Back when Battlefield: Bad Company 2 was in the early stages of its post-announcement period, the major feature of the sequel was “Destruction 2.0.” Which, really, is the kind of feature you’d find in a sequel to a game presumably utilizing Destruction 1.0. In an industry currently enthralled in the depths of iterative improvements on successful designs, I was expecting Bad Company 2 to just be more of what I dug about the original game, except now with its M rating I was also getting the in-world hit feedback (blood) that the Battlefield series has needed since its inception.
And, oh, how I dug Bad Company. The Battlefield franchise is one of my longest-running adorations in gaming. I, especially, sunk entirely too much time into Battlefield: Vietnam and Battlefield 2, but nothing that would compare to the amount of time I would spend playing Bad Company. I had a group of four or five friends, up to three of which would gather with me almost nightly for two-three straight months (an eternity in my attention span) and just jump online to play the same maps over and over. We developed an entire metagame out of Bad Company‘s “dog tag” feature, which awarded a player the dog tag of any victim killed with by a knife. We would hold comparisons at the end of a round based on which of us had acquired the dog tag with the most ludicrous name. And it’s Xbox Live, so the names were ever-so-reliable in their inanity.
The hook of the Bad Company ‘spinoff’ is two-fold: destruction and the “complete package” shooter (and, as it turned out, completely amazing audio). Destruction was always the selling point of Bad Company as a product. The ability to wreck the structural landscape made for a dynamic infantry combat experience that most games that claim “destruction” almost all thoroughly fail in delivering. This feature, combined with the ‘new’ (for the Battlefield franchise) Rush game mode which focused player attention on objective choke points, created a chaotic multiplayer pace filled with the kind of moments that make friends tell stories to one another the next day. If a target puts an obstacle in between you and him, the solution was almost always to switch to the grenade launcher attachment (which a number of guns had) and just blast away his safety net and kapow him in the face with a subsequent bullet. BC’s paramount feature was not the destruction, but the inevitability of vulnerability.
The quality of Bad Company‘s single-player component was not a selling point, but rather its existence in the greater whole of the game that was Battlefield: Bad Company. It was DICE’s first real attempt at making a full-on console shooter; a fleshed out single-player campaign combined with the franchise’s trademark multiplayer with a streamlined and improved approach to persistent rankings/stats and unlocks that started with Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 2142. As with any first attempt, the single-player was not on par with what the gaming public at the time wanted: the Call of Duty experience. BC treated its single-player in a way which befit the game’s design: lengthy, wide-open missions on suitably expansive maps. Players were given objectives and told to go get those objectives done, but the path and means players took to accomplish these objectives was left unspecified. If the player died, he was simply respawned at the last checkpoint while the battle waged on in his absence (there was no resetting of the game state). The narrative, too, was an appropriate level of camp in the modern war setting involving the search for gold amidst a building war between the United States and Russia. At one point in the game, one of the characters does a happy dance as he frolicks down a hill into an enemy encampment saying “There’s gold in them thar’ hills” (there actually was).
BC’s appropriately unique handling of its campaign was not as high-intensity and filled with the “holy shit” moments that the Call of Duty games have always thrived in. BC’s campaign was also filled with encounters that sometimes fizzled due to a poor player handling/approach of them as well as by a not insignificant amount of down-time between objectives. These are all qualities of the series that any Battlefield player knows well, though, and is part of the series’ charm (in my mind). The combination of intense, dynamic, unpredictable firefights with the exploration, traversal time, and the approach of a major encounter are hallmarks of the Battlefield experience. As such, BC’s single-player was not perfect, but who the hell cares.
Bad Company 2 relishes in just how not-Modern Warfare, specifically Modern Warfare 2, it is. The characters take enjoyment in the occasional direct joke at MW2, promotional materials outside the game actively mock various parts of Infinity Ward/Activision’s promotional materials for MW2, and so on. The problem here is not that DICE is not allowed to make fun of Modern Warfare or any other shooter because, well, that’s hilarious for everyone. The problem is that the Bad Company 2 campaign is, ludically, little more than a Call of Duty knock-off.
