EA DICE's Ben Cousins has spoken about the opportunities up for grabs in the web-driven, online, free to play market in his Paris GDC keynote.
Cousins, who is executive producer of the Battlefield franchise, talked about the genesis of Battlefield Heroes - EA's first free-to-play microtransaction-based title - and how the future of the games industry might not be in ultra high-tech virtual reality experiences but in shorter-form, lower-tech and yet equally engaging games.
The Battlefield Heroes project began after DICE visited South Korean online specialist Neowin, which operates one of the most popular free-to-play online games in the region. Seeing the value in the model, DICE entered into an agreement to produce a version of Battlefield for Korea and also started on a seperate project itself.
Knowing that the average revenue per user was lower for free to play online games than for EA's staple yearly packaged retail updates business - an average of $3 to $6 per user per year compared to $59.99 a year from a regular Madden fan - the team focused all decisions on broadening the user base and cutting costs, taking a low-tech approach to maximise the number of computers the game would run on and to also reduce asset generation costs.
That core philosophy also affected the game's design as well, causing the team to look at the 'iron gates' in the traditional Battlefield games - aspects which 'lock away' the experience to the casual gamer. They identified things such as it being based too much on skill, having an unfriendly introduction and a complicated server browser. These points have been addressed in Heroes - matchmaking that automatically pits you against people who've been playing as much as you have and character 'abilities' to give a more strategic feel to the game. This makes the game more accessible to casual gamers and, the team hopes, will broaden the user base.
The web-driven nature of the game has meant quite a different development process. "EA has a very solid, established distribution chain, but DICE - a comparatively small studio in Stockholm - rebuilding that entirely by going directly to the consumer," he said.
But doing so gives them the ability to continue to build the game directly based on player feedback and telemetrics, and will allow the team to build premium content that's tailored exactly to what players want. "You don't have to cross your fingers, ship the game and hope it's good - things like balance can be changed over time. But while that's great, it means you can't just go on holiday once you've shipped - closed beta is where the hard work begins."
The team was relatively small throughout development, but Cousins admitted that they severly understimated the effort that goes in to building a web platform - especially when he admitted that, given the social networking features and campaign meta-game featured on the service, would see players spend more time on there than in the game itself.
"It's a hell of a lot of work," he admitted, "and once we hired web people in to do it we realised how much was required and how mature their tools are. We've contracted a lot of it out to large, multi-national IT companies as well."
Cousins ended the keynote by talking about the opportunities available in the free to play model, and that while casual games are ignored by many at the moment, thanks to unsexy visuals and primitive technology, a more involved experience like Heroes - one where players have a persistent character that grows with them - has the potential to reach out to a huge untapped audience, and could be a viable future for the industry.
"If you had asked music technology people what would be the big new format in the future, they'd have probably described something like DVD-Audio - amazing quality sound. But the format that's really won is MP3, despite being far lower-tech, because it's convenient and cheap."
In the same way, he says, the games industry might not have its future in ultra realistic immersive environments, but in lower-tech, more accessible formats that reach a wider base.
He concluded: "Imagine a Flash game that's as addictive as World of Warcraft, and playable on your mobile, iPod, PC, Mac or PS4. At that point, the platform becomes irrelevant. The casual audience is growing, and we can attract the core audience by keeping them in the game wherever they are. We're at the cusp of something big."