December 8, 2009

Micro-transactions and Battlefield Heroes Beta

EA Dice made some unpopular changes to the pricing model in the free-to-play (F2P), but supported by micro-transactions Battlefield: Heroes. Ars Technica has an article with the basics:
You could buy certain items to give yourself an edge, sure, but it was just as easy to earn in-game Valor Points (VP) to purchase weapons and widgets for use in the game. Many gamers did just this, earning VP in their regular gaming session without ever paying a dime. Others made a few purchases here and there to round out their items.
With micro-transactions all the rage right now, this has created a shit-storm around the blog-o-sphere. I find myself having to step in and defend the unpopular view.

The game is still in BETA and changes are to be expected. Overall, these changes were GOOD for Battlefield: Heroes. However, they were POORLY communicated (as in no players knew they were coming). Also, the developers originally stated players wouldn't be able to buy items that would make them more powerful, which is a promise now breached.

As a long time Battlefield: Heroes player (since early beta), I stand firmly in my belief that players DO NOT need more than the default weapons to be successful. I routinely place in the top three during matches with nothing more than the default weapons (the proof is on my BF:H profile page). I could continue playing my way, unaffected by these changes, but I won't.

I originally limited myself to $20 worth of battlefunds to play dress up, because there was nothing else worth spending money on. Now, spending real money on the game is more about convenience and enhancement. I buy funds now and NO LONGER have to spend my time as well to win VP! I can easily purchase the items outright that will help me enjoy the time I spend playing. This is a win-win for my time and offers value for the money spent.

All while free players STILL have access to the majority of the arsenal they previously had via VP, albeit not nearly as easily. Outside of the changes to bandages, the other questionable move was adding battlefund-only weapons that are more powerful than the VP weapons. Again, this was NOT supposed to happen per the developer's own statements.

How does shooter drama spill over into the MMO blog-o-sphere?

As micro-transaction business models begin flooding the MMOG market, certain MMO bloggers are looking for any excuse to attack them, which means they reach outside of MMOGs. I was once on that side of things, but I've come to realize that micro-transactions are a valid business model and offer a great value when combined with F2P.

F2P games are routinely misconstrued as altruistic projects where the developers aren't allowed to make a profit operating the game. F2P games are a different means to the same goal: operating a sustainable business. They are no different in the need to generate revenue than are subscription MMOGs. Both F2P and subscription games make game-related changes to sustain the bottom line.

Subscription games feature many time sinks (lock out timers, progression gating mechanics, etc.) to increase the amount of time players need to pour into the game, therefore increasing revenue. Also, subscription games often come with a box price and they release expansions which often invalidate everything that existed before.

F2P games operate similarly, but with a more "car salesman" approach. They already can keep players playing by being F2P, so the subscription model's tricks don't work. F2P games have to sell something to the players. This means they have to balance being free with making money, and the line has to be drawn somewhere as we've seen with Battlefield Heroes and Free Realms recently. Yes, changes will scare away players in F2P games. The same as patches/nerfs will drive away players in a subscription MMO.

Lessons Learned

Wrapping this whole mess up, it amazes me how people lose perspective so quickly when micro-transactions get involved. They let subscription games get away with murder, but god forbid a F2P game charges $10 for a horse or limits the free riders.

I think the most valuable lesson for EA Dice that can be learned here is simple: don't charge real money for micro-transactions when a game is still in BETA and changes are being planned to the pricing model. For the players, don't expect a free ride indefinitely. Finally, F2P combined with micro-transactions is a means to the same end: making money.

Did I mention this game is still in BETA?