The most notable difference between the campaigns of BC and BC2 are the absence of the open maps and the large enemy bases with variable approaches (with few exceptions). In their place, we have narrow corridors with very defined paths and easily-identifiable trigger bounds to advance the mission and spawn the enemies in the next area. When a player dies, now, he must restart the game from the last checkpoint in a game world that is similarly restarted (unlike BC’s persistent state). It’s a very faithful recreation of the style of design that overfloweth the bounds of the first-person shooter genre, and a disappointing change to the promising, if flawed, structure of the first game’s campaign.
By switching to the rail-heavy (though not rail-exclusive) single-player progression style, it is disallowing players from fully engaging in the mayhem the destruction allows for. With the player always moving forward, he never has to worry about being trapped in a building with his back to cover that can get blown away by nearby enemies. He is never trapped up in a house with enemies attacking from all directions. He rarely has the opportunity to rush into a base and end up in a situation where his limited cover transforms into no cover whatsoever, and the exhilaration of barely surviving that scenario. What BC2 doesn’t seem to realize is why Call of Duty and its ilk employ that style. The Call of Duty games are notoriously carefully scripted. Infinity Ward (and Treyarch) aim for a very defined, specific sort of experience and they have customized their toolset and game to deliver that experience. This is something they do exceedingly well — better than anyone else in the industry right now. That said, as any Call of Duty game with a somewhat large map and a vehicle or two have proved, the game systems are not well-suited to much behind the incredibly fast-paced, intense infantry combat.
Battlefield does not have this problem; its wide-open, modal gameplay has defined the series since Battlefield 1942. Bad Company, especially, should have no feelings of inadequacy or doubt. Its general gameplay systems combined with the very well-handled destruction made for memorable, incredible, and continually enjoyable gameplay experiences in multiplayer. The overall dynamism and level of quality in the single-player portion of BC wasn’t to the level of its multiplayer, but it was DICE’s first real attempt at a full campaign. Rather than iterate on the original’s promise, though, Bad Company 2 takes the route of the games it mocks and the end result is a cage which limits the kind of dynamic gameplay that comes out of the Bad Company series’ trademark destruction.
The Battle of Thermopylae is a battle in ancient history where the Greek forces led by King Leonidas used the pass of Thermopylae to funnel the Persian army, hundreds of thousands of troops deep, led by Xerxes into a small pass where 300 Spartans (and Thespians, Thebans, and Helots for a total of about 2300 troops) were able to inflict a great deal of Persian casualties vastly disproportionate to the number of Greeks over the course of several days. The battle represents a classical example of the strategic use of a geological choke point as a means of gaining a tactical advantage over a number of adversaries. Video games have relied on choke points and other points of interest, such as capturable points and flags, as an integral design mechanic and, as such, have served as the primary influence for a number of popular games and mods over the course of the last decade.
id Software’s Quake was a game which started the age of user modifications such as Threewave Capture the Flag (capture the flag! grappling hooks!) and Team Fortress (yes, that Team Fortress). Threewave’s level design popularized a very symmetric map design that forced a red and a blue team to compete using speed, power, and intricate knowledge of the maps that matches took place on. Team Fortress popularized the idea of having gamers choose from any number of “classes,” all of which had their own benefits and drawbacks, to play a violent capture the flag match across maps designed using the concept of player bases being connected to each other by a very deadly choke point where a good majority of the player-to-player battles took place on. The strangest aspect about both of these mods is not how their game types differed in some basic mechanics but, rather, how each was designed around the same mechanics: capturing another team’s flag in a level designed around a series of choke points (the flag room in each base and the middle of the map where the red and blue bases were connected).
