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E3: BattleForge bombed at retail, but booms as online game

June 3, 2009 |  7:00 pm
BattleForge went from the chopping block to the pedestal in a span of two months. Credit: Phenomic / Electronic Arts.

BattleForge, a real-time strategy game from Electronic Arts, had its own life-or-death struggle this year.

Under EA's financial restructuring, Phenomic, the studio that developed BattleForge, went under a microscope. Acquired in 2006, the German studio had been hard at work for three years on the title. Instead of kicking the game to the curb, as it did with a number of other titles including Tiberium, EA decided to launch the computer game in March in retail stores for 50 euros in Europe and $49.95 in the U.S. It bombed.

"We were very disappointed with the sales," said Frank Gibeau, president of the Redwood City, Calif.-based company's EA Games label. Gibeau said the title sold fewer than 100,000 copies. "We had great respect for the developers, but we had to decide whether we needed to shut down the studio."

The company met with Phenomic in April to break the bad news.

Soon thereafter, other developers at EA noticed that the few people who bought the title were spending a large amount of money online buying virtual cards that EA sold in the game. These Pokemon-like cards conferred game characters with special skills that can be used to play the game.

"The average spending per user was off the charts," Gibeau said. "If you got someone to play the game, they became passionate about it."

Gibeau made a radical call -- he decided to give away BattleForge, or at least a big chunk of it, and reserved some levels and features to sell to players.

What happened next surprised EA. Players of the free game ended up spending "north of 50 euros" for additional content. Some hit as much as 75 euros, Gibeau said, 50% more than what the game was selling for at retail. He declined to reveal how many copies have been downloaded since EA released BattleForge as a free title, but said that sales of virtual cards hit a record for the game last week.

As a result, Phenomic pulled back from the precipice of extinction to become a role model for future game development at EA.

"We have four or five projects underway now" that follow the free-to-play model that BattleForge trail-blazed, Gibeau said. "You'll see more of this throughout EA."

-- Alex Pham