Ben Cousins于2007年在EA对免费游戏逐渐感兴趣的时候加入这个公司，在该发行商采取一系列步骤设定免费游戏市场战略期间，他迅速升迁到关键的职位。在这位资深英国制作人得到为EA的《战地：英雄》（游戏邦注：《战地》系列游戏免费作品，由EA的DICE studio制作）效力的机会后，Cousins做出了决定——抛开零售产品，全身心投入数字游戏领域。在他在EA工作的这段时间里，Cousins做出的许多决定不仅令他广受行业人士赞誉，而且也使他在过去数年间迅速升职。Cousins现在的任务是什么呢？他的任务是将《Battlefield Play4free》做成西方最大的以客户为基础的免费游戏。
我还记得在Casual Connect Europe 2006的“Hype or Real Deal?”讨论会上，99%的成员和玩家表示韩国的免费模式永远不会在西方市场获得成功。仅仅4年之后，Zynga就证实了这是个错误的想法，EA旗下这款长期为硬核PC游戏玩家所钟爱的《战地》也有了个卡通风格的免费产品。你认为哪些是西方市场中最好的免费游戏？你如何看待这片领域的发展？
Phenomic（游戏邦注：《Battleforge》和《Lord of Ultima》的制作人）也在开发新战略游戏，这款将于2011年面世的游戏将是对EA大手笔系列游戏的再一次延伸。在我们发布这两款游戏后，会细致观察它们的表现以及市场的发展态势，然后拟定下一步的计划。接下来的游戏可能是新游戏，也可能是对EA现有系列游戏的延伸。
From the Frontlines of the Free-to-play Games Invasion
Joining EA during the roaring times of the publisher’s early interest in free-to play-titles back in 2007, Ben Cousins was able to quickly rise in rank and play a key role during the first of many steps that were taken by the publisher to set up their strategy towards the free-to-play market. After the experienced British producer received the opportunity to work on EA’s Battlefield Heroes, a free-to-play spin off of the franchise created by the EA’s DICE studio, Cousins also made the definitive choice to leave retail products behind and fully devote himself to digital instead. Those and many other choices he made throughout his time with EA have given Cousins both industry wide praise and a decent number of promotions in the past couple of years. Cousin’s current mission? To turn Battlefield Play4free into the biggest client-based free-to-play game in the western world.
Jussi Laakkonen sat down with Ben to get his perspective on subjects such as the free-to-play phenomenon, surprising demographics and the future of digital.
At GDC 2010 you delivered a compelling presentation in which you argued that the free-to-play, browser-distributed gaming is a disruptive force that will shake up the games industry. Why is that? What’s going on with the game players?
People in the core games industry are underestimating the impact the Net will have on their audience. If we look at other historical business environments (in my talk I looked at the rise of the supermarket as car ownership increased in the US in the 1930s), we discover that consumers are often happy to take a drop in quality in return for a lower price and/or more convenient service. When a new technology accelerates the convenience of something, incumbent companies are often surprised to find their customers moving over to an “inferior” competitor.
The Internet makes cheaper, more convenient versions of games available to core consumers (an example would be Nexon’s Combat Arms as an alternative to Call of Duty). Traditional publishers ignore these titles because they are “lower quality,” without understanding that quality is only one factor consumers consider when making a choice.
With Battlefield Play4Free, you’re trying to bring a high quality HD first person shooter experience into the free-to-play model. Is having high definition graphics the next and only step to expanding the free-to-play model beyond its aforementioned ‘low-budget reputation’? What other game elements beyond HD graphics should other developers focus on?
The HD graphics are actually a bit of an accident. We wanted to get a modern combat style shooter out in the market ASAP because we see other publishers doing well in that space. The quickest way for us to launch a game was to bring in assets from other Battlefield games like BF2 and Bad Company 2, and these assets happened to be quite hi-res. Add to that the fact that the Easy team just loves building quality titles and will make little touches like post-processing filters even if you don’t ask for it, and we ended up with something really nice.
