Misfire: Implications of Battlefield 3’s troubled launch

By Brenna Hillier
2 November 2011 06:29 GMT

Complaints from last week’s Battlefield 3 launch have subsided, but EA needs to raise its release game if it’s to play on the same field as Call of Duty.

Battlefield 3 launch

Very strong PC reviews went live October 24.

Good but less delighted console reviews followed on October 25.

Released in the US on October 25. PC users immediately reported serious technical difficulties.

Xbox 360 multiplayer servers went down for two hours on the evening of US launch day and have suffered ongoing connectivity issues.

Australian launch was brought forward to October 26, with UK release on October 28.

For DICE and EA, the world was a very different place just a few days ago. The PC version of Battlefield 3 – the saviour of shooters, the Call of Duty killer, the countermeasure to console-itis – had arrived less than triumphantly. For a small but very vocal number of users, it just didn’t work very well.

As well as a handful of the niggling driver and incompatibility issues which plague any PC launch, the EA forums were rife with complaints of three major problems.

One kept players from completing the single player campaign, a disappointing result for those who’d powered through. Another caused rapid crashing, leaving players staring at their desktop after brief play sessions.

The worst one prevented the game from launching at all. Gamers simply could not play the game, online or off, single- or multiplayer.

Although plenty of players experienced a hassle-free gaming experience, EA Support was clearly under-equipped to cope with the complaints at launch.

The noise generated by those who’ve had a bad experience, and have then been kept waiting for a response, always smothers positive reports. People have more investment in complaint than praise; they expect one to bring results, while the other is a courtesy. Anger and frustration drive public rants; contentment keeps consumers quietly playing the game.

In the wake of Battlefield 3’s launch issues, you’d have thought the game opened with a kick to the crotch. Dipping into a popular gaming forum was like imbibing poison. As well as hitting official channels and talking among themselves, disgruntled gamers targeted individual DICE and EA staff on social networks, requesting assistance – and receiving it, often as not – but also venting anger in appallingly rude and occasionally frightening personal attacks.

What made all this particularly wince-worthy is that the PC is DICE’s lead platform; this version is supposed to work better than the console release, which has drawn reviews well below the PC version’s 92 Metacritic average.

While a bad launch day experience isn’t likely to put a significant dent in sales – the game has already sold 5 million copies and become EA’s biggest ever launch, and it’s clear the $100 million poured into marketing will not go to waste – Battlefield 3 isn’t just another big, expensive game for EA.

The risk for EA isn’t numbers in a bank account; it’s consumer and industry confidence.

The risk for EA isn’t numbers in a bank account; it’s consumer and industry confidence. This is the second time it’s come out swinging at Activision; last year’s poorly-received Medal of Honor can be thought of as a kind of trial run for this year’s showdown. It’s breathtaking to think a company which has shown such savvy elsewhere may have committed the same blunders twice in a row.

Riccitiello, Moore and company have made no secret of EA’s intent with Battlefield 3: it’s supposed to be the game which finally steals a march on Call of Duty. It’s staked its reputation on this game, clawing back from Medal of Honor’s underperformance to try and prove that you can challenge the behemoths.

EA wasn’t just trying to sell you a video game with Battlefield 3 – it was selling you on ideas. Battlefield 3 should have sold PC gamers on Origin, the digital distribution platform which may prove to be EA’s console hardware cycle transition ticket. It should have sold you on EA’s ability to get a decent shooter out the door in a state fit to be played.

Damage Control
EA and DICE responded admirably swiftly. While nothing is likely to pacify those who’ve bought a game on launch day and waited more than a few hours to get it up and running, the rapid expansion of support teams meant new complaints began receiving timely responses.

An example of less severe PC issues.

Staff responded with more than professional courtesy, guiding players through complicated diagnoses and troubleshooting processes on their own time over the frankly insufficient media of Twitter and Facebook when official channels clogged. That’s what little of their own time they had; DICE staff have been pulling more than double shifts in their efforts to get patches out.

There’s also the fact that those sales figures and rave reviews of the PC version aren’t moonshine and PR shenanigans, however tempting it is to believe that; underneath all this embarrassment is an excellent multiplayer PC shooter with DICE’s trademark pizazz.

That core message, delivered not by advertising or spokespeople but by the game itself and the growing community of players, has already done what earth-shaking PR efforts never could have. Battlefield 3 is one of the most discussed topics in gaming, even with multiple big-name launches within a handful of days, and the buzz has shifted its tone from an angry drone to a delighted squeal, punctuated by a YouTube explosion of helicopter battles, tense firefights, and hilarious emergent narratives.

It seems likely EA has defied the oft-spoken truth that a rough multiplayer shooter launch can be a death knell, but it’s unthinkable Activision will end up in any of this mess with the launch of MW3 next week. If EA’s going to play on the same field as Call of Duty, it’s a standard it needs to learn real fast.

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