Counter-Strike and Counter-Strike: Source serve as the best examples of a level design methodology which focuses on choke points and capture points (bomb sites) as a means of enforcing teamwork (three popular map layouts are below). When playing maps where planting and detonating a bomb are the focus there are is always the choice of one of two bomb sites where a bomb can be planted. There are, generally, two or three entry points for each bomb site and each of these entry points are typically narrow hallways or areas of very low visibility for those attempting to storm a bomb site. In order to succeed in a match, the terrorists have to be able to split up their team into a decoy squad and a bomb planting squad and convince the opposing team of counter-terrorists to take the decoy bait while the bomb planting squad can plant a bomb and setup their forces to defend all bomb site entry points. The other alternative, of course, is to have an entire team rush a single bomb site and hope to confuse the opposing team and kill them all but most maps in Counter-Strike are designed to give the bomb site defenders a tactical advantage in both visibility and cover. When terrorists invade a bomb site they are generally required to all pass through one hallway into a wide open map segment or antechamber which, by the nature of being less confined, gives the advantage to the defenders.
Where Counter-Strike influenced tactics using a series of confined rooms and hallways, the Battlefield series presented strategic and tactical options to its players on a vastly more open scale. Battlefield 1942, Battlefield: Vietnam, and Battlefield 2 all presented players with a very large toolkit of weaponry, vehicles, and air support as a means of dealing with the intricacies of a map that presented the indoor confines of miscellaneous structures, small towns, and, most often, the great outdoors with only terrain to shield a roving infantryman. The level designers at DICE, developers of the Battlefield series, created the maps of their games under the assumption that littering the landscape with a handful of capture point would be enough to create venues for battle amongst its online player base as each of the two opposing teams on a given map fight for dominance of every single one of a map’s capture points. With Battlefield, DICE took the wide-open gameplay of games like Tribes and, basically, changed the “capture the flag” gameplay style to be more of a “capture and hold a bunch of flags” that moved a team ticket counter in a tug-of-war fashion that, after a certain amount of time, awarded victory to the team who was frequently able to hold the most points. At the time of its release, the wide-open planes-against-tanks-against-jeeps-against-infantry gameplay of Battlefield was revolutionary and created these huge team-versus-team conflicts that lay vivid and powerful in the memories of the players lucky enough to play in a full server of friends.
It is from games like Counter-Strike and Battlefield, along with historical battles like that of Thermopylae, that we see more games being released over the last couple of years that put an increased focus on points and the tactical situation in which they are placed in. All of Company of Heroes’ maps, like the one below, are designed around a number of resource points that are used to collect resources passively while the game occurs. The stars on the map are capture points that are the primary item of importance in a game; similar to the capture points in Battlefield, these points in Company of Heroes determine the rate at which a team’s ticket counter ticks down to zero — the first team to hit zero loses. Almost any battle in Company of Heroes revolves around these points and their location on the map reflects their importance; they are typically placed on or near very tactical locations on a map such as a bridge in the middle or on an island-like landmass that can only be accessed through bridges.
DICE’s latest game is the undoubted culmination of a point-based game design where a map’s choke points double as its points of interest. Battlefield 1942/Vietnam/2 proved that players flock to the entire area surrounding a point of interest but if a map have six or seven capture points and sixty-four players (thirty-two per team) each point ends up attracting a fraction of a total player-base for a map and that, as a game design, ends up becoming a flaw in the overall experience. The progressive capture point format of Battlefield: Bad Company, where only two active points of interest are accessible by the entire player-base at a given time (and they’re relatively close to each other) allows a match to be a consistently focused experience where both teams are honing in on a set pair of objectives. Instead of thirty-forty players being required for a good game like in the old days of Battlefield 1942 and Battlefield: Vietnam, Bad Company provides a high level of intense combat even if games are limited to seven-eight players per team (maximum is twelve-versus-twelve). It’s worth noting that Bad Company executes this design while maintaining the relatively large map sizes that are a “trademark” of the Battlefield franchise; which goes to show that it’s possible to provide a very focused gameplay flow amidst a large game map with a well thought-out design.
In lieu of actually doing any development tonight I, instead, chose to write a gaming article (still no Metal Gear Story; I’m still thinking about that) and then a particularly-lengthyGameDev .net Daily. Now, since I’ve given up hope of getting work done tonight and have accepted the idea that Battlefield: Bad Company will dominate my nights for the next few days, I’ll write about what I’m actually working on for the moment.
