Ben Cousins Talks Battlefield Play4Free

By Jim Rossignol on March 22nd, 2011 at 3:00 pm.


Electronic Arts are making some serious progress into the sphere of free-to-play games, and it’s interesting to watch this established and old school mainstream publisher gear up to explore that fresh frontier. One of EA’s pioneers heading off into that great unknown is Ben Cousins, who is the general manager of EA’s free-to-play branch, Easy Studios. I talked to him about Battlefield Play4Free. Battleforge, and more.

RPS: So what are you up at the moment, Ben?

Cousins: I’m sort of split between two locations, as we have a team near Stockholm and a team near Frankfurt in Germany. We concentrate on making free-to-play games for the EA Games label, so that’s Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free (just about to go into beta!), and then we have a couple of strategy games, Lord of Ultima, and one called Battleforge.

RPS: Battleforge! I remember that. I reviewed it as a full-priced game though. I’d forgotten you’d taken it into free-to-play land.

Cousins: Well originally there were a couple of plans for that. The first was to do a full-priced release for the game, and the second was to go to free-to-play. Since the full-priced release didn’t going amazingly well they quickly moved on to plan B, which was to launch a free-to-play model. We did this thing where anyone who bought the game in the initial release got a bunch of full-priced content within the game anyway, so they were not left feeling too unhappy with the deal. Battleforge is going pretty well. We have the highest spend per user of any of our games in Battleforge.


RPS: It’s a bit of an odd fish, too, isn’t it? A deck-based RTS. Do you think it being a bit offbeat means that it evokes that loyalty in its players?

Cousins: I think there’s something about that card-collecting mechanic which gets a certain type of person really obsessive. That’s where they get this fanbase from. You can buy decks of cards, and there are rare cards, and you can trade cards between players, and then add on to that a sort of DOTA-style multiplayer strategy game, then you can see why some people go crazy for it.

RPS: So let’s talk about the Battlefield games. What’s the background to the development of Battlefield Play4Free?

Cousins: So Battlefield Heroes had been going about a year and a half when we started doing our first concept work on Play4Free. We looked at Battlefield Heroes and we had a proven model there – we’d learned how to do free-to-play shooters in the Western world with that title. It’s going really well! But we were aware that the cartoon presentation that we’d given the game gave it a…. well, not /limited/ audience, because seven million registrations is an awful lot, but it wasn’t going to break out to become a huge breakout mainstream hit. I think that’s partly because some people feel that a mix of cartoony and first-person shooter is a bit strange.

We actually started polling the Heroes audience, and 75% play all the modern military shooters. We also did some market research where we got gamers from our audience into a room in New York, London, and Hamburg, and got them to talk about free-to-play games. It was clear that there was an opportunity for us to do something for the players who played Call Of Duty or Counter-Strike or something. The more gritty, realistic games needed a free-to-play game. For us it was just a matter of realising that we had all these fantastic assets and great game mechanics from the previous Battlefield games. It was perfect, because we didn’t really have to build anything new in terms of art-assets. We knew we wanted to bring the classic maps, and we had all these great gadgets and weapons from Bad Company and Medal Of Honor, so it was just a case of getting what was working from Heroes and combining that with the assets from these other games. That’s the six to eight months sprint that we’ve been going through to bring this to launch.


RPS: It’s interesting to see the Battlefield 2 stuff in here. Like Quake Live you’re sort of cherry picking stuff and preserving some of what was great about an older game. An interesting side effect of the free-to-play revolution?

Cousins: We certainly gained a lot of momentum from having Strike At Karkand, or our take on Strike At Karkand, and other well-loved maps from BF2, but you’re right that there’s a whole generation of players who haven’t played BF2, or only played it launch some six years ago, and this gives people an opportunity to visit or revisit these spaces. Also I think it gives us a chance to monetise all those people who perhaps pirated BF2 the first time around! Particularly in Eastern Europe and South America.

RPS: So you said you’ve taken the payment model from Heroes – how similar is it in terms of what people can expect to be able to pay for?

