The wait is almost over: this week sees the release of perhaps the most anticipated first-person shooter of the year (well, apart from that other one). Tomorrow DICE pushes the big red button and Battlefield 3 goes live for millions of gamers around the world.
Ahead of Battlefield 3's launch Eurogamer spoke to executive producer Patrick Bach for an extensive interview. Topics of discussion include the recent beta, the controversial Online Pass, criticism of the single-player campaign, and Battlelog, a new feature DICE reckons will keep you playing Battlefield 3 for two years. There may be explosions ahead.
Eurogamer: Has the beta ensured a smooth launch?
Patrick Bach: Yes. The beta for most people was a great experience because they got to try out the game. What's important to understand is the beta was for us. A demo is for the consumer. A beta is for the developer. We got a lot of good information from the back end systems on how to make things smooth. Of course, to us that's important information, but if you're playing the game and enjoying it and the service shuts down, you think it's an error. No it's not. We tested that. That's why we're doing this.
We tried to state everything clearly, but people want it to be a finished game. They want it to be the final experience. Even when we launched the beta, at that day that build was maybe a month-and-a-half old, or two months. So most of the stuff people found and got really upset with, that's already fixed.
We felt a bit like, ah, we can't really tell you what the game is today because you won't believe us. We can't update it because that would take away focus from finishing the game. It's like, we just have to ignore it. Thank you for your feedback, we'll be fixing this, this and this. You just have to trust us. We know what we're doing. We've been doing this for so long.
Eurogamer: Eight million people played the beta. Did you expect that?
Patrick Bach: No. We did not expect that. We expected high numbers, but if you compare it to our previous games, such as the last one, Bad Company 2, we weren't even close. And that was a huge success for us. Now it's like, wait a minute, that's a bit too much, maybe.
The good thing was the systems held up, even when we had all these people logging on every day. We were really happy with that. That was the main reason for doing this. Internally, we've agreed, if we didn't do the beta, we would never have a smooth launch.
"What's important to understand is the beta was for us. A demo is for the consumer. A beta is for the developer."
Eurogamer: Does that number influence your planning or the game's launch?
Patrick Bach: First of all, it proves to us we can handle that many players. The second thing is everyone starts to look at their own numbers, saying, well, if this is true, then this must mean A, B and C. You get a lot of quasi conclusions. You can't make derivatives, and say this is because of this, this is true. But you can probably say it's been very popular.
If you look at the negative comments and say, if this is all the negative comments coming out of eight million people, we're good, and this is not the problem. Hopefully we don't lose people because of the experience.
The other thing is, when we've had people play the game now after playing the beta, they can see for themselves the changes we've done to the game. I haven't heard a single negative note on that. Everyone is like, they fixed it. Great. Thanks. That feels encouraging. OK, we tested the back end, we've fixed all the things we saw in the beta, there's no reason why we shouldn't have a successful launch next week.
Eurogamer: Eight million people playing the beta and two million pre-orders. Can you work out how many copies it will sell based on equivalent numbers for your past games?
Patrick Bach: In general, the hype for Battlefield 3 looking at the numbers you bring up, it's way bigger than Bad Company 2, which was our last big release. Looking at that game compared to this game, the numbers indicate this will be a big step up from Bad Company 2 when it comes to sales, how many players go online, and hopefully for how long people play the game.
Eurogamer: How long do you expect people to play Battlefield 3 for after launch?
Patrick Bach: We thought, in general people play for around six months. Wrong. It's been a year-and-a-half since Bad Company 2 and they still play it. So we need to be prepared to at least have persistence and new stuff for at least a year. Otherwise we're not staying true to the game we're actually trying to build. We're trying to build a game that has that longevity, and we can't let people down. We need to make sure if you buy a game like Battlefield 3, it's something you can play for a long time and still feel like you don't get bored with it.
Eurogamer: So is a year the sweet spot with your games?
Patrick Bach: You can probably push it beyond a year. If you look at Bad Company 2, we probably have as many people playing today as we had last summer. It's amazing. Those insights tell us Battlefield as a sport or a system is really attractive. It has all the teamwork and social aspects. You need that if you want longevity. You can't just have mechanical, repetitive gameplay, because then you get fatigue or you just get crazy. But if you have a system, which Battlefield has - the whole rock, paper scissors - people will find new ways of playing the game after a year, after eighteen months.
Since Battlefield 3 is way deeper when it comes to persistence and how many things you can unlock - we have separate persistence for separate guns - we know we need to support it.