I’ve never worked on a project that had any sort of physics simulation occurring within it before; when I found out that Havok released their SDK that could be used by hobbyists and by any commercial product that retailed for less than $10, though, I retreated from my previous stay at HotelXNA and back into C/C++ Direct3D9 Land. I didn’t want to spend months writing a framework and a rendering engine, though, since I’m currently in the kind of mood where I want to put out a game every two-three months — atimespan which is variable based on game release dates, occasional social interests and obligations, and work schedules. It is a direct result of this mindset which led me to using
While doing these tests I had envisioned a bright, solid-colored color palette with a very minimalistic lighting scheme for the scene all with a slightHDR/Bloom glow attached. I had the Havok world and the cube objects all set up and working at the time the above screenshots were taken but, in movement, something felt wrong about the way they were interacting with the environment. I looked over all of the environment values that I had set and things looked alright. Then I realized that, when a cube-like entity hit a ground surface with a high restitution value from eighty meters above the surface that the chances of it rotating are, well, almost a certainty. And I wasn’t taking an entity’s orientation quaternion into account for the OGRE cube graphic whatsoever. So, yeah, fail. The right-most image in thefollowing trio shows that OGRE is having some difficulties maintaining high rendering speeds with all of the cube objects which, really, seems not so good. I’m either adding the entities/nodes to the scene in an unoptimized fashion or the debug rendering runtimes are extraordinarily slow. This is something I’m still playing with at the time of writing.
I got back to this codebase about a week and a half after the previous set of images was taken (Metal Gear Solid 4 needed some love and attention) and when I started up my project build I realized I didn’t really like the look things were taking. The aesthetic didn’t really match the one I had envisioned for my game so, this past weekend, I went about remedying that (with the most current image being the far right one):
And, now, I’m just cleaning up the codebase as it exists right now and thinking about what, specifically, I’m going to do for the game. My current idea right now is a sort of Fort Wars single-player game against the AI; each player has a structured composed entirely of cubes and each one is attempting to blow up the other person’s fort first to reveal a large target-like item in the center that, when exposed, must be hit a few times before it explodes and, then, ending the match. My idea is to make differing types of cubes that have a variety of effects once they are hit: some will give positive benefits to the player (increased damage radius, multiple launched projectiles per shot, etc.), some will give negative benefits, and some will simply be explosive that can take out a number of surrounding boxes at once. Whether this what I’ll actually do for the game is, at this point, completely up in the air. I’m going to code some initial mechanics and play around and see which seems like the most fun for me.
That is, of course, once I devote some time to Battlefield: Bad Company.
Alright this editorial is a sizeable one (Surprise!) which I can easily divide into two halves for the readers who are interested. The first two sections cover Battlefield 2 and its bastard child-spawn Battlefield 2142. These two games serve as a specific platform for me to launch into a lengthy discussion on a “State of the Industry” variety where I’ll delve into the recent plague of games which are thrown into stores for public consumption when, in all actuality, they should still be lying on the couch with their parents waiting for another batch of antibiotics — which is to say that they’re a flawed, buggy mess of entertainment software. Anyway, this whole article is designed to progress from a look back at last year’s biggest game, to a case study for the future, to the real point of my spiel, so it’s probably bestest to read it that way. If the idea of Battlefield 2 makes your soul weep, though, I’d suggest instantly jumping here.
A Prologue (Battlefield 2)
Once upon a time — which, for the sake of argument, I’ll postulate happened about a year ago — I wrote an editorial about this little game called Battlefield 2. A few weeks later, after a fairly large amount of comments (for this site, anyway), a hate-mail or two, and no patch to speak of was released by DICE, I was very near giving up on the game. Here was a AAA game title with more than a few trenches filled with nothing but solid tons of hype that was released in a buggier state than an Elder Scrolls game ( oh, no he didn’t) even after a pre-released demo was unleashed to the rabid Battlefield fans three weeks before the final game hit retail shelves all over our great nation. I did my part as a loyal customer, though, and just tried to overlook the game’s problems; I mean, the gameplay itself is definitely spectacular. The final nail in my Battlefield 2 Gaming Coffin, though, came when the first mini-patch was released which did very little to address a number of the issues of the game in the first placeâ€¦ And this ‘patch’ was so buggy that DICE required a rollback on all ranked game servers. And, let me tell you, that was it.
