rolling the dice

One of the most popular franchises of recent times is finally getting a new main entry, after a decade in semi-hibernation. Made by DICE, it promises to be filled with action, Imperial walkers, and the classic heroes-versus-villains gameplay Battlefront came to be known for. But perhaps the main issue with it is the developers themselves.

DICE hasn’t done much to build a reputation lately. Actually, no, they have…the resulting reputation just isn’t a great one. They’ve gone from once being considered a leading developer to little more than a shill for EA in the decade since acquisition.

As recently as five years ago, DICE stood in stark opposition to Activision, a welcome antithesis to the Microtransation Throne and the emperor seated on its gold-coin-stuffed cushion. A senior producer went as far as to go on record and state unambiguously that DICE would never charge for map packs for its flagship Battlefield franchise. But like any election promise, it turned out to be a hollow one. A year and a half later, Battlefield 3 launched, and was eventually expanded with five map packs priced at $15 each. There aren’t many things that can push me to take a principled stand, but a backpedal as anti-consumer as this was one of them. I never purchased any of BF3‘s released expansions, though I was gullible enough to throw down for the Limited Edition, getting the first map pack for free(ish).

I didn’t dislike the game; on the contrary, I played it quite a bit, particularly with friends. It was the most fun I’d had since Bad Company 2, into which I sank a similar amount of time. The Frostbite engine was easily the biggest selling point of the game for me, and larger-scale vehicle combat just put icing on the cake.

But DICE tainted the dessert with Battlelog. Taking the age-old process of finding a new server between games and loading in, and adding the extra complication of having the leave the game to do so (not to mention having to install and continually update a web browser plugin with its own problems), and also losing the ability to do things like tweak game settings and player loadouts between games. The added steps required to do this in BF3 never ceased to annoy me, as much as I enjoyed the game itself.

With the release of Battlefield 4, focii seemed to shift considerably. Less attention was given to the widespread terrain and building destruction featured in BC2 and BF3, and more to “Levolution“, large-scale semi-scripted events that could be triggered by players, which would typically result in major changes to the landscape of a given map. Bridges could be blown, mansions could be leveled and construction crane brought crashing down into skyscrapers and city streets. While this added an extra level of awe to the game, the prevalence of smaller destruction events, like blowing holes through walls or ceilings, seemed to wane. On top of that, BF4 added a plethora of new weapons, accessories, and the ability to counter the previously one-hit-kill melee execution, and of course new maps. But it was very much the sort of thing that would have been an expansion, or at least a major patch, just five years earlier. As such, I didn’t purchase it, because I viewed it as a patch with a $60 price tag, and I wasn’t willing to pay it. It didn’t help that the game had serious technical problems, such as an extremely low tick rate, which only contributed to major difficulties landing hits on enemy players.

Then, DICE was bit by the heist bug. Spurred by the success of games like Payday 2, they decided to trade the military fatigues for a set of blues and make a cops-and-robbers game, calling it Battlefield Hardline. Once again, it felt like something a developer might have added as a new game mode via expansion pack, were it released several years earlier, and so far it has been perceived even by its fans and supporters as little more than a reskin, and has yet to surpass its predecessor in player base. Most damning for me personally is the lack of playtime value: I’ve played just 10 hours of Hardline thus far, and already I feel finished. The game just doesn’t feel as varied or deep as BF3. I feel no motivation to continue.

The decline of DICE, seen through the lens of review scores.

Now the record is preparing itself for another spin on the turntable, with the highly-teased development of Battlefront. Many, like Jim Sterling, are realizing how burned they’ve been over the years by developers like DICE. He hears they’re developing a new game and immediately worries about what new ways they will come up with to exploit customers. Not that it’s his fault–DICE has done this to themselves. Or perhaps it’s more accurate (and less scathing) to say that EA did this to them. Either way, it’s a sad tale to recount for someone who clearly remembers the days when they endlessly bashed Call of Duty‘s DLC model and broken game mechanics.

The worst part: So far, the fears appear to be well-founded. The list of features thus far announced for Battlefront is lacking, to say the least, in comparison to its immediate predecessor. Already people are listing reasons not to buy the game (or at least preorder it), almost all of them making the same analogy, and ones that don’t instead focus on the fact that DLC has already been announced for the game. If DICE isn’t paying attention to all the cynics they’ve made with their development practices over the past ten years, this game will be a barely-remembered one…or it will be etched in granite slabs for generations to come, a cautionary tale of how to ruin one’s legacy in a most efficient manner.

And if they are paying attention and plan to make more huge reveals before launch, I welcome it. One rarely wants to be proven wrong, but this is a subject in which I would be happy to.