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EA Goes Free-To-Play: Battlefield Heroes' Producer Speaks
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EA Goes Free-To-Play: Battlefield Heroes' Producer Speaks

March 31, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

Discussion of the industry's business and development models has been the focus of so many articles, presentations, and conversations for months, if not years now. What business models will work in the future? What audiences should we be developing games for?

EA's Digital Illusions CE -- DICE -- is one of the company's most prominent studios. It has a history of delivering the hardest of hardcore games -- the Battlefield series of first person shooters for the PC. Contrasting that, the company has a new, free-to-play project, Battlefield Heroes, in the works right now.

Leading the charge of Asian-pioneered free-to-play games at Electronic Arts, it marks an interesting step forward for the company, and potentially for the entire Western market. Gamasutra recently got the chance to speak to Ben Cousins, senior producer on Battlefield Heroes, about the steps his studio is taking to push its own boundaries.

There are a lot of interesting things about Battlefield Heroes. The first obvious thing is that it's free-to-play, and what I'm interested in is, why did you decide to make a free-to-play Battlefield game?

BC: DICE have always been, I think, kind of at the forefront of online gaming. Whether it's 64 players in a match, back in the day, having a live team which constantly updates the game with free maps, et cetera.

So, DICE are always looking at new and interesting things in the online sphere. And if you look at what's happened in South Korea over the recent years, there's this new business model which has cropped up, which is games which are free-to-play, but where a certain proportion of the audience buy items.

And we just thought, "Well, let's just try this. We've got an existing engine, we could probably do it with a pretty small team; let's just experiment."

Now, there are a couple questions that jump off from that, but the first one is: so, the business model for the game is microtransactions?

BC: The business model is advertising in the game's website, and in the game's menu, but not in the game itself. And revenue from micro-item sales.

Which is character customization...?

BC: We think the community will define what they want to buy, and what they don't want to buy. So we're really open to selling things, and also them telling us, "Look, we don't want to buy this."

But we think there are two areas where people would be interested. First is your customization items, to change the way your character looks. Maybe you want the gold helmet and a huge mustache, or something like that; maybe a monocle. Those will be micro-items.

The other thing is what we call convenience items: So let's imagine that the two of us are playing the game, and you're playing the game every night for four hours, you're leveling up your guy really fast, but I've got like a wife and kids, and only play the game a couple evenings a week.

But I want to catch up with you, so maybe I'll buy an item which gives me double the experience points for a couple of days. So I'm still playing the game, I'm still having to be skilled at the game, but I'm just leveling up my character slightly quicker. So those are the two categories.


Article Start Page 1 of 5 Next

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Eric Diepeveen
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"what we did is, we come to this from two angles. The first one is that in every Battlefield game, we bust our asses making 50 maps, and then within six months of the game being released, everyone's playing two maps. The two best maps. So, we just decided to make just the two best maps, and not the other kind of maps."

Thats just a stupid answer. They've created way more than 2 great maps. These guys have years of experience. Aaah well, it's "free". So I shouldn't complain.

Lorenzo Wang
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You may be right, but I have yet to play a successful online FPS where players consistently rotated through 50 maps. I'd have to agree that two great maps are superior to the shotgun approach. Most I've played range from 2-8 maps.

Joe Stude
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Personally, I liked a LOT of the BF2 maps that didn't always end up in the rotation, particularly some of the ones in the Special Forces expansion. The maps that did become popular and were rotated the most got that way because they allowed for the quickest point scoring (Karkand in particular). Meh to that.

I don't think shooting for the extremes (2 great maps only or 50 mixed bag ones) is the way to go either. Optimize and go for quality, but continue to give people some variety so that the game doesn't get old.

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Since when did EA release a BF game with anywhere close to 50 maps?

BF 1942: 16 maps included with retail release.

BF 2: 15 maps included with retail release

BF 2142: 13 maps included with retail release.

Even with all the expansions/boosters/patches, I dont think any one BF game had 50 official maps

The maps EA includes have been going down with each release. In general they tend to sell expansion packs if they want to include more maps.

Anyway, dont get me wrong, I think its good to concentrate on a few good maps (look at Team Fortress 2, I love that game and it had about 6 official maps on release) but I'm just arguing about someone claiming the specific number "50"

Also, you don't always know which few maps will end up being the favorites, look at TF2, valve was hyping up the Hydro map new gameplay style before release, and it's dropped to the 4th most played map out of the 6:

So 2 maps may be enough to begin, but get at least a couple more out quickly :)

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"so maybe I'll buy an item which gives me double the experience points for a couple of days. So I'm still playing the game, I'm still having to be skilled at the game, but I'm just leveling up my character slightly quicker."

Interesting use of the phrase 'slightly quicker' to describe 'double the rate'. I'm sure most would-be players would like to know exactly how much of an effect the experience points have on gameplay. If XP translates to better stats, whether speed, damage, rate of fire, new weapons/items or whatever) it sounds very much like this system will leech off the same mindset that has XBox achievement whores buying shoddy, shoddy games simply to rack up another easy 1000 achievement points.

