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

By Christian Nutt

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.

 


So, it's interesting -- what I was thinking about is, you talked during your presentation about shipping with two maps, and that implies to me that you're planning to upgrade later -- I mean, obviously, the game is not going to persist on two maps.

BC: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, 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.

And the other reason is because this is a service, not a product. We're going to have ongoing support. The live team for the game are almost as big as the dev team. We want to have people coming back to the game over time, but we also want the community to inform us what type of game they want to play.

So we're launching with an infantry-focused map, and a vehicle-focused map, and if they want to play the infantry-focused map then we will continue to make infantry-focused maps. And, similarly, if they think of this as a vehicle-based game, then we'll make the maps which reinforce that feel. So it's down to the community to define what type of game this is, really.

It's interesting. Min Kim from Nexon has said that when they ship a game, it's probably about 50% of the amount of game that a western publisher might ship, but then they add to it consistently; is that how you're looking at it?

BC: Absolutely, and I think that's a really liberating kind of business model, or development model. Usually, when you're making a western game, you bet all your money on this disc, and you put it into stores, and you cross your fingers that it's going to review well and people are going to buy it.

But what we have an opportunity to do, because it's free, is produce a small amount of content, see what people like, see what people don't like, and then adapt to people's tastes.

When it comes to microtransactions, are you doing them via a card system? Nexon has Nexon Cash and Habbo Hotel has cards -- you can go to Target, in America, and you can buy them. EA's Pogo has a system, too, and I'm assuming you're not crossing over with what Pogo's got in mind.

BC: We're really keen to have any kind of payment system available, and if you look around the world, there are different systems -- it might be cards, or PayPal, or credit cards. It might be on your broadband bill -- that's quite popular in Germany.

Prepaid SMS text messages are really popular in the UK and other parts of Europe. We just want it to be as easy as possible to fill up their wallet and get involved in the game that way. So, yeah, we're open to any type.

I noticed that when you were demoing the website, it had a section for the player's region. Is that a payment issue, or is that a gameplay issue?

BC: We need to know where you are so that we can recognize revenue per territory. That's just to help out the guys in EA Poland, or whatever. Also, we want to quickly put you toward servers where you're probably going to have a better ping.

And the other reason is because we want to localize leader boards. So I'm not just interested in the fact that I'm 250,000, worldwide; maybe I'm the number five guy in my town, or maybe I'm the number five guy in my city.

I'm assuming that this game has a global market target -- but when we say "global," do we say global the way we usually mean it when we're talking about an EA SKU? Which is Western Europe and North America. Or are we talking about really global?

BC: I would love it to be really global, and it's been great meeting the guys from some of the smaller territories in EA, who are very excited about this game, because they have a business which is made difficult by piracy -- and, of course, when you have a free game, there's no piracy problem.

So I'm really excited to be talking to guys from EA Brazil, in Eastern Europe, in India, in China, and really, there's no geographical barriers to this game at all. And I love that idea.

 


There's a lot of business reasons to do this title, but it also gives off that feeling of enthusiasm. You know what I mean? I have the feeling that the developers are not disappointed to be working on it.

BC: We make a lot of really awesome titles in our studio, but I think Battlefield Heroes is the most popular team to work on. Because we're working with tried and tested technology, we have a kind-of "anything goes" feel, we've got this fun, cartoony art style.

And this is, you know, we've gone out there and announced as part of EA's new play-for-free strategy, but this is an idea that originated in DICE, and all the guys on the team -- myself included -- really believe in it. We're not out there to screw people; we're out there to create something which is fun and free, and blows things wide open for a new consumer.

One thing that Min Kim also said, to refer to his words again -- I mean, on one hand it's kind of cheesy to keep referring to things he said, on the other hand, Nexon is industry-leading.

BC: He's the dude. Yeah.

Nexon's games don't attract the same people that play other MMOs. He said one misconception is that people expect that Nexon's sharing an audience with WoW, but really it has a whole different audience, and the games attract different people. And that seems to be the same with your game. I mean in terms of the gameplay -- the fact that one sniper round is not going to hit you in the head and kill you, as you mentioned. Can you talk about that?

BC: Yeah. We kind of see ourselves as an opportunity for Battlefield. And I've been a Battlefield fan since before they were called Battlefield games. DICE, before they were DICE, made a game called Codename Eagle, which I used to love back in 1999.

And I saw in that great potential for a mainstream game. And there's just something so fun and so easy about jumping in and out of vehicles, shooting your gun, and just the free-form sandbox nature of the game.

So yeah, we are targeting a new demographic, I think, and one of the key new demographics is going to be younger guys who maybe can't afford the high-end PC, they can't afford an Xbox 360, but they want to be playing a game that's kind of like what their big brother plays.

Or maybe they've got a laptop for school, and it's kind of low system spec. So we want to try to engage an audience that is frustrated because they don't have access to gaming the same way that the rest of us do.

Well, it's funny, because -- I'll do this again -- I was at Austin GDC, and Raph Koster said that consoles are a niche market.

BC: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, I love Raph, and I'm always inspired when I hear him speak. He really comes out of left field, but if you follow what he's talking about, what he predicts kind of tends to come true a couple of years later.

