Is introducing player-controlled server lists to console gaming a good idea? VideoGamer discusses how EA's technical behemoth is also a step backwards.
They say that war never changes. But over the course of the last nine months, Battlefield 3's online warfare has. It's changed for the better - the various updates, tweaks and bonus content have helping to make it the game it arguably should have been back in October 2011 - but it's also changed for the worse.
Player-controlled private servers are now an everyday occurrence of Battlefield 3's multiplayer. It's growing increasingly rarer to find one of DICE's official servers; the highly sought after gateways where matches and game rules are governed in the way the developer originally intended. Instead - and in a first for a console shooter - console players are being given the opportunity to buy their own server, create their own games, make their own rules, and play how they want to play. Not a bad thing, you might think.
But by selling out servers to the highest bidder, EA has changed the rules of engagement. Server lists are dominated by 300% ticket modifiers or weapon-specific matches, with join messages ranging from the friendly - "Have fun, guys!" - to the downright ugly. One server I joined called me a 'mongoloid'. Another told me not to be a 'C-Unit'. If you're just getting started with Battlefield 3, witnessing such messages on your entrance into the universe certainly wouldn't be seen as particularly inviting.
Offensive join messages are just a minor concern, of course. After all, online rivalries, cuss words and 'Your Mum' jokes are as much a part of the competitive multiplayer shooter scene as the +100XP screen prompts, spawn killers, and no-scopers. But by giving so much control back to its fans, DICE has made playing Battlefield 3 a somewhat more arduous process, letting paying customers set the game rules, and providing very little options to those looking for a 'normal' game of Battlefield.
It's an interesting, and somewhat perplexing move for EA. While DICE attempts to pave the way for the future with the game's raw technical capabilities (EA admitted last month that its Frostbite 2 engine was developed with next-gen consoles in mind), it's simultaneously dragging online gaming back to the late 90s.
Let's turn back the clock to the turn of the decade, when Call of Duty was just a glimmer in Vince Zampella's eye, and when cable broadband was making baby steps into the consumer marketplace. The advent of games like Quake III Arena, Unreal Tournament and - later - Battlefield 1942 shot online multiplayer gaming into the limelight, turning pioneering developers' attention away from the single-player experience, and onto the possibility of what a multiplayer-focussed boxed product could provide.
Each game, though, had one thing in common: privately-owned server lists, a staple of PC multiplayer games that allowed players to host their own servers, develop their own game rules and run their own private games. We all had our favourites. Particular servers were often a hive of creativity, and others so frequently dens of intimidation: Their L337-speak-laden names and (often) foul-mouthed join messages highlighting an area of the industry that was still relatively juvenile and reserved only for the elite.
For the sake of explaining the process to our younger readers, joining a multiplayer game back then involved scrolling through a list of servers, finding one you liked the look of, and hoping you were able to join before your mum interrupted the connection by picking up the phone. And even if you did manage to get through, there was always a chance that you'd be kicked out of the game if the host didn't like you.
But while PC games continue to take advantage of self-hosted multiplayer even today, the birth of Xbox Live took console multiplayer gaming down a separate route. In 2004, Halo 2's matchmaking infrastructure breakthrough provided a shot in the arm to console multiplayer shooting. Now a player could jump into matches far better suited to their skill level; the architecture of Xbox Live and Bungie's complex online algorithms bolstering accessibility and ease of use in an environment previously dominated by unnecessary complications.
Matchmaking became the must-have tool for online console games, implemented into genres across the board and providing options for streamlined playlists, where players could quickly and easily jump in and out of particular game types relatively freely. If you've played an online console game in the last few years, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.
Battlefield 3 includes such a feature - albeit one that didn't work on release. But rather than concentrate on that, DICE instead decided to revert to an antiquated 'Server Browse' system for its latest. Indeed, such a system has its advantages: EA and DICE community managers regularly publish details via social media highlighting which servers players can jump on to play with the developers, or other industry figures.
