Free-to-play games are on the minds of a lot of developers and publishers at the moment, none more so than EA with its upcoming experiment in the business model, Battlefield Heroes, set to plant its flag under the gaze of rivals eager to see if the Western market will embrace it.
Ben Cousins, executive producer on Battlefield Heroes at DICE, talks with GamesIndustry.biz about lessons learned from the beta, designing for lower end PCs, the radical business model and clarification that the title is effectively already out.
Q: How is the beta going?
Ben Cousins: It's going really well, we've got about 10,000 people actually registered and playing and we're building that up over time as well but we're getting really good feedback and adding features as we go and really growing the service. Rather than playing the play tests with the team here, I'm mostly playing in the beta because the quality of the players is actually better than the guys on the team who have been playing for a year - but that shows how dedicated the fans are.
Q: Have you learned anything unexpected from the beta?
Ben Cousins: Honestly, the most surprising thing is looking at the statistics the incredibly even distribution of people choices, particularly between the two factions. We've got these two factions, the Royal Army and the National Army, and they're quite different visually and we were concerned that one or other of the factions would be a lot more popular with fans than the other one - what's really interesting is that it's 50/50, within a couple of percentage points.
Also seeing the distribution of classes the people are choosing to play as well. We were expecting again maybe people would really want to play the commando - because he's the really evil sniper guy and that might really appeal to people - but we've had a really even distribution. It surprising that we succeeded in that way, we were expecting to have to balance the game a little bit more to get an even distribution.
Q: Is there anything you wanted to do with the game that you had to cut in order to meet the minimum spec requirements?
Ben Cousins: We would like to do bigger battles. That's the thing that the minimum spec's had the most impact on. We have really good 16-player matches [but] the engine supports up to 64 players and we reduced that because we want to have a sensible minimum spectrum of player and also for the servers - the servers are slightly less costly to run than previous Battlefield games. Really we'd like to have huge 64-player crazy Battlefield Heroes matches but that's not possible at the moment - that's something that we'd look at maybe in the future, maybe we would have special access to 64-player games potentially.
Q: Has the beta done anything to help you research the demographics of people playing the game?
Ben Cousins: What's been interesting in terms of our understanding of our demographics has actually been our public site, battlefield-heroes.com, which is the team's portal to communicate with the world at large. What's interesting there is that the people who have registered and are commenting on the news stories are very clearly not our traditional Battlefield audience. They are definitely much younger, the language they use and the kind of things they get excited and interested in.
It's not been a scientific investigation but it's been interesting to see the kind of people and the way they behave on our public site that's really made us realise that the demographics are quite different. For instance last week we posted a news item which said at some point this week we would post other news items that would give people the opportunity to get beta keys. This extremely enthusiastic - but maybe younger and with a slightly less attention to detail - audience interpreted this news item as 'if you post comment to this you will get a beta key' and we had 8000 comments to that story in two days and it actually crashed our web server.
It's a very different audience from the Battlefield fan which I think of as a bit older, an experienced gamer, they tend to be a bit more cynical - this is an extremely enthusiastic, quite large, young audience with quite a short attention span.
Q: You're going to have to appeal to a pretty large audience in order for this to work - do you feel Battlefield Heroes can appeal to a non-hardcore audience who may just look at it and say, "That's just another game where people shoot each other"?
Ben Cousins: I think it's very important that we craft the initial experience of what people play and also how we present the game to the public before they download it to make them realise that it isn't just another game where you shoot each other.
Also it's about how we spread the word about the game and how we promote the game as well, in terms of the tone of the viral movies we produce, and also how people find out about the game. We're very keen on this being a social network as much as it is a game.
Q: Is that approach why you've been trying out methods of increasing the beta by letting people win entry keys for their friends?
Ben Cousins: Yeah, absolutely. That's the very early days of it. We've got some quite extensive plans for that kind of thing. Our focus in terms of marketing Battlefield Heroes is very much viral, it's about recommend-a-friend, it's about using the power of the network effect of the Internet rather than using the traditional marketing of banner advertising, print advertising, things like that.
Q: How do you plan to launch the game and are you sure you'll be prepared for the demand, which as you said has previously brought your site down?
Ben Cousins: We're really running Heroes like a start up from DICE and a lot of the hardware and the administration is being run by a small team because that's all we need at the moment. When we start removing those access restrictions later on we'll bring the might of EA into this and we'll use all of the tremendous experience, backend and 24-hour support that a game like Madden would get online.
We're not going to turn on a switch one day and suddenly our audience get's 100 times bigger - it's really our plan, within the closed beta, to get a very high number of peak concurrent users and we expect in the later phases of the closed beta to be about as big as Bad Company is today in terms of online numbers. We're going to have a very large closed beta almost to the point where every hardcore gamer in the world will probably be able to get a key if they want to - it would just be within a closed beta so that we can control the size of it to a degree.
You may have seen that there was an announcement that the game was delayed - John Riccitiello mentioned that in the recent earnings call. What's interesting is that we never announced a date, we talked about the game being released in the summer of this year and that's still the case. Actually, we're in the closed beta already, so the game is already out and you can't delay a game that's already been released and already been played by people.
It's an interesting difference between a packaged goods product, like our previous Battlefield games, in that there is no real kind of big splash release date where suddenly it's available - it kind of builds up over time. We're in that closed beta phase at the moment and we're going to be adding, as I mentioned earlier, a significant number of users within the closed beta phase itself. The game will kind of sneak out and before you know it, it will be a fairly big...game even though we're in the closed beta and we're not 'released'.
Over the course of the closed beta we'll be adding a lot of our social networking features, the items store, a lot of the Facebook-style features are going to be added. It's kind of interesting the difference between heroes and our previous games. In terms of the finances within the EA there's a date where we start selling items when I guess you could talk about a release date but in terms of the team here we've actually already released the game and we're already adding features, listening to the community and feeding back to them.
It's an interesting thing for the consumers, the press and the industry to learn is that this type of game doesn't do the big splash and the time when it monetises isn't really necessarily the time when people start to experience it.
Q: Don't you think that by missing out on that big 'splash' release you'll also be missing out on the marketing boost?
Ben Cousins: You certainly don't get that but if we think about Heroes as a big web project there was no marketing launch for Facebook, there was no big splash marketing launch for Wikipedia. These things grow over time and become enormous by the network effect rather than having to rely on traditional marketing methods, where obviously you bank of all your money in a particular three-week period and try and get in front of everybody. We've got the luxury of using the internet to spread the word about it - not relying on that critical period of communication about the game.
I wasn't sitting there desperately waiting for the launch of Facebook - because it came out, it was small and it grew and suddenly it was ubiquitous. We kind of think about Heroes as being a modern web product in that sort of sense.
Ben Cousins is the executive producer of the Battlefield franchise at DICE. Interview by James Lee.