Is the military FPS genre showing some early signs of decline? The YouTube views of the first Battlefield 4 trailer suggest the skies aren't so cloudy: nearly four million people have viewed the video in under three days.
And while publisher Electronic Arts has put its Medal of Honor franchise "out of rotation" following poor scores and worse sales, the team at DICE seem unfazed - they're currently discussing plans for the next five years of Battlefield.
At GDC this week, CVG sat down with the series' executive producer Patrick Bach, along with single-player producer Tobias Dahl, to examine where the franchise is headed as the next generation of consoles begins to take centre stage.
Battlefield is a series steeped in multiplayer heritage. So why unveil the new game with 17 minutes of campaign footage?
PB: There's not one simple answer to that question, because Battlefield is about both single and multiplayer. This was our 'hello' presentation - 'we are building this game so here's the first piece of imagery'. We had to choose wisely when choosing what to show off, both from a feature set but also the technology footprint and 'what is the Battlefield of the future?' etc.
Showing multiplayer would've been hard I think. It's hard to showcase multiplayer in a good way so everyone gets it. Also I think we have a strong heritage of making good multiplayer games, so I don't think people are as worried about multiplayer as they are about our single-player.
"I think that we are more confident with multiplayer than we are with single-player, so we need to step up our game"
So it was a finely tuned balance on what to show first, and I think that by showing what we did we actually hint at a lot of features and improvements in multiplayer as well. This was the best way for us to showcase the variety of improvements that we will have on offer.
So you wanted to express that the single-player campaign has been improved since Battlefield 3?
PB: It's hard to convince someone with 'only' 17 minutes of software, but in general I think yeah - people are more worried about what we're doing with single-player than what we're doing with multiplayer. Also I think that we are more confident with multiplayer than we are with single-player, so to us we need to step up our game when it comes to single-player too in order to earn the respect of Battlefield players.
We have the luxury of having an awesome multiplayer and only a 'good' single-player in BF3. So of course people have been positive with our single-player, but nobody thinks it's as good as our multiplayer - so that's where we have to step up our game.
What steps have you made internally to ensure that you improve upon BF3's campaign? Have you moved key members of the team around?
PB: Yes, of course. We have a lot of movement within the team all the time actually because we want people to work with what they want to work with, because that's how you get the best out of people. So in general we try to move people quite a lot. If they're bored with what they're doing and still have great talent, then we move them to where they can do the most quality work.
The best way to put it is we wanted to make single-player 'more Battlefield' instead of going down the line where it divulges from the Battlefield's core feeling - the feeling of choice, teamplay and variety. That was the train of thought when it came to where we were going with single-player; we took all of the core elements of what Battlefield's about in multiplayer and tried to merge that into single-player. We're trying to create a true Battlefield experience with choice, people you care about, vehicles...
Variety should be present at all times. We have a singular character, so the story isn't trying to jump around. It's inviting players to participate in the events that are happening, like you saw in the demo when you're sliding down the collapsing building you can actually control the character - so you're part of this action.
Does your objective to bring the multiplayer ethos to the campaign mean players will go through a less linear experience this time?
PB: I think there's a weird dialogue in the games community where linear means bad and non-linear means good. We can see that's not the case when consumers choose which games to play. We're trying to create a great Battlefield experience with a combination of linear and non-linear elements. We still want a storyline that is very focused a pulls the play through, but also when it comes to gameplay elements - the shooting- we want to create the variety we have in multiplayer.
So there will be way more non-linear sections of the game where you actually have to choose whether to cross over the big, open construction site we had in the demo or use the vehicle - take out the guys in the vehicle or let them chase you throughout the section. We are absolutely building a less linear single-player but we're also keeping the narrative drama and tension that propels the story.
"I think there's a weird dialogue in the games community where linear means bad and non-linear means good"
The gameplay demo looked visually impressive. What impact has building a game of this graphical quality had for DICE in terms of resource?
PB: It means that we have to be really clever. We have to look at what is important and cut away the things that are not Battlefield. I think more importantly it's about creating a toolset that allows us to build these games.
Frostbite 3 is tailored for these types of games and it's also tailored to be scalable - everywhere from high-end PCs down to Xbox 360 and PS3. For us it's important to keep the core of the experience across all platforms, so we don't have to build a separate game for 360 and PS3. It's important to have the right team to build the right game, and also have the tools to do so.
TD: Without going in to numbers we're all really happy with the results you saw in the demo this week of course, but looking at the resources we put in to it I'm actually quite amazed in regards to how long we reached with our tools because there weren't that many doing it, honestly.
PB: When people ask us what the benefit of using Frostbite 3 is, we tell them it's really easy to use and people can be extremely creative about it. As long as we know what we want to build, we can build it. So for us it's gone from a tech-driven studio to a really creative environment where we can build whatever we want - so what do we want?
" When we discussed the future of Battlefield we knew very quickly it wasn't about graphics."
With this project it's really been about, 'what is the ultimate Battlefield game that we want to build?' It uses Battlefield 3 as a stepping stone and then takes a big leap forward, rather than trying to mess around and surprise people with doing something crazy. It stays true to the heritage and the Battlefield end goal, while looking at the future.
Here at GDC there are a lot of people asking 'what is next-gen?' That discussion is really hard because some people have this utopian dream of it being like something from outer space. It's new and fresh that I can't even describe it to you - it's a new experience. But we all know it's a combination of technology moving forward together with game design and other things.
When we sat down to discuss the future of Battlefield we knew very quickly it wasn't about graphics. Even though everyone is trying to sell to you that it will look photorealistic... yes, but all games will look photorealistic - that's only about hardware. How can we create something that's bigger than what everyone else is doing?
So our whole mindset about creating the ultimate Battlefield experience, taking the core values of multiplayer into single-player... it created a different experience. I think if you saw the demo it 'feels' different - it feels more emergent, visceral and you care about the characters. It feels more important in a way, and that's not a feature - it's a mindset.
So it's hard to talk about the game in a traditional gaming sense because games traditionally have been about features. 'What's your feature? Oh it's all about this thing...' To us it's not about a single thing, it's about creating a better experience.
TD: We discussed a lot of soft values like player autonomy and that we shouldn't take control away from the player if it's not necessary. We should have rules for these things. As you saw in the demo, when we take over control there's a physical reason for it; the building is collapsing, or your squadmate grabs you - then we can take over control. As soon as we have the opportunity to give control back to the player we should do that.
We're not planning on doing 'sit back and relax on the back of your couch' epic set pieces - we want you to be an active part of it and make choices, instead of 'no, we've taken over the camera - look at this explosion and how good we are'. Those days are over. We want you to feel like you're there and part of it. Going back to what Patrick said... it's about 'mindset' for us.
PB: And that's hard to sell (laughs).