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What does $100 buy in Battlefield 4?
by Ethan Levy on 08/28/14 02:21:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Back in March, Battlefield 4 started selling the Ultimate Shortcut Pack, the “ultimate way to level the playing field,” for $50 (now $40). In May, the game began selling bronze, silver and gold Battlepacks, giving players “a shortcut to catch up with their friends on the Battlefield,” at prices ranging from $1 for a single bronze pack to $12 for a set of 5 gold packs. These digital items are just a small part of EA’s digital extra content offerings that generated $794 million in revenue over the past 12 months, according to the most recent quarterly earnings report.

Although my work as a monetization design consultant has primarily been in mobile games, in-game purchase tactics similar to those from the pure F2P realm are undoubtedly becoming a regular part of the premium game business. However, for games like BF4, the desire to generate incremental digital revenue must be measured carefully against game balance and the long-term community happiness at the core of this blockbuster franchise’s annual success.

I wanted to see what would happen if I spent $100 on IAP in BF4. Would money buy a meaningful multiplayer advantage, similar to what I would expect in a pure F2P shooter? Can money help overcome my poor skill at multiplayer shooters and the advantage my opponents would have from months of practice and progression?

Methodology

I purchased two copies of BF4, one for PC and one for Xbox 360. Having never played BF4 before, I would create two separate characters and play 5 hours of multiplayer, skipping any single player content. On the PC, which I played first, I spent $106.34 on in-game content. I upgraded to the Digital Deluxe version, granting me 3 gold Battlepacks. I bought the $40 Ultimate Shortcut Pack and 5 sets of 5 gold Battlepacks for $12 each. As 2 gold Battlepacks had been granted to my account, I opened a total of 30 gold Battlepacks before I started my first match on PC.

I then played for 5 hours, all multiplayer, all Conquest mode. I played the first 4 matches as Recon class using an advanced sniper rifle unlocked with my purchase, then switched to Assault class and a similarly unlocked shotgun. I had realized that as a complete noob with no knowledge of map layouts, I was going to have a terrible time if I stuck to sniping. During these 5 hours of play on the PC, I had 200% XP boosts - acquired in the gold packs - active for the entire play time.

Then I switched to a fresh account on 360. I did not open the 2 free, gold Battlepacks waiting in my account. I played 5 hours of all multiplayer, all Conquest mode, playing Recon with the basic sniper rifle for the first 4 matches then switching to Assault class. My attempts at parity fell down here. On the PC I had chosen to play exclusively with a shotgun I had unlocked in the Ultimate Shortcut pack. But on 360 I could only use the basic assault rifle as all shotguns were locked behind progression.

After 5 hours of play, I compared my stats on the two accounts.

My Performance

The first thing you will notice when looking at my stat highlights from the two sessions is that I am not very good at Battlefield.

After marveling at my pitiful .294 kill/death ratio, the key finding is that my kills per death were the same on each platform. This is the biggest indicator of the feeling I had during my play session: all that money I spent did not do much. Other than a higher accuracy (thanks to using a shotgun instead of an assault rifle) my $106.34 did not significantly augment or improve my skill during the first 5 hours of play. I may have purchased access to a lot of guns through the Ultimate Shortcut pack, but it looks like these guns were different but not significantly better. And the 62 different accessories I found in my many gold packs were all scopes that made no difference at my skill level.

The place where money came into play in a big way was in progression. In 5 hours with boosts, I achieved rank 12 as opposed to rank 5 without, and earned 836 score per minute as opposed to 177. Somehow my 200% xp boosts resulted in an overall 372% increase in score per minute. Digging into the stats, it looks like I earned more Awards while playing with boosts, and thanks to the 200% multiplayer I earned 1,000% more award points accounting for half of my total leveling.

In the gold packs, I gained 150 total items. 37% were purely cosmetic: dog tags, paints, portraits and camos that I as a player do not personally care about. 41% of the items were weapon accessories: all scopes that did not improve my play at all. The only value I purchased in the gold packs were the 33 hour long xp boosts ranging from +25% to +200% of score earned. Over time, it is these boosts which will allow me to level up faster, unlocking the non-scope accessories that can create incremental stat advantages.

Interpretation

This is only one data point, and the data is not entirely clear. For instance, once could assume that I played better in my second 5 hours of play than in my first, but thanks to the money I spent my stats evened out between the two sessions. Or, my performance could be attributed entirely to using the wrong gun for my play style – a shotgun instead of an assault rifle.

