Fixing Battlefield 4: DICE Talks Launch Issues, Fall Patch, And Lots More
"Our community is much smarter than we probably give them credit for," DICE LA producer David Sirland says in wide-ranging interview.
It's been one year since Battlefield 4's controversial launch in October 2013. The game was marred with server woes at release that were so severe and significant that some even took legal action against publisher Electronic Arts. Despite the launch pain, the game has been critically and commercially successful, EA has since said--but the publisher is not out of the woods just yet.
In an interview with GameSpot, DICE LA co-founder and producer David Sirland acknowledged that Battlefield 4's rocky launch meant that EA lost player's trust--even if the game's commercial appeal has not been adversely impacted. Sirland spoke frankly about EA's struggles and what it must to do to win that trust back for Battlefield Hardline and future games in the blockbuster shooter series.
You can read the full interview below.
GameSpot: Would you say Battlefield 4's issues are now fully in the past?
David Sirland: Oh, yeah. I'd say we passed that point a little while ago, but this [fall patch] was where we added a lot of improvements and changes as well as fixing issues. A lot of what's in this patch is actually gameplay balance changes and tweaks to systems that we wanted to do. But we felt that we had to do it in a collected way, and that's why this patch is so big and so feature-laden.
What are the main takeaways of the patch?
I think what they're going to notice first is probably that the game plays differently because we made the time-to-kill longer; we made engagement last longer. In combination with the [Battlefield 3-style] soldier movement, that makes the engagement totally different, I would say. You have a chance to get away [after] someone starts to shoot you now. And also the fact you have to find your new favorite again because weapons have been changed quite a lot. So you'll find the best combination of the heavy barrel and whatnot; you'll have to kind of restart that in a good way, I think.
What are some of the technical, more under-the-hood changes that people maybe won't see directly but they'll benefit from?
On the netcode side of things … it's even faster. We've seen some issues with the server performance causing initial issues just when the patch went out, but over the weekend now it seems to have been really stable and good, so we're getting good feedback on that. So that's under the hood probably the biggest change when it comes to how well the game feels, of course in combination with the other changes. One other thing we haven't touched on is the recoil; this is based on the shaky animation of your gun when you were aiming down the sights. The sights were shaking when you were shooting. And that shake was animated. And therefore we removed that by making the reticle size for close- and medium-range sights stable; and that also changes how easy it is to aim in the game. Even though we've increased actual recoil on the weapons, it's more stable than it was before.
Why didn't the game originally ship with this good of netcode?
I think the way we installed it, it's not a blanket upping of the tick rate. Mind you, the tick rate for client-to-server has always been 30mhz. But server-to-client, we have a bubble; it's a bubble around you and around other players that's updated more frequently. And that of course is a less taxing thing for the server to calculate than blanket just upping everyone. And it updates frequently. The reason we couldn't do it initially was basically server performance.
A server with 64 players and all these crazy vehicles happening at once--it's just too much for the kind of hardware that we're running on, which is top-of-the-line hardware, mind you. So that's the reason. We needed a smarter way to do it, and we found a smarter way to do it. And we wouldn't be able to have done initially either without that Community Test Environment. That enabled us, technically, to feel confident in what these changes were and how well they worked. The same goes for the changes to weapon balance, which [are] kind of big changes. If we just did it without having a lot of play hours, we wouldn't feel as confident in how well it worked the way we wanted it to work.
"I think it's profoundly changed the way we work" -- David Sirland on Battlefield 4's CTE
How do you think the role of the CTE has impacted how you developed Battlefield 4?
I think it's profoundly changed the way we work. Locally, in our studio, we are structured a little bit differently compared to a normal studio. We are basically constructed as a service studio, which fits us really well. This kind of iteration; we can release two updates to the CTE in a week; that kind of work fits us really well. And I think EA as a whole has embraced this more open and iterative approach to making games. So I think it changed all of us, especially looking at how successful it's been for us.
What are the exact differences players will see with regards to the new Battlefield 3 movement-style that was implemented in the fall patch?
The reason we call it Battlefield 3-esque is because the numbers, looking at the soldier physics which control how quickly you can move, how quickly you accelerate sideways and forwards and so on--those numbers are very close to the BF3 numbers. And that part of the engine hasn't changed much. Initially, they were very slow and you were very sluggish, especially sideways. And I'd say acceleration in any direction before was pretty slow. So you probably don't notice [the changes] immediately. The best way to notice it I'd say is to aim down the sights and strafe back and forth; it's much more responsive now. In terms of gameplay, what this gives you is that if you react to someone starting to shoot you, now you get away much more from that. You can run around the corner and get away. Before you would get killed behind the corner. It was a combination of the [netcode] update being slower and the fact that you moved slower [that] caused a lot of those things to happen.