Aside from production-values going up, I expect the next big wave of the more core-gamer focused free-to-play games will have deeper social network integration to drive viral acquisition and retention, and perhaps the use of 3D-in-a-browser tech to reduce the drop off we all see between registration, download and installation of the game. Another non-development related way of expanding audiences is to engage in strategic partnerships with other distributors to expand into new territories and demographics.
I remember the “Hype or Real Deal?” panel at Casual Connect Europe 2006, where 99% of the panelists and the audience believed that the “weird” Korean free-to-play model would never succeed in the Western markets. Fast forward just four years: Zynga is killing it and EA’s Battlefield, a long time love affair for hardcore PC gamers, has a cartoon-styled, free-to-play spin-off. What do you think is the state of the art in free-to-play in the Western markets, and how do you see the space developing?
Let’s look at game design, marketing and monetization.
For design, it’s hard not to be impressed by what Brian Reynolds’ team has done with FrontierVille at Zynga. It’s a very polished, smartly-designed, really charming game with optimized compulsion loops, viral mechanics, and scope for a long life-span of content, determined by the user. Great stuff.
On the marketing side I can’t help but notice the extremely aggressive ad campaigns of Travian and Evony. I don’t have much insight into whether these campaigns are profitable—but there’s obviously huge commitment, constant refreshing of the ad content, and super-aggressive strategies going on there as they fight for the number one browser strategy spot.
People buy items to overcome deliberately engineered frustrations in the game, to overcome or avoid the frustration of being dominated in competition by other players, and to simply show off and peacock to the community.
As for monetization, I’m going to blow my own trumpet here and suggest that Battlefield Heroes is the current state of the art in the Western world because of its approach to store catalog and merchandizing. We have a huge selection of items, and we refresh very regularly with culturally-relevant clothing bundles and tie-ins with big EA titles. We have great merchandizing as well. We require all users to launch the game via the website, where we use in-house ads to push items, we have time-limited “Hot Deal” offers and a time-limited first-time funding bonus, and we offer free funds and items to people who refer friends to register for the game. In addition, we have a full store in the game front-end and an in-game store accessible at any time with a single button press. We even push offers to users after they’ve been killed.
Since launch, our monthly ARPU has gone up five times as a result of the addition of all these features and content. The only place we under-index compared to the competition is with payment instruments, and our recent Live Gamer deal should fix that.
As for the future of this business model, I think we are still scratching the surface of what types of virtual goods people are willing to buy. People are also becoming more willing and comfortable buying virtual goods. At the same time, we are seeing the hardcore gamers move into this space, while the grandmas and mums are introduced to gaming through Facebook. In developing markets like Poland and Brazil, users skip the console altogether and come directly to us.
So the audiences will increase, and the ARPUs will go up, which means teams will be able to make bigger bets, the games will be bigger, with improved content and features and more polish. In the next few years we’ll have Nintendo-like quality on Facebook with games there as deep as The Sims or WoW, and in the core-gamer space we’ll see free-to-play games with PS3-quality graphics running in a browser on a $200 laptop.
Social games seem to get all the press, but there is a lot happening outside of the social networks. Nexon has success around the world, and Bigpoint has 100 million users on their portal. User acquisition is the lifeblood of these and every other destination game site. How do you see the distribution of free-to-play games evolving? How can you make self-publishing work, or should you just go with a traditional publisher-developer model?
Facebook is actually emerging as a kind of boiler-plate publishing platform for self-publishing. It’s covering lots of things which have previously had to be built from scratch. They have a registration flow, user data storage, friends list, user-to-user messaging, community features—and now with Credits they even have monetization. For an independent game developer, this is starting to look like a solution for getting to market fast with a full end-to-end publishing platform for your app.
There’s also the possibility of working with another partner like BigPoint or other portals to drive users, but at the end of the day, unless your viral mechanics are amazing, or you have a big IP like Battlefield or Tiger Woods to drive awareness, you are going to have to commit to a large ad buy (as a proportion of forecasted revenue) to build an audience. It’s a cutthroat world out there.
What have been the biggest lessons learned from Battlefield Heroes (a game that you championed within EA)? What advice would you give developers and publishers now re-envisioning their existing IP for the online, free-to-play model?
