Like a lot of current-day gamers, I cut my online teeth on developer Jagex's pay-premium title Runescape. The formula was, perhaps, not a new one, but it worked: free access to start with, but you have to pay cash to do anything useful. And I did pay, eventually. I was fourteen and, let's face it, pimpin' ain't easy when you can only wear vendor trash.
Since my Runescape days, the industry has seen the release of plenty of games that live (and thrive) on similar economies: from Japanese mediocrities with no more than 1,500 players a piece and a single server running in a dusty basement, to modest successes like Maple Story, Ragnarok Online, and GunZ. The market of free-to-play is not groundbreaking, and it is a far cry from empty. It operates like the theory of "gateway drugs": offer a new customer something easy to soften their inhibitions, and nudge them not-so-gently towards the premium product. And it is a resounding success.
It's easy to see why: gamers digest commitment only when it's presented as diversion. At least, I do. Several years of experimentation have proved it's legitimacy. A discerning glance at Blizzard's flourishing MMO World of Warcraft peels back to expose this: a variety of landscapes, characters, armours, names, roads, but one basic principle - kill and collect. To some it's drudgery, but because it's costumed as variety, it seems that when subscribers pay the monthly fee, they feel like they're paying for a drastically different product every time.
Who better to confer some dignity to the scheme of the "gateway game" than publishing titan Electronic Arts? The eighteenth-century wit Alexander Pope said, "Be not the first by whom the new are tried," and there's hardly a studio alive that honours that adage more than the loose-lipped and tight-fisted software giant and parent of Battlefield developers DICE.
A few things remain to be said about DICE's newest brainchild, the free-to-play-pay-to-pwn Looney Tunes-styled gorefest Battlefield Heroes. Now, I was a long-time beta player, and while loose lips sink ships, I'm guessing the wide release of the game means my NDA is kaput. So here: this is not a bad game. While it may taste more familiar to players of Valve's 2007 masterpiece Team Fortress 2 than to seasoned veterans of the Battlefield series, it is accessible, efficient, and well-designed. You will have fun (at least in small doses). The mechanics are easy: it is a simple run-and-gunner. But there are a few surprises.
For the sake of simplicity, there are only three classes: the suave, stealthy Commando who totes a combat knife and sniper rifle, and with the power to turn more-or-less invisible until he attacks; the sturdy Gunner, with the ability to carry around tank-busters and heavy machine guns, and lastly, the all-purpose Soldier, the "Mario" of this title, armed with an SMG or shotgun. Like other Battlefield Games, there are vehicles, although with only one weapon a piece their usefulness is cut in halves. Planes (machine gun), tanks (cannon), and jeeps (your front bumper) still survive. No luck if you had your fingers crossed for choppers or boats.
Here's the kicker. During my third game, I leaped into a fearsome-looking British (excuse me, "Royal")l tank and hot-footed it across the map to the German (excuse me, "National") CP. Turning in a wide arc around the easternmost entrance, I aimed at a gaggle of Nazis (Natis?) and fired a shell. All four of them took flight, soared forty feet in the air, crashed into the ground... and ran away.
It's startling to see the Battlefield series - a stalwart friend to realism - turn in the direction of the arcade-y, adorable shooter they've released, but... I don't hate it. I really don't. I enjoyed myself immensely in the several hours I played and while it is
disappointing to see your target take a sniper's bullet to the nose and live to (nasally) tell about it, it's a mechanic that presents itself remarkably well.
So, you'll be able to look at it. You'll be able to play it. Will you be able to commit to it? That's where the unlockable weapons and "Risk"-esque metagame come into. The unlockables work to the benefit of everybody: you, the community, and most importantly it seems, Electronic Arts. There's not much variety to them: you've got one SMG, one shotgun, one sniper rifle, one pistol, etceteracetera. They all use the same model, but different names and different strengths and weaknesses; these can be purchased for a limited time with a purse of "Hero Points", which are earned in combat and through the completion of quest-like "Missions".
Likewise, there are only a handful of maps, equally divided between vehicular warfare and hoofin' it. The metagame is as of yet untested, but it promises to be a much more bountiful source of Hero Points than simply "aimin' for the head."
With a fair purchase model, a promising future with EA's continued commitment (provided it's a success, I guess), endearing, tastefully designed visuals and sound, and simple, addictive gameplay, as a game the title plays smoothly and entertainingly. Now the question that endures is this: how about the business of money?
Well, it acquits itself very well. EA intends for it's revenue to be earned through the display of in-game advertisement (not so much billboards as little banners that show during the loading screen and scoreboard) and, infamously, through the sale of bling - temporary pants, shirts, hats, eyepatches, and Wellingtons that are purchased with BattleFunds, acquired through a very discreet (don't judge me!) PayPal procedure.
But herein lies the rub: if the weapons are earned, and the abilities are also earned, and EA isn't hiding more powerful content somewhere on your hard drive waiting to be paid for (a la Battlefield: Bad Company), how do they intend to make money, and if they don't make money, how do they intend to support this game?
Honestly, tell me, how many of you think you'll be buying the cartloads of colourful shoes and battle condoms that EA is praying you will? Not very many, I'd wager. In lieu of consumers paying wheelbarrows of guilder for the clock necklaces and ACE bandages and all, the only out EA is going to have to make money is to advertise more aggressively, which could mean anything from a Exxon billboard next to the vehicle depot to a Pepsi endorsement on the back of your flak jacket, and knowing the volume of advertising they would need to sell to run these servers and pay off dice, THESE are some of the least distasteful possibilities.
But how much commitment EA will offer remains to be seen: maybe, with CEO John Ritticiello's new "direction" for the company, they'll pull something out of their ass and (not) surprise us. Not to judge: but I sincerely wonder.