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GDC 2011: Perfecting The Free-To-Play  Battlefield Heroes
GDC 2011: Perfecting The Free-To-Play Battlefield Heroes
March 4, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

Ben Cousins, general manager of EA's free-to-play Easy studio in Stockholm outlined the team's experiences launching, tuning, and succeeding with the company's first non-casual free-to-play game, Battlefield Heroes, at a GDC 2011 presentation today.

The experiences gained from Heroes have driven the team to launch Battlefield: Play 4 Free, which is going live in four weeks. Easy operates as its own publisher, with community, marketing, and more functions handled in-house, allowing it to operate almost independently.

Battlefield Heroes started as a project at EA's DICE studio in 2007, and in late 2008 spun out as a new business unit.

In December 2009, however, there was an uproar about the change in the function of the game's economy -- a huge forum campaign, a deluge of email, and plenty of negative news stories.

Says Cousins, "It looked like, according to our forum posters, business blogs, email, etc... The game was obviously going to die. How come Easy still exists, and how come they are launching Battlefield: Play 4 Free?"

BFH launched without the ability to buy more advantageous weapons, despite the team consulting with Neowiz, a Korean F2P company EA part-owns. Cousins attributed this to a number of factors, including the team being made of western game designers with certain expectations about what players would like; negative press garnered from a mistaken text string in Battlefield Bad Company which implied weapon sales; and assumptions about cultural differences.

Promises Cousins made about a supposed lack of in-game weapon sales "are still on YouTube and come back to haunt me until this day," he says.

The game launched in June 2009, and July 2009 was biggest month to date for user volume. However, after launch, the team faced a "really big problem ... it was clear we weren't making anywhere near as much money as we forecasted."

Average revenue per user (ARPU) was targeted at 50 cents, but the real return was 25 cents in the first month. "We'd used Korean benchmarks and were even a little conservative."

The team identified four key performance indicators -- monthly ARPU, monthly active users (MAU), monthly conversion rate, and average revenue per paying user (ARPPU). 
In the July 2009 KPIs, ARPPU was $20.25, but the conversion rate was a mere 1.29 percent. "Conversion rate was the issue -- clearly failing one on of the KPIs allowed us to really focus our work."

The team discovered a class of players it termed "'peacocks', who wanted to show off their clothes." They ran a survey to find out what players wanted to buy, and contrary to expectations, advantages in battle were high on the list. But the team still didn't feel comfortable implementing those, and they were added to the bottom of the backlog.

Change was slow; Cousins asked for more staff, but was told they would not be forthcoming until they made more money."The problem was that my bosses at EA didn't know if free-to-play would work in the Western world ... So they were reticent."

In November, Cousins said they were making progress, but still avoiding advantage items. But in early December, EA cut 1,500 developers across the company, which made the Easy team scared they would be cut too.

EA decided that the game was "too free," Cousins said; metrics showed that free currency earned through play allowed players to maintain multiple valid characters for totally free.

The decision was made to tune the game so that you could maintain one character with one weapon if you played a couple hours a day. The team dropped the prices of permanent weapons because "we wanted to increase the accessibility of those while decreasing the accessibility of free weapons."

The team also finally introduced more powerful weapons for cash: three with bigger magazines, five with a slightly better chance of a critical hit, two which did slightly more damage, and one with a recoil reduction. Cousins estimated "a 10 percent increase in power for each of these cash weapons."

The first new weapon launch -- shotguns -- resulted in a 64-page forum thread the day they were introduced. The mods created a new thread which swelled to 50 pages and 1000 posts in a day, and later to 250 pages and 4000 posts.

The team quickly "got nervous -- but lucky we were running an online direct to consumer business and we had the data," Sessions said

BFH had good MAU and ARPPU, but bad ARPU and conversion prior to the changes, but there was a 100 to 200 percent jump in daily revenue overnight with the new guns. DAU didn't change whatsoever, and while ARPPU dropped during this period, there was a "a really dramatic increase" in conversion -- three times as much. "We were still under a five percent conversion rate daily," says Cousins, but still much happier. 

In other words, "there was a mismatch between what was being said on the forums and what was happening in the data." So they analyzed the forum. The stats: 78 percent of their users never touched the forums. 20 percent read at least once but didn't post. Two percent read and posted on forums, in proportion of the game's total user base.

A look at the spending habits of forum posters to determine if they spent or not revealed that their average spend on the game was $22 -- or more than 10 times the average user.

