I believe Battlefield Heroes is a huge success. The amount of players, the quality of gameplay, the fact that such a great product is available for free really gives the Free to Play (F2P) business model some credence. And I hope that this model also rewards EA financially.
The fact that this game is a success is very important, since this title is one of the first to use this business model for a major Western publisher. I know EA is getting into the F2P market in a really big way, and its good to know that one of their first forays into this model has been successful.
However, I feel this game is at odds with itself- the game is bipolar in design. It's as if the game doesn't know who it's designed for. Is it a casual game? It can’t really be - the game at its core is a hardcore Battlefield FPS game. Is it supposed to be appealing to kids? The community seems filled more with hardcore FPS crowd. Is the game supposed to be accessible to everyone? Once again, the hardcore FPS design at the core of the Battlefield franchise sets a skill level that just can’t be accessible by unfamiliar users.
When you step back and take a hard, neutral look at it, you will see that at its heart Battlefield Heroes is a Battlefield game. This game is hardcore, for hardcore gamers. The cartoonish skinning allows for some interesting abilities, abilities that wouldn't be allowed by the pseudo-simulation design of regular BF games. This is one of the reasons the game feels so bipolar. Was the cartoony styling only there to make the player suspend disbelief? Was this game intended for Hardcore BF players all along?
It's important to define the danger of 'Casual' gameplay. The term 'Casual' is a loaded one, and I don't think BFH fits the bill for this genre. Casual gameplay implies that any user can pick up the game at any time, play for five minutes, have fun, and leave. But BFH does not fit that definition. You are required to ‘grind’ for at least 10 levels (in my experience) before your hero has enough abilities to be a competitor in the game. The gameplay itself is not conducive to casual gameplay- players are rewarded for being highly skilled.
This in of itself does not mean it's not casual - many casual games require skill to play. But with First Person Shooters, there is already such a high user-base that’s been playing since the advent of the genre (not to mention the hardcore Battlefield fanbase), that it really doesn’t help complete newbies to pick up the game. Add the fact that the user has to grind ten levels before being able to play well, and you have a game that just cannot be casual.
One of the surprising things Ifound about this game was the community. I mentioned the game rewarding highly skilled FPS players. In my experience, many skilled FPS players are 'Trolls'. Trolls being defined as inconsiderate, rude, spam heavy and sometimes racist users whose main concept of fun is ruining everyone else’s.
Strictly speaking, this is something your going to get with any F2P game. There's no filter for who’s getting into the game. With packagedgames, you have to spend money to get into the game, you’re making an investment to play. Not so with F2P games. Anyone can load up and play, including (especially) trolls. The fact that there's no moderation, not even a swearing filter, means that you are going to get some asshole (or a group of assholes), ruining the experience for newbies trying to get into the game. Similar concerns was posted on Gamasutra (http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=24373).
The point is that if you are going to have no swear filter or any kind of chat moderation, you're going to get conversations of the lowest common denominator. Players need to be accountable for their actions, and their words. Some kind of player ranking, player preferred, or flag as inappropriate is necessary to keep the conversation in some kind of civility. If not, the trolls will ensure they do everything they can to ruin the experience.
One of the key areas of the game,and one which marks a new direction in the Battlefield franchise, is ranking per character. On the one hand, I love the ability to view my progress as I play. One of the reasons I stopped playing older FPS games is because it didn’t track my progress over time. I like that in BFH, the amount of time you put into the game is reflected by your rank/stats. The sense of accomplishment of having a high level character rewards the player.
However, the inability to change your hero on the fly can cause game inbalances (having too many of one class in a round). The Hero is locked to either Royal or National, and it might just be me, but it seems a lot more skilled players are on National than Royals. This isn't always the case, but being the evil Nationals is a lot more appealing than the wimpy Royals, at least for the trolls I mentioned earlier. It seems that this is a bitter pill, design-wise. I would expect it to be technically difficult to change personas on the fly and have all the stats update correctly, but without it you have these round inbalances. Personally, I think it’s worth it to be locked to your character.
In conclusion, even though Battlefield Heroes is a game at odds with itself, it seems to work. People are still playing, some even paying, and the general population don’t seem to mind such a bipolar game. In the end, BFH truly is a F2P game, it would have been a major flop if sold on the shelves at $60 a pop. It must have been a moderate risk for such a large publisher, but it seems the reward was worth it.