Last March, developer Epic Games launched its free-to-play multiplayer online battle arena Paragon. A year later, it is thriving on PC and PlayStation 4.

Epic has built excitement around Paragon by consistently updating it with new content through the last 13 months. The studio has released more than 130 patches, and those have introduced small changes as well as major additions like maps and characters. Now, Paragon is on a trajectory to potentially reach 1 million active players, and it exemplifies Epic’s strategy of building and self-publishing games as a platform.

In recent weeks, the company has introduced the Monolith map and more new characters that have re-energized the player base. And Epic has seen a recent surge in interest.

“As of January, we had roughly 832,000 active players,” Paragon executive producer John Wasilczyk told GamesBeat. “That’s up from 650,000 in November 2016, prior to the release of the Monolith map. We had about 44 percent more players playing each week, and playing more often.”

Wasilczyk says the team want to keep that momentum in 2017 by delivering more updates with new content on a regular schedule. That has worked so far, Epic expects it to continue.

“As soon as we went into free open beta, we wanted to establish weekly updates, so players would know that they always had something to look forward to,” said Wasilczyk. “There’d be a content change, a change in balance, a new hero every three weeks — there’d be something for them to expect, a reason to come back, a reason to keep the game changing and evolving over time.”

The studio also plans to continue listening to player feedback, which is just one of the topics I touched on in my full conversation with Wasilczyk, which you can read below.

GamesBeat: Recap Paragon’s first year for me.

John Wasilczyk, Paragon executive producer: For us, the first year has been an adventure in learning and growth. Epic is moving into the next iteration of itself as a game development company and embracing free-to-play from an AAA perspective. For us we had a really successful start with early access, and we transitioned from there into our ongoing free open beta period, where we’ve had continued growth month over month. A big focus as part of this adventure has been integrating player feedback. That’s a critical part of our development process. We’re not developing for four or five years on one boxed product and hoping it all works out. Being able to see how people react to the game in real time has shaped how we grow Paragon and handle our releases.

Early on we decided to go all in on this and do updates as quickly as we could, to keep the game vibrant and have an ongoing conversation with our players. As an example, since March 2016, we’ve shipped more than 130 game updates and released 29 heroes. It’s been great to have that pace of development and be able to change the game in a relatively rapid fashion. We’ve also rolled out a bunch of new features. We did a draft mode relatively early on in the pre-open beta period. Toward the end of 2016 we released card drafting, which is something we’d been building toward for a while internally. Where we are now, roughly, we have about 6 million registered players, and that number continues to grow.

That’s been very satisfying, both for Epic and the development team. It’s a new genre, a new approach, and it’s been successful within Epic. We’re looking forward to seeing it grow with the other games we’ll have coming out in the near future. One big thing we did toward the end of 2016 is we released a new map.

GamesBeat: And where is Paragon at today?

John Wasilczyk: The game at the moment is focused on that core map as the primary experience. The new map is called Monolith, and that was a major shift, the biggest shift in the game to date. The map is completely reworked. We updated a lot of the gameplay, reacting to the positive player feedback we’d received over time and the data we’ve looked at from all of our builds and updates. The game plays significantly faster on the new Monolith map.

That was an adventure in doing it live, in making big changes, but since we released Monolith we’ve noticed a lot of positive changes in how players are interacting with the game. The matches that end in surrender rather than actually completing the match are down by 17 percent. When we saw that movement, we put more changes in place to pursue that and get the surrender number reduced even further over time. We also saw the release of Monolith correlating with player growth.

As of January, we had roughly 832,000 active players. That’s up from 650,000 in November 2016, prior to the release of the Monolith map. We had about 44 percent more players playing each week, and playing more often. Within 2017, as we look at the path forward, we have the team working on things requested by the player base, by the community, and also just things we’ve been wanting to roll out over time. Plenty of new features. We have a new hero releasing that we’re very proud of. We’ve been shipping new heroes every three weeks. But the big push for 2017, we’re focusing on new gameplay modes, support for competitive tournaments and competitive play. Those are the big touch points we’re looking at for 2017, in addition to updating and overhauling our card system.