To test this theory out, I spent an additional hour on the PC playing with an IAP unlocked assault rifle. My kill to death ratio increased by 130% and my kills per minute increased 91%. Perhaps I was just using the wrong gun the entire time. Or perhaps switching back to the PC illustrates how much I improved during the second 5 hours of play.

Regardless, my $106.34 spend did not magically transform me from a total noob into a decent player. It gave me more options on the battlefield and allowed me to progress faster. But money cannot compensate for lack of skill in Battlefield 4.

The purchasing experience

Just because I am an advocate of F2P game design does not mean I think Battlefield 4 should include pay-to-win elements. Quite the opposite. The success and longevity of Battlefield as an annual franchise is built on a foundation of a well-balanced game. As Tony Hawk and Guitar Hero have proven, great franchises can fall after too many missteps, and the odor of pay-to-win could easily erode the franchise’s main entries.

However, the purchasing experience itself was lacking. I left the game feeling as though my money had been wasted. As opposed to similar spending experiments in Hearthstone and mobile base-and-battle games, I did not feel like I purchased a lot of value out for $100. Honestly, had I been playing in an organic fashion instead of spending money before my first match, I would not have spent more than $3 on a single Battlepack before deciding they were a waste of money.

Further, I believe that a small number of improvements to the IAP system in Battlefield 4 can transform how I felt about my purchasing experience. In my next article, I cover UI/UX and mechanic changes that would have made spending money inside Battlefield 4 more compelling.


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Comments


Bryson Whiteman
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It's an interesting idea to try to compare the stats between the different versions, but I feel that the differences between console and PC are so different that it makes the comparison flawed on that aspect. Not that it negates your learning from the experience though.

I played a great deal of Battlefield 4 last fall and I feel that unless you've already been playing BF3, for instance, 5 hours in that game is a drop in the bucket. I may be wrong, but I feel that the 5 hours of experience in-game would have a significantly more dramatic effect than any improvement you'd get from a simple equipment upgrade. At least early on. You also mention this!

I'm interested in hearing what you think could be improved about the experience about the purchasing of IAP in the game.

Also, I don't think you mentioned anything about the difference between BF4 standard and premium. I feel like I wouldn't be suckered into the nickel-in-diming forms of DLC for a game like this, but I was suckered into Premium to get additional map packs. After playing with premium, it was clear that they pile on the XP Boosts similar to the "Shortcut packs," it sounds like. This saves a lot of time when it came to unlocking equipment early on when I was trying to figure out which classes and weapons I gravitated towards.

That extra boost in progression felt good and sort of made up for the fact that I'm still a terrible player, haha!

Chris Hellerberg
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Conclusion: The method used in the study is flawed, the sample size too small, and not enough data has been gathered; no conclusions whatsoever should be drawn from this study.

"To test this theory out"
If you intend to be scientific in your article, that's a hypothesis. :)

Ethan Levy
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Chris, it should be clear from reading the article itself that it is not a scientific study. I provide the method and data to give some insight to other game developers who are not able to spend time and money into what it is like to spend as a high value player in an IAP game.

I think that criticizing the article because I did not have a 100+ people play BF4 with a more precise methodology is missing the point.

Despite not being a double blind, control group study with a large population, the conclusions are still valid. I spent $100 inside of a game, there was not a large effect on my experience as a player. I found several weak points with the IAP experience I will address in a follow up article. If a game is going to allow me to spend $100 inside of it, it should be designed in a way that makes me feel awesome for it, even if it is designed in a way to avoid a pay-to-win advantage. Battlefield 4 did not make me as a player feel awesome for spending money, lowering the probability that I will spend money in a Battlefield game in the future.

Sung Kwon
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I think the inclusion of such data as K/D ratio actually distracts readers from your main point, which is that spending $$$ in BF4 is simply not satisfying.

You said it yourself that pay-2-win isn't mandatory to maintain good IAP options and probably would be harmful to competitive title like this. So in theory, regardless of K/D ratio, you could've ended up with the feeling that $100 spent was awesome if it was something like awesome skin packs or whatnot.

Bob Johnson
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Anyone that plays BF4 can tell you what's up.

Battlepacks certainly aren't worth buying. I have 60 unopened ones at least that I earned.

The shortcut pack is fine if you don't have enough time to play and want to play with stuff you might not unlock for awhile. But most of the major stuff unlocks fairly quickly.

Map/mode knowledge and skills with controls is a way bigger factor than unlocks in terms of who has the advantage. So buying the shortcut pack isn't going to suddenly help you from getting beat down.

BF4 has way too many guns. All the gun nuts love it. Personally I could care less. I use a handful out of the 100 or so the game seems to have. A gun is a gun in this game to me for the most part. Most of the differences are superficial. I guess they provide some superficial variety like different feel, sights and sounds.

