Interview: The Rise of Free-To-Play At EA

Ben Cousins, former DICE man who spearheaded Battlefield Heroes, talks Lord of Ultima and how these games are part of a new division of EA catered to the free-to-play market -- and why.

The last time Gamasutra spoke to Ben Cousins, general manager of Electronic Arts' new free-to-play team, was a little over two years ago. At that time he was a producer at the company's DICE studio and was working on the then-yet-to-be-released free-to-play title Battlefield Heroes

It appears the experiment paid off -- enough so that Cousins is now the general manager of EA's free-to-play division, which has recently released Lord of Ultima, the first new game in the Ultima series in many years. Unlike its forebears, it's a strategy title, and very much in the mold of popular German browser games like Travian

Here, Cousins explains why the company is going this route -- both specifically with this game and more generally its goal with the free-to-play division. He also discusses his thoughts on the market at large, how the company hopes to win back gamers who may have strayed from playing PC titles, and how multiple entry points into a franchise can foster active engagement.  

How did you go from the Battlefield franchise to this browser-based model?

Ben Cousins: I was executive producer for Battlefield, and then we made a new business team at EA. We took the Battlefield Heroes team [from DICE] and the BattleForge team [from Phenomic] and the Lord of Ultima team [from Phenomic].

We made this new business unit because these free-to-play games need like their own special attention compared to packaged goods. I'm running that team. It's about 60 guys at Phenomic, which is part of EA.

How long has that unit been operating?

BC: About a year and a half now.

How much crossover is there now between the people who first worked on The Settlers [now owned by Ubisoft] and the people there now?

BC: Well, The Settlers 1 was Volker [Wertich]'s creation when he was 18 years old. He coded it himself. He was the Will Wright of that genre, and he is Phenomic's creative director now. There are four or five guys from the team who go back to The Settlers 3.

What's the concept behind Lord of Ultima?

BC: Lord of Ultima is a game using the classical mechanics of empire building -- you collect resources, and then spend resources on buildings, building troops, and trade -- but it's massively multiplayer. There are cities everywhere, and every single city has been founded by a real player. Each procedurally-generated continent has thousands of thousands of simultaneous players on it.

The aim is to become the most popular guy on a continent -- the "lord of Ultima" for this continent. If you know the Ultima timeline, after Ultima IV there was a big cataclysm and a whole chunk of the continent broke off and floated into the distance, and no one knows what happened to it. We're telling what happens there on these big procedurally-generated landmasses.

There's a very deep social aspect to the game. You play alone and you manage your cities, but you're also in alliances with other players, where you support each other with troops, and trade resources. This runs at a relatively slow pace, so to send resources from one city to another relatively close city could take about 30 minutes in real time. To send troops or resources halfway across a continent could take up to a day.

Lord of Ultima

So everything happens in real time? Most of these social-oriented browser games are asynchronous turn-based.

BC: It's a completely real-time game. There's all kinds of stuff happening. There are several continents, so there are thousands of concurrent players [per continent]. That's why we can call it a massively multiplayer game, even though there aren't guys running around.

It gives you an idea of some of the timelines that you're thinking about. This is a game where you really have to plan your moves if you're a high-level player. If you're being notified that there's an attack coming in 10 hours, you need to work out exactly what buildings you can put into place to defend your town, or what troops you need to recruit in order to get there.

The way this works is actually a genre which is already well established in Europe. It's very popular there. Travian is essentially a much less graphically rich version of this kind of gameplay.

Right, there seems to be a huge ecosystem of these games.

BC: Exactly. There's another company called InnoGames which has a very popular game called Tribal Wars in the same genre. We're using the Ultima name and the Ultima universe to give it a slightly higher profile, but we're also trying to fix a couple of the things with these games. When I played Travian, before I even finished the tutorial I was being attacked by other players and they were stealing my resources. That was not a particularly fun experience.

That kind of thing actually sounds like what a lot of players see as the glory days of Ultima Online, speaking of that franchise.