I gave the game another try a few months down the line after a new map, Wake Island 2007, was released in one of the patches (v1.2, I think). I actually had a really good time with the game, but my friends got me started back on World of Warcraft and shortly after that I went home for a while (56kâ€¦ for the win?) and by the time I got back I was fairly addicted to WoW again. This is all to say that the lack of really getting into the game at the time had nothing to do with the title itself.
It’s the recent install which really got me back into the game with great vengeance. The patches that have been released for the game have done a whole lot in terms of overall game balance, fixed a lot of the stability issues with the game, and generally improved it for the better. The red label bug is still in the game (albeit to a lesser extent), which isâ€¦ Odd, to say the least, but overall the game seems to be in good shape. The menu is still a tragedy akin to a train wreck of adorable, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed kittens, but the fact that it hasn’t received a major overhaul is simply a testament to a developer who has presumably decided that the game garnered so many awards and sales that it isn’t worth the effort.
When Battlefield 2142 was first announced, I laughed. This wasn’t a mere snicker, mind you, but a full-body eruption of haughty laughter. I looked at the PC Gamer — yes, I subscribe to it, shut up — in my hands and scoffed at the cover exclaiming the announcement of DICE’s “new” shooter. Before reading about the game itself and without knowing its release date, premise, or absolutely anything about this drastic, bold, innovative original idea (*cough*) all I could think of was the bastard child of the brilliant Battlefield 1942: Battlefield: Vietnam. In what is a brilliant business move, DICE released a game that was little more than a full-priced mod for their critically acclaimed first game. I bought and played the game a couple weeks after its release and, honestly, that’s exactly what the game was: a mod to milk the cash-cow that is DICE’s namesake. And, from the looks of it, it appears to be dÃ©jÃ vu all over again.
In a recent news story a senior producer on Battlefield 2142 said that the game would be “A lot less buggy than Battlefield 2.” Apparently DICE has listened to fan criticisms about BF2 and now aims to achieve a very high-level of quality with the sequel. I read in PC Gamer when they were doing the initial coverage of the game that special attention would be paid to designing and programming the new menu interface for the game after the flurry of critical feedback about the positively abysmal menus that were on display in Battlefield 2. I’m far from being an expert on quality user-interface design (some may be surprised that UI design is a fairly large field of study/research), but I’m fairly certain that I could get a blind toddler drunk and have him find bugs and qualms during his testing of the BF2 UI.
The New Standard
The main thing I want to ponder is this new ‘trend’ that seems to becoming increasingly prevalent with retail games. Battlefield 2 isn’t some low-budget, indie developer effort. It’s a big-budget, triple-A sophomore effort (I believe Battlefield: Vietnam was done by a separate division of DICE) from a developer whose first game took in Game of the Year awards or some similar accolades from the gaming press. A while before Battlefield 2 was released, Electronic Arts even bought DICE, which should mean that the level of quality assurance, pre-release testing, and customer support from one of the largest publishers in the country would result in at least some level of polish to such a blockbuster title like BF2.
This is just one of many examples of a recent downgrade in release quality that the gaming industry has seen over the period of the last couple of years. A certain deluge of bugs has always been expected in a few titles: The Elder Scrolls series, the Bioware games, and most MMORPGsâ€¦ Though if there are any prevalent bugs in the latter, then you open the floodgates to thousands upon thousands of customers screaming “But we pay more than your average gamer! We demand complete satisfaction! Quit giving Shaman access to keyboards!,” but I digress. The point is that gamers seem to be relatively okay with large, epic games having their fair share of bugs.
A conversation with a developer friend of mine led to him making the statement that the more complex a game is, the more bug it should be ‘allowed’ upon the day of its release. It’s a very simplistic approach to the topic, but just think about it: a game like Battlefield 2 is a first-person online shooter with only the most meager of single-player offerings. Over the course of the game’s development DICE, most likely, spent the early period designing and programming the engine and toolset which they could eventually craft the game from. Once that aspect of development was over, the work on the actual game could beginâ€¦ And the thing that gets me about Battlefield 2, is that it had no tabula rasa to call its own; DICE started with a very well-defined, and tried-and-tested gameplay base which they were building the sequel off of.
