DICE: Battlefield Heroes to lead EA into free-to-play

DICE: Battlefield Heroes to lead EA into free-to-play - Image 1Battlefield Heroes was the first of surprises in the PC gaming scene in 2008, after the World War II, third-person strategy shooter’s recent unveiling caught the attention of thousands of gamers around the globe. And we were no exception – Digital Illusions CE (DICE) pulled an awesome three-hit combo: the cartoonish art style, online multiplayer game concept, and – gasp! – a free-to-play business model. But how exactly will all this work for DICE? Get the answer at the full story.

DICE: Battlefield Heroes to lead EA into free-to-play - Image 1

Ben Cousins of Digital Illusions CE (DICE), the guys behind the Battlefield series, recently had a chat with Gamasutra about the inspirations and the ideas the finally resulted to the unveiling of Battlefield Heroes – a free-to-play, cartoonish, action, strategy video game focused on fun. And the game producer revealed that the initial ideas spruced up for designing Battlefield Heroes weren’t about how the game would play or look.

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F2P – not EA’s typical acronym

Cousin says it was the “Play 4 Free” business model that became the Battlefield Heroes‘ first inspiration. He says that their dive into free games stemmed from the free-to-play (F2P) business model so popularly used in the Asian game industry. Those games may not have a regular subscriber base as Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft, but where people don’t pay to play, the huge revenue their games bag every year clearly shows they’re willing to spend more for something else.

And DICE, being one of EA’s forefront developer studios in online gaming, wanted to give it a try. Cousins explains:

We just thought, ‘Well, let’s just try this. We’ve got an existing engine, we could probably do it with a pretty small team; let’s just experiment. DICE have always been, I think, kind of at the forefront of online gaming. Whether it’s 64 players in a match, back in the day, having a live team which constantly updates the game with free maps, et cetera. So, DICE are always looking at new and interesting things in the online sphere.

True enough, this move signals the first of any game conceptualized under Electronic Arts‘ supervision to be offered for free – a term not commonly known to come from the superstar publisher.

But last year, EA started to look into free games and microtransaction revenue models when it released FIFA 07 for free, and with open-minded John Riccitiello sitting at the CEO’s office, the idea is more likely to proliferate. And according to Cousins, it’s DICE that’s currently leading it:

This was driven by DICE very much, strategically, and we’re happy to be leading the way — we love to lead the way, we love to take chances, and suffer the struggles of being the first guys out there.

Cousins later revealed that Battlefield Heroes will rely on revenue from strategically placed advertisements and microtransactions. So the advertisements placed on the site and on the in-game menu, plus additional micro-content are what they hope will keep Battlefield Heroes up for a long time.

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“Localizing” the world

It doesn’t sound like much from a financial standpoint, but F2P does have its perks: the fact that Battlefield Heroes is free will attract a huge audience from the get-go, and you can expect that gamers from around the globe are more than willing to try it out. DICE even placed a section on the official website that allows a player to define where he (or she) hails from. Cousins explains why:

We need to know where you are so that we can recognize revenue per territory. That’s just to help out the guys in EA Poland, or whatever. Also, we want to quickly put you toward servers where you’re probably going to have a better ping. And the other reason is because we want to localize leader boards. So I’m not just interested in the fact that I’m 250,000, worldwide; maybe I’m the number five guy in my town, or maybe I’m the number five guy in my city.

And “global” is the operating term here. Asia, Eastern Europe, South America, and even India have been named as target service portals, though Cousins wishes the game could be “really global” and touch all corners of the earth.

The producer says that even smaller divisions of EA in territories apart from Europe and the U.S. are getting excited about the prospect. After all, it’s not everyday that you get to fight rampant local piracy by offering something better than dirt-cheap: downright spankin’ free.

There’s a trade-off to this though: global coverage means there’s a need for servers placed strategically around the world to eliminate the joy-killing latency. But then we’re talking about Electronic Arts – the one publisher that whose global division coverage would put others to shame.

The idea’s got to be pitched to the brass at EA first, of course. But if they approve, EA will be the first mainstream-publisher-turned-worldwide-service-provider ever.

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Broadening appeal

Now while DICE already had the technology to produce the game, they still needed an angle to push the game’s appeal even further. Cousins says that the art style they’ve adopted was partly due to their careful consideration of what would reel in gamers, though not it the same way as fans of Team Fortress 2 thought of.

In fact, Battlefield Heroes is taking an art style similar to Valve Software’s team-based shooter not because the style was recently popular with the hardcore crowd, but just like what Valve believed, DICE had to break away from the constant drive for graphical realism and just make an atmosphere conducive to fun. Cousins added:

Our art director is kind of frustrated by this gritty, realistic fashion. And if you look at the success of the Wii, for example, there’s definitely a market, a frustrated market, that want a more fun experience. They don’t want to be crawling around in mud for their entertainment.

But more importantly, they wish to create a game that will not demand high-end PCs and hopefully even play on lowly laptops – an idea that could win DICE millions of players as primary base. Cousins noted that they had a market of “hundreds and hundreds of millions” of players out there on PCs, and all could be theirs if the cards are dealt right.

DICE plans to use emotes for the game’s main mode of communication, much like how many of the Asian MMORPGs use action – instead of words – to communicate with pals online. “We have text as well, but you can turn that off,” added Cousins.

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