BF4 suffers from way too many awards etc. I've ignored them for at least 6 months now. The net effect of having too many awards thrown at you for each round is you ignore them.

Also I notice all the various badges you can unlock for doing this or that just get too many people into that mode of just crossing off things on a checklist and ignoring the fun of the game and the tactics and strategy of playing as a team and going for the objective.

Bob Johnson
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The DLC has problems too. It really isn't worth buying. Why? Because it segregates the player base and eventually it isn't hosted much because of that. Too many just never buy the DLC.

I get a week or two time frame in which to enjoy the DLC before servers stop hosting it.

What EA should do in order to make dLC more valuable to those who bought it is to eventually make it free to all. Seems counter intuitive but in a multiplayer game my value depends on having players to play against. In the end I would be fine with paying for DLC even knowing it is eventually free. The money paid would essentially be for early access and I would get the benefit of that.

Nick Harris
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I agree with this constructive suggestion. I like the way that Turn 10 Studios have avoided fragmenting their community by releasing all the extra tracks for free. This ensures that it populated and improves an aging product for latecomers. I was happy to spend £99.88 on cars in addition to what I received in the more expensive Forza Motorsport 5 Steelbook Edition, because I saw it as no different from buying additional rolling stock bit-by-bit for a model railway.

If you'd told me that I would have spent over a hundred pounds on virtual cars before I had bought my ONE then I would never have believed you, but given the lack of anything else to play since I got the console last November it was easier to make an existing investment better with the addition of extra stuff, than throw money away on games like Ryse that clearly were not of interest to me.

Arguably, the same could apply to Battlefield.

Make all the maps free, but release them early to Premium members so you can still sell that, then pay to unlock scopes (once across all weapons not just on a per-weapon basis), class-based equipment separately, then ground, sea and air vehicles separately, and leave it to the players to grind XP to unlock their weapons (no shortcuts). This means that those wanting to fly Jets would have to pay extra and kind of be in a game of their own and there would need to be some queue in operation to ensure that the Jet pilot who had not had the opportunity to fly for the longest time (which could span multiple games) would be notified that they had the next turn and have the option to suicide to spawn in the pilot seat without that losing their team a ticket. Some drop in price along with free extra maps would offset complaints about this money-grubbing "pay-wall".

Uwe Wall
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BF4 was released nearly a year ago. By now there are plenty of players around that have unlocked most if not all of the stuff. So at this point in time cheating with one's wallet provides more of an even playing field than an advantage over other players. It is more a "pay to suck less" scheme than pay2win.

Shortly after release a complete unlock would have given you a significant advantage however. In example think about aerial combat where one party has unlocked counter measures and the other hasn't.

The beauty of the gun unlock system is that whenever you unlock a shiny new toy it comes without any accessory. You have to "suffer" through a few matches with the crappy iron sight until you unlock a decent scope and laser pointer. By the time you have managed to do so, you are close to getting a new gun - rinse and repeat. I take it this when most battlebacks get sold.

David Paris
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I'm afraid the amount of basic learning to play involved in the first 5 hours vs the next 5 hours is a huge jump and probably overwhelms all of your free vs paid data pretty solidly.

I'd be more interested in "I played this game on either mode until I was competent and THEN compared 5 hours of free time vs 5 hours of pay time". You'd have a much more level comparison.

If, however, this game really only allows progression and cosmetic upgrade purchases it largely won't matter at all though. Afraid I haven't played BF4 to know whether you're getting power upgrades or not.

Chris Hellerberg
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Five hours is much too short a study duration to draw any conclusions from, and one person far too small a sample size. You would need hundreds of participants who play for hundreds of hours for an accurate study.

Ethan Levy
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See my comment above. If a player spends money inside an IAP game, he or she should feel awesome for it. And near the point of investment. As a player, when it comes to Battlefield 5 I am not going to reflect on if I truly invested enough time after spending money on Battlepacks to know if I will want to buy them again in a new game. I will either think "I had a great time buying Battlepacks, here's more money Battlefield 5" or I will not, given I am the type of player who is willing to invest additional money inside a premium game.

Bob Johnson
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IT doesn't work like that though in BF4. The reason people would buy battlepacks is because they want to try new stuff before others. Or immediately want to play with xyz weapon/accessory because they know something about it in real life and like the idea of using it. And they figure a $1 or $2 or whatever it costs is nothing. They want instant gratification.

AT the same time in a skill based multiplayer game you can't make it so unlocks are so much more powerful than the original stuff. So for the most part the unlocks are balanced so you don't gain any overall advantage.

