The last time Gamasutra spoke to Ben Cousins, general manager of Electronic Arts' new free-to-play team, was a little over two years ago. At that time he was a producer at the company's DICE studio and was working on the then-yet-to-be-released free-to-play title Battlefield Heroes.
It appears the experiment paid off -- enough so that Cousins is now the general manager of EA's free-to-play division, which has recently released Lord of Ultima, the first new game in the Ultima series in many years. Unlike its forebears, it's a strategy title, and very much in the mold of popular German browser games like Travian.
Here, Cousins explains why the company is going this route -- both specifically with this game and more generally its goal with the free-to-play division. He also discusses his thoughts on the market at large, how the company hopes to win back gamers who may have strayed from playing PC titles, and how multiple entry points into a franchise can foster active engagement.
How did you go from the Battlefield franchise to this browser-based model?
Ben Cousins: I was executive producer for Battlefield, and then we made a new business team at EA. We took the Battlefield Heroes team [from DICE] and the BattleForge team [from Phenomic] and the Lord of Ultima team [from Phenomic].
We made this new business unit because these free-to-play games need like their own special attention compared to packaged goods. I'm running that team. It's about 60 guys at Phenomic, which is part of EA.
How long has that unit been operating?
BC: About a year and a half now.
How much crossover is there now between the people who first worked on The Settlers [now owned by Ubisoft] and the people there now?
BC: Well, The Settlers 1 was Volker [Wertich]'s creation when he was 18 years old. He coded it himself. He was the Will Wright of that genre, and he is Phenomic's creative director now. There are four or five guys from the team who go back to The Settlers 3.
What's the concept behind Lord of Ultima?
BC: Lord of Ultima is a game using the classical mechanics of empire building -- you collect resources, and then spend resources on buildings, building troops, and trade -- but it's massively multiplayer. There are cities everywhere, and every single city has been founded by a real player. Each procedurally-generated continent has thousands of thousands of simultaneous players on it.
The aim is to become the most popular guy on a continent -- the "lord of Ultima" for this continent. If you know the Ultima timeline, after Ultima IV there was a big cataclysm and a whole chunk of the continent broke off and floated into the distance, and no one knows what happened to it. We're telling what happens there on these big procedurally-generated landmasses.
There's a very deep social aspect to the game. You play alone and you manage your cities, but you're also in alliances with other players, where you support each other with troops, and trade resources. This runs at a relatively slow pace, so to send resources from one city to another relatively close city could take about 30 minutes in real time. To send troops or resources halfway across a continent could take up to a day.
Lord of Ultima
So everything happens in real time? Most of these social-oriented browser games are asynchronous turn-based.
BC: It's a completely real-time game. There's all kinds of stuff happening. There are several continents, so there are thousands of concurrent players [per continent]. That's why we can call it a massively multiplayer game, even though there aren't guys running around.
It gives you an idea of some of the timelines that you're thinking about. This is a game where you really have to plan your moves if you're a high-level player. If you're being notified that there's an attack coming in 10 hours, you need to work out exactly what buildings you can put into place to defend your town, or what troops you need to recruit in order to get there.
The way this works is actually a genre which is already well established in Europe. It's very popular there. Travian is essentially a much less graphically rich version of this kind of gameplay.
Right, there seems to be a huge ecosystem of these games.
BC: Exactly. There's another company called InnoGames which has a very popular game called Tribal Wars in the same genre. We're using the Ultima name and the Ultima universe to give it a slightly higher profile, but we're also trying to fix a couple of the things with these games. When I played Travian, before I even finished the tutorial I was being attacked by other players and they were stealing my resources. That was not a particularly fun experience.