If players can pay to get their stat-boosting experience points faster and therefore have a greater chance of surviving/killing, etc., the 'free to play', 'fun' and 'friendly' aspects kinda go down the drain.

In the trailer DICE promised in no uncertain terms, that you won't "get shot in the face repeatedly by a swearing, ultra-skilled 15 year old [sic] boy who plays the game every day for 8 hours". What they haven't confirmed, is whether the gameplay deifnitely does NOT permit you to get shot in the face repeatedly by a zero-skill billy-no-mates with more money than sense, who gets double experience points every day for $8.

Ben Cousins
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Anon - our matchmaking system ensures you only play with people of equal skill level.

CRISAN Cristian
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I have the feeling there will be large amounts of beta testing to be done to get this right. And in many aspects, the "right" balance will imply a reduced playing and interacting experience... It is doable though and, at least, it's an interesting approach so... good luck!

dan seamans
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The idea of a matchmaking system makes sense, and I'd happily see that in this kind of game. A strategy game I still play has divisions based on the number of points won across all the games you play (you only play people in your division, winning more points for taking on people, less for people below). You then create a promotion/relegation policy and all is well.

Works brilliantly in my experience. I'm a 'decent' (vague I know) FPS player but I still get massacred if I just drop in on most open servers for BF2 of TF2. Some level of matchmaking makes a lot of sense.

Stuart Bentley
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Looks like somebody's taking the Source approach to map shipping.

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@Ben Cousins

"our matchmaking system ensures you only play with people of equal skill level."

So I can't play with my brother downstairs who happens to just be a lower skill level than I am? Or with my friend who hasn't managed to put in the same amount of time that I have so has less experience?

More info on how matchmaking and experience points interrelate, please. How do these systems coexist to allow me to play with who I want and still not get owned by someone who simply has more money than I do?

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How come all the characters are white???

By whites, for whites?

Let me guess, the concept guy who ripped off TF2 is white and the art director is white and the creative director is white and the producer is white. Ignorance is gross.

Aaron Green
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Anon - I think an oversite that people outside of the industry make is the actual core of developing games - present business and future business. The reason why we develop fun games is because we're in the games industry - no brainer. But that doesn't change the formula for any business structure.

What you're talking about in terms of proportional player systems and art direction are malleable variables that are always open for revision and redesign. The structure of these features and elements should all be based on a 'future business' structure that creates a consumer's process:

1. Anticipation;

2. Interraction;

3. Loyalty; and then

Future business for the company, newer ideas and I dare say, better ideas, and around we go again.

To answer your topics directly:

50 Maps: Have you researched, referenced, conceptulised, pitched, designed, blueprinted, modelled, textured, rigged, skinned, scripted, animated, shaded, play tested, revised and finalised 15 maps before? It 'feels' like you've created 50 maps and I think that's what BC was generalising.

Skill Purchasing: Do you really care if 'Johnny85' has puchased his skills when you're having as much fun as anyone could? Think about the entire consumer market and how the business can develop a product that wraps it's arms around the majority of that consumer market and what works for both.

Matchmaking Systems: It's a great idea. A proper system has been a long time coming. Independently, I had come to the same conclusion with a research team last year to improve the gaming experience of online games (FPS in particular) as a solution for larger consumer interest. HOWEVER, servers can easily be marked 'ranking/experience/skill'-based while others can be open slather to play with friends and brothers, regardless of statistics. After all, we're talking 1s and 0s; of course we can appropriate the system.

Character Design: I highly doubt DICE are going to exclude any particular race from the final product, as it wouldn't affectively target the fullness of their market. At the same time, there's hundreds of counties, et cetera. I wouldn't suggest that the creative department has prejudice when the same company varied cultural status within Battlefield. My default character in BF2 just happens to be African American.

In the industry, we don't open a meeting for questions without receiving solutions from those who ask, even if they're stabbing in the dark, it's still an attitude of solving problems. Having said that, I'd honestly like to hear your suggested solutions for an appropriate server system and creative design that millions of dollars can be securely invested into; and a way that DICE can affectively retrive substantial profit with this product to create future business. How would you do it?

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@Aaron Green

Obviously matchmaking can be made to work in the ways you described ('matchmaking on/off' SVAR), but this was at odds to the comment Cousins made about ONLY being able to play at the same skill level. I believe this is too prescriptive (probably just a slip of the tongue on his part) but I'd like to know for sure how the experience system ties in with the game.

And he shouldn't say 50 maps if he wants to be hyperbolic, he should be more general and say 'scores' or 'dozens' of maps. Claiming 50 maps is just asking to be called up on it, as anyone who hasn't played BF will just believe the figure, so it smacks of liberal 'factoid' use.

Lastly, as a business model, yes it's all fine and dandy, but from the perspective of someone who will PLAY the game, I honestly don't care if it makes good business sense, all I care about is that the game is fun, fair and doesn't compromise my entertainment in any way (e.g. by saturating the game with more ads later down the line when player numbers begin to tail off).