Cousins: We’re tweaking all that at the moment, looking at the types of guns, widgets and clothing we’re selling, but in a broad sense it’s identical to Battlefield Heroes. If it isn’t broke, well we don’t want to fix it. And I think we are in the process of educating people with regards to what free-to-play means, and I am aware that there’s been some controversy about Heroes, but reality is that the consumers really accept it and it’s a popular way of playing a game. The model, then, is the same.

RPS: So what does free-to-play mean?

Cousins: There are two angles. So for 90% of people it means going into a game and playing for free. They are part of the community and they never need spend a penny. A very large proportion of players play for free. A small number of players will get so into the game that they will want to buy some stuff. What they buy gives them a small play advantage, you could say something like a 5-10% advantage. Or It makes the character look cool, or we might add in some bought-in clan features. So overall free-to-play is very simple. It’s a try before you buy model.


RPS: So what is more popular in terms of what is bought? Stuff that gives you that small advantage, or stuff that looks cool?

Cousins: Actually the split is roughly 50-50. We think there are two different types of player, or maybe three. There are the crazily enthusiastic guys who have multiple heroes who are fully customised with loads of cool equipment, and some of these have spent thousands of dollars on that. Then there are two types of players in Heroes: the ones who want to look cool, and impress people with their good taste. We have a key moment in our game – the killcam – which points directly at the character so you can see how cool they look. The other type of player are the ultra-competitive ones who just want to buy stuff to help them to dominate the maps.

RPS: The way in which in free games are monetised still seems to be ferociously debated by gamers – the recent Dragon Age: Legends came under fire for its pushiness, for example – how do you feel about those debates?

Cousins: The business model in the Western world is not set yet. At GDC this year there was conversation going on about all the different ways you can monetise free-to-play games. You’ve got people selling advantages, you’ve got people selling content, you’ve got people selling energy that allows you to play as much as you like. That’s more of a case of each game trying to work out what’s best for its audience and mechanics. I have trouble working out why free-to-play games have generated controversy – I’ve been doing this for four years now, so it feels kind of normal to me – but I can’t think of anything more exploitative than gating all of your content behind having to pay someone $60. That’s a really harsh business model if you think about it objectively. What we do is enable everyone to play the game, and figure out if they like it. If they don’t like it they can walk away and they don’t lose anything. How many times have we all bought crappy games for $60, right? And the majority of people in our game spend less than that – the cost of a full-priced game. So what we’re selling is a cheaper than full price game that you can try before you buy. If you choose to buy at all. I honestly don’t see what’s so controversial about that – compare to buying a console, an HDTV, and then a $60 game which, if you don’t like it, you’ll have to sell back to the store for $10…

RPS: It’s still a fresh frontier for PC gaming, certainly. And it’s an odd position to be in, given that we were told ten years ago that PC gaming was doomed because we had to buy a graphics card every six months and it was too expensive. Now PC gaming rigs that were made in 2007 are still okay to play the majority of stuff out there, and a bunch of the games are, well, free. That’s a big deal for the future of games as a whole, isn’t it?

Cousins: I think we’re going to get the point quickly where on the “open” platforms – so PC, Mac, Linux, Android, Chrome potentially – developers are going to become platform agonostic. You are seeing that with HTML5, Unity, the Molehill version of Flash, these are 3D engines with high level features and hardware graphics support, and they will run on any of those platforms. I see the future being guys on PCs playing this stuff, but they will be playing with guys on Android Tablets and Mac Netbooks, etc, etc.

The great thing is that transistors are so cheap that even an off-the-shelf laptop are doing 3D graphics fairly well. I just bought a £600 laptop that does pretty damned good 3D graphics. I think the future will be us playing on these devices and playing free games with deep multiplayer experiences.


RPS: So just a couple of questions about Battlefield Play4Free itself: it’s an executable, isn’t it? Not embedded like a Unity player or anything like that?

Cousins: Yes, as with Heroes, people often think that it is a browser game. We do want you to go to the website when you launch the game, and we pop up something when you launch from the browser window. That’s actually an executable installed on your machine. The reason we want people to visit the website each time is update them on the game, on community features, and also on what is in the store.

RPS: I think I misheard this, but is Play4Free getting some kind of editor?