BC: Exactly. But if you're a player who doesn't necessarily want to play competitively -- maybe you want to be involved with diplomacy and trade -- then you don't built a castle, and then you can have these high-level, rich, powerful cities, but they can't ever be kind of taken over and sieged. That was one of the things we're trying to fix.

The other thing is that graphically, Travian is basically a static bitmap with some numbers in it. We wanted to create this animated graphically rich world, so the placement of the buildings in relation to the other buildings gives you a strategic advantage.

If I put, say, a cottage next to a quarry, it will buff the resource capabilities in these particular places.

If you get attacked and you're not there at the time, how does that play out?

BC: You have to be there. This is the beautifully addictive thing about games like this. If someone attacks you at three in the morning, then you better be up at three in the morning to be in there.

And what if you aren't?

BC: If you aren't, then there's a degree of protection. If there's an incoming attack at three in the morning or over the weekend and I'm not available, I can strengthen my city wall. I can put in more of these defensive towers; I can build defensive units like ballistas. And there's a system whereby if you're attacked at night, in your time [zone], you'll get a buff to your defenses.

But if these are pretty hardcore competitive games, and if you build a castle in this game you better be ready to get involved in some combat. That's one of the most exciting things about it.

There's an interesting story. Volker, who is the creative director on the project, invited the senior producer to his house for dinner, and while he had him there, he went off to his room and attacked him.

[laughs] God.

BC: There's a lot of that. What's great and addictive about it is -- and I've never played in this genre before - that it has really opened me up to the incredibly deep gameplay interactions, but also the social interactions that go on.

Let me see what's going on in my alliance today. It looks like we're merging with another alliance, and there's a guy saying he needs help at this location -- that sense of helping others and being helped by others and teaming up and sieging cities gives a really strong social multiplayer element in there, which I wasn't expecting out of a game like this. It feels quite strategic. Civilization is very much a sober and strategic game, and this is a very social and fun experience.

How do you define the target audience for a game like this?

BC: There is already a very large fanbase for these games in Europe. Travian is at 10 million monthly uniques. In Europe, it's characterized by schoolboys to 35-year-old guys. It's mostly a male audience. These are guys who may be sitting in school or in the office. Because of the relatively slow pace of the game, you can have the game running in a window, and then kind of do a little bit of management, and then go back to your normal work.

It's a multiplayer game that doesn't need constant monitoring like a shooter. But I think there's also a secondary audience, which we hope to introduce the game to, and that's the Ultima fans or normal strategy game fans who may be playing on PC and don't feel there's enough really good RTS out there, or maybe they like to play their fast-paced RTS in the evening, and they want something else to play in the daytime.

We're very clear that this is a strategy game that's going to appeal to a certain type of strategy game fan. It's not FarmVille, even though it's browser-based.

We definitely see a large potential audience. There are lots of lapsed strategy game players out there, particularly in the U.S. and in Western Europe, who used to play a lot of StarCraft and Command & Conquer. Maybe they don't have the powerful PC that's needed to play those games now, and they want something that is easy and appealing that they can play with their friends.

Will you focus more on Europe, since that's where the existing awareness is?

BC: No. I think by using the Ultima IP, that's a statement of our intent to take this into the U.S. market. In the German market, the European market, Poland, and a lot of these Western European markets, it will be easy to build an audience, but we see the real growth in the English-speaking markets - the U.S. and the U.K.

It seems like publishers are trying to figure out how to treat the PC these days. It's a huge potential market, but the game formats available are so much more disparate and constantly-changing than on the consoles. How do you get a handle on that?

BC: Just speaking for what I do, and I guess I don't really think of myself as a PC-only developer -- this runs on Mac as well, because it's on the browser. But thinking about the home computer market, I see browser-based experiences as being a strong, powerful future for the industry.

If we look at browser-based 3D, you're really going from strength to strength now. Unity is looking good. I saw a couple tech demos at GDC of Xbox 360-quality graphics running on a browser.

For me, that's where it's all going to go. The client-based experience, the downloadable game, the installed game -- they will die off, but I don't think we're going to see a reduction in quality. I think we're going to see those high-end experiences continuing over as browser-based technology increases.

