[Company of Heroes Online producer Greg Wilson talks to our own Kris Graft about the challenges in adapting a retail RTS into a downloadable free-to-play game based on microtransactions, in a world of instant web gaming gratification.]

The free-to-play, microtransactions-based gaming market is dominated by social network games and MMOs -- you don't see too many core-focused free-to-play real-time strategy games.

There's a reason for this: the typical "core" RTS player is happy with paying $50 for the retail version of a game like StarCraft II, Supreme Commander or Company of Heroes. Or at least that's what many traditional RTS developers seem to assume.

THQ subsidiary Relic Entertainment, developer of acclaimed RTS franchises like Dawn of War and Company of Heroes, is challenging the idea of the $50 retail RTS standard with Company of Heroes Online.

The title is a 3D rendered, high-production microtransactions-supported game that adopts the free-to-play business model. Recently launched in North America, the game was previously being tested in China, where free-to-play is a popular scheme.

"I hope [free-to-play] does continue to grow," said Greg Wilson, producer on COHO. "I think things like Facebook and other social gaming platforms, when they [adopted] this free-to-play thing with microtransactions, it really shows that people out there have more time than we thought they did."

He added, "It's a question of how do we show these players that our games are worth their time. ... Provided the games are presented in a slice that's palatable for them."

COHO is derived from the well-received Company of Heroes franchise, a traditionally-published RTS series that debuted in 2006 under the slap-on-a-price-and-set-in-on-the-shelf retail business model. The free-to-play version is not only trying to capture the core players that are fans of the original version, but also new players who are RTS fans, and perhaps players totally new to the genre.

There is a precedence for microtransactions-based success in a genre closely related to the more traditional RTS -- Riot Games' League of Legends. The game is derived from the Warcraft III mod Defense of the Ancients and is a free-to-download, microtransactions-supported game that has found success through Riot's keen focus on hardcore fans of the emerging "Action-RTS" genre.

Depth As A Blessing, Depth As A Curse

But even the successful Riot Games will admit that the learning curve is a hurdle for new users in League of Legends. It's that accessibility factor that is also one of COHO's more significant challenges -- there's little point in lowering the barrier to entry with a free-to-play model if a new player will just run into another barrier in the game's learning curve.

"COHO is an extremely deep game, and that is part of our blessing, but it's also the challenge that we have, because there's so much to learn," Wilson said. "...Most people expect to get rocked [in online multiplayer]. You go in and you just get destroyed, and it's only through perseverance that you actually learn how to play most of these games properly. Or if you're lucky enough to have friends to walk you through it, that's a real benefit there."

Relic hopes to foster a COHO community with global chat, Facebook Connect and other integrated social elements. "Really, that's where you learn most -- you learn from somebody that understands or is willing to walk you through the process," he said.

Additionally, COHO gives away for free the full 15 single-player missions from the original retail title and allows for "comp stomp" matches versus the computer, giving new players the chance to learn basics about build orders, units, the cover system and other key gameplay components. Relic has also completely redone the tutorials and made the easy A.I. easier so that it's less aggressive, said Wilson.

As a "work in progress," Wilson said that Relic also tracks a wide array of player metrics which are then forwarded to the design team in order to make appropriate gameplay adjustments. Relic plans to patch the game regularly, every 30 to 60 days. "If we happen to see something that we don't like, we can make that change relatively quickly," said Wilson.

But even if COHO is the easiest game to pick up and play, and totally free to start playing, in an era of almost instant Facebook, Flash and other web-based gaming, COHO still has an inherent barrier -- a 6.5GB download.

The Download Barrier

Wilson explained that web-based technology was "definitely on the radar" during the development of COHO, but with the game using Relic's proprietary Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II Essence engine, web options were limited.

"The scope of converting [Company of Heroes] to a [free-to-play online game] and building a lobby, clustered server tech, and toolset to support external operators turned out to be enough work for one year," Wilson joked.

There are plenty of other games, namely in the the MMO genre, that are downloadable, microtransactions-based and free-to-play. The developers behind all these games would concur that any download or extra mouse clicks present a barrier to new players -- getting new users into a game and playing as fast as possible is crucial.

"We've certainly had a bunch of discussion about the size of the download and its potential impact on new users and how we might be able to address it in the future," Wilson explained. "For some territories, Korea for example, downloading 6.5GB can be as quick as 10-15 minutes. For others, like China and some places in Australia, it can be considerably longer."

"We’ve investigated some streaming tech and have also considered breaking up the content into smaller chunks, letting people download the bits they are interested in. No decisions have been made yet, though."

Relic also created a torrent-driven patching system that's built into the COHO launcher, Wilson said. "The lobby also seeds other users while you’re not in an actual game -- totally configurable by users, by the way -- so when you're chatting in the lobby you are helping new users to download faster," he explained.

"I'm really hoping people won’t be turned off by the initial download size. We are giving away some of the highest rated PC RTS content of all time for free, after all," argued Wilson.

He's hoping that a growing number of high-production free-to-play games will coax some social gamers to move on from Facebook games. It's a hopeful theory -- the average FarmVille fan doesn't seem like COHO's target audience -- but the theory is one that Relic is at least partially banking on.

"What we're hoping is that as the casual user gets bored of those kinds of [social network] games, those really simple, medium quality games, and look at something more like COHO or some of the other quality free-to-play games," he said.

"I hope [free-to-play] persists, I hope it grows, and I hope the community of developers manages expectations properly by not making their games unfair, and not making the cash-grab for selling super-powerful items," he said.