EA's Ben Cousins on the free-to-play revolution
In recent years, EA's encroachment into Activision's dominance of online shooters has been fuelled much more by the success of the Battlefield series than the once primary Medal of Honor franchise. Once a pure, multiplayer PC-only design, that property has evolved to embrace consoles and more light-hearted branches such as Bad Company and the free-to-play browser title Battlefield Heroes.
Now, it's ready for another phase of expansion and diversification, with the launches of Battlefield: Play4Free and Battlefield 3 - a swing back to grittier realism launching on the twin fronts of traditional and freemium business models. While at GDC, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with EA Easy studio general manager Ben Cousins to talk about his plans for Heroes' natural successor, Battlefield: Play4Free.
Q: So, Battlefield: Play4Free has taken assets from a lot of other Battlefield games - weapons and animations etc - is that indicative of a lack of financial commitment?
Ben Cousins: Well, it's got weapons from Bad Company 2, maps and vehicles from Battlefield 2, but all new character animation and all new audio. It's really to give people the opportunity to revisit those spaces from the games they've loved in previous games.
We were constrained, but we weren't constrained by costs. We were constrained by speed to market. Battlefield Heroes has been a success, we now understand the business model, but we wanted to take the next step to a bigger audience as soon as possible, because this market is moving so very fast.
We're paranoid - in this sort of business you have to be very paranoid. We wanted to get something out as fast as possible, so that's why we used those assets. But like I say, there's a reason for using those features which is giving people familiarity.
The business model, free-to-play with this RPG element, is new. Weapons are familiar, vehicles are familiar and the levels are familiar.
Q: And it's purely multiplayer - there's no single player campaign at all?
Ben Cousins: No single player, no story, no justification of why the US and Russia are fighting in the Middle East. It's all about action.
Q: The free-to-play experience at the minute is very much a PC only thing. The console platform holders aren't on board with it at the moment, which in some ways is to protect their business model. Is that frustrating for you?
Ben Cousins: I have to choose my words carefully, I don't want to bad mouth the platform holders. At the moment the only viable platform for free-to-play is PC or Mac and I feel like maybe there's a missed opportunity there.
What I understand about console is that because these are big platforms, open to piracy, they have to be very careful about what software they allow to run on those machines. We're releasing three updates a week for Battlefield: Play4Free at the minute.
For those to go through the sort of rigorous testing that they'd need on console, it wouldn't be viable, it'd be too expensive to test with the rigour that they'd need to make sure that it doesn't open up the platform to piracy.
So I understand why they're in the place that they are.
Q: Do you think that the platform holder situation will ever change? I know recently some people have been saying that they need to evolve - that it's unlikely to happen this generation but that we might see something of a sea change in the next generation. Presumably that's something that the publishers would welcome?
Ben Cousins: I hope that the platform holders realise, and I'm sure they do, that at the minute the power they hold is the service and the accounts on PSN and Xbox LIVE. So they're already in a sort of software as a service model - it just happens to be attached to a piece of hardware.
So I really hope that they're able to extend that out. It's fantastic to see Sony allow the PlayStation brand go onto non-Sony hardware with the stuff that's happening on Android phones. I really hope that happens, and I'm sure it will.
Q: What about streaming services like OnLive? Is that something that you're interested in?
Ben Cousins: We watch them with great interest. My question is - a game with the sort of experience like we can offer, we're quite core, do those people mind waiting twenty minutes for a download?
I'm not sure how many more users you'd get from a twenty second wait as opposed to a twenty minute wait.
Q: But in terms of broadening your market because of reduced tech requirements? These machines here look pretty high end.
Ben Cousins: Battlefield: Play4Free runs at full detail on a $600 netbook. It's pretty generous with the system requirements. It'll basically run on anything.
Q: What's the monetisation focus for Battlefield: Play4Free? Is it purely cosmetic or will you be offering in-game advantages? I know in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 players were able to pay to unlock classes instantly.
Ben Cousins: The free-to-play shooter genre is quite established now. There are about five or six competitors. We all basically do the same thing. We offer customisation options so you can look cool, we offer items which allow you to progress faster in the game and we also offer items which give you a small advantage.
This is completely accepted by the users. There's been a real change in behaviour over the last year and a half. You can see that in Team Fortress 2 as well - you can buy a small advantage and people are fine with it.