Obviously, there's also the other stuff like social games, etcetera, the traditional PC market -- the Command & Conquer fans, the Blizzard fans, the Half-Life fans - is going to keep getting games that really appeal to them in the browser, with all of the convenience that's kind of attached to that. That's a really positive thing.

A lot of those guys have gone over to consoles because it was more convenient, and there was high quality content there, but I think they're going to start coming back to the home computer, playing these games in the browser. This will be an example where someone who once installed Civilization or played a real-time strategy game from a disc has he's lapsed away from that. Games like this give him an opportunity to reconnect.

Well, that whole [strategy] genre in general has suffered, because as people migrate to consoles for convenience reasons, even if they still like those kinds of games, many of them just aren't as practical to play on those platforms. They may just stop paying attention to strategy altogether.

BC: Exactly. But that's the opportunity we see -- those guys who say, "When I was a student, I loved playing strategy games with my buddies. We'd play StarCraft over a LAN. But here's this game where we can do basically that, but it hasn't got that frenetic pace so we have to be sitting there and playing it." If you've got a life outside of gaming, you can do it all at the same time. For us, that is really interesting.

You mentioned seeing some browser-based demos. Lou Castle is with InstantAction now, and they're doing that; he used to be with you guys at Electronic Arts.

BC: Yeah. There's InstantAction, but there's also OnLive, to a degree, doing that, and Gakai, and some other companies. There is Unity and their engine, which runs in a browser plug-in. There's a really interesting movement in this direction, I think. I'm not convinced whether it's this server-based or cloud-based stuff, however.

The various models are probably targeted at different people.

BC: Exactly. But it's fantastic to see. It's completely platform-agnostic. It's just the screen that matters. We're starting to see chips embedded in TVs now. So if you've got a browser running on a thin computer in a TV, you can play this on there. You can play our game on a PlayStation 3 [browser] once we've fixed some things.

So you'll test for as many web-enabled devices as possible?

BC: Yes. On iPhone, there are just a few little things to get fixed before it will run in a browser on Safari.

But presumably you'll still have to redesign the whole interface just for that screensize.

BC: There are zooming issues, etcetera, but even getting it done in a base form, you can get it running. It's just data served in real-time, so getting it running on another browser is no issue. There are also obviously opportunities on Facebook for a title like this.

Do you see this as competing with other Facebook-based social games?

BC: Sure, absolutely. We don't have any concrete plans for that yet, but if we're talking about extending a game like this into new platforms, we're giving people new opportunities to play.

This is a game that you want to be touching multiple times during the day. There's always going to be something to do: a new building to add to your build queue or an alliance message to check on. Whether that's on your way to the work, sitting on the train and checking on your iPhone, or whether that's in your office being notified on Facebook, that's all stuff we're looking at.

On day one, this will use Facebook Connect, and you'll be able to invite friends through Facebook and send out notifications via Facebook. Full Facebook integration is something that will be coming later. We're looking at Facebook integration a lot more seriously with Battlefield Heroes.

How would that work?

BC: We want to try and see what happens. There are a couple shooters on Facebook, but we just want to see what happens when you put a shooter of this type into Facebook. Do the mechanics that make a traditional social game sticky today apply for shooters as well?

There have been a whole lot of Battlefield games recently, particularly on the PC. Why so many? There's Heroes, Bad Company 2, and then 1943 is supposedly coming to PC.

BC: 1943 is still coming, but I'm not on the franchise anymore. Heroes, I can speak for.

Are those games all hitting different people? At the end of the day, the format isn't radically different. They're all still a 3D world where you run around and shoot a guy on a team.

BC: What's interesting from what we see is a very strong affinity between the Bad Company 2 players and the Heroes players.


BC: Yeah. You log in to play Bad Company 2 online, and that uses the same account system as Heroes. We see a very strong affinity between the two players.

You would assume that when Bad Company 2 came out, the Heroes traffic would drop, but it actually increased. So there's definitely an advantage for giving a player multiple touch points into a franchise.