And I think he's absolutely right. If you look at the amount of PCs that are out there, we're talking hundreds and hundreds of millions; if you look at the amount of PS3s and 360s, we're talking tens of millions, barely. So, absolutely, people think that the PC is dying, but that's a crazy idea.

It's not dying, it's changing. What I think is dying -- and I'll be brutally honest about it -- is I think that sixty dollar packaged software on the PC is dying, and I think that non-connected experiences on the PC are dying, and I think that if people want the single player experience in this generation they're going to -- you know, they sold, you know, 7 million copies of Call of Duty 4, but they sold 250,000 of them on PC. Not a huge percentage; not like in the past.

BC: I think we're going to continue to see high-end packaged good games on the PC. But I think they're going to, as you say, have an element of connectivity; they're going to have an element of persistence which you need to be connected online to do; and they're going to be, probably, more multiplayer focused.

So I think that the Battlefield franchise is well placed, not only to continue in this more casual market, with Battlefield Heroes, but as we continue our more traditional line of Battlefield games, we're going to continue to do the same kind of game, and the same kind of service as we have done in the past.

One thing that's also very striking about it is the aesthetic. Not just the character aesthetic, but the big anime blue sky, clouds, and flowers. That contrasts wildly with Battlefield's traditional look.

BC: Yeah, and we deliberately contrasted with ourself, because we've got two very successful games out there -- there are still hundreds of thousands of people out there playing BF2 and Battlefield 2142, and we didn't want to confuse them by creating yet another realistic-looking game.

And also, our art director is kind of frustrated by this gritty, realistic fashion. And if you look at the success of the Wii, for example, there's definitely a market, a frustrated market, that want a more fun experience. They don't want to be crawling around in mud for their entertainment.

 


There's a certain degree to which you wonder how limiting these choices are, even if they appeal to what is perceived as a broad audience.

BC: Yeah, I think there's a danger of marketing, or creating games for a niche within a niche, within a niche, and that doesn't get you anywhere. You need to think a little bit bigger than that. And I'm not saying that we're abandoning the gritty realism -- gritty realism's really cool -- but there are different kinds of ways of approaching that; fresh ways. And, you know, Mirror's Edge is pretty realistic, but it's got a completely fresh art style, for example.

But, you know, Battlefield Heroes, when you're in that game, and the sky's blue, and everyone's got a smile on their face, and they're waving to each other whilst they gun each other down -- it's a really cool, almost kind of a subversive-feeling experience.

That's what I want to ask about, actually. One thing that has come in the Worlds in Motion Summit, is that you can block and censor, but you can't stop people from acting like dicks online. They'll find new ways. What's the communication mode? Is it just emotes?

BC: We have text as well, but you can turn that off. But it's mostly just emotes, yeah. And that's the most readily available thing -- and I think I understand where you're going with this, in that our emotes are kind of fun, and they're happy. So you just create a fun and happy feeling.

I always loved the way that -- there was something about Phantasy Star Online, which created this positive kind of atmosphere. Probably because they had that kind of text-free system of talking to each other.

And as soon as you've got, like, people... You know, a kind-of Quake III "DOMINATING" kind of [feel], the guys with the pitched-down voices and that kind of macho crap.

Well the trailer was hilarious, because it started with a serious World War II-type feel, and the thing is, the dialogue was terrible.

BC: I wrote that dialogue. I'm proud of how terrible it is.

Yeah, but that's the thing! I've seen trailers with worse dialogue that wasn't ironic.

BC: Exactly. We're poking fun at this conservatism within, particularly, computer developers. And there's nothing about shooting a gun with a mouse control and WASD that means you have to take yourself really seriously.

I don't want to belittle the fact that people gave up their lives for their country in the past, but at the same time, do we really want to be making entertainment about this?

That's something I've wondered about. There was that period where developers made Vietnam games, because everyone was bored with World War II, and that period didn't last very long, because I think that Vietnam was a bit more contemporary, and a bit more fucked up, so people couldn't justify it.

BC: Yeah, absolutely. It's been nice for us, not to be bogged down by any particular historical setting; we're influenced by World War I and World War II, but we're not really there. The armies are fictional, the vehicles are fictional, and it's been nice just to be able to say, "Hey, let's just do that." Rather than, "Is this right? Is this sensitive? Or is this insensitive?"

To what extent did the design of the game come out of the idea of wanting to do a microtransaction free-to-play game, and to what extent did the game design, like, "We want to do happy, more colorful, more accessible game," and then you found the right niche for it?

BC: No, I think it came from the business model -- and that's interesting, because people assume business models aren't creative, but you can get a lot of creativity by the restrictions of the business models give you.

Once you start thinking free-to-play, and advertising revenue, you have to have a broader audience; to get a broader audience, you need lower system specs, that leads you to think about cartoony graphics. And before you know it, you've actually made a lot of creative decisions which kind of seeded themselves from that business decision.

You make creative decisions based on the limitations that are imposed on you.