They just offer variety and new ways to play. And since your loadout is limited you have to make choices and tradeoffs. So getting some new cool unlock that gives you some new ability and making that part of your loadout means you have to give something up that you previously had in your loadout. It's a tradeoff.

IN practice, some new weapons seem like better choices overall than others. But for the most part whether something is better or not is mostly dependent on your play style.

I mean you can carry a wrench to repair vehicles in addition to your RPG. Or you can carry mines. Neither is inherently better than the other.

That's the gist of most of the options in the game.

TC Weidner
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but the problems arent only that its NOT a scientific study, its not even very scientifically based. You have way too many variables going on as to be able to make any sort of worthwhile observation at the end. Good idea, poorly executed.

Chris Hellerberg
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Thanks TC, that's exactly my point. :)

TC Weidner
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.

Caio Branco
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Well, i agree with Ethan that the study DO have some good arguments and findings to show.
But to me, the most importatant factor why your "ability" or "K/D ratio" its not accurate on the comparsion is simply Keyboard + Mouse vs. Controller. You see, it takes some years for someone who just played FPS on the PC to have the "same" (who i think is not possible) skill with the controller, i know you can came close (as i did with some years with my XBOX) but never the same, and i belive that is the reason we dont see too many console/pc crossplatform FPS multiplayer. Anyway, besides reflexes with the crosshair i think what matters more is (as said before) your knowledge of the maps (where to not stand like a duck and where to get some other ducks killed) and the objectives of the map mode (not counting teamwork). So, in my opinion, a PC x PC comparsion will be more credible in terms of K/D ratio. But for the overall experience of IAP i think it's still pretty valid. Cheers!

Benjamin McCallister
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"$100 on IAP purchases" ??

Did you go to the atm machine to get your cash? Whats your APR rate when you borrow against those funds. Does it make you so angry you want to launch an ICBM missile at someone? How fast is your connection on that ADSL line??

:D

Ethan Levy
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Good catch, I will revise out the redundant writing.

Zachary Blum
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Ethan, you focused on your performance and stats while playing Battlefield 4 in two different environments. What was your perception before comparing stats? Did playing the game with unlocks and boosts make it seem more or less enjoyable than the vanilla newbie experience?

Ethan Levy
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Before comparing the stats, I had a fun time playing BF4, which is an undoubtedly great multiplayer game even as an unskilled player, but a negative experience with IAP. I actually think I had slightly less fun on the IAP run due to the letdown of feeling like I was not receiving value for my spend.

As I'll explain in the next article, the feelings I had about spending money are more important than the stats. I don't expect that an average player will think "I spent $3 on a Battlepack and it boosted my K/D ratio by 7%, therefore I will buy again." Instead, I expect an average player will weigh whether they had more fun as a result of spending when evaluating future in-game purchases.

My perception before I looked at the stats was "spending money had little meaningful effect on my performance," and the numbers - flawed as they may be - reinforce that perception.

Jason Gray
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Barring the differences between console vs. PC or the 5 hours time spent on each platform...

IAP are just considerably different from mobile to console. Ethan coming from mobile is viewing IAP as a more tangible advantage (higher K/D ratio, High Level Weapon Unlocks etc.) that will effect his ability to "win". In mobile F2P this is the norm (see Clash of Clans, Game of War etc.). I spend money to instantly allow me to be better than the next shmuck.

This model does not work on console. Your players have already forked over the $59 plus dollars to play and your just asking to alienate them if Marry gets her dads credit card and suddenly is pwning noobs like there's no tomorrow in (insert FPS here). This is why 37% of your money went to cosmetics and scopes which only marginally effect game play.

As gamers/players/digital-experience-enthusiasts we don't want you to jump into our favorite FPS's, spend 100 dollars, and be able to compete after 5 to 10 hours compared to my 50,80,200 hrs. That would be unfair. When/if this happens (and some would argue it has already begun) gamers will go elsewhere.

*Or maybe we won't... This couch is pretty comfy.



**See Sarcastic Stereotype

Jennis Kartens
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I recently managed to get my stats in PS2 up from a 1.x K/D to a 2.x K/D through spending 1.2k € in hardware.

I call it "out-app-purchase-boost"

That will show those kids!

Nooh Ha
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I think DICE is very good at balancing the weapons (although I wish they added more damage variation) and generally confines the OP weapons to Battle Pickups (MGL, USAS etc). My performance has improved as I have played BF4 not from weapon unlocks but from learning how to get the most from my preferred weapons (most of which are early unlocks) and learning the maps inside out. Giving me all the unlocks via payment would have done nothing for my stats.


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