Battlefield 3's fourth expansion pack, Aftermath, introduces a new mode that gives newcomers a fighting chance.
It's called Scavenger. All players start with one pistol, one grenade and one specialisation - the bare minimum, producer Craig Mcleod recently told me at an EA preview event in London.
Dotted around the map are flag points, which you need to capture, but because Scavenger is a take on Conquest Domination this all happens very quickly. "We want people to be running around exploring the map to its fullest," Mcleod said.
Also dotted around the map are three levels of weapons. Level one weapons, the weakest, include SMGs and the like. These are placed in relatively safe zones on the outskirts. But the level three weapons, such as assault rifles, carbines and LMGs, are placed around flag points in open areas. If you fancy one of these weapons, you need to take a risk. "It's risk versus reward gameplay," Mcleod said.
The interesting thing about Scavenger is that it renders classes and all the work done by veteran players almost useless. "If you've levelled up that weapon for 400 hours that's not going to help you in this mode," Mcleod said. "It's how good you are. So new players won't feel daunted getting into this pack.
"This is great because it doesn't matter if you've played for ten thousand hours or if you're new and you've just bought Battlefield 3 Premium Edition, everyone starts on a level playing field. It comes down to skill."
The mention of Battlefield 3 Premium Edition is important here. This pack, introduced into the market this autumn, contains the main BF3 game and a Premium subscription, which includes all the expansions so far released and early access to those that are yet to launch. Battlefield 3, which launched October 2011, has done wonderfully well in its own right, but EA and DICE feel there are some who are yet to jump into its gritty, destructible world. Hence, Battlefield 3 Premium Edition, just in time for Christmas. And Scavenger is for them.
"There are a percentage of people who haven't tried it yet who are thinking, it's been out for a year, it's still going strong, it's still very successful, but can I really get into it?" Mcleod said. "We wanted to create a mode they felt comfortable just jumping into and starting off. It was definitely in our mind."
Battlefield 3 is unique in that its community has grown over time. Most games launch big then drop off quickly. A year after launch a whopping 15 million people play Battlefield 3, fuelled by the three expansion packs released so far. Aftermath, out next month for PS3-owning Premium subscribers, is the fourth. End Game, due out 2013, will be the fifth.
Mcleod puts the game's continued success down to DICE's willingness to listen to its fans, and this, he said, informed the approach the Swedish studio took with Aftermath. It features four new maps, three new vehicles and a new weapon, the crossbow. This is on top of the usual 10 new assignments and dog tags and five new achievements and trophies.
Close Quarters, which offered tight infantry combat, and Armored Kill, which offered vehicle combat on giant maps, were two extremes, Mcleod said. Aftermath offers the best of both worlds and returns to the size and scale seen in the first add-on, Back to Karkand, It's "something that works for everyone," he said. "We don't want any players to feel they're alienated from this pack."
It's not been all plain sailing, of course. Battlefield 3 is now a very different game to the one that launched in October 2011. It's benefited from a number of updates that have tweaked, tuned and improved the gameplay experience. Updates are ongoing, but DICE is happy with the current state of its shooter.
If you've levelled up that weapon for 400 hours, that's not going to help you in this mode. It's how good you are.DICE producer Craig Mcleod
"It's definitely known. It's definitely being monitored," Mcleod said of the server situation. "What we want is from the server hosting some kind of fair gameplay. We don't want too much personal emotion affecting other players within that server. We know about it. We're looking at it. We're assessing options as to how we can go forward with this."
EA feels since the addition griefing has reduced, and Mcleod suggested part of DICE's mission is to teach the console audience that might not be familiar with server browsers how to use them. "Find that server you like and favourite it," he said. "PC players know how to look for servers. But I don't know if console guys necessarily do yet.
"If you find a server you like, bookmark it. Favourite it. Because you know you can always go back to it and get that experience you want. It's not a random selection.
"We would like to encourage them to use the same sort of system we have on PC when we think about the server browser and favouriting and joining your friends. If they've found a good server you can join in on your friends' match as well. That's a really good way to find a good experience you want."
Activision recently made waves when it announced it will kill off the Call of Duty Elite premium offer in favour of a free service, and sell downloadable map packs separately. This move was seen by many as validating EA's approach, which was to offer Battlelog free of charge and sell expansions separately.
EA has shifted 1.5 million Battlefield Premiums, and that number is rising.
"We want to show value in the Premium service on two levels," Mcleod said. "The initial level is when you think about just buying the packs. If you buy all five of the packs, that's $75. You can get Premium for $49.99. You're saving $25 instantly there. If you already got Back to Karkand because you got the Limited Edition, you're still saving $10. That's the first basic level of showing Premium's value.
"But we also look at the other side of it, where we have double XP weekends, unique competitions, we send out strategy guides and teaser videos. You get the unique knife, so when you stab someone in-game they're seeing you've got something cool and unique to you."
Most important of all, Mcleod committed to keeping Battlelog free for future games. "We consider Battlelog a part of the game," Mcleod said. " It's part of the experience. It's not something you should have to pay for. You should be able to track your stats and have your friends. We want that to be a part of that experience. And then the DLCs can be considered something different to a Premium service.
"It's important people know Battlelog is a part of our game. It's a part of our experience and not just a cypher. If you're buying our game you should have this, you should be able to use this and you should get the benefit from it."
So, as Christmas and Aftermath near, thoughts inevitably turn to Battlefield 4. EA quietly announced the game when it offered beta access with a Medal of Honor pre-order. The beta launches in autumn 2013, with the game out probably October that year.
Does Battlefield 4 signal the end for Battlefield 3, then?
"I strongly believe the community will still keep playing Battlefield 3 even long after that, because the gameplay is what it is," Mcleod said.
"It's an engaging multiplayer experience. The variety of gameplay you have, whether you want to be tight infantry or all-out vehicle, whether you want to see unique things like Aftermath or your fan favourites in Back to Karkand from Battlefield 2. Due to the variety, it's going to be a really long life cycle that will keep going for years to come."