Battlefield 5 hasn't had the easiest of starts. In recent months, it's experienced a huge fan backlash for including women and "unrealistic" cosmetics in the game, while a recent financial report by Cowen claimed the game had performed below expectations in pre-order sales, which is a shame, as my hands-on experience playing Conquest on the Rotterdam map at Gamescom was exhilarating - even if the climbing mechanics were a little clunky.
With the open beta beginning on 4th September, I was intrigued to find out whether DICE felt prepared for the full launch. At this year's Gamescom, I met with Battlefield executive producer Aleks Grøndal to ask him about the new battle royale mode, grand operations and live services. The extent to which I got answers, however, was questionable.
I wanted to start off by asking what you think separates this Battlefield from Battlefield 1, what are the main changes you've made?
Grøndal: There are a couple of good ones. First of all, the setting is a big change for us. We wanted to go to the Second World War, which is a setting we have in the franchise and have explored in the past, so there's a lot of legacy there and a lot of excitement around that. But we wanted to say, "OK, we're gonna go back to the Second World War, but actually, we wanna show you some of the stuff that you probably haven't seen," because it's been explored and visited in popular culture, media and games. We wanted to show a different side, so we chose to pick what we call the "fall of Europe", which is not really a term in itself, but it's supposed to mean the first years - the battles that took place very early - in France, in Norway and in a few other places. But we thought, hey, we want to start there and tell some stories that are inspired by that.
So will that be through war stories again - are you doing more of that than last time?
Grøndal: We're not talking about the specific amount of war stories, but as a complete package, it's about the same type of experience. How many - we can't talk about today. I can mention one, that we talked about previously, which is one called Nordlys and takes place in Norway, and it's a story about a young resistance fighter fighting against the occupation and uncovers some information that she needs to figure out how to deal with. It's a kind of low-key, Nordic-noir style, so it's pretty cool, and some people are probably seeing some stuff from Norway in popular culture, but for most people it will be an exciting thing to at least get a flavour from that point of view.
With war stories, it's often been from an allied perspective. Would you ever consider doing an axis story or is it too difficult with moral considerations?
Grøndal: The only war story we're talking about today is Nordlys, so I can't really comment on what's on the other side of that unfortunately. But you'll hear soon. We have some cool and unexpected stuff coming, that's for sure.
I wanted to ask about pre-orders: recently Cowen [an investment banking group] said the amounts are lower than expected. From your perspective, are numbers lower than expected? If so, do you consider it a problem?
Grøndal: So I can't really comment against my expectations or not, I can't really say. We'll continue to push forward, we have some great things coming in the future and we believe in the product we have, so that is all I can say on that.
Do you think Battlefield 5 releasing around the same time as Red Dead Redemption 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 is going to be a problem, or do you think the open beta will help bring in interest before those other big games?
Grøndal: I can't really comment on that. What I will say, though, is the answer is not the launch date, the answer is how good the game is. I think that's as much as I can say about that.
Another hot topic is the fact battle royale is coming to Battlefield. Apparently DICE isn't making the mode, so which studio is?
Grøndal: So we can't talk too much about royale today.
When will we hear more?
What I can tell you about it is we want to do something that is uniquely Battlefield, that will contain all the things people expect are the core foundations - so vehicles, destruction, teamplay, we'll build it out from some of the key components that make Battlefield what it is. And that gets me excited, that gives us something that is true to us.
Do you know what kind of gameplay will be different from other battle royales that's unique to Battlefield?
Grøndal: It's the same game but it's a different wrapping, so that will give you an indication on the direction of where we're moving with this.
So will it be more about battle royale features such as the number of players and shrinking zone, but with Battlefield gameplay elements?
Grøndal: So that's the kind of detail I can't give you. I really can't say.
In the Battlefield community there's been a huge debate about "realism". Where do you think it came from, and do you think Battlefield can move past it?
Grøndal: So I can't comment on where it came from, I can only talk about why we chose the things we chose. This is the game where we wanted you to be able to create your own personalised group of soldiers. We wanted you to be able to personalise everything from how they look to how they play, because at that point in time, you should be able to pick whoever you should want to play. And I do think that's the right thing to do, that's what many in the community have asked for, so we stand behind that. The other part of the question I can't really talk about.
Next I want to talk about monetisation. EA has said that there isn't going to be a season pass and it will mainly be about cosmetic sales. Can you confirm it will be sales of the game and cosmetics only?
Grøndal: So yeah, we're not doing premium, we are removing that. That was a big thing from our community - they want to play together.
So it's about avoiding splitting the community?