Cousins: No. We don’t have any plans for map editing or mod support. These reason for that is simply that the game is basically an MMO, with lots of stuff happening on the back end. If we enabled modding then there could easily be modded servers that enabled stats padding. The way around that is to allow unranked servers, with unranked maps, but they’re generally unpopular anyway, so we’ve decided not to invest any money in mod support.

RPS: So beta in April?

Cousins: So yes, on the 31st of March anyone who owns a previous Battlefield game will be able to log into their EA account and get access to the Battlefield Play4Free beta. Then there are a couple of other phases. There will be a code published on Twitter and Facebook on the 2nd of April, and then we’ll go to open beta on April 4th. We’ve got three maps to start with, our version of Sharqi Peninsula, Gulf of Oman, and Strike At Karkand. We’ve got really in-depth skill trees, four player classes, and really that’s just the beginning for us. We’ve got extensive plans, such as adding a server browser before the summer, and adding in clan support features. That’s another difference between free-to-play and full priced packaged good: launch is the start for us, not the finish.

RPS: Just to stress the differences here – you’ve mentioned the different weapons and skill trees and so on – but what is it this going to be like compared to the Battlefield 2 of six years ago?

Cousins: Okay, so! Completely new audio, completely new animation. The weapons are much higher res because they’re from Bad Company 2, the maps are the vehicles are from BF2. We’ve got a similar levelling up system to Bad Company 2. You can’t change your class mid game. Basically we made the classes broader, so most people are effective over short and long range, most people will have access to something to kill a vehicle. It’s a little more like Heroes in that regard, where we want you to concentrate on one character. The maps are tweaked a little from the BF2 versions, and there are some new graphical effects in there.

The pace of the gameplay is much faster than BF2. Compare our version of Karkand to the typical 32-player version of Karkand in BF2 and you’ll find it much faster paced. It’s much closer to Bad Company 2 in terms of timing and spawning. It’s closer to BFBC2 than Battlefield 2 in terms of how it plays, but the maps and the vehicles will remind people that it comes from that lineage.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

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36 Comments »

  1. Prolepsis says:

    Some of this Free-to-Play stuff is definitely about perspective. He has a point when he talks about it basically being a demo with the option to pay, compared to a fully priced sixty dollar game. However, what breaks his analogy down is when I purchase a better item in a Free-to-Play and there is a time limit on it. At that point, I’d rather pay the full sixty so that I always have access to the content (barring pay-to-unlock-dlc’s, of course).

    The Heroes gameplay didn’t flow well at all for me… maybe this will be better.

    • heartlessgamer says:

      Well this makes sense for the 1% of games I play where I stick it out more than a month. However, I have tons of examples of games I bought for full price where I didn’t play past a couple months where in the F2P model of BF:P4F, I would of only paid a small amount for a couple months worth of X. Oh and I’m already getting the game for free so I get to try it out before I decide to buy in further.

      Also they said this will follow the BF:H model which lets you buy the items you want out right for a single price. You can pay less and have a timed item or use in-game cash to by a limited use item, but the option has always been there to purchase something permanently.

    • Prolepsis says:

      I stand corrected. All I remembered from the Heroes item shop was stuff that expired; I guess I didn’t search hard enough.

      And, yeah, like I said, perspective.

      I wonder how much it would cost to purchase all of the available, play changing items in Heroes or Play4Free, more or less than a full retail game?

    • Mattressi says:

      It would cost considerably more: as I noted in the other thread, you’d have to spend $30 just to be able to buy a pack of 2 weapons for one class (one for each team). There are three classes and many different types of weapons (for the many different types of playstyles) available. That’s why I stopped; if I wanted to change how I played (even change to a different team!) it’d cost me more money.

      Plus the constant drip of consumables eating away at your money isn’t fun.

  2. Jetsetlemming says:

    I’m in the Battlefield Play4Free beta and one particular element of the divide between included content and what you need to pay for really gets to me, but I can’t comment because the NDA. Suffice to say: I’ve gone back to BC2. Just unlocked the sniper shotgun rounds last night, it’s pretty sweet.

