Until a few days ago, I didn’t really believe the rumors that indicated that the next Battlefield could be set in World War I. It was only when Electronic Arts released the first teaser, that I saw details that a rather fanatical history buff like me simply couldn’t miss.
It was then that I started thinking about the challenges of releasing an AAA first person shooter (or any AAA game, really) based on the Great War.
Both Electronic Arts and Activision have mostly placed their Battlefield and Call of Duty games in very recognizable settings. They didn’t always stick to history, but science fiction is popular on its own right, preserving what can easily be defined a quite safe commercial bet.
On the other hand, World War I is probably one of the most unsafe bets Electronic Arts and DICE can make for a Battlefield game.
The conflict that ravaged (mostly) Europe at the outset of the twentieth century is probably the most neglected and generally unknown of semi-recent history. It’s pretty much ignored not only by video games, but also by Hollywood. For crying out loud, the more time passes, the less details about it are taught even in schools.
If you think about the most relevant target for an AAA first person shooter on consoles and PC, which is North America, you could pick very few major conflicts that are less known than World War I. As a matter of fact, I’m rather confident that American students are taught in deeper detail about the American Civil War or the American Revolution than about a war fought beyond an ocean a hundred years ago, and in which the United States officially took part just for a year and a half.
This isn’t to say that the Great War gets much more attention in European educational institutions: there is of course a degree of variation on a country by country basis, but World War I is becoming less and less a relevant subject even in the history books of the Old Continent, overshadowed by World War II. It’s often considered (quite wrongly) by a younger generation teachers either a rather uninteresting topic, or even an inconvenient heritage to transmit to the younger generation due to the extreme degree of brutality paired with an equally extreme level of incompetence of many among those politicians and commanders who caused it and decided its outcome.
Ultimately, many consider World War I as a war that achieved very little, besides pissing off basically everyone (not just the losing side), throwing every European country into a state of financial and social crisis, and laying the foundation for the horrors of World War II.
Even relatively well known men normally associated with the history of World War I, like Manfred von Richthofen (the Red Baron) or Thomas Edward Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) are known more for their legend than for their actual historical achievements. And even their legends are quite a lot less popular than those generated by World War II.
A lot of the vehicles that we’ll get to control in Battlefield I are much less iconic than more modern ones: If you exclude Richthofen’s all-red Fokker Dr.I triplane, most people know the Mark VIII only as Indiana Jones‘ tank, and even that one was a converted excavator with a fictional turret that never belonged there to begin with.
If you ask someone about the Sopwith Camel, they’ll probably think you’re asking for a smoke, and “famous” warships like the HMS Lion aren’t even close to be as popular as later battleships like the Bismark or the Yamato.
This isn’t to say that World War I isn’t an interesting (while unbelievably tragic) topic. Anyone who studies its history in detail will possibly find a lot to learn and even enjoy from the mix of heroism on the field, political stubbornness and gambling, and the criss-crossing of ridiculous mistakes due to the incompetence of a ruling class that had absolutely no idea about modern warfare.
World War I is also one of the least politically correct settings that they could pick: war always goes hand-in-hand with untold atrocities, but World War I was extremely close and personal, with soldiers literally charging across the no man’s land between the trenches to be mowed down by machine gun fire by the thousands, or to engage in absolutely brutal melee once reaching the enemy.
And those were actually the more tame aspects of trench warfare, before we consider the absolutely horrifying living conditions while not engaged in battle, or the widespread use of chemical weapons.
That said, the problem that I can only imagine the folks over at Electronic Arts might have discussed to the point of exasperation in the past year or so, is that the awareness about Battlefield 1‘s setting is one of the lowest possible.
That’s a very risky gamble to take when creating an AAA video game with a large budget and carrying the image of the company through the holidays. Battlefield 1 won’t have the Star Wars IP to act as a safety net if things were to end up as less than optimal.
What this all tells us, is that DICE has complete confidence in its ability to deliver a top-notch game, and managed to convince EA’s top brass of that as well. That’s the only way I can think of for this game to have been greenlighted and funded.
Even with that confidence, this is an extremely ballsy marketing move. Electronic Arts possibly thinks that it can capitalize on the fact that World War I is relatively unknown among the masses, to give it an aura of exotic charm. Yet, that’s easier said than done.
It’ll be interesting to see if and how they will try to improve the audience’s awareness on the game’s setting, or if they’ll just focus their marketing on gameplay, on the Battlefield name, on DICE’s reputation, and on the shiny eye-candy provided by the Frostbite 3 engine.
Despite the risk involved in using this kind of setting, I definitely hope to see this attempt crowned by success. World War I is a period that deserves to be explored much more in popular culture, and this is a good chance for video games to take the lead.
Besides, a major AAA game set in World War I crowned by critical and commercial success could demonstrate to the often overly cautious marketing executives who move the gaming industry’s money, that thinking outside the box isn’t necessarily a terrible idea.
As a result, it might open the door to even less known but no less charming settings: can you imagine a Battlefield set in the Punic Wars? Or Call of Duty: Napoleonic Warfare?
I can, and the idea makes me smile.