Has any game been more inescapable over the past 12 months than Battlefield 3? EA's biggest ever shooter has drowned the industry in a tsunami of orange and teal, dominating the headlines pre, during and post launch.
Even the most casual observer must have been sucked up by some of the hype. 15 million plus have stuck around for the fight, but as is so often the case, many players will have cut ties with Battlefield 3 long ago, ready to hitch a ride onto the next hype train or happy to hide away from anything that's marketed with a litany of explosions and a throbbing score.
Those players, then, probably don't know what's happening to one of the world's most popular videogames. There's a seedy, repugnant underbelly dead set on controlling and ultimately ruining what is one of the finest shooters ever made. And for many, it's just too much to bear.
Since DICE and EA introduced the 'rent-a-server' option to Battlefield 3's console experience, the game that appeared in October 2011 is no more. Where once everyone competed on a level-playing field, one restricted and governed by the rules and balances DICE introduced to its game, now each server has its own rules.
Selecting Quick Match - the typical 'go-to' option of most online games - is a real roll of the dice (if you'll excuse the pun), as you'll be dropped into one of thousands of fan-run servers. Many have specific and aggressive rules established in their loading screens and set by the admins who rent and run the server. Some of these new enforcements might just be small rule changes that many would perceive as positive; things like 'no spawn camping' or 'balanced teams'.
The majority, though, are fundamentally game-changing. 'No shotguns' is probably the most common. 'No anti-air' another. These are rules that specifically alter the balance of Battlefield 3, turning it into a new game, almost always for the worse. Many servers run with tickets (Battlefield 3's spawn currency) that are up to and over 400% what the map was designed for, making for farcical matches where the defending team is up against hopeless odds.
"Since DICE and EA introduced the 'rent-a-server' option to Battlefield 3's console experience, the game that appeared in October 2011 is no more."
Worst of all, though, are the multitude of servers run by petty, mini tyrants; people who will kick and then ban anybody in breach of their rules. Or indeed, anyone who happens to not fit into the exact model of game these administrators want. In other words: anyone who happens to be half-decent at Battlefield.
I've lost count of the amount of times I've been kicked and banned from servers. And I am no world-class player: a solid medic with a big heart, maybe, but certainly no deadeye sniper or Airwolf-wannabe chopper pilot.
A recent example of a pair of servers I came across had the explicit rule 'air vehicles for admin only. Anyone else using will be kicked and banned.' It doesn't take a seasoned Battlefield player to see the rot setting in.
It's a real point of contention, too. Cruising the Battlelog forums brings up countless testimonials complaining of the same thing. Some players even consider it a badge of honour to be kicked for playing well. This brilliant animation sums up the situation splendidly.
The obvious reaction to all of this strife is to avoid the Quick Match option altogether, which most players will. However, even surfing through the server browser gives no real indication of what experience you might encounter. There are places that clearly exist for the admins and their friends to boost ranks, places which can be easily avoided, but plenty of others seem innocent and friendly enough. Until you get kicked. And banned. Again.
On occasion you'll find excellent servers with equally excellent admins, and there's actually a bit of a kinship that develops between like-minded players who just want to enjoy the game the way it's supposed to be played. Even then, though, there are issues. The whole notion of matchmaking has been thrown out of the window. Fan-run servers are nothing new on PC, but on console where most shooters have vastly complicated systems that pair you to players of similar skill, suddenly having none of these algorithms in play turns the whole affair into a crap shoot. Plenty of servers are run by decent folk, but decent folk who happen to be outstanding Battlefield players. Competing against them is almost as painful as scrapping with the tyrants.
"Worst of all are the multitude of servers run by petty, mini tyrants; people who will kick and then ban anybody in breach of their rules."
You'd think, then, that restricting yourself to official EA and DICE servers would be the answer. Only, there aren't any. Well, that's not entirely true. On the last count on Xbox 360, I could find six with the magical preface p24, which the Battlefield community tells us denotes officiality, and there is no in-game filter to discern between fan-run servers and official ones. Searching for the word DICE just uncovers countless unofficial servers hungry for players to join their games. At the time of writing, DICE themselves were playing on unofficial servers (according to Twitter). It's a bizarre and almost unfathomable irony.