    • Evil Timmy says:

      I completely agree, it’s a fun little distraction, but doesn’t measure up to Bad Company 2, and certainly will pale in comparison to BF3. There’s three big issues, really: no squads, poor audio, and floaty feel. Some of that might get fixed by release, and the first five of you who care can find out for yourselves. 7DWT-MMY3-TGLF-T34H

  3. Shatners Bassoon says:

    I played up until the store update where I had to work my ass off to keep my weapons for a week. It was at that point where I just went straight back to BF2 and it’s many wonderful mods and countless numbers of players.

  4. Gigs says:

    Equality is very important to me in multiplayer games. When I play, whether it be a free or paid game, I have the (what I think to be) reasonable expectation that my opponent is playing on the same terms as I am. Having “ultacompetitive” players that can pay for an advantage ruins that sense of fairness. I have no problem with priced weapons that give a larger variety of attacks than the non-payer, so long as the attacks aren’t obviously more powerful than their non-paying bretheren. But I write off any game that gives actual, quantifiable advantages to the payers.

    • Gnoupi says:

      I share this feeling, and I have this problem with TF2 since the introduction of the item shop. I really dislike the idea of someone having an advantage over another player, just because he paid more.

    • SAM-site says:

      Devils advocating somewhat, but surely this is just the same as the weapon unlocking in regular Battlefield, CoD, MoH etc. In those you’re at a disadvantage to those who have spent more time in the game and “bought” better kit as a result.

      Personally I *think* I prefer the paid option for these kinds of advantages – veteran players have enough advantage with their experience in the game without the added bonus of better weapons. Paying for better gear at least allows rookies to compete on a more even playing field.

    • Thants says:

      Well, I think weapon unlocking is also a terrible idea. As soon as you start giving people different items based on external factors all balance seems to go out the window.

  5. Daave says:

    I reckon this will have more or less the same popularity as Heroes. I only have an account for that game to unlock the Garand in BC2, so I suspect the number of active accounts is an order of magnitude or two below 7 million.

  6. xcession says:

    The main issue with the P4F/P2W model is, as Gigs says, players want to be equal on the battlefield.
    If everyone is equal, then the game becomes about skill. Skill is gained through practice and pretty much everyone has some degree of acceptance for that fact. The obvious concern of many players is that paying even for a meagre 5-10% advantage is still paying for an advantage!

    Not paying $60 for a game is a good thing, but either way you have a *choice* not to buy it if you can’t afford it. That way you’ll never play the game and you’ll never know what you’re missing. The problem with the P2W scheme is that even though the vanilla game is free, once you’ve got into it you feel compelled (somewhat against your will) to pay at least a small amount just to level the playing field. You still have a choice to not-pay, but you’ve already tasted the goodness and its harder to resist.

    You’re assured that injecting the game-heroin is free, but you’re not told that you’ll almost certainly feel the need to pay for more heroin later! This to many seems duplicitous because its free on paper, but not in practice.

    A little corporate acknowledgement of this disparity would go a long way towards shoring up the P2W model for the future.

    • ReV_VAdAUL says:

      Especially because logically one knows you have to pay to some extent, free to play is what it may be advertised as but if everyone plays for free the company selling the game will go under.

      Its all very smoke and mirrors.

    • xcession says:

      For me its a case of expectation management. P4F is more like a demo version which never expires and has 90% of the functionality of the full software. However when you download a demo you always know you’ll have to stump up some cash eventually.

      When you download P4F you do so eagerly in the knowledge you’ll never have to pay…only to find you kinda do, which is just deeply disappointing and you feel slightly betrayed. For a manufacturer that’s not a feeling any consumer should ever feel with your product.

    • Thants says:

      Except, instead everyone on a level playing field you have the demo players and all different levels of paying player mixed in together so it’s impossible to balance.

  7. Inigo says:

    RPS: I think I misheard this, but is Play4Free getting some kind of editor?