Eurogamer: Battlefield 3 has Online Pass. What's your take on the Online Pass debate?
Patrick Bach: The Online Pass, we actually more or less always had that in Battlefield. We had it in Battlefield 2 for instance, where you got a code together with the box, and you inserted the code and you'd get more or less a slot on a server. Remember, you don't run the server on your local machine. We run the service for you. That's a cost for EA. When you buy the game, part of that money goes to you getting a server slot. So online pass has always been a part of a Battlefield game, so to a Battlefield player, that should not be new.
As long as it's a benefit for the player and doesn't cause too much trouble... I hope people understand why it's there.
Eurogamer: It's different for console gamers, though.
Patrick Bach: Yeah. Console gamers might feel, whoa, what's this? This is new. But if a game requires back end servers to run it on, there needs to be something in it. If you buy a used copy, we don't get a single dime for that. And still we're running your stats and servers. That's just part of the cost. As long as gamers get something for it, it's fine.
"Battlefield has always been a multiplayer game. The focus is multiplayer."
Eurogamer: How does the Battlefield 3 campaign stack up versus campaigns in similar games?
Patrick Bach: First of all, Battlefield has always been a multiplayer game. The focus is multiplayer. We don't want to take that away and say we won't focus on multiplayer, we'll focus on single-player, because then it wouldn't be a proper Battlefield game. To us that's key. Multiplayer is key for us.
We wanted to create a distinct experience with the single-player. It's not supposed to mimic the multiplayer in any way. We wanted to create a different Battlefield for you. What would Battlefield be if it was a movie or an experience that could be placed in a narrative? How would you transform what you experience in the multiplayer into a narrative that tells you a story, that has flow, pacing and teaches you how to play Battlefield? The experience is very distinct.
People that play Battlefield for the multiplayer, this might not be for you. We don't want it to be the same. We're trying to use the mentality of the pacing that is a part of Battlefield, where you can do everything from going super silent to having the big, bombastic moments where everything crumbles and you have all the vehicle experiences and the gadgets and weapons. We tried to use the whole spectrum of emotion to give you the narrative Battlefield experience, rather than the multiplayer experience.
If you compare it to other games it won't be like those games. It's not supposed to be like those games. This is the Battlefield way of telling a first-person, modern shooter narrative. I hope people understand that and don't say, if it's not like this, it's crap, because it's not supposed to be like any other game. It's supposed to be our version of a single-player narrative. Just like our co-op is neither single-player nor multiplayer. It's supposed to be a distinct experience that stands on its own legs.
To us it's very important to have people understand that. Some people say, why don't you do multiplayer bot matches and call that single-player. It's like, then you should play multiplayer. Why buy this game to play that single-player? Play the multiplayer. It's awesome. It's the greatest multiplayer ever. We wanted to give you something different that was not the multiplayer experience.
Eurogamer: Is it long enough?
Patrick Bach: Yes, I think it's long enough. But then, what's long enough?
Eurogamer: Campaigns in first-person shooters are getting shorter and shorter because there's so much emphasis on multiplayer. At what point do they get too short?
Patrick Bach: Yeah, I know what you mean. The discussion should be around what is it you want to achieve. In the eighties, a movie was ninety minutes, and it was like, that's enough. It's almost too long for most people. Then, as movies developed and people got better scripts and better pacing, you could keep the audience attention for two hours. Now it's starting to get to almost two-and-a-half hours as a standard time. They have it the other way around, where they get better and better at keeping your attention.
The reason games have in some cases become shorter because you want to find the sweet spot where you actually play the game through. One of the biggest problems with games today, if you look at statistics - most people don't hand out their statistics - but people don't finish games. So why spend time, energy, heart, blood, soul and money on something people don't finish? Who is it for? Most people are getting to the point where they scale it back and try to improve the quality of the experience so people actually finish it, so they don't get fed up with it and leave it, saying, I bought this game, it has twenty hours of single-player, I played two hours and got bored with it. It's like, okay, I built eighteen hours of single-player for you that you threw away. Thank you.
Would you rather then, do five to eight hours of awesome single-player rather than twenty hours of dull single-player? That's the challenge people face, including us. We want to make sure it's a really cool and exciting story, good pacing, nice flow, variation, weapons, vehicles and everything, and enough time to keep you excited and play it through, rather than just drag it out to give you more hours. There's more to it than people just being mean. But if you love something you want it to go on and on and on.
"Would you rather then, do five to eight hours of awesome single-player rather than twenty hours of dull single-player? That's the challenge people face, including us."