Grøndal: Exactly. They were saying, 'oh I want to bring my buddy but he doesn't have all the DLC so we can't play that.' So we removed that, and allowed people to play together, and I think that will help tremendously.
When it comes to details of how we're going to monetise, individual customisation will be one part of it, and I think that's as much information as we're willing to talk about.
What sort of reaction have you seen from the closed alphas, what changes have you made from that? What are you currently working on before the full release?
Grøndal: We did two closed alphas. In the first closed alpha we wanted to get a sense of some of the key core balancing things that we do, because it's super important for us to get the balance just right, but we also know how that's an ongoing thing.
The pacing from the first alpha was more popular, and some of the weapon balancing from the second one was good. Some sniper rifles are now performing more in line with Battlefield 4. So it has some BF4 in it, and I feel we found a good middle ground.
There's some good feedback in general about how the game plays, and there's a couple of things that we're working on. Some players have complained about the visual noise of the picture - there's too much going on - so it's all about the readability of the characters, for instance, are they enemy-friendly? We really wanna try to avoid playing the HUD game, which is where you're just looking for icons. I'd rather you be looking at the game world and what you'd like to do. So that's what we're trying to do. Some of that made it to the open beta, and some of that will be ongoing work that will go on into the future.
Some players are saying from the testing stages that they felt it was quite similar to Battlefield 1. Do you think it's departed enough from Battlefield 1?
Grøndal: I think that's feedback that we hear from all the games, actually. I'm not going to deflect it because there's some proof behind it. Part of that is because it's Battlefield, so it should always feel like a Battlefield game - running around with the weapons it should always feel like Battlefield. But I think some of the stuff that is in early is also, perhaps, closer to its predecessors, so we're still working on a bunch of things to make it feel and pop more - the new things will be more useful. On that point I would say, the good news is that on 6th September everyone gets a chance to test it out for themselves and see how different it is.
I've been working with Battlefield games for 12 years, and so I have this conversation every year or so. What I think is interesting about it all is people want things to change in the game, but they want too much. So when it comes to it they're kind of walking on this tightrope of "too much" or "too little". So it's about finding the right balance about familiarity and new stuff.
I was wondering if you could explain a little about how grand operations are going to work?
Grøndal: Grand operations is the natural evolution of the operations from Battlefield 1. The idea is to take players on a journey inspired by some of the events that took place during the Second World War. So you get to go on this journey and experience some of the events. Structurally, it's defined in in-game days, you're kind of playing through different modes as you progress.
First stage, you come in as airborne attacks, so you come in flying with this aircraft, and your objective is to take out some of the ground artillery, to prepare it for the main force to attack. So that's the first objective, and that's kind of day one.
Day two is: OK, we've landed our forces, now we need to start moving into enemy territory. So that's more like what we call a "breakthrough", where you're trying to capture and hold and push forward.
Day three takes place on the second night, so it connects it physically but with a different location, so it's like an operation normally starts somewhere and it connects somewhere else, so that's what we do here. Some of them are really close and you can actually see each other, so it's a different part of the space. And then, you continue pushing forward, and depending on how the assault ends, it may end on a final stand mode where every bullet and every man counts to the very last. So it's a desperate struggle to the very end, to get a culmination of the operation. And that kind of wraps it up, and unlike Battlefield 1, you can never hold, everything will always progress, even if the defenders are doing a great job. There's an emotional narrative to tell and we don't want it to feel like it halted and players can't make progress.
Where do you think Battlefield will go from here? Are you thinking about the future?
Grøndal: Yes, absolutely, that's very much a part of our plan. With Battlefield 5 we are starting our Tides of War program, which is our seasonal narrative where we have all the content and all the missions and everything that players can play over time, it's our first steps into thinking about this live service thing differently. So we had this premium thing in the past, which kind of boxed us in a little bit in the way that we had it. This one allows us to be a lot more flexible, bring a lot more new and interesting stuff, allows us to experiment a little more and do some more things that are a little bit different, and get some instant community feedback. So absolutely, I think this is the start of a completely new post-launch phase for Battlefield with Battlefield 5, so I'm super excited to see where we're going to take that, as that's where the proof of the pudding lies.
What kind of experimental ideas do you have in mind?
Grøndal: I think some of the stuff you've already seen hints of, without mentioning details, but there is certainly more planned also - without going into details.
So would you say live services are now more about retaining player attention? Rather than making money from the season pass, it's more about keeping players interested in the game so they spend on cosmetics?
Grøndal: Yeah, you could say that.
And this is what players have been asking for as well, so it's kind of both.