E3 just ended, and as usual, we gamers got to see the best of what each company had to offer. We were excited to see Skyrim, BioShock Infinite and all the other great games and new peripherals that make gaming a fun and interesting medium. But amongst all of these sights and sounds, we were also treated to a step up in a huge and well known rivalry. I speak not of the three way battle royale between Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, but rather the one between the two largest third party publishers, Electronic Arts and Activision.
Activision has the best-selling First Person Shooter franchise of all time on their hands in the Call of Duty series, while Electronic Arts has their own widely loved FPS series in the Battlefield games (and their Bad Company spinoffs). For the last few years, Electronic Arts has been competing with Call of Duty, but while marginally successful in their own right, their games have not been quite as successful as Call of Duty. This is for various reasons. Call of Duty 4 came out at the right time and was crafted nearly perfectly to attract both console and PC gamers. It was not the first modern warfare game, or even the first game to have an RPG based unlock system. What Call of Duty 4 did so well was that it was incredibly deep for a FPS while being easy to pick up and play, regardless of previous FPS experience. It had a driving story, amazing graphics when released and best of all, a driving multiplayer that kept people coming back. Infinity Ward designed it to be balanced, but to also reward players with a progression system that rewarded players with additional items or bragging rights.
The Battlefield series has always been well regarded by gamers. The first Battlefield was a World War II shooter that was fun because it was multiplayer focused and a LAN Party favorite. It was one of many games, the original Call of Duty games included, set in World War II. Battlefield 2 was a refreshing change of pace when released in 2005. Amusingly, many of the things that made Battlefield 2 great were refined into Call of Duty 4 and its progeny. Battlefield 2 was a multiplayer shooter that took place in modern times and had an unlock system by which good players and squads could level up to unlock additional guns and benefits. Call of Duty 4 took these things and then expanded them into a progression system that was much deeper.
So each game had roots that allowed them to develop into monster franchises. However, Call of Duty 4 had the additional benefit that it was released in 2007. Even ignoring the massive amount of hype for it, it was just released at a time when many gamers had shifted from a PC to a console due to the strength of the Xbox 360s ease of use and library. The PC market was relatively quiet at the time. Most importantly there had not been a truly majorly hyped First Person Shooter out for any console. Resistance: Fall of Man was released for a still-new and still-very expensive PlayStation 3, the shooters on the Xbox 360 had been relatively quiet and if good, were not very multiplayer focused, and if they were, they were not easily accessible. PC players had just finished Half Life 2 and Team Fortress 2, while good, was not up to its potential yet. Then Call of Duty 4 was released with massive hype. And it lived up to it. Both the single player and multiplayer exhibited an ease of use and level of fun that was hard to reach. It carried over from game to game in the series as well, hence the continuing high sales. It was not Counter-Strike with its ‘you die and you’re dead’ mentality, it was not Team Fortress 2 where you chose a role and had to learn that role to be good, it was not even Battlefield 2. It was forgiving and welcoming to new players to the genre, but still challenging. And it paid off.
The next 3 Call of Duty games, and judging from the trailers, the new upcoming game in the series all followed the same formula. They changed the location and added a new feature or a new set of weapons, but for the most part, it was the same game. Call of Duty 4 set such a high standard, and as such, even its direct sequels had trouble keeping up, jading many gamers. The general “hardcore gamer” complained that the games had become the equivalent of the Madden franchise. Essentially it was the same game over and over with minimal tweaks. This appearance, when combined with Activision’s very public breakup with the true core of Infinity Ward set a very bad signal. Even in spite of this meltdown, the games still sold extremely well and Electronic Art’s heavily hyped competitor last year, a modern reboot of the Medal of Honor series, had trouble coming close to competing. Even in spite of the complaints about $15 map packs, glitchy multiplayer and the many children that play Call of Duty, people still bought the games in droves.
The continuing success of Call of Duty led to Electronic Arts to take a step back and reassess their strategy. Not five years ago, people viewed Electronic Arts as another evil company. Much like how we taunt Activision today; we did the same for Electronic Arts. However, when they started losing, they reassessed their entire strategy. It showed in their publishing of new and risky IP ventures like Dead Space and Mirrors Edge. What Activision did was unintentionally force Electronic Arts, Ubisoft and other companies to reassess what they were doing and try to beat Activision, not through the pure hype game (as the new Medal of Honor proved, that still won’t work), but rather through the creation of an original and amazing experience, which generates its own hype, instead of being force fed through media.
At E3, we saw the first live gameplay footage for both Modern Warfare 3 and Battlefield 3. And truth be told, Battlefield 3 stole my personal best of E3 award. This was after the already impressive trailer shown at GDC. The sights and sounds were on a nearly unparalleled level. But that isn’t to say Modern Warfare 3 looked bad. It still looked fun, and regardless I know I will still buy and play it. I’m curious to see where it will go after the cliffhanger ending of Modern Warfare 2, and I can’t turn down the chance to play as an AC-130 gunner again. Unfortunately, while it does look fun and I am looking forward to playing Modern Warfare 3, it still looked like more of the same: Shoot enemies to advance to the next scripted event. This is in contrast to Battlefield 3, which looks like it is, while not open ended, at least broader in its scope. Further, it appears to take a much more realistic approach, while still remaining excessive. While Call of Duty 4 appeared to be heading in that direction, any possibility of realism was lost when Modern Warfare 2 came out.
Electronic Arts and Battlefield 3 are attempting a new change of pace. By offering their Battlelog statistics service for free, they are attempting to challenge Activision’s practical monopoly of the console FPS market. The Call of Duty Elite service represents what many gamers consider to be a slippery slope: “If they charge us for stats, what is to stop them from charging us for playing?” Even if that is not the case, Electronic Arts is stepping up and is attempting to show Activision that the route they’re taking is not the right one. In terms of both gameplay and the extra fees, Electronic Arts is attempting to show Activision that they got too far ahead of themselves. They want to show both Activision and gamers that original gameplay is still possible from a large company and further that extra content like statistics is something that should be a standard, not a premium. Dice and Electronic Arts have essentially stepped up, taken Activision’s gauntlet and thrown it back at them. It is up to gamers to decide which game to get. We know they both will sell well, but no matter which company wins this year, gamers and the industry will win in the long run. This rivalry, like all others will force the companies to continue to innovate, and if we are lucky, maybe Activision will even back off its plan to charge for services like Call of Duty Elite or charge so much for map packs. Of course only time will tell. The only sure thing is that we as gamers are lucky to be getting such awesome looking games.