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 Command & Conquer  is EA's next big free-to-play AAA franchise
Command & Conquer is EA's next big free-to-play AAA franchise
August 15, 2012 | By Kris Graft




Perhaps it was only a matter of time: Electronic Arts is continuing its push for new online business models with today's announcement that the highly-anticipated real-time strategy game Command & Conquer: Generals 2 is going free-to-play.

But the news goes a bit further than that. "It's not just Generals 2 that we're talking about," said EA VP Jon van Caneghem, a veteran strategy game designer whose previous accomplishments include Heroes of Might and Magic. "We're trying to create an entire universe of Command & Conquer, and make that as an online destination. And the first game that we're highlighting under this new paradigm is Generals 2."

For EA, it's the company's most radical move in turning a core audience-focused, "triple-A" franchise into one that supports the free-to-play business model. But it's certainly not the company's first time around the block in the free-to-play market.

EA already has free-to-play games like FIFA Online, Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, Need for Speed World and others. And the free-to-play business model permeates EA's social and mobile businesses. It's not even Command & Conquer's first foray into free-to-play, as Tiberium Alliances is available as a browser-based online strategy MMO.

In short, EA's move today with Generals 2 just goes to show that the publisher sees big business potential in free-to-play, and is ready to shed its reliance on physical retail.

EA is treating the production values of Generals 2 as it would a triple-A retail release, Caneghem said. Generals 2 will be client-based, and is powered by DICE's Frostbite 2 game engine, the same one behind the high-end visuals of DICE's first-person shooter Battlefield 3.

Aside from Generals 2, Command & Conquer's universe includes sub-franchises like Red Alert, Tiberium and other series spin-offs, which will all become Frostbite 2-powered real-time strategy games under this new plan. "We want it to be an ongoing service, rather than one-off games to buy," Caneghem said.

Caneghem, who said he's "very much" hands on the game's design, said at the conception of the idea for a Generals sequel, the game wasn't going to use the free-to-play model. Shifts in the market, and the fact that Generals was very online-focused already, led to the change in how the game will make its money.

"Initially, the Generals product was really online-focused, so much that shifting the business model, and removing the barrier of entry of purchasing a box just made so much more sense," he said. "Letting someone play a triple-A game for free was something that I think was pretty cool.

"I think we were three-quarters of the way there anyway, in terms of how online-focused the product was, so this was just a natural evolution."

But saying that a strategy game will be going free-to-play, especially one with such a core following as the Generals franchises, might elicit visible shudders from strategy fans who realize that gameplay balance is everything. A "pay-to-win" scenario is the fear.

Caneghem wasn't allowed to talk about details of the game's business model, such as what EA will be selling through this new Command & Conquer universe. But he did try to assuage those pay-to-win fears. "All the actual gameplay loops [that Command & Conquer is known for], we are absolutely keeping those intact," said Caneghem. "You add on top of that more online persistence and... I can't get into details.

"...Obviously the whole pay-to-win issue is at the top of our list of things we have to address. I think we have some solutions that are really great, that we'll let people have fun in the way they want."

The new Command & Conquer service launches some time in 2013.


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