Eurogamer: Do you care about review scores?
Patrick Bach: Yes of course. We care a lot. You could argue that reviews are the most objective feedback you can get as a game developer. The other thing you have is consumer feedback, as in forum posts. You can't use that because it's mostly people being very upset with stuff. It's not very often you have a thread on how awesome something is. Well you get that sometimes with videos and stuff, but general threads are mostly complaints. Then you have the sales.
You can argue that game quality has to do with sales, but it's not equal. You have to have enough game to reach sales. But it doesn't mean if you have a 95 rated game that would sell the most copies. An 85 rated game could sell way more copies than a 95 rated game, which is sad for the developer, because the developer then gets a receipt on that: you made a great game, and then the sales tell you that you didn't make a great game. So it's hard for a developer to be judged by anything but reviews.
Eurogamer: Do you have an expectation for the reviews?
Patrick Bach: Hopefully. We know, oh, we could have done this or that, and this is cool and awesome. Then you get the sign-off from reviews. Yes, we were right, or wait a minute; they didn't like the stuff we liked. You get all this debate. But of course, you set a target and say, if you're not above this we're a failure, or we think we'll hit around this target. It's always hard when you start a project to set the targets for quality, but that's kind of the only target you can set. That's a Metascore.
Eurogamer: Do you have a target Metascore for Battlefield 3?
Patrick Bach: Yes, but I can't tell you what it is. That would ruin the whole thing, wouldn't it?
Eurogamer: What can Battlefield 3 owners expect post-launch that will keep them playing for twelve to eighteen months?
Patrick Bach: We will focus on expansion packs. It's not map packs. Map packs can be great, but it's only if you're done with the maps but the game is perfect. That's not how we see it. We want to evolve the game and show you different angles - here are some weapons, vehicles, new persistent stuff, new dog tags. We don't want to only give you new maps so we can keep the new stuff for later games. We want to give you more and more and more. We want to expand the game, not only add to it in one dimension. That's one area we think we can do more than what we've seen with other games.
Another thing of course is you need to have a good game at the core. You can't just hope everyone will buy the game and play it for two years. So if we need to do an update to the game we'll do that. If we need to tweak a gun we'll do that.
One thing we haven't talked about here is the Battlelog system. I know some people got it. Some other people have not got it yet. We're quite sure people will get it. It will be something you'll see in one shape or form as a standard in most games in the future. It is a natural step. This is nothing we just invested out of thin air. It's a derivative of all the things people have been doing in Battlefield outside of the game. They've started blogs, they have forums, they have statistics sites, and they have clan sites. The only thing we've done is take all of these things and put that into one experience.
Those things will for sure be like a carrot for you over the upcoming months, of seeing how you can play the game in different ways. Since that's web based, we can update it overnight. We can give you a new feature tomorrow. If someone says, wouldn't it be cool to do this thing, we can code that and put it into the game immediately. It's not like we have to patch it or go through processes. We don't have to do anything like that.
You can sit with your console, playing, with your iPad next to you and see your friend rank in real time. You can get a message from your friend on another server saying, hey, join me here. Okay, click, and you're in. It's so easy to use because it's another dimension. It's not what you're used to. You don't have to quit the game and go into this special software and look at something, then go back into the game. I can do it in parallel. If you have a PC you can have a second monitor with Battlelog running in real time, and when you shoot someone and rank up, it shows up. Your friend ranks up, it shows up. All those things together are the glue you had before in Battlefield, now as a specific place on the internet.
Eurogamer: How do you see Battlelog evolving?
Patrick Bach: We're excited right now seeing what we did achieve with Battlefield 3. We just opened Pandora's Box. We can do so much more, not only with Battlelog, but also with multiplayer, rendering and audio, also single-player. It's like, we can do even more.
Eurogamer: So maybe Battlefield 4 one day?
Patrick Bach: Hopefully.
Eurogamer: You still have grand plans for the franchise?
Patrick Bach: Yeah. This feels like day one now. It's exciting. The whole Frostbite 2 thing has opened up a big landscape ahead of us so we can do whatever we want. We're getting so much better in all areas. Everything from gun play to persistence, single-player, Battlelog, we're excited. When people play this and if they look at it for what it is, and don't say, I hoped it would be more like this, then it's like, we don't know what you wanted, but all the hype that's been created has been based on game footage and facts. We haven't tried to do rendered movies to fake stuff. This is actually the game. And if people look at it for what it is, people can see this is a step in the right direction, a step into the next generation of games.