It's well understood now that in the world of mobile and free-to-play, a game's release date marks the beginning of the hard work for developers instead of the end. That mentality is making its way into the traditional console market as well, as DICE LA general manager Fredrik Loving made clear today in his Montreal International Game Summit presentation on EA's Battlefield Premium service.
For 2011's Battleifeld 3, the Premium pitch was similar to many season pass offerings in the console world. For a flat fee of $50 (which has since been reduced to $30), gamers would be allowed to download all five of the game's expansion packs, and with early access to boot. On top of that, Premium players would get access to exclusive in-game items, shorter wait times to get into servers, developer-made strategy videos, and access to special experience boosting events.
One of the appealing parts of the Battlefield 3 Premium plan for Loving is that when people put down their money for Premium, they had no idea what the content was actually going to be; they were willing to part with $50 just on the faith that DICE would make something cool for them. Loving said more than 4 million people signed up for Battlefield Premium.
With the recent release of Battlefield 4, DICE has brought back the Premium concept. Loving said with Premium, the developers were basically asked to take the best multiplayer experience in the world and do whatever they wanted with it. It was daunting, but also fun. To tackle the challenge, the team first had to look back on Battlefield 3 Premium and decide what worked and what didn't. And for that, they needed to go through all the data they collected the last time around.
"With the industry moving toward gaming as a service, I would say the line between the main game and what used to be called DLC is getting blurred out."
"But data doesn't really show the full picture," Loving said. "It shows us trends, curves, but it doesn't really show the fun factor of what people like. If we based all our decisions on data, I think we would get it wrong."
Loving said community feedback was key for the developers to understand what to do. It's not always easy to filter out the noise from the facts when you have a vocal fanbase like Battlefield, but Loving said DICE has a full team focused on filtering that out. He referred to an old Henry Ford quote: "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'faster horses.'" As entertainers, developers need to be taking risks and pushing forward beyond what people are asking, Loving said.
He talked about the first time he'd heard about the iPhone. He thought it was a bad idea on paper, in particular the removal of a keyboard. It didn't make sense to him at the time because it challenged the way he'd always thought about interfaces. Likewise, the challenge for game developers is to keep questioning their assumptions and ways of thinking.
Getting back to Battlefield 4 Premium, Loving questioned the naming conventions of "expansion packs." From Oblivion horse armor to Grand Theft Auto IV's Ballad of Gay Tony or stand-alone content like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Loving said the world is changing, and new terminology is needed.
"With the industry moving toward gaming as a service, I would say the line between the main game and what used to be called DLC is getting blurred out," Loving said.
As for models he would like to follow, Loving pointed to HBO, saying he's a sucker for the network. But the reason he gives them money every month is because he trusts them to release shows like Boardwalk Empire and Game of Thrones.
"You never think about what type of data or tech is behind this entertainment," Loving said. "You just get fed entertainment on a weekly basis."
And when Game of Thrones has a season end, the subscribers stick around regardless, trusting that HBO will have some other quality content to replace it. Loving said he hopes Battlefield players feel the same way about DICE.
But Premium doesn't stand alone. Loving also brought up Battlelog, calling it the social glue that stitches together the Battlefield experience when people are away from the TV or PC. Play patterns have changed for gamers in recent years. Play time is no longer confined to a few hours with the TV after a busy work day, it expands to second-screen experiences during gameplay, with people interacting with the game world multiple times throughout the day, whether it's playing the Commander mode on an iPad or checking leaderboards and forums during the workday, or chatting and reviewing battle reports each night.
Loving said he's constantly asked about Call of Duty, and he acknowledged the Activision franchise is a direct competitor, but it is not Battlefields's main competitor. Time, not money, has become the limiting factor for people today. Whatever makes them not play Battlefield, whether it's HBO or Spotify, that is Battlefield's main competitor. The investment of time is a powerful motivator as well. Loving illustrated the point by talking about Facebook, which he hasn't spent a dime on, but into which he's invested an incredible amount of time. A superior rival social network could spring up tomorrow, but Loving said there would be no way he'd jump to it given how much time he's already spent building out his Facebook network.
"There's no one within DICE that knows everything about Battlefield, and that shouldn't be the case, either, because it's so damn complex."
To make Battlefield Premium members feel the same way, Loving said the developers have tried to make players feel like they belong, and like they're engaged with something every time they log in. To that end, they've planned weekly content additions so there's always something new to keep them around. DICE is also giving people the tools and framework to record their own Battlefield videos and share them within the community. The result is players sharing their feelings about the game and showing "the power of a new generation of marketing."
Touching on the new generation of systems, Loving said the new hardware brings a lot to the table. But it's not just hardware horsepower that will change the industry. Instead, it's the new mindset the systems empower. The constant connection between players and experiences regardless of device, the ability to automatically update services in the background, and experimentation in the console space (Loving pointed to the free-to-play World of Tanks coming to Xbox 360 as one example) show that the new generation of gaming is about a rethinking of the relationship between games and players.
To deal with the new change, studios need to understand and support their players, Loving said. They need to be agile in responding to consumer demands, frequently updating their games and treating development as a marathon instead of a sprint. That agility extends inward as well, as developers need to rethink their structure, embracing flat organizations as much as possible.
"When projects become so big, there is no man or woman that has all the answers," Loving said. "There's no one within DICE that knows everything about Battlefield, and that shouldn't be the case, either, because it's so damn complex."
To do that, you need the best of the best talent, Loving said. And you need them to believe in the vision of the service, to have passion for the project.
"There are so many things we need to think about when we design a service for any type of game," Loving said. "There is no silver bullet. It's not just about content any more. It's so much bigger than that. The world is changing fast around us, we need to change fast with it."