Free Cartoon Shooter … not anymore.

Congratulations EA, you had a good thing going with Battlefield Heros … and you’ve now given it a death sentence.

BFH was a good idea … apply a successful business model that has been applied to a different type of game in foreign markets to one of your successful breadwinning franchises and see if it works for you.  The game caused a serious buzz when it was first announced as a ‘free to play cartoon shooter’ funded by ad support and micro transactions. The advertising was tounge-in-cheek and fairly up front and refreshing.

I played the game for a couple months and I was impressed.  It employed two different currency systems, one you had to pay real money for, and the other you could earn in-game as an incentive for advancement and positive outcome in play.  Each weapon had a ‘middle of the road’ variant that you got by default, and several variations purchasable through the ‘in-game’ currency.   The ‘real money’ currency primarily focused on unique costume items and certain perks.  While you could buy more ‘in-game’ currency if you didn’t feel like grinding, there was no great gameplay advantage given to those who were willing to spend real money on the game over those who were willing to save up ‘in-game’ currency for the same gameplay advantages.  If you didn’t put any real money in the game, your avatar looked rather bland, but you could still compete on a relatively even playing field.

This has changed.  The ‘in-game’ currency prices have been hiked to the point where it is prohibitively difficult to earn the different weapon variants through in-game means without World Of Warcraft scale time investment, that is, unless you spend real cash.

EA and Dice have every right to do this. However, in doing this, they are removing whatever incentive anyone but the most devoted fan had to actually put time into the game.  The graphics are unimpressive, the gameplay is solid, but repetitive and not terribly deep, and there are many alternatives that look better, if not play better.   What incentive do you have to keep playing a game like this when you can take the money required to play at the ‘status quo’  level of gameplay for a few months and buy something such as TF2, or one of the other Battlefield games; being able to play as a naked pirate nazi?

This is all fairly insignificant to me, because I have time and money to invest in my hobby, and I did enjoy the couple months or so I put into the game. However I imagine that many of my fellow PC gamers who don’t exactly have a lot of expendable income were drawn to this game because of its price tag. It’s nice to just throw ten bucks in for a cool hat and an eyepatch even if you still intend to play mostly for free.  I’m sure these people aren’t exactly happy that, while they still can play for free, they’re now at a significant disadvantage to those players who have cash to burn.

It’s one thing to raise or lower the price on something, but it’s another thing entirely to provide a gameplay experience that rewards willingness to spend real hard-earned cash for an edge in a game.  This spits on the name of the concept of ‘fair-play’ and ‘sportsmanship’.  Anyone who has actually played in online multiplayer knows that fairness is more often an illusion than a reality.  But to dispense with any attempt at an even playing field between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have not’s’ alltougether is a bit of a mistake when a majority of your target audience isn’t in a position to pay for a higher standard of game, but still has money to occasionally plunk down for a kilt or some cool sunglasses.

People who play online multiplayer shooters do so for multiple reasons.  The games themselves generally have to be fun to play, but beyond that there is a reward for competing as a part of a team against other human beings as opposed to dumb bots.  Furthermore, there’s a certain purity of knowledge that you lost or won a game on your own merits, and that experience itself provides an incentive to continue playing to improve your own mastery of the game (and/or level up your character).

There is nothing more discouraging than being outplayed by someone, not because he played better than you did, but because he had money or time to invest in a form of entertainment that you couldn’t because you need to get to work in the morning, or have enough money to pay your rent.  It’s not enough for me to point out that this ‘isn’t fair’ because real fairness doesn’t really matter as much as the perception of fairness.  I’m not going to have fun if I play a game in which I’m treated as a second class citizen due to factors that may not be in my control, or require me to invest something I would rather put to use elsewhere.  If I’m not having fun, why am I even investing time into something that was supposed to be ‘free’ in the first place?  Nobody likes wasting time simply to participate only as a red-shirt good only for being farmed for ‘victory points’ and xp.

EA isn’t necessarily ‘evil’ for this move … but I would call it a stupid one unless the intention is to milk off a few extra bucks from the diehards before they kill this experiment off.  That’s exactly what this is going to do.  BFH is a decidedly ‘casual’ gaming experience in a genre that is usually classified as ‘hard-core’. In fact, the game is well designed to the point that is has room for players all across the ‘casual’ to ‘hard-core’ spectrum.  Bumping the price on gameplay edge and ditching the even playing field will gut the core of the game’s player community, leaving only those ‘casuals’ who aren’t willing to spend the money to stay competitive or simply don’t care about the lack of options and edge otherwise available to them, and the ‘hard cores’ who care enough about the game to spend the money, even when they could be putting that money to a possibly superior experience.  The majority of the players in the middle of that spectrum will probably find greener pastures.

People will still play the game, but there will a lot less of them now, and the experience will suffer as a result.  Online multiplayer experiences live and die by their communities, and EA has just made a move that will cut the central core out of the BFH player community.

tl;dr: EA just made real money a requirement to play competitively in Battlefield: Heros.  They are allowed to do so but the profit potential, the player community and the game itself will suffer for it.  Smart thinking guys.