At some point this autumn, Battlefield 3 will hang up its helmet, retire to a healthy military pension and allow the spry, good-looking youngster that is Battlefield 4 take up the mantle it started. The third main-series Battlefield game was one that made huge statements. It deliberately positioned itself as a competitor, an equal, to Call of Duty, a franchise that until then had an indomitable stranglehold on the market. Games that had attempted to challenge it before BF3 (for example, Frontlines: Fuel of War or Homefront) lacked the smooth gameplay, Hollywood spectacle and tyrannical marketing budgets available to Infinity Ward and Treyarch. With EA and DICE unified together in their creative and monetary direction - let’s not pretend the decision to bite into COD’s market share wasn’t a carefully considered game of financial Risk – they successfully turned Battlefield into a “Triple A” console shooter. They pulled the move off with aplomb, too. Laugh at the hilariously zeitgeist BRRR WUBWUB WUB that punctuates the game’s menus and trailers, but it sure works on the audience it’s intended to work on. The gameplay is similar enough to Call of Duty so that casual fans of military shooters aren’t put off by unfamiliarity, but weapons and health is balanced in a way that makes playing the two titles feel different. Call of Duty has become the twitchy, instinct-driven arcade cousin to Battlefield’s more sprawling, anarchic matches. But these aren’t the only ways in which DICE cleverly aped the COD blueprint.
The Premium model was much-lamented when it was announced, somewhat unavoidably. Gamers can be forgiven for an instinctive reaction against such a thing – they’ve already paid for their console, and possibly Xbox Live too, and anyone that trusts private companies to put the customer’s satisfaction first in these situations is overly naïve. A premium model means that you’re paying for something you will own. This is the key distinction between a game as a piece of property and a service. Consider things now, as BF3’s Premium service has wrapped up its last major content dump, and the scale of victory it has had in proving its own worth.
The reasons for this are so blindingly simple that it makes my head pound just thinking about how Call of Duty Elite managed to trip over itself, break its own legs, and crawl over the finish line in the race to establish a pay-for model of this kind. It’s down to basic economics and basic honesty. The Premium service had tangible economic benefits for a Battlefield fan, the sort of gamer who knows they’ll be playing the game until the next iteration is released and will buy the DLC released no questions asked. These people exist in droves – my friends and I are these people – and by investing in Premium they get the same content for a little less.
The level to which DICE were upfront about the details of their own model was also refreshing, and the other big influence in making Premium a success. They planned out in advance exactly what content they were going to make, and announced it all at the start. The details of the individual, large map packs were revealed far in advance of release, and they even put an elaborate calendar on the main menu to ensure purchasers were completely aware of what they were getting for their money. It makes the consumer feel better about their purchase if they can actually see what they’re paying for – especially in a “games as services” model where people are always going to feel some natural confusion over a video game not being a piece of real property that can be encapsulated completely in a neat disc package.
Why did I write this piece? I feel that over the last twelve months, console gaming at large has somewhat stumbled over itself in the quest to eek just a little more money and longevity from the consumer. First, we had Sim City, which wanted so badly you to be connected to it at all times, following its neat rules rigidly. Even if the launch had been anything other than a ridiculous mess, EA and Maxis never really explained and justified why that philosophy for Sim City existed in the first place.
Then we have the gloriously pointless realm of microtransactions. Dead Space 3’s are the most egregious in a big-budget title to date, but they offered nothing of real worth. There was no reason to pay for them other than to get stuff you can get by playing the game (you know, playing the game, the thing you already paid to do when you bought the disc), and so they were pointless and didn’t prove a worthwhile feature for both the consumer or EA. Both of these examples are from the same publisher as Battlefield 3, so it leaves me at a loss to understand why the Premium model didn’t set a better example.
Video games as a service is going to happen. It’s just a matter of when, and that depends on how much the consumer stamps their feet. And as Microsoft’s recent policy reversal shows, they’re doing a lot of stamping. The service model doesn’t have to be an intrinsically negative step for video gaming. Battlefield 3 shows the positive benefits that can exist in such an environment, but it seems like, at least for now, it’ll be the one good console-based example shining out through a pile of mud.