BC: Yeah, absolutely. And there are limitations imposed on the boxed products as well, right? Let's not forget that. So, people are used to the limitations of boxed products, it's just that we've got a different set of limitations for free-to-play products.

And is this leading the charge of the free-to-play movement within EA?

BC: This was driven by DICE very much, strategically, and we're happy to be leading the way -- we love to lead the way, we love to take chances, and suffer the struggles of being the first guys out there. And if anyone else in EA wants to get involved, and learn from us, we'll absolutely happy for them to do it.

But I don't get the feeling that there's a concerted, specific, strategic movement within EA to do that. The new EA, which I work for now, since Riccitiello took over, wasn't really thinking these global, huge, monolithic ways; it's more about the creativity of individual teams.

 


It's difficult to wrap your head around that concept, "the new EA". I mean, I was at the DICE Summit, and I saw Riccitiello's keynote speech, and not only was I watching it and saying, "Yes, and..." I immediately talked to some highly placed developers after the speech, and they were like, "Whatever."

BC: Yeah, I mean, it's difficult to get it across to people -- but I've only ever worked for the new EA, because I've only been at DICE for just over a year. And I just don't recognize the company that people have been describing over the years.

So, in the city-state model, then, as he described it, you feel that DICE has its place, and its culture, and it works.

BC: Yeah. And you saw two games today which wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for the city-state model -- Mirror's Edge and Battlefield Heroes.

Yeah, I mean it's funny, because Battlefield: Bad Company looks extremely competent. I'm not going to say that it looks like there's anything wrong with that game, because clearly not, but... But the other two, I'm actually interested. And I'm pretty jaded, so...

BC: I would give Battlefield: Bad Company a chance, because it's a really awesome game, and the use of destruction is really revolutionary in that game. I've done things in that game which I've never done before in a previous game. And it's a real tangential shift for shooters, to suddenly not have cover, and to be able to shoot your way through cover.

And the other way in which they're really innovating is with the story. We talked about the incredibly serious war setting? This is a bunch of dudes cracking jokes. And if you look at the movies that the guys on YouTube are sending from Iraq?

Guys in the field of war make jokes! And that's their way of dealing with it. So, Bad Company is really doing two interesting, kind of revolutionary things as well.

Army of Two is another EA product where they've said, "Look, this is actually how it is. If it doesn't seem right to you that the dialogue isn't all serious, but that's how it is."

BC: Absolutely. And like I say, these movies you see on YouTube have got guys on tours of duty in Iraq, there, dealing with this with humor, and that's a fascinating thing.

Another thing that it makes me think about is, it seems most people at game developers are working on serious, dour, extremely overly-dramatic type games, but most developers I know are pretty casual, and actually pretty cool people that you could have a conversation and have a beer with. You know what I mean? So it doesn't jibe all the time.

BC: I think you're right, and the great thing about DICE is, we have the... not "freedom," but we just have a kind of irreverent attitude. Maybe it's because we're stuck out in this backwater in Europe, and we feel kind of disconnected from the world, but we always want to approach things from a different angle. Absolutely.

Obviously, this game is unusual from a couple of different angles -- aesthetically, and being a free-to-play game from DICE. It seems like we're at a crossroads right now, where people aren't sure where the future lies. Packaged software is getting more and more expensive; you can have great success, but it costs more up front, and you need to know that you have a blockbuster. There are lots of different online models, and no one's sure which is right. People are thinking that the subscription model is not going to pan out in the long run, and so they're taking models from Asia and trying to make them work.

BC: I think you saw a huge growth in the industry when the NES came out, and then again when the PlayStation came out. I mean, people didn't realize that -- people felt that all of the growth had been done, but it really feels like, to me, that we're on the cusp of another expansive period of growth, between the DS and the Wii audiences, and there's also an opportunity on the PC now.

PCs are everywhere -- there are hundreds of thousands of internet cafes in India, and this is a poor country that soon will have a completely global, online connected world, for which games will be completely different.

There comes a point where you don't have to own a game to play it. And that's going to become more prevalent. And the thing is, maybe not in every territory, but there are ways you can carve out these chunks. This game could potentially be profitable in Korea, even though you're based in Sweden. Or India, or wherever, and it's an interesting way to carve up what's there.

BC: And that's the web, you know. People like to talk about which platform is more successful, PS3 or Xbox -- well, I mean, the real key platform is the web itself. Never mind PC or Mac or whatever runs the web. That's where we're going to see the next revolution in gaming, is with web delivery, and web gameplay.

That's what people are really realizing, I think, and getting excited. But, of course, that brings the glut. You know, in a year or two we're going to be swimming in absolutely awful free-to-play games.

BC: Yeah, but the beauty of it is you'll have the opportunity to play the game; if you don't like it, you don't play it; if you do like it, you continue to play it. So, for the consumer, you've got all this choice, and all you need to do is just spend a few moments trying each one out.

Spoken as a confident man, though, I think.

BC: I think we're in a really good position with Heroes, because I honestly think that we are the highest quality game out there, within this sector, and I don't think there's anyone else moving into that sector with that kind of commitment and quality. I mean, this is a fantastic game, and we're offering it for free, and I don't think anyone else is doing that.

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