GamesBeat: Do these 130 updates make Paragon feel a bit different than the games you’ve made before. Was this a learning process? Did you know you’d have to update that much coming into the project?

John Wasilczyk: Absolutely. With every update, we’ve tried different things. That component was definitely a learning process. We knew going in that operating a live game, we wanted to take advantage — using PC as the example platform, we can update whenever we like. With our partners at Sony, they’ve been great at embracing the live game model. They’ve made it relatively frictionless to do updates as we see fit when either the game needs it, or we want to establish a regular cadence of updates for players to expect. One of our goals early on was to patch and make sure the game was solid and stable during the paid period.

As soon as we went into free open beta, we wanted to establish weekly updates, so players would know that they always had something to look forward to. There’d be a content change, a change in balance, a new hero every three weeks—there’d be something for them to expect, a reason to come back, a reason to keep the game changing and evolving over time.

GamesBeat: Do you think the players expected that weekly cadence? Or is that something they learned as they played the game?

John Wasilczyk: We see it as a virtuous cycle. We knew at the start that we wanted to be ready to do rapid updates and have that flexibility. What we found, from the initial onboarding audience to the people who’ve come in through the open beta–a lot of the positive early feedback we received was about how much they appreciated how different Paragon was with its rapid updates. The fact that Epic, as a new live game publisher, was being so responsive to their needs and ideas. We were addressing anything we saw as a problem and providing new stuff for them to experience. Aside from planning to do that at the start, once we saw the positive reaction, that became part of the virtuous cycle. It fueled itself and became something that people would call out because they appreciated it. It’s certainly a challenge from a development perspective, but it’s been great.

GamesBeat: Early on, were the updates mostly fixing and patching things, or was it mostly adding new content? Has that shifted over time, the weighting on that equation?

John Wasilczyk: At the very beginning, right before March, as we were leading up to the initial paid early access, a lot of the early changes were updating builds, rolling out new features, and fixing any bugs we found. Once we moved into early access, and certainly by the time we reached free open beta, we had established a regular planned cadence for the types of things we wanted to do in those updates.

Working with our publishing team, we established that heroes come out every three weeks. In the other weeks we’ll have balance updates, features as they’re ready and as they roll out, and everything else. The idea is that on a weekly basis, to have something they can enjoy and find meaning through.

GamesBeat: You mentioned working with Sony. What’s it like running a big free-to-play game on a console?

John Wasilczyk: One thing that’s been a pleasant surprise—the PS4 has become such a flexible and positive ecosystem for this type of game. That’s allowed us to express what I think is one of our major differentiating features. We have full cross play and cross progression between PC and PS4. One of the nice things is embracing, along with Sony as a partner, an approach focused on what’s best for the player. You’re able to pick up and play.

If you have friends on PC and you play on PS4, you can still play with your friends, even though they’re on a different platform. If you happen to play on both platforms, you’ll be able to take your progression, your unlocked content, across platforms. You can plug in on PC in the morning, play on PS4 at night, and your unlocks will transfer. That, and the flexibility of updates, has made it very easy to run this as a live game at parity between both of those platforms. It’s the type of thing that allows us to focus more on the things we’re excited about, and that we think players are excited about, like new modes.

We’re planning on rolling out a new PvP experience that’s going to be significantly different from the current Monolith experience we released at the end of 2016. We’ll also have PvE modes coming up in the near future that allow for co-op play. Part of that comes from our desire to expand the scope of the game. Not only will it help us grow our community across both platforms, but it’ll offer more choice for current players and new players, more ways for them to enjoy the Paragon experience.

GamesBeat: Have you seen a lot of people taking advantage of cross play? Do people tend to join one platform permanently, or are a lot of them jumping back and forth?

John Wasilczyk: We have a decent number of people jumping back and forth, but the biggest expression of that experience that we see on a regular basis is people who have friends on different platforms. Their friends have a different platform, or their friends use different platforms at different times of day. The other major piece is, by allowing cross play, it creates a unified, healthier matchmaking pool. People can all play together. A lot of effort went into building the game in a way that there could be parity of experience across PS4 and PC. Not only can you play together, but you can play together well.