Q: That was certainly true in Battlefield: Bad Company 2 - nobody seemed too bothered about it because hardcore players and early adopters wanted to play through and unlock organically anyway, whereas people who picked up the game later were able to pay a pound or so to get parity with their options. Also, the weapons didn't really progress linearly from bad to good - it seemed to be more about widening your options.
Ben Cousins: That's exactly right. People have a preference and a playstyle. Often those weapons give people the opportunity to embrace that.
You can have a weapon which is very good at close range, but terrible at long range if that suits your play style, and vice versa. It's difficult to say if these are advantage giving items. They certainly allow some players to achieve more kills, but it's debatable. Free players in these games can be extremely dominating, if they're skilled.
Q: That sort of customisation is obviously very popular - the need to express individuality. How effective is that in a game like this where you tend to not see people for very long before one of you dies - is it going to be a big money driver?
Ben Cousins: We're actually already commercialising the beta! We're already selling stuff and we're seeing the clothing items do really well. The key moment in our games, both Battlefield: Play4Free and Heroes, is the kill cam. As you know, you get killed by someone and you see them straight afterwards. That's the moment when you can say - "I killed you and I am a badass."
There's another element too, which is the forums. People love to show off their soldiers there - taking screenshots and making a signature.
Q: So is it as in-depth as the Heroes customisation?
Ben Cousins: Not quite - Heroes had ten slots, I think we'll have five. That's the concession we've made. We're focusing a bit more on the weapons than we are on clothing, but we're still covering both.
Q: How much did you carry over from the lessons learned in Heroes? That felt like something of an experiment, albeit a very successful one - it's now at seven million users. Whereas that was a browser game which people were playing in lunch breaks and spare time, this feels more hardcore. Was there much to carry over?
Ben Cousins: Yeah, Battlefield: Play4Free wouldn't be possible without Heroes. We're using, to a certain degree, the same game engine, the same monetisation model, the same back end. The same RPG-type customisation and progression tree. So it's really... You could almost call it a sequel to Heroes, even though it's a very different feel. It really wouldn't have been possible without it.
We really know how to make that sort of game now. That sort of knowledge is enabling us to move onto this title and help the Need For Speed World Online team. We're really the first team to have a success in this space. There's so much that you learn behind the scenes, behind the gameplay that you're adding to these new titles.
Q: Interesting to reveal here alongside Battlefield 3. You obviously don't see it as a competitor, do you think that there's going to be much cross-pollination?
Ben Cousins: We see a huge amount of that. At the time, our best ever month was the launch of Battlefield: Bad Company 2. You'd expect people to leave the free-to-play games and go over to the triple-A games when they launch, but they don't. The Battlefield franchise is in people minds and it just multiplies interest in the entire franchise.
I don't know if it's the hardcore players playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and then playing Heroes or if it's the little brother of the guy playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2 who wants to play Heroes. We expect the launch month of Battlefield 3 to be a huge month in Battlefield: Play4Free as well, just because we'll be piggybacking on their marketing. It's very interesting - no cannibalisation whatsoever.
Q: How does the budgetary commitment compare to Battlefield 3? Presumably that game will be in region of the Modern Warfares and Halos - what sort of percentage of that will you see in your budget and marketing?
Ben Cousins: Let me try and work it out.
Just over five per cent of the budget of Battlefield 3. That's production and marketing. Five to ten per cent.
Q: That's an incredible figure, and a remarkable achievement if it works. Do you think that the marketing will be more organic, as a PC and free-to-play title?
Ben Cousins: Yeah - we're working on real, concrete connections between the games as well, which we can't talk about yet.
Basically, if you want to be a great Battlefield 3 player, then you should be playing Battlefield: Play4Free.
Q: Finally, do you really think that the free-to-play model can ever completely replace the traditional model? Perhaps in a platformless future?
Ben Cousins: Chris Andserson, who's the editor of Wired, wrote a book called Free a couple of years ago, where he argues that, if something is online, the price-point will inevitably drop to free.
He uses Wikipedia as a great example. Encyclopaedias used to cost thousands of dollars, now they're free, because they're online. That's a possible future. Whether that takes three years or twenty, I don't know - but I think we're going to see price points dropping and dropping.
Ben Cousins is general manager of Easy Studio. Interview by Dan Pearson