Our single biggest lesson has been one of understanding our target audience. We assumed that the core gamers wouldn’t want to play a free, simplified version of Battlefield. As it stands, 75% of our users are core shooter fans. We then thought this must mean we are cannibalizing our customers of EA core shooters. This is also an incorrect assumption—the biggest ever period for the core Battlefield games and for BF Heroes was the launch month of Bad Company 2. Both titles had record sales. Buzz for one game feeds the other.
My advice to people now re-envisioning their IPs for free-to-play: Wow—you guys are late. You have a lot to learn. See you in three years.
There was a very vocal backlash against virtual goods by core gamers who saw item-based monetization as cheating and ruining the game-play. Yet tens of thousands lined up to buy the Celestial Steed for $25 on World of Warcraft just recently. Is there really a chance of ruining your game-play by going all out with virtual goods? What are the dos and don’ts?
We jumped into the hot water with both feet in Heroes when we started selling more powerful weapons and advantage-giving “widgets” in December. If you read the forums and various knee-jerk pieces in the press, you would have thought that we’d killed the game. In actual fact we increased our ARPUs and our user-base that month!
It’s a fine balance between keeping your free players entertained and letting the paying users get an advantage in the game. We’d probably never sell a “kill the rest of the team” button or any items which gave a seriously frustrating advantage to a paying player, and a skilled free player in Heroes can still take out a less-skilled paying player in a one-to-one battle. However, the biggest mistake people make is being too nervous about selling advantages. We have found people will accept it more than you think. It’s basic human psychology.
On that note, what kinds of items do you see driving most monetization? Why?
You need a blend. All consumers are different at different times, and the bigger your catalog, the more choice and opportunities to spend big. What we find works is a blend of: convenience items that are a weekly/monthly cash sink to keep players progressing at a competitive speed, consumable items used when the player feels threatened or frustrated in the moment, advantage-giving items to turn the tide of battle, and visual upgrades to stand out from the crowd.
People buy items to overcome deliberately-engineered frustrations in the game, to overcome or avoid the frustration of being dominated in competition by other players, and to simply show off and peacock to the community.
Many companies that have made the transition from boxed games to online games remark on how different it is to run an online service. What kind of team and competencies do you need to build and operate a successful free-to-play game?
We much prefer this way of working. You get the game out faster and get user feedback during development—not later when it’s too late. Compared to the way we work today, traditional “fire and forget” development feels like very risky, uneducated guesswork.
In addition, you need a team that is willing to be in it for the long-haul. We tend to work at a constant, medium tempo rather than “crunch and crash”—which doesn’t suit everyone.
Our biggest innovation/competency has been around developing a project-management structure that supports a live service—creating that habitual loop between analysis, development and deployment to make sure you are always working on the right feature.
Being the GM for Easy Studios has given you a lot of freedom and influence to direct the next step in EA’s free-to-play strategy. How are you planning to use this to the fullest to make the best free-to-play titles to date? Will those feature existing franchises or actually result in new IPs as well?
Our big bet is Battlefield Play4Free so I’m putting my full force behind that title to try and make it the biggest client-based free-to-play game in the Western world. If we hit big with that game we’ll be focusing on expanding that title out, improving it against the key performance indicators and continuing to innovate all the publishing services around the game.
Phenomic (creators of Battleforge and Lord of Ultima) are also working on a new strategy game which will ship in 2011 and is an extension of another large EA franchise. After we’ve launched those two titles and observed how they and the market are developing, then we’ll look to our next steps. These could include new IPs or be extensions of existing EA franchises.
You’ve worked over a decade in the games industry at companies like Lionhead, Sony and Electronic Arts. You’ve seen three console generation transitions and you are now on the frontline of the free-to-play disruption. Something tells me that free-to-play isn’t the final word on games—that we’ll be talking about some new disruption pretty soon. Is there anything in your crystal ball?
Here’s my prediction: Embedded computers will become standard in TVs, runnning HTML 3D in a browser. And they’ll kill the console business. (Source: Casual Connect)