This week, EA announced that they’re ready to potentially nickel-and-dime us to death with Battlefield Heroes, a new PC shooter that’s “free to play.” Oh, except players will have the option to purchase in-game items or abilities (remains up in the air at this point) to presumably dominate over their less spendthrift opponents. Now, we are planning to address this business model on our next podcast, but I wanted get my thoughts down while they’re still fresh in my mind. You’ll undoubtedly be seeing knee-jerk reactions on all of your favorite gaming forums just because up until this point, we’ve (Western gamers) have all associated “micro-transactions” with the infamous horse armor and EA’s own downloadable Godfather cheats. However, if done properly, this kind of customer abuse could be a thing of the past.
Putting items up for sale can break a game. I learned this lesson early on in the 360’s lifespan when Sega released additional guns for its online mech battler Chrome Hounds. The weapons available at the outset were pretty well balanced, but for a small sum, anyone could suddenly shower the map with mortar fire or unleash devastating cannons that easily outclassed anything available on the disc. Since then, I haven’t noticed anything that ruinous, but you can be sure that this was the first thing I thought of when Battlefield Heroes was announced. However, this time, EA is telling us beforehand that we’ll be getting a broken game. We know what to expect, and thus we won’t be screwed in the long run.
This might not sound enticing, but it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of players roped into this scheme will be unwilling to put down any cash, even if they’re getting their butts handed to them. In other words, BH is going to be huge with the casual audience, especially considering that the system specs will be toned down for lower-end compatibility. And what about the few who grow tired of being cannon fodder? Rather than invest hours of play time to earn BH‘s equivalent of “martyrdom,” they can purchase the ability whenever they want. Considering that you’re reading my blog, it’s a fair guess that you’re not the target audience for this game, but I think EA is going to have a big hit on their hands given the Team Fortress 2-esque visuals and DICE’s strong track record.
It will be interesting to see how BH is received in comparison to the similarly “priced” MMORPGs in South Korea and China. These games have caused much consternation among parents, teachers, and government officials for their addictive qualities and supposedly exploitive practices, but that hasn’t really slowed down the proliferation of online game publishers. One of the biggest operations here in China is Zhengtu Online, which you can read about here (a fascinating but somewhat reactionary article detailing “RMB gamers”). Players are willing to pay ridiculous sums of money in order to stay competitive, creating a hierarchy in which the rich maintain control over the poor (not unlike general society). If EA’s plan is as successful as Zhengtu Online (trust me, Battlefield Heroes is just the beginning), we’re looking at another wave of media backlash at our favorite hobby. Kids taking their parents’ credit cards, people taking out mortgages on their houses to pay for in-game items, maybe even the occasional deaths that were previously isolated to Eastern internet bars – I don’t think it will get this ugly, but cable news outlets and their ilk have a knack for sensationalism. But for the PC gaming market to remain viable, I think this model needs to work.
On a completely unrelated, more personal note, I went skiing for the first time yesterday and returned home completely intact. Not a single broken bone. For those of you who have witnessed my ice skating “prowess,” I think you’ll agree that my survival after four hours on a grueling bunny slope is a small miracle.