GamesBeat: It’s been a year. You’ve been supporting the game well. Where did it start as far as how you envisioned the game a year out, and then how does that compare to the reality of what you deal with today?

John Wasilczyk: The game itself has changed quite a bit. For a game that launched focused on the primary three-lane MOBA map, updating the map at the end of 2016 was a major change for us. Alongside that, the release of the new Monolith map brought the biggest change to gameplay to date, because we greatly increased movement speed, made the game more reactive and more action-oriented.

We hope that had an impact in a positive way released to changing the way abilities work and overall making the game a more exciting experience. The other things we’ve focused on are looking at the card system we launched with and how a growing number of players interacted with it on both PC and PS4. Seeing how people interact with it has really changed our view of that system. We’ve identified a lot that we’d like to change about it. We want to deliver a more impactful experience, something that’s easier for new and experienced players to enjoy and use, and something that works better on both PC and console. We learned a lot, with an experimental, differentiating-factor system, and over the year the game’s been live, that’s fueled our desire to go through and commit to a major updates and overhaul of the system in 2017.

If you’re at all familiar with MOBAs, the itemization system is a fundamental part of the game. It allows you to take all these unique characters and customize the way you play with them in a match. Taking a look at that and committing to really significantly updating and changing that system, that’s an example of what the live game model allows us to do. It encourages us and gives us the opportunity to learn and change.

GamesBeat: Is there anything big that you’d want to talk about before I let you go?

John Wasilczyk: The big stuff we’re focused on, is our commitment to change and our commitment to the product itself. Within Epic, it’s been great seeing UE4 grow. It’s given us the flexibility to invest heavily in all the games we’re doing, to express the commitment to this new business model. We’re spending a lot of time expanding our competitive play experience. We feel it’s something that—it’s very easy to fall into the trap of rushing that, pushing out things like ranked modes and tournaments too early.

Over the past year we’ve had a genuine opportunity to interact with the players, to get a sense of what they want and to tell them, this is coming when you guys think it’s ready. When there’s enough of the community that’s interested in this, that’s when we’re going to do it. We’ve seen so many other games come out and say, hey, we’re the next big esport, and nobody’s even played the game at that point. We feel like that’s perceived as disingenuous, as far as the hardcore players are concerned. For us, we tried very hard to take a different approach. In doing so we had a healthier back-and-forth with our community.

In 2017, that’s when we’re going to start rolling out competitive play that eventually transitions into a ranked mode, eventually transitions into things like tournaments, where Epic will be sponsoring rewards not only to get people engaged in it, but to get people feeling like Paragon is a compelling place to commit their time and grow it into a competitive play experience. We want to make sure it’s not just for the pros, but that it’s something everyone can have a piece of. Everyone can have an opportunity to live out that fantasy of being rewarded for playing a game well.

GamesBeat: The way you guys are building out UE4, does it give you more freedom to do experiments like this? Do you have more confidence than you would otherwise?

John Wasilczyk: Specifically for Epic Games as a developer, it makes a huge difference. Part of that advantage is having a robust foundation to build on. From the ground up, the engine is focused very much on iteration.

Epic has historically been a company that’s tried to hire the best and brightest and do more with less. The tools are there to be an amplifier for every individual, rather than other places that tackle problems with armies of bodies. Having a dedicated engine team and an engine that works on many different platforms – not just for the internal game teams, but also all the external licensees – that makes a big different to building a more robust tool set. You get to reap the rewards of all the other people who are building things with this engine.

We end up inheriting tools and advantages coming from other teams around the world. That’s been a big part of fueling our flexibility and our ability to be on different platforms, to run a high-performing 60fps game. A huge part of that is related to the engine and the way our business is set up. So much relies on having this engine that exists in so many different places and so many different ways.

This post is part of the PC Gaming channel, presented by the Intel® Game Dev program.
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