But it's a particularly odd decision when you consider the actions of the competition. Indeed, off the top of my head, this is the first time I've seen such a feature in a current-gen shooter, particularly on Xbox Live, where server lists and public game customisation are usually kept as far away from the end user as possible.
Take Activision, for example. While the publisher continues to lead Call of Duty into professional gaming territory, where game rules are so tightly defined and cheaters are banned from re-entering the universe, EA appears to be doing the opposite. It's letting paying customers tear up the rule book, create their own play styles and game-changing modifiers. Indeed, it's now near impossible to find a normal, balanced game of Rush, a mode that has suffered particularly badly from the abuse of game modifiers. I've played games where attackers have started with 5x as many tickets as the original rules allow, almost guaranteeing them the win. Where's the fun in that?
Self-policing has also changed the way in which players can approach the game. No longer can you select Quick Match and hope to find a game suited to your load-out or skillset; the obscure obsession with sniper and pistol-only matches running rife across the online universe. You also run the risk of being kicked out of a game simply for being good - a distressingly regular occurrence that threatens to turn away devoted, skilled players.
It's the kind of thing that would give Kotick and co. sleepless nights. Players casting aside the thousands of man hours and intricate balancing tweaks to run riot in their own unbalanced mess? Whatever next...? But it's precisely the reason why I moved away from PC gaming and onto console multiplayer gaming in the first place, where power, policing and rule sets are generally under the control of the developer, and not a twelve-year old looking for a cheap way of levelling up faster than his mates.
Of course, if this was a bonus, rather than a replacement, this wouldn't have been a problem. In fact, I think a publisher or developer prepared to let its players alter the playbook is something that should be encouraged. It's something Bungie has been particularly praised for with Halo's Forge functionality, for example.
But there's a far graver knock on effect here. By giving control of the servers over to paying consumers, EA/DICE (it's difficult to determine exactly which party is to blame here) has also minimised the number of official servers on offer, and thus diminished the chance for players to find a regular Battlefield 3 match.
EA originally claimed that DICE was not shutting down servers, saying that "if DICE-managed servers appear unavailable, it is because they have been rented and customised by players". EA isn't stupid enough to realise that that's missing the point somewhat. But why is it so determined to pull the wool over people's eyes?
"Custom servers have always been extremely popular with Battlefield PC players," it continued, adding that response to their inclusion in the console game had been "overwhelmingly positive". Ironically, it even calls the inclusion of a server list a "new innovation", despite being a strategy as old as online gaming itself.
From what I can gauge from reactions posted online, I'd disagree that fans seem "positive" about EA's decision. And while it's fair to base your online experience around consumer-hosted servers on PC, the expectations, needs and demands of a console audience are considerably different - especially once you start factoring in the additional costs involved.
After all, what is my Online Pass paying for if the only games available are those funded by other members of the community? And by extension, what is my Xbox Live fee going towards? That, perhaps, is a discussion for another time.
What's worse is that a significant portion of official servers left available appear to only be accessible to owners of Battlefield Premium, EA's new elite club entitling paying customers to all of BF3's upcoming DLC. And of the non-Premium servers available, of which there are now relatively few, Premium members still have priority access to them over regular consumers. It's monetisation gone mental, and coming from a studio that once pledged it would never charge for Battlefield maps, a significant blow to consumer confidence.
Indeed, from a business point of view - and remember, that's ultimately the view EA is likely to be considering such things from - the only real justification I can see for the inclusion of server lists is to provide another avenue for monetisation, and wring more cash out of consumers eager to host their own games.
The irony here, of course, is that EA's decision to monetise its system has led to my decision (and I expect many others) not to pay the £40 asking price required for Battlefield Premium. In the state that Battlefield 3 is currently in, where game rules are twisted, and the balancing is worse than a fat man on a tight rope, I'm not convinced that I'll have the patience to continue playing the game for another 12 months, as the publisher hopes I will.
And while Battlefield 3's server lists may draw memories of multiplayer gaming from yesteryear, it also highlights the industry's new-found obsession of squeezing consumers wallets dry - and a role of the DICE that may prove to be one too many.