Game Design

Battleborn is a (Good) Free-to-Play Game Wearing a $60 Price Tag

Gearbox’s FPS / MOBA hybrid, Battleborn, has released, and as some of you may have heard, it’s a pretty good game that gets unfairly confused with another popular “Hero Shooter” on the horizon. Unfortunate release window aside, Battleborn is a game that suffers from an identity crisis. On the surface, Battleborn masquerades as a premium-priced title with a robust story mode and competitive multiplayer, but as soon as you start to peel away the hilariously misguided marketing campaign claiming it as such, you’ll find a game that almost certainly was designed to be a multiplayer-focused free-to-play experience.

Let me be clear: this isn’t a knock against Battleborn. The game’s $60 price point provides a solid value for players, and all of the game’s content can be earned for free beyond that initial payment. What is more unfortunate, then, is how good Battleborn would be as a F2P game. The MOBA genre is, more or less, what birthed the notion of a Western-endorsed F2P experience, and Battleborn is certainly more MOBA than it is FPS. 2K and Take Two’s fear of what a F2P Battleborn could have done to their bottom line is totally justifiable (especially when you consider that Battleborn was Gearbox’s most expensive game to date) but hindsight is always 20/20, and when I look back on my nearly 40 hours of play time, I truly believe that Battleborn being a $60 game is a huge missed opportunity.

Artist's depiction of 2K running from the potential of a F2P Battleborn.
Artist’s depiction of 2K running from the potential of a F2P Battleborn.

Allow me to start from the beginning, though: what gives me the impression that Battleborn was once a F2P (or, at least, microtransaction-supported) game? You don’t have to search long before the cracks in the hasty cover-up begin to show. For one, you can view your personal purchase history, and the game explicitly calls out the player’s “refunds remaining” in this section. This is completely irrelevant in the game’s current state, as you cannot purchase items with real-world money in Battleborn, and you are never given the option to refund items you purchase with credits. Why, then, does it exist?

It doesn’t stop there. The currency purchase screen for Loot Packs has a single purchase button suspiciously left-aligned, leaving plenty of room (exactly enough, actually) on the right side for what was almost surely a premium currency price-point once upon a time. And if that’s still not enough for you to buy into the theory, Gearbox announced today that their new hero will cost in-game credits or a Hero Key (earned via Season Pass purchase) to unlock. How many credits, you ask? Approximately 90+ matches’ worth, and that’s assuming you don’t buy any Loot Packs with the same currency used to purchase Heroes. If you’re thinking, “It’s almost like the currency was designed to be the pinch for spender conversion!” that’s because it was. League of Legends uses the same strategy with Runes and Champions, charging the same soft currency, Influence Points, for each. It’s not a stretch to make the connection, especially given how much Battleborn already cribs from the MOBA genre.

Whiskey Foxtrot expressing his frustration over the missed opportunities in Battleborn's current business model.
Whiskey Foxtrot expressing his frustration over the missed opportunities in Battleborn’s current business model.

Some things are less obvious, however, like the pace of progression and earn rate for credits, which feel equal parts motivating and frustratingly slow. There are loads of Legendary Gear Items, with variable stats to encourage repeat monetization on Loot Packs far beyond the initial acquisition point for cash-flush players looking to min / max their performance. As someone who designs F2P systems for a living, I can tell you that these things all exist to incentivize repeat spend and encourage players to expedite themselves through the progression curve. I can also tell you that this strategy works, and is a strong way of getting players significantly invested, both financially and temporally.

What’s even weirder is that there was obviously a lot of thought that went into making these systems sustainable and tempting without being offensive. Strip away the extraneous layers that tried to “salvage” something resembling a premium product, and you actually get a strong free-to-play game that would’ve had a competitive advantage in the budding “Hero Shooter” genre, with real potential for growth.  If you’re following the community and paying attention to sales estimates / CCU, you’ll likely understand that Battleborn desperately needs to solve its fast-approaching population problem to achieve profitability, and keep people interested after Overwatch launches. Even so, I’m a firm believer that Gearbox still has the opportunity to convert the game back to F2P, but whether or not it chooses to do so is yet to be seen.

What do you think? Was Battleborn a F2P at some point in development? Could it still be a successful F2P game, even after launch?

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Dylan
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Agreed on al fronts, would have like to see them seize this competitive advantage.