I don't know what the plan is for Battlefield because I'm not running that franchise now. But it's interesting. If EA brings out more Ultima games, it would be interesting to see if we can connect those games to this one in some way. Can we increase playing times?

What's we're seeing, particularly with free online games, is that it's not necessarily a new customer. There's a new customer, but it's also the hardcore gamers who also engage in these free games.

We did some research last year into core shooter fans, and they're all playing free shooters as well. They finish playing Modern Warfare, and they go over and start playing Combat Arms. They're looking for more ways to fill their world with gaming, and if it's free, then it's easier to incorporate into their playing style because obviously there's no additional outlay for them.

Battlefield Heroes

Working in this genre, I'm curious if you've seen Neptune's Pride.

BC: I know the name.

It seems similar to what you're doing. It's a browser-based, real-time, large-scale strategy game that's set in space, developed by a small team including Jay Kyburz, who was with Irrational Games. I think he got tired of doing the huge-team development thing.

BC: Right. This was a genre invented by small companies. Originally they were all based in Germany with a very niche audience, and it grew locally, probably because they came out in German or other European languages like Turkish and Greek. But what we're seeing now is a fantastic, incredibly addictive genre with a lot of mass appeal.

It's not mass, mass appeal like FarmVille, but this is certainly going to appeal beyond the current players. And it's interesting that someone coming into it from a completely fresh angle after doing BioShock, and this is people coming into it through Ultima. "Oh, that's interesting. I kind of like the idea of that." Maybe people wouldn't have tried Travian because it's this obscure thing, but now they will because of Ultima or BioShock.

This is what the bigwigs at EA see, potentially. EA always talks about using its IP, leveraging its IP. This would be an example of that. But it's also leveraging bigger access to development resources, teams accustomed to creating graphical richness rather than just standard web development, and teams with a real track record of strategy game development over the years.

We know a lot of the guys who work for these smaller companies, and they're nervous that we're doing this, which is a good thing.

It seems that Germany has a knack for this sort of elegant strategy. That whole complex German-style board game scene flourished there for decades, and now it's finally becoming a big deal elsewhere.

BC: It's become a real cult thing. A lot of the guys I know who are game designers have really gotten into these German board games. Without creating national stereotypes, there's a particular skill that Germans have in this detailed, carefully balanced, and fair strategy game. I think if my Battlefield Heroes team tried to do this, they would screw up really badly. [laughs]

They're used to just [snaps fingers] making something that's fun and aesthetically interesting and balanced, but doesn't need to have the same level of intelligence or knowledge to create. Volker is the kind of guy who lies on his sofa for eight hours at a time, and in his head, he's working through these spreadsheets. He's constantly balancing the game in his head.

There's a certain type of person who can do that, and I think Germany has, in their national mentality, that kind of attitude of taking pride in detail. You can definitely see that.

We're incredibly proud of the game. It was built in 10 months by a team of five or six guys, so it's quite something. Having said that, it's probably the biggest-budget browser-based strategy game of all time -- but by EA standards, it's a small, focused little team.

How big is the team roughly?

BC: There are about sixteen people in Phenomic at the moment. Some of those guys are still working on BattleForge on continued live support for that game. The team size on this game is about ten guys.

What was the budget?

BC: It was over a million dollars. The fact that it is over a million dollars, like I said, scares the bejeezus out of some of these smaller teams, I'm sure.

What's your payment model?

BC: It's very typical for this genre. You can pay to speed up things, to buy things that speed up your build times. You'll also be able to buy or hire ministers, who take over some of your micromanagement from you. One guy may be able to build up defenses for your town if you're being attacked without you needing to be at your computer.

You can buy guys who will help you gather the right resources in the right order and help you build. You can also buy peacetime. If you're going away for the weekend and don't want to be attacked, you can buy yourself an area of peacetime.

What do you guys see as the advantages you have in this genre over more established games like Travian?

BC: It's the Ultima name and the EA name getting more people's attention. There's also a level of interest around the graphics. You can't underestimate the importance of that. O-Game is very popular, but it's all text, and for me, there's a certain point at which I personally just can't relate to what's happening in the game if it isn't graphically represented, so that gives us a real advantage.