In other words, "there seemed to be a disconnect between what they were saying -- 'I will leave and never spend a penny' -- and what they were doing -- sticking around and spending a lot of money," Cousins says. Given this data, the team decided to "use forums as an alert and then do a data-driven examination" of potential problems.

Did this have a negative effect on the game? Says Cousins, "There is no long term effect from pricing on registration." Moreover, "there is no real long term impact in trend of churn." Meanwhile, "gross funding revenue has gone up a lot."

"Battlefield Heroes is very profitable now and our projections for next year have us running at a 50 percent margin," cousins says. And with upcoming launch BFP4F, " we aim to make this the western world's biggest free-to-play client game."

Says Cousins, "Common assumptions about the types of virtual goods it's OK to sell in games are incorrect. It took our fear of losing our jobs to take a leap in the dark."

He analogized this to amateur sports -- you can buy better equipment in cycling or golf, but everyone accepts this and still plays and competes. "Sometimes the guy who killed you with a good weapon was a good player and he would kill you anyway; sometimes he's not a good player and the free players enjoy ganging up on him and killing him anyway," says Cousins.

Since the game's combat loop is 15 seconds, free players can devise effective strategies, Cousins says. "It's actually what drives all economies whether you like it or not." In conclusion, "Stop trying to define user behavior... Instead look at what consumers want it to be."

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Sting Newman
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Free 2 play is proof gamers are a stupid lot, I bet there are a lot of kiddies.

Christian Kulenkampff
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The analogy to amateur sports is a very plausible one.

I like and play good Free 2 Play games. I like BF:Heroes - it is a great game and makes a lot of fun. I bought stuff for ~20EUR (including outfit). You should consider Free 2 Play as a possibility to "buy fan articles", better equipment (see analogy) or as a flexible alternative to subscriptions. In my opinion the problem is the widespread idea that paying users shouldn't have an edge over non-paying users. If the benefit you can get by money is capped, i don't see any problems. I like the way it is solved in BF:Heroes as a player and as a game development enthusiast.

Sting Newman
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Uhh the problem with amateur sports is that you're buying VIRTUAL ITEMS IN A GAME YOU DO NOT OWN. All the money you spent on virtual items disappears into the vapor should they ever decide to shut down the game. i.e. money wasted.

I don't mind Free 2 play, I think the stupid should subsidize the intelligentsia among the hardcore community. Free 2 play in my mind has been a boon. I played need for speed world (most wanted repackaged as an MMO) without laying down any money.

I just feel bad because F2P is really taking advantage of naive kids/teens with access to their parents credit cards.

William Ravaine
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So what's the difference with people buying MMO subscriptions and the servers going down? What's the difference between this and buying a ticket for a movie, that costs 30 times more, and you only get to experience it for less than 2 hours? From this perspective, buying a "virtual" item in a game you're going to play for 2 hours a day for several weeks is much more bangs for the buck.

If you think about it honnestly, there's few things you pay for that you acually own :) You pay for a service, not a product.

Sting Newman
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"If you think about it honnestly, there's few things you pay for that you acually own :) You pay for a service, not a product."

Deep down I believe games as services are theft, plain and simple. It's a way to abuse gamers since gamers never own anything anymore. If a game changes or an update makes unfun some aspect of the game the player has to live with it instead of being able to roll back to their own copy. Because games are quantitatively different as a product.

Really Cool
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Ben Cousins 'Pay to win' strategy a win? Easy Studios & Bens GDC presentation. or huge fail?

Adam Bishop
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The information that the BFH team gained here is something that developers should always try to keep in mind - that forum posters, particularly the most vocal ones, are often *not* representative of the viewpoints of the majority of a game's fans/users. This is why I always become concerned when I hear from someone who is working on a sequel that they've "listened to the feedback", because often what that ends up meaning is changing things that most players liked in order to appease a few vocal but non-representative players who happen to be more involved in online communities.

Sting Newman
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Just because hardcore gamers are a minority and outspoken DOES NOT MEAN that their criticism of games is incorrect, not all criticism is of equal value. People who speak the truth about your games design are valuable. The idea that just because most people who buy your game don't have a high enough IQ to critique your games bad design does not mean you have license to ignore the truth about aspects of your game.

