Is the free to play market about to get even more crowded? Maybe. The recent bankruptcy filing of Relic Entertainment’s parent company THQ and some hiring going on offer some insight into the potential for free to play games from the Warhammer 40K developer and THQ subsidiary. Could the project be a MOBA? Perhaps. Today we’ll take a look at the evidence and ponder a few guesses as to just Relic might be up to with its new project.
There’s no doubt that something free to play will be coming from Relic. Two job listings on the company website are currently for “Executive Producer (Free to Play) and Creative Director (Free to Play), and the legal documents filed by THQ include the plans for several games the company has cooking. In the legal papers, free to play plans are blatant: “The Debtors are also developing several new free to play ("FTP") games which allow consumers to "sample" a game before paying for it. These FTP games have developed a rapid following in Asia over the past decade and have begun to make inroads in the markets in the United States and in Europe”. And for THQ, the first of these just might be a game revealed in those legal documents under the working title Atlas.
"Relic is currently developing Company of Heroes 2 for a calendar year 2013 release and a new game with the working title "Atlas" for release in calendar year 2014", reads section 20 of the papers. With hiring notices and the discussion of free to play for a game due out within two years, it makes sense that "Atlas" is likely the title for which people are being hired. Of course, this could all be entirely wrong, and the speculation here rendered entirely moot, but let’s play along for a little while, because this does represent one of THQ’s most respected subsidiaries and a company with a lot of strategy experience and renown launching a free to play venture. In essence, Relic is joining the rest of the major companies in doing so. Is this an effort to ‘save’ THQ with microtransactions, as other developers have refocused on free to play (like Funcom or Crytek)? There isn’t proof of that, but the fact most major publishers have some free to play division now is more likely behind the decision to move forward with this new freemium push from THQ. This might be along the lines of EA’s Play4Free line, which has since been folded right into the Origin label. Remember, the filing did mention “several” games.
Further supporting the notion that Atlas is the first free to play game of the new plans from Relic and THQ is a chart in the legal filing that lists projected income from the games in currently in development, with “n/a” listed under box sale projections for Atlas, along with 31.6 million in projected net sales.
So what could Atlas be? The code name already sounds intimidating, with Atlas being the name of a mythological Titan punished for fighting against the gods with the task of holding up the sky forever on his shoulders. So, while this is likely just an early code name for the project, it’s a deliberate name to give.
Could Atlas be a MOBA? Potentially, but the market is awfully crowded now, so we’re not sure what it will look like in 2014. There’s logic in hedging bets that the MOBA market will still be healthy in a couple of years, but it would put them way behind the competition to launch one. The only way I can see this really working and making a splash is if the company releases an extremely polished, fun, accessible MOBA based on Warhammer 40K.
Could this be based on Warhammer 40K anyway? It’s possible. Choosing a fantasy-based name like Atlas for a code name could signal the return of Warhammer 40K licensed into a free to play game. The problems with this include the fact that WH40K is licensed. First, we wonder if a freemium game would be covered within the contract. And if the game does well, there’s the risk of losing the license when it’s up for renewal, which could shut down a game. Games Workshop could also potentially demand more or a share of the profits from any longterm, microtransaction venture. It would make sense here for Relic and THQ to use one of the company’s own IPs. Company of Heroes might be a logical choice, given CoH 2 coming out in the spring. But the projected sales figures list CoH2 as moving about 2m copies. It’s not the most wide-reaching title, but Relic is the company developing this project, so it’s very possible.
Could Atlas be a new IP? From what little we know, it could be. But I’d say that’s not likely this time around. THQ seems serious about launching a series of free to play games. Leading off your entire free to play venture and trying to hook players is much riskier with an original IP. Not only do you have to spend to market for awareness, you have to get people to try, like, and then spread good word of mouth about your game. That’s how freemium games not only survive, but thrive. An original IP might show up later in the company’s freemium plans, but not the first.
Naturally, this speculation is only intended to ponder just what might be up Relic’s sleeve since the launch of not only a new game but an entirely new venture from the studio and parent THQ is a major business decision. THQ was acquired and while it has some projected hits on its hands, maybe it is seeing a future in a path not unlike what Funcom and Crytek (which is developing Homeland 2 for THQ) have decided. Time will tell.