Last year EA announced that DICE studio's next Battlefield game - Battlefield Heroes - would be a free-to-play online game, monetised through micro-transactions.
GamesIndustry.biz spoke to DICE's executive producer Ben Cousins at a recent EA press event about the business model behind Battlefield Heroes, the studio's relationship with EA, and videogame piracy.
Q: In the Battlefield Heroes trailer you make a joke about downloading the game from a torrent site. Was piracy a deciding factor in deciding to release the game for free?
Ben Cousins: If you look at Korea - and really the idea for Battlefield Heroes came from a business trip to South Korea that a couple of guys had a few years ago - Korea and China are markets which are basically killed by piracy on the console side and on the PC side.
As a result this free-to-play model kind of came because people were used to not paying for their games because they were pirating them.
The companies started offering them for free and started monetizing it with micro-transactions. I don't know whether DICE has been driven by piracy in our games - it's certainly a problem but we do quite well anyway. It was more the case that the business model itself originally came from piracy back in the old days.
In that movie [the Battlefield Heroes Trailer]...I think it's important - I wrote the script for that movie - that we address the fact the piracy exists and there's no point in hiding under the carpet or just sweeping it under the carpet.
Piracy is out there and the industry needs to find ways of dealing with it, and one of the ways is free-to-play games.
Q: If it's not about piracy, is it more of a forward-looking business plan for how you think things will be?
Ben Cousins: It's an experiment. DICE has always liked to experiment, whether it's within gameplay or within online services and that kind of thing. We're seen, within EA, as being at the forefront of online, certainly for action games, and we like to experiment.
It's just literally "Okay, cost isn't going to be that high; Let's just try it and see what happens" and kind of go with it, rather than just continuing to make the same games over and over again.
Q: How does the cost compare to Battlefield: Bad Company?
Ben Cousins: It's about a quarter of the cost of Bad Company.
Q: How many players do you need to make pay for micro-transactions to cover the costs?
Ben Cousins: The way it works...We do quite a detailed business plan, we've got a team, a store manager, a marketing guy and a business development guy working full time on heroes now, working on the business model.
Our assumptions all are based around the fact that 95 per cent of people won't spend any money, and there's a small group of five per cent of people who are willing to spend money.
I can't go into the figures but you can look at the Korean games, which have their figures public - a lot of them - and you can build your model based around about how much people spend and how many people are spending money and things like that.
You do have to go broader than previous Battlefield games and you need maybe double the players that you had for BF2 for Battlefield Heroes to be a really big success.
Q: Previously you've said that none of the items available to buy will affect gameplay. Are you confident that cosmetic changes will be enough to encourage people to spend money on micro-transactions?
Ben Cousins: If you think about it from a gamers perspective, us as hardcore gamers or people in the industry, we always think about the mechanics - people will only buy something for a reason.
This isn't the case if you look at something like Habbo Hotel or Club Penguin or MapleStory. Some of the items that sell the best are items that don't really have any effect on gameplay what so ever.
Our store manager came to us from a German free-to-play game, and he has incredible stories of items that have no gameplay impact whatsoever, which are quite expensive, selling tens of thousands. You're talking roughly EUR 30 an item that people are quite happy to buy, which just changes the way their character looks. So there is a precedent out there, so we're quite confident of that.
Q: How does the download work? Is that a permanent presence on your computer? Because it seems like such a web-based game.
Ben Cousins: It is web-based, but it's too big and too high quality for us to run in a browser and just hold it in memory, so we do an install.
It's very simple, you register as you would for something like Facebook or a forum - a very simple registration process - login, press "play now" and it will download the game. 250MB, it's very quick, and that's basically it.
You can choose where you install it just like a normal PC game, but we think most people will just go for the standard place, and whenever you hit play again it will just launch the game.
So, you have to go to the website to launch the game, but it's a permanent installation on your computer.
Q: Do you think browser-based games is a direction that you or the industry as a whole will be moving towards in the future?
Ben Cousins: I think as an industry, as a whole, absolutely.
People talk about which of the two, PlayStation or Xbox, is going to be the big platform of the future. I think the web is going to be the big platform of the future - whether it's running on an iPhone or a Mac or on the PC.
Q: So when people say there's going to be a one console future, you say: 'Yes and that's going to be on the PC'?
Ben Cousins: My response would be "Yes, and it's going to be the web, and it doesn't care if it runs on a phone or runs on a Mac or the PC."
Q: On your relationship with EA...Do you still feel independent?
Ben Cousins: We feel completely independent. I've been at DICE for just over a year now and before I joined DICE you hear stories about what it's like to work at a company that's just been bought by EA and I just don't recognise the company that people used to describe.
I mean, we're basically given complete freedom to do as we please. We have to show our accounts, we have to show that we're making money, and we have targets in terms of profitability, but really what we're doing and how we do it is completely up to us.
With Mirror's Edge and Battlefield Heroes you see two games which would never have happened under a dictatorial corporation.
You know, it's complete freedom and completely innovative products and we're completely left alone to do what we like.
Q: Do you think that reputation is overblown or do you think it's changed since John Riccitiello?
Ben Cousins: I think it's changed since John Riccitiello, but I think it was never as bad as people thought.
I think there were a few studios a few years ago that were having problems but I think that the majority of people at EA have always been perfectly happy and haven't felt constrained by the corporation.
Q: Do you have a backup plan in case micro-transactions don't take? Advertising, perhaps?
Ben Cousins: We do have advertising and all of our projections have revenue from advertising and micro-items, but the advertising is only on the website - at the front end - and not in the actual game itself. Just static rich media-type adverts that you have in all websites.
There's no precedent for a AAA action game which is funded by micro-transactions in the Western world, but there's Habbo Hotel, there's Club Penguin, there's MapleStory.
There's lots of games out there that are doing this but people don't notice them because they're played by ten year-olds.
It's not really part of the mainstream gaming industry, so we feel really confident that if we can get the volume of people playing the game some of them will eventually be converted into paying users.
Ben Cousins is the executive producer at DICE. Interview by James Lee.