    I assume this is a euphemism for “I shoved a potentially lethal amount of mescaline into my drooling maw, and as I writhed in terror upon the ground as the ambient soundtrack of more than two hundred souls in conversation became the furious baying of a million hounds thirsting for my golden blood, I became aware of an iridescent axolotl who softly descended from the skies above and whispered in my ear: ‘Battlefield Play4Free, an online game that is fiscally dependant upon players spending money in exchange for ingame content otherwise unavailable to them, will come with software that will allow the user to create ingame content for free, potentially disrupting the flow of income that is the only reason that EA is allowing this joyfully corrupt façade of innocent child’s play to be developed.’
    I could be wrong, of course. I am really quite drunk.

    • 4026 says:

      Well played, my cynical friend, well played indeed.

      I move that, in future, any comments impugning the RPS staff must be of at least this calibre.

    • Selifator says:

      Mescaline incites the brain to write elaborate sarcasm. How interesting.

  8. farcry15 says:

    here’s a 5 use beta key for battlefield play4free
    5T9D-UGEJ-PEWQ-2FK7

    • iq says:

      Ta, muchly. Worked like a charm.

    • Prolepsis says:

      Ditto!

    • Caleb367 says:

      Here’s mine:
      H3XD-69YQ-2L39-GJGU

      Dunno if it still works, btw.

      If it does, knock yourselves out – I’ve tried this thing but it simply bores me to hell and back.
      ‘sides, having to go through the website REALLY annoys me. More than the ridiculous prices on stuff.

  9. mollemannen says:

    so they are actually going to release this? sure i haven’t played since mid december, or played and played, more of waiting to play rather. also, this mechanic they have were in a map people travel to different areas and fight over points, why didn’t they make a singleplayer mode out of that for battlefield 3? it would work and coop would be easy to implement there. very well hopefully next battlefield.

  10. Ergates_Antius says:

    I think that’s partly because some people feel that a mix of cartoony and first-person shooter is a bit strange
    That’ll be why TF2 was such a flop then…

  11. Xocrates says:

    I believe Eurogamer is still handing out keys as well, in case anyone is interested.

  12. Po0py says:

    I’m actually excited about this.

  13. mkultra says:

    Played the Alpha. While it was reasonably solid, there’s no reason to play this when BFBC2 and BF2 still have solid communities and you don’t have to buy your K:D.

  14. Dances to Podcasts says:

    So they found out 75% of their players also likes those realistic modern games, and then they decided to make one of those realistic modern games so they could steal those 75% away from their own game?

  15. Jetsetlemming says:

    I tried out Battlefield Heroes and really the thing I didn’t like was third person. It made flying harder, paradoxically. I was banking up and suddenly I was looking at the sky, and in third person I found it hard to see if my orientation was properly responding to my hasty mouse movements to right myself.

  16. Gabe McGrath says:

    Hmm, these “Ben Cousins” headlines are a bit surprising for your Australian readers.

    Because we have a famous footballer here by the same name, who’s well known for erm… recreational chemical ingestion. So the idea of him being in charge of a large game division is pretty funny.

    “Hah, imagine what a Ben Cousins* game would look like….”
    (*UK/USA readers, substitute ‘Charlie Sheen’)

    • sexyresults says:

      I know, it weirds me out every time I see this headline.

    • Camerooni says:

      I was thinking this exact same thing..

      And then I punch myself in the face to punish my brain for retaining useless druggie footballer information and not the correct path through Ocarina’s water temple.. *sigh*

    • sexyresults says:

      he was a good footy player though

  17. bill says:

    Might try it, as i’ve somehow managed to miss ALL the modern-warfare games (and most of the ww2 games) of the past few years. I doubt i’ll play for long though, or get hooked.

    So for me it’s a good chance to give something a quick spin that i might not otherwise have tried.

    But there seems to be something a bit wrong about a business based on “some people will get obsessed and spend thousands of dollars on their character”.
    It’s like me getting free entertainment at the expense of people who are addicted or getting ripped off.

  18. Averice says:

    Stopped reading when he said you get a play advantage the more money you spend. Sorry, not interested anymore.

    Plus, we should all know the number one problem with f2p shooters. Hacks.

    Also, how does he get off saying there is no f2p CoD game out there? There’s lots of f2p shooters 0_o.