Digital Illusions CE has sold some 17 million copies of its Battlefield series of multiplayer shooters since 2002's original Battlefield 1942 -- but the next entry in the franchise, Battlefield Heroes, is going free-to-play.
It's an unusual move for an established hardcore Western franchise, but one that DICE believes will open its game to new audiences, while taking advantage of emerging business models.
The game has been publicly delayed multiple times during development, in one case to "increase its focus on some of the social networking features" -- DICE and publisher Electronic Arts no doubt hope the game, now set for early 2009, can be a bridge between the hardcore gaming set and the ever-growing world of online social sites.
Gamasutra caught up with producer Aleksander Grondal to discuss the changes the game will undergo from past series entries, what it is drawing from MMOs, and how the team plans to make money.
What made you convinced it was the right idea to take a franchise with such a defined direction to a totally different style and model?
AG: For several reasons: We were, obviously, inspired by Korea's free-to-play model, because they have such huge successes with these types of games down in Asia.
So I think we wanted to try and see if we could bring that to the West -- with a Western approach, obviously, because I don't necessarily think that all the game mechanics that work in Asia and Korea apply in the same way in the Western crowd.
There's also this idea about the comic book Battlefield game that has been living inside our creative director's head for a while. Those ideas merged at some point.
Do you have a variety of different revenue models tied to the free-to-play?
AG: There are two main revenue streams that we have: First there are the ads; we're going to have ads on the website and in the game design. They're not actually in the game itself, only in loading screens and a couple of other places.
Server browsers, and things like that?
AG: Yeah, to not make it so intrusive to the gameplay. But the other part is the microtransactions. We can charge if you want the new hat for your character -- a cool one -- then you can buy it for real money currency. Also, if you want a new emote -- you can do certain emotes in the game -- you can also buy that for real money currency.
And additionally, we can sell stuff like double XP for a given amount of time, so your character levels faster; you might want to sort-of catch up on your friends over the weekend, so you can level faster. Those are the kinds of items that we'll charge for real money.
We also have the in-game currency, which is the stuff you earn by playing the game, and that can also buy you new appearance items, weapons, and emotes. But they are two separate things; they're two different catalogues, if you will.
It's important to say that we will not have items that you buy for real money that would unbalance the gameplay. It's very important for us not to have it be, "I have more money than you; I can buy a nuclear weapon and kill everyone!" That's not the kind of microtransaction that we're looking at; it's more the appearance.
Microtransactions are common these days in Western console games, but not in Western PC games -- will that be a challenge getting the audience to accept it?
AG: Well, there are quite a few titles out there that do this already on various levels and scales. I think it's a matter of presentation, ease of accessibility, and having a trustworthy service.
We're looking into all of the options that we can do in each region. We need to remove as many barriers to entry as we can, in order to make this attractive.
As far as your beta players, do you have an idea of how many of them are more on the traditional Battlefield hardcore side, and how many fall closer to the target audience?
AG: We haven't gone with specific demographics just yet. I think we'll do that as we go down the line; we'll aim at certain demographics and see what the results are.
But right now, we are more interested in actual players beta testing it, because once we go wider, there is probably going to be a larger portion of beta players. We want to iron out as many bugs as we can before we introduce the service to a wider audience.
Since you've got a whole web-based component, have you thought at all about integrating with Facebook or other social networking?
AG: Absolutely. I think that applications like that are a really good marketing tool for us, and we're looking into what we can do with MySpace and Facebook, but we haven't exactly decided what we are doing yet.
How big is the team?
AG: We have about 30 developers sitting in Stockholm, as well as the whole backend system that we're developing at the same time -- the whole website, the billing systems, the billing flow -- so there's a total of about 60, around the world.
Are many of those people from past Battlefield games, or did you try to make a distinction between that team and this team?
AG: In the development team for the game, there was a mix between some really experienced Battlefield developers and some fresh people coming in, so we're actually a 50-50 mix between previous Battlefield people and new people coming into the studio.
I brought some MMO aspect into the mix, because I think you need to look at it with fresh eyes; to not make it all about shooters, but make it more like an experience in total, with persistence and all of that.
What's your own development experience?
AG: I used to work with Funcom before, so I worked with Anarchy Online and Dreamfall. I think I've brought something new into DICE, because they have been all about shooters, and we're adding a sort of MMO approach. I think that together we make a good fit for Heroes.
This may not be connected, but it's interesting that MMOs often have a third-person perspective, and here the series moved from first to third-person.
AG: Ah, good point. The main thing about the third person: It's about seeing your character. I don't think many people are interested in investing in their physical, visual appearance of the characters when they never can see them.
Seeing your character, and seeing that the new item that you have is actually on your character, adds a feeling of attachment to him, from a visual standpoint.
The other thing is, we tried to make this more accessible, and I think that seeing your character in the world next to a barrel makes him more connected to the world.
For new players, it might be more accessible, seeing your character -- if I run up to something, and suddenly it stops in first-person, it's, "Oh! I need to look down; there's something there!" But when you're in third-person, you actually see a bit more of the world, and your character's relation to the world.
Initially there, were some concerns, with Heroes, that third-person was wrong for a Battlefield game, but I think that once you actually try to play around with it, it feels pretty much the same. Once you actually get the hang of it, it won't be such an issue anymore.
Are you retaining many modes from the past games?
AG: No; currently we only have one game mode, and that's like a conquest mode, but it's more about actually shooting people, to be honest.
You can go and capture flags if you want to -- and the arrow on the screen points you to the flag. It directs you toward the action, because they're usually fighting over it, but if you want, you can just go and shoot people in the face, and that's perfectly fine. We don't want to force you to do anything. You [can] play the game however you feel confident with it.
It seems like it's less intended to explicitly encourage intricate teamplay, and more to encourage personal goals, with that gametype you describe as well as the inclusion of an individual achievement system.
AG: Yep. You have the mission system, which lets you pick different missions when you go into the server. That could be something like "Kill 15 people," or "Get 5 road kills," or it could be something class-specific like "Heal 5 people." And these missions, they will give you a reward -- it could be experience points; it could be in-game currency; it could be, even, an item, if we decide to go there.
These things will give you a reason to play the game slightly differently than just trying to go for the top score. Instead of just running around and trying to shoot at many people, you want to maybe try to get that road kill.
I think that once you try to do something that is slightly not what you're supposed to do, I think that's when it becomes cool.
It's like, "Why is this guy always trying to drive over people?" So I think that creates cool moments that aren't just getting the best kill-to-death ratio; I think it's about cool experiences.
And furthering the MMO comparison, you have character abilities too?
AG: Yeah. You trigger them, and they have a refresh timer, and it's very MMO-y, in a sense. I think it can appeal to an MMO crowd. They need to get around the mindset that this isn't one persistent world that they're in, but I think they can get into that.
It will be interesting to see if we see those types of demographics also playing our game. We built a game where you can be a bit social in the game, if you will, with the emotes -- being sort of silly about it, instead of just going and shooting.