You can see your city. You can see someone else's city and very clearly understand that he's more powerful, and what advantages he has.

There's a sense of ownership over your city, and you can see the little plumes coming out of your buildings. It just gives you a sense of more ownership over this cool thing you have.

Then there's the newbie protection stuff that I talked about. You can't get your city taken over unless you build a castle and you specifically state that you want to get involved in [player versus player] combat. You get several days of being protected from any plundering or attack.

We've got the best tutorial in its class as well. We worked really hard on getting a tutorial which really explains the game to someone who's never played a game of this type before. My father actually has a town on this continent, and he has been relatively active as a player. He's never played a game of this type.

So it's graphical quality, it's the IP, and it's EA's muscle in pushing the IP, but it's also the ease of use and the protection that we give to people who are new to the genre.

Have you faced any, marketing challenges in combating the fact that for probably a lot of people, the most well known example of this genre is Evony, which doesn't have the most sterling reputation?

BC: Yeah. I'm fairly disappointed in Evony's marketing campaign because they actually have a relatively good game. Most people have never even tried it because they're associated with these quite offensive advertising campaigns. But they have actually a pretty good game, and in a lot of senses it's better than some of the bigger titles in the genre.

Certainly if you look at some of the publicity when we just launched our landing page, people saw that we described it as a browser strategy game and they said, "Oh, you're making an Evony?" Evony has this seedy association with it, which was unfortunate.

We were actually thinking of having some of the marketing make fun of the Evony connection, but we decided that was maybe in poor taste and decided not to. It's an advantage and a disadvantage. I think people understand that these types of games exist and are quite popular, but there is unfortunately a connection with these low-rent marketing campaigns -- but a lot of that has stopped now.

But yeah, I don't know what those guys are doing. They're kind of a weird situation. I mean, no one really knows who this company is; there's lots of uncertainty around who they are. If you look at their traffic, they're pretty successful. How much of that comes through the marketing, and how much is that the stickiness of the actual service? I don't know.

The tradeoff is whether you advertise to a smaller group of people who know this is what they want, or to a larger group of people, some of whom don't know what your game is but who may end up liking it when they try it. Maybe they found the number of people who stuck around was great enough that it outweighed the disadvantages of misrepresenting the game.

BC: When you're doing this, you have a cost per acquisition, basically, and you work out how much it costs for you to get a user, then you work at how much average user gives you -- so you divide up your entire audience size with the amount of money you make.

Let's say it cost you a dollar to acquire a user, but your lifetime revenue [for that user], is only 50 cents; then you're doing it wrong. I think the Evony style of acquisition is very inexpensive in terms of their cost per acquiring a user. They're probably spending 10, 20 cents, but I wouldn't imagine they're getting particularly much back.

What we focus on, particularly with Battlefield Heroes and with what we'll be doing with Lord of Ultima is really focusing our marketing campaigns on those sites that give the good traffic -- the players who are engaged and aren't just going to get bait and switched by the low-rent marketing campaigns. We're looking at the real gaming sites and the sites where you get good quality players who are engaged and are more willing to pay along the line.

You can get yourself in trouble if you spend an enormous amount of money but you don't target the right websites, because you get high traffic and low returns. And that traffic costs you money because bandwidth does cost you money.

There are lots of free browser-based game fan sites, and there are even free MMO and free-to-play websites. Also, with a brand like Ultima and with a name like EA, we'll be breaking more into the mainstream gaming sites. We want to convert some of those traditional packaged goods gamers into this experience, because I think they'll enjoy it. I'm a traditional core gamer, and I enjoy it.

Is this Phenomic's main project right now? Are they working on other things?

BC: BattleForge is still doing very well. It has a really loyal core audience who are still buying their cards, and they just released a new card edition which was a big success, so they're going to continue supporting BattleForge.

But yes, this is their main project. I think if this is a success, we'll continue on this kind of business model and this genre with them, but they're really enjoying it. It's back to their roots. They're really enthusiastic and working like crazy for us to get this finished.

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