two pennies. The third is 21Au. Then 56Au. It does start to get to real money after awhile, but you’re getting a decent amount of ingame resources for next to nothing. What’s the problem?
The presentation. The presentation is the problem. The game is coded to appeal to irrationality rather than reason. If it was a straightforward value proposition- pay X, get Y- that’s one thing. But it’s not.
Every item is presented as an equally-sized box, which suggests that the odds of winning each item are equal. This is a lie- they are not. Just like the chests, the greater the value of the reward, the less your odds of winning it.
It is widely held that the winnings list is fixed. In other words, you’ll win the least valuable prize first. The next-least-valuable prize second. And so on. This is actually false- I have occasionally won a “more valuable” prize ahead of a less-valuable one (and I mean value on the objective dollar sale, not a subjective “personal value” one). That indicates a fairly standard reality: just like the chests, each box has a percentage chance of “hitting,” with the best prizes having the lowest odds.
But just like the chests, the structure of the game seeks to conceal that.
Here’s the part that’s not popular: it’s probably a mixture of both. Yes, the Royale is free (or cheap) random winnings. Nobody is holding a gun to one’s head to keep going, and ejecting at any point is always an option.
But… on the other side of the coin, Pixonic clearly used manipulative methods to try and entice players to “roll the dice” one more time.
As someone who has literally known the value of a customer as the owner of a brick and mortar comic/gaming store, let me tell you that I would never treat my customers so disposably.
If anything, “the ugly” represents a sort of muddle, moreso than any middle ground. We see that on Pixonic’s part as well, with the new hangar system. This much-requested feature has finally landed, giving players an option for a second hangar. On the one had, the sticker price of this is $75 (7500Au), which is high but not all that unreasonable when you consider the fifth slot has always been 5000Au.
And how has Pixonic rolled this out? By giving thousands of them away.
Here’s the bottom line.
You don’t vastly underperform with a generous Kickstarter for a new product unless there’s a problem.
You don’t give away thousands of $75 features to the community unless you’re aware there’s a problem, and are trying to buy goodwill.
Pixonic is in a difficult position. Where do we go from here?
You tell me.