Never let it be said that DICE hasn't been willing to take risks with its Battlefield franchise of team-based military shooters. After making a name for itself with Battlefield 1942, the Swedish developer took its new franchise into landmine-laden territory with Battlefield Vietnam, produced a futuristic offshoot, and successfully reinvented it for consoles.
For its next trick, DICE is producing Battlefield Heroes, a free-to-play multiplayer-focused PC shooter that will be fueled by microtransactions. Although there's no template to follow for taking such a project and making it a success in the West, the studio has already generated a significant amount of interest from gamers.
In the last six months, more than 170,000 users have registered at the Battlefield Heroes official Web site. The closed beta program that opened May 5 has already welcomed 10,000 players, and a news post about the upcoming expansion of the program generated 8,000 user comments and crashed the official site.
So it's clear that gamers know about Battlefield Heroes. But as any military scholar will tell you, knowing is only half the battle. GameSpot recently spoke with Battlefield executive producer Ben Cousins to talk about the other half.
GameSpot: You've got a class-based military shooter with a stylized, cartoon look to it. Why should people think this isn't a Team Fortress knockoff?
Ben Cousins: The first thing I can say is this is a Battlefield game and a continuation of the Battlefield franchise, which has been going in various forms since 1999. Obviously Team Fortress was out before that, but what we focus on is a mixture of vehicle and infantry combat in large, open environments, which is quite different.
We've also got a full MMO-style leveling-up and character-customization system. We're also free to play, with really low system specs. We're designed for a much more casual audience than Team Fortress. We're third-person, and we're really focused on a fun, easy-to-get-into, accessible gameplay. I'm a big fan of Team Fortress and have been playing it since the Quake version, but it's still a pretty hardcore game. Heroes, with our matchmaking system, is much more focused on bringing a new audience in to shooters. You said it's a cartoony, class-based PC shooter, but I think that's all we have in common with Team Fortress. Everything else we're doing is different.
GS: Are you having to limit the customization options in order to ensure everything feels like part of the same cohesive world?
BC: We've had a lot of fun exploring the limits of the stylization. We have two factions, the Royal Army and the National Army, which are influenced by the Axis and the Allies of World War II. And those are the kinds of costumes and clothing you'll see as a beginner in Battlefield Heroes. But as you play the game and level up, you unlock the ability to use different clothing items so you can tell the level of experience or power of a character by how unusual their clothing is.
What we found by letting the art guys on the team explore it is that the Royal Army start moving towards an action hero, kind of A-Team or Indiana Jones feel, and the National Army move toward a goth, emo, pirate kind of feel. We've had fun realizing that we don't need to stay within these historical archetypes and we can go into really crazy and interesting places with these factions, but still have a distinctive look and color palette with each of them.
GS: This microtransactions model hasn't taken root yet in the West. What do you look at in terms of successful predecessors for the microtransactions model in the US? Yohoho Puzzle Pirates? Acclaim's games?
BC: MapleStory is doing really well, and Puzzle Pirates is also doing well. I've been going to a microtransactions roundtable at each Game Developers Conference over the last few years, and there used to be maybe a few guys operating small businesses, small-scale role-playing games and that kind of thing. When I went this year, it was clear there were a large number of [successful developers].
I think it's interesting Heroes is the first microtransactions-based game from a major publisher. So we appear to be breaking the ice and doing something cutting-edge, but there's a good precedent in the West for reasonable success for a smaller-scale business. There's an audience there and a demand for this sort of game, and we think we can bust it open with Heroes with a higher profile and the higher-quality game we're offering.
GS: Is there anything to be gleaned from the fact that none of those successful microtransaction games you mentioned were action-oriented?
BC: There's little precedent for action-oriented microtransaction games in the West, you're right, but the predominant microtransactions genres in Korea and the Asian markets are action games like Special Force and Sudden Attack. Having studied the way they do it in Asia--we're also developing a specific Battlefield game for the Korean market which is separate for Heroes--we've learned quite a lot about what you can do and can't do with item sales in an action game.
GS: If it does take off, it's a long-term commitment like an MMO, right?
BC: Yeah, absolutely. From day one with Heroes, we've had at least a six-year plan in place in terms of who's working on the project and making sure we've got the budget. If we do show success, we're committed to keeping this going, and that means giving the consumers content and listening to them and having the community define what the content is and what their experience is, similar to what you see with an MMO.
GS: If Heroes does take off, does that preclude the launch of a traditional Battlefield-style game for the PC for the next six years?
BC: No, there are 250 people at DICE, several teams, and there are only 15 people working on Heroes.
GS: You think the audiences would be different enough?
BC: Absolutely. We're still absolutely committed to the core Battlefield PC gamer fans, and there are 250 people at DICE. Make what you will of those two statements.
GS: So when are gamers going to get to try this out?
BC: We've already released the game. We're in closed beta right now and there are 10,000 people registered to play the game. In the last two months we've logged over 16,000 hours of gameplay, so there are people out there playing it. We're still in a closed beta, but the plan is to be adding new content to the game, new content to the Web site... We've got a full character-profile system where you've got a Facebook-style page for your character, friend lists, you can see what style people are using... The plan is in the last few months of this year, we'll have as many people playing the game at peak times as are playing Battlefield: Bad Company at the moment. So even though we're in closed beta, we'll be talking hundreds of thousands of registered users.
So we're already out. We've already released. We're ramping it up slowly over time, and if you're a hardcore gamer and a fan of Battlefield, you will absolutely be in the closed beta at some point. We'll be opening that up very wide in the next few months so there will be plenty of opportunities to play the game. Then the release that makes sense to [EA executives] would be when we start selling items and release restrictions of access, and that would be toward the start of next year.
GS: Will there be any kind of open beta, or is that just semantics when it's a free-to-play game?
BC: It is semantics, but I imagine we'll launch with an open beta so everyone's aware we're still in the beta phase. And then the moment we stop being an open beta is when we start officially selling items to consumers. As soon as you open a microtransactions service, players will expect a level of service above and beyond the beta.
GS: I know first thing's first, but how seriously have you considered console versions of Battlefield Heroes?
BC: We've looked into it and it's been brought up lots of times. Looking at the game videos and the style of the game itself, it looks like it would lend itself very well to consoles. But knowing what we know about the product, this is a very Web-focused game. You really need the Internet and access to a Web site to really enjoy the game, click through links, and browse the item store. Imagine trying to access Facebook on a gamepad; it's hard to do.
GS: So you're talking about something more involved than the Rock Band in-game music store?
BC: Yeah. We have discussions in the team where we're not sure if it's a social network with a game attached or a game with a social network attached. To render all of that on an HDTV would be fine, but navigating that with a gamepad doesn't really suit us.
GS: Do you find the notion of a game aimed at casual players having clan support contradictory at all?
BC: That's a very interesting question and there are two answers to that. One is I don't think there's anything in particular about a group of players that's particularly hardcore. There's no reason why a group of 10-year-old boys in a school couldn't form their own clan and they don't need to be especially competitive. That's why we call them groups instead of clans.
The other thing is we will have a hardcore segment of our community, and they'll be match-made into games together, having tournaments and organized competitive play. I see two types of clans for Heroes: groups of friends who just want to hang out and traditional clans the likes of which you and I would recognize.
GS: Thanks for your time.