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Ben Cousins Talks Battlefield Play4Free

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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Jim Rossignol