And what of those fans who start with the best of intentions and an open wallet? It's the age-old problem - absolute power corrupts absolutely. While there are plenty of despots in the Battlefield world who just want to watch the world burn, there appear to be an equal amount who just can't help themselves. After all, if you ran a server and played with 10 friends, say, and suddenly a highly ranked, extremely skilled player dived into your server and dominated every round in a helicopter - as they are more than entitled to do - how tempting would it be to just make him disappear so everyone can go back to having fun? It's definitely a lot easier than organising your team to tactically and deliberately counter his every movement with SAMs and rockets.
So, if Quick Match is a no go, and finding an official server is next-to-impossible, what's the choice for the action-hungry Battlefield player? You've already guessed it. Hire your own server. It's the trap of all traps, and whether it's a deliberate ploy on behalf of those in control or an unfortunate set of circumstances is largely irrelevant: the outcome is the same. People are paying extra just to enjoy the game they've already paid for.
A month's worth of server fees will set you back 2000 MSP on Xbox 360 or $24.99 on PC and PS3, which then gives you your own play space where you can customise the rules and take command of who is allowed into your game.
Look at it from a punter's point of view. They've bought the game. If second hand, they'll have paid $10 for an online pass. Now, six months in, they can't get a decent game without paying even more. It's a grim situation. Couple this with the massive push for Battlefield's new Premium service (which is in fact an oddly-named season pass rather than the gold-card club it sounds like) and it only adds insult to injury. There's nothing Premium about fumbling around for an hour trying to get a game. It makes you feel like an unwanted guest - the competition winner who's allowed in the executive box but isn't really supposed to talk to anyone famous.
"Absolute power corrupts absolutely. While there are plenty of despots in the Battlefield world who just want to watch the world burn, there appear to be an equal amount who just can't help themselves."
I actually went through EA's customer service system to seek out a reason why I was constantly being banned and kicked from games, and was offered this in response "I apologise for the inconvenience caused to you. It seems that you are not following the rules of conduct or you are trying to connect to a rented server. It's not the player of the server but the admin can kicked you out. Please ensure that you are following conduct rules."
I'd known full well what was going on, so my complaint was somewhat surreptitious, but it's not out of the question that many players think they're being banned or kicked by DICE - not everybody is as ingrained in the industry as those who read and write about it on a daily basis. In response, I simply asked how to connect to a non-rented server, but I've not had a reply.
On Reddit, DICE's community manager Daniel Matros was asked about the server situation by user Kilkito in an AMA (ask me anything) discussion. †
"I would like to know if you have heard about the current non-existence of Official EA/DICE Servers in BF3 on Xbox 360. I haven't played in over two weeks because of it; abusive admins and 2000% ticket servers are everywhere and I can't seem to find a normal server with vanilla BF3. I thought Rent-a-server was not going to affect my habits of gaming, but it seems I was wrong."
To which Matros replied "I've heard this for a while now and the feedback has gotten louder. This is definitely something I will raise when I get back into the studio tomorrow."
"The real tragedy though, is nothing to do with money, online passes, premium services and other such ugliness. It's the simple fact that one of the finest online shooters ever made is being torn apart from the inside."
This sort of thing doesn't help the public image of a company that's constantly at the forefront of consumer/company angst. Complaining about EA's business practises is a fool's errand without the specifics of its balance sheet to hand, and DICE does listen and respond well to its community, a very active and vocal one at that. Regardless of whether this situation is innocent or not, it appears rampantly cynical. At the very best, it's massively misjudged.
The real tragedy though, is nothing to do with money, online passes, premium services and other such ugliness. It's the simple fact that one of the finest online shooters ever made is being torn apart from the inside. Battlefield 3 at its best is a thing of beauty - a multi-faceted conflict where myriad elements combine to create stunning, orchestrated chaos. Where war stories live forever in the memory, where every corner and every courtyard is another stage for its peerless theatre.
That game, though, no longer exists for most of us. Wading through the thugs, the boosters, the tyrants and the elite is more of a battle than the game itself. Battlefield 3 matches aren't short either - they're long, involved and at times mentally exhausting. Getting kicked for no discernible reason after 40 minutes of hard work is utterly exasperating. So if you can't beat em, do you join em? What other solution is there?
Another server rented. Another tyrant born. The cycle begins again.