Anyhoo, the game gets to a workable state, goes through testing and balancing, features get added and removed, and the process is repeated until the day the game is released. This is the general kind of development schedule that most games go through (which is to say all but some of the rarities which have special stories to tell in a post-mortem). Therefore, with that in mind, why should a multiplayer-centric game like Battlefield 2 be allowed such a release-day mess when it’s being done by a time proven developer and a massive publisher like EA when some other developers can craft a bug-free, polished, complex single-player game along with a significant multiplayer offering all for the same title. To stay with the FPS example, Monolith did an excellent job on both the single- and multiplayer fronts of F.E.A.R.. Firaxis did the same with the incredibly complex Civilization 4 (though, in all fairness, the single/multiplayer in the game is fairly similarâ€¦); the only release-day problems as far as I’m concerned were all to do with the game’s copy protection.
Currently I’m playing Titan Quest which is an action/RPG in the same vein as Diablo 2 which has had a decent amount of hype built around it. It’s the first title from a developer with a great pedigree. And, currently, I’m never sure whether I’ll be able to play the game for two minutes or two hours before it ‘randomly’ crashes to the desktop. Iron Lore has a patch coming on July 5th for the game, which is fairly speedy considering the amount of things the fix is planned to include, but there really is no excuse I can think of to have a game in this state on release. Using the complexity/bug correlation, this title really has no right to have as many problems as it does. While all RPGs are definitely difficult things to develop, Titan Quest isn’t even in the same realm of complex action/RPG title like Neverwinter Nights. A game of a similar caliber to Titan Quest would be last summer’s Dungeon Siege 2 which was released with polish (even if it wasn’t the prettiest girl at the hack-and-slash prom) and very few bugs to speak of.
Complexity aside, I can’t say that every game I’ve played lately suffers from a lengthy list of problems. They don’t; however, the list is in the minority of games with near game-breaking release day problems. In my good graces are: Galactic Civilizations 2, Rise of Legends (though I hear the multiplayer has a lot of issues), and Red Orchestra. So let’s have a big round of applause for releasingâ€¦ Working software.
A Pessimistic Conclusion
I guess the reason that I wrote this was a combination of my instinctual need to follow my traditional bitching pattern with summer editorials. There is a decent amount of truth in the verbose writings above, but that doesn’t really amount to much in the grand scheme of the game industry. The truth of the matter is that as games become increasingly more popular they also become increasingly more costly and complex the amount of things that need to be considered as developers and their publishers approach release day is, in a word, overwhelming.
The real question I have, though, is whether the true quality of a game-gone-gold rests with the developers, the publishers, or a combination of both. It’s difficult to pin the blame on either in particular due to the fact that not all publishers are solely responsible for testing and not all developers can be faulted if the publisher is expected to give the game extensive testing and does a poor jobâ€¦ But I think there’s definitely a relationship to be found in the state certain publishers release their games in. As an example, Microsoft Game Studio (Age of Empires 3, Dungeon Siege 2, and Rise of Legends for a few examples) consistently released high-quality games for both consoles and PCs that I can very rarely find any fault with. The same can be said of Blizzard, who I believe does a majority of their extensive game testing in-house. And, for a developer/publisher who I’m personally endeared towards, Stardock has some of the greatest game support of the industry. Meanwhile, titles published by EA Games can either by fantastically polished with spectacular production value or, you know, not so much. And then you have the fuzzy area of a studio like Valve whose games are incredibly well-produced, but whose games also have a tendency to be a complete mess for the first week or two after release.
All in all, this is a matter which will probably grow worse with time. The most important thing I can think of, though, is that the developers who still feel the urge to release well-polished, well-tested games are the ones that really deserve to have their names shouting from the rooftops in the best barbaric yawp that gamers can muster. The English major in me had to find some outlet; all apologies.