Consider taking criticism from your colleagues, you would take it in a hearbeat if you knew it was true right? The idea that outspoken players do not speak truth about bad games is a lie. So many games are bad BECAUSE the *wise* among hardcore are not listened to. There are lots of outspoken gamers that don't know games from a whole in the ground but there are gems among the outspoken hoard that should be listened to. Lets not forget many people who speak about games are teenagers or young kids who do not have 30 years of gaming history behind them.

Consider the phrase: Eat shit, millions of flies can't be wrong!

I shudder to think where games would be without us hardcore gamers, we are the people ran out and bought god of war, we are the people who went out and bought UT2004.

All game players are not created equal and game design and sales have very little in common unfortunately. There are lots of reasons why things succeed or fail the idea that the world works on logic "I got sales = my design is good" may or may not be true.

Your game could sell simply on demographic change or the rise of a FAD (see: what activision did to rock band and music games). Everything was going alright for music games until they weren't right? Music games are what happens when developers and publishers listen only to themselves.

Attracting large audiences have downsides - creating bland experiences for people who are essentially non-gamers. We've seen this in the MMO space where MMO's cater to non-gaming crowd and they wonder why the MMO's are the hugest graveyard... FF14 has to be the most dumbed down MMO of them all and it bombed.

Adam Bishop
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Criticism of a subjective form like video games can not possibly be "correct" or "incorrect". It's just an expression of one person's taste over another's. Developers should make games that appeal to their audience, whatever that audience is.

Sting Newman
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"Criticism of a subjective form like video games can not possibly be "correct" or "incorrect""

You are incorrect unfortunately, if a bad animation is bad, then it is bad whether or not an audience can see it. Some days I wonder if you have a brain in your skull at all, you really should start reading some neuroscience books because the "subjective objective" concepts are known to be outdated/problematic with what has been discovered in neuroscience.

Arnaud Clermonté
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" "I got sales = my design is good" may or may not be true. "

well there's no point having a good design if the poor finances force you to shut down the game.

No sales, no game.

" Eat shit, millions of flies can't be wrong! "

"Sell shit" would be more on-topic.

It's the neverending quest for balance between finances and game quality.

Easy had to re-adjust and seek better finances.

Really Cool
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As an "EA failed" participant...

Actually this is one " 64-page forum thread the day they were introduced. The mods created a new thread which swelled to 50 pages and 1000 posts in a day, and later to 250 pages and 4000 posts. " of hundreds of threads. Most threads that reflect poorly upon EA/Dice/Easy/ERTS get deleted by Easy Studios- Lets report all the facts Big Ben!


"Do Dice really care if 10 of you strike? There is 1 million players.

I bet most of the people striking play for free anyway." A million players?!? try 250k casual gamers at best; with only 2% paying an AVG 22$ ?

How 'bout this thread '
36&page=1 ' Thoughts? This thread discusses both BFH and Battlefield play 4 free.

Remember this gamer:

7 Million registers users is a result of freebies handed out via email. Each USER created multiple accounts(first 2 years)! In the business world this is called" COOKING the BOOKS".

Let be real Big Ben! Your business model needs some major adjustments.-S.W.O.T analysis might be in your best interest. You might discover BP4F & BFH consumers have similar but different set of expectations.

BFH promotions:
39&pid=3010203#pid3010203 C-mon my kids can do better!


EASY Studio must learn how to merchandise and cross merchandise digital product in the digital world; In order to meet its true profit potential. And right now EASY Studios doesn't clue... a burger flipper could do it better.

However, I C Big Ben as being the next Steve Jobs of the growing free 2 play market.

Arnaud Clermonté
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The dishonesty of the most vocal users is not really surprising.

How many times do I read tantrums such as "That's it, I'm cancelling my pre-order"

from a kid who really wants a game and is trying to give a financial weight to his opinion about a minor feature that has just been announced...

And that kid might never had any intention of buying the game in the first place. If he's tech-savvy and selfish, he'll torrent the game anyway.

You can't trust vocal gamers to tell you how to make your game profitable.

They know what game they want, but they don't care if you lose your job after making it.

Really Cool
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Your a little off target with this one-Play for free games makes $profit$ on digital product(outfits,cloths,guns etc) through micro-transactions and can not be stolen via torrents.

These kids and their"tantrums" represent not only core gamers, but emerging(consumers) gamers as well. Bad public/consumer relations between Forum moderators, Developers, and endgame users(consumers)can harm 'Long-term brand loyalty' among these core gamers costing ERTS future sales.

Really Cool
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Just came across a pretty good thread "[to EA] Taking pride in one's craftsmanship"