Another thing that's come up is I've seen people describe the fall patch as the game's biggest and most important patch so far. Would you agree with that?
I think so. It's a collection of everything we've done on the CTE that we couldn't get into Dragon's Teeth because of time issues basically. We opted for a bigger patch, but could have done several smaller ones. But in the end we wanted to get more features and more updates in there. So we opted for a bigger one and kind of collected it. It enabled us to change bigger things like weapon balance, soldier movement, and visual recoil, which go hand-in-hand. We couldn't really do a visual recoil change without the other two because it would be unbalanced. There's so much here; the amount of how much changes are in it, absolutely [it's the most important patch]. How it affects the game in a positive way, we believe. It feels more like Battlefield now than it ever has, I would argue.
Have you seen a bump in players since the fall patch has been released?
Yes, we have. We've seen a bump in players, we've seen a bump in played hours, we've seen a bump in daily active and weekly active users as well. Actually, almost equivalent to the Dragon's Teeth release in terms of increase in numbers. So it's really good to see that and we hope it continues as well.
"It feels more like Battlefield now than it ever has, I would argue" -- David Sirland on impact of BF4's massive fall patch
The patch has now been out for a week. Do you think it's done its job?
I absolutely think it's done its job. We changed the stuff we wanted to change. The feedback we've gotten is mainly, a lot of it is just really positive, which is a breath of fresh air in some regards. And normally, it's also very constructive. [People are saying] 'I like this a lot, but this little thing, couldn't you have done this differently?' And we're starting to see the discussion sway towards game balance and decisions made, instead of these players having problems. So I'd say it's done its job; we haven't created a lot of new issues or anything like that. We have to monitor it, of course. We have a planned server update that addresses some small issues that we've found. But other than that, it feels like the patch has been our best patch so far, I would say.
This might be kind of a basic question, but can you explain to me how the feedback loop works in general for BF4? Are issues brought to you by gamers, or do you find them yourselves, and how do you go about implementing those changes?
So when we started out with the Community Test Environment, there was no feedback loop; we kind of had to create it. We knew we wanted to make it really personal and really open because we think honesty is the way to go here. We're working on this thing [and we say to the community] 'What do you feel about our decision to do this? [The goal is to] be early and more open about it. The CTE was initially [planned to be released] slowly because we needed to grow it and we wanted really constructive and good feedback. And the players who kept on coming there were really constructive. Now we are obviously listening everywhere--I have reports every week from the forums and whatnot; I have been really, really active on Twitter and Reddit and forums and everywhere I can be active.
Answering questions and directing people to where they should be giving feedback. So right now it's an actually a really manual process that's tied directly into the landscape, which is a huge change for us. We also have a select few community members that we bring in regularly; we have the YouTubers, but we also have direct chats with some of the top pros of the world, the community, people who have big communities that create tournaments; and stuff like that where we kind of ask questions when we are planning to do a change in an area where they would care--to gauge their reactions early, and then even do collaborations with them. It's been a great feedback loop, but it's also been a lot of manual work. So we need to build some kind of reporting system or something like that, so we're planning to do that, too.
How would you say Battlefield's launch and the updates you've done to it will affect future games?
It already has, to be honest. We are sharing this knowledge deeply and profoundly. Almost daily we have emails going back and forth. Part of the netcode fix originally came from the Hardline team, from one of their engineers. He said this is an idea I want to try, now that we have the Community Test Environment, let's do it. So it kind of started organically as a full EA organization thing. And also for future titles, we're trying to do the same thing. Sharing as much as possible to utilize our strengths where they are in the world.
How would you say the somewhat problematic launch of Battlefield 4 affected what you would otherwise be doing in this point in the development cycle?
If things went more to plan [the fall patch would be released] earlier, yes, I think so because then the Community Test Environment would have been out earlier as well. It was tied up with us having to work directly on the game [to fix the bugs] and the biggest issues that we saw. So it would have been a little bit earlier, probably, I would say. Not that much, though. We made up a lot of time in how we worked. Since we saw the change in how well our updates were received so quickly because, you know, basically because of how badly it went initially. We kind of accelerated even more with even more support from the whole organization. [The launch issues] helped us in one way, of course it was bad … but in the end I think the end result would have probably been more or less the same.
Do you think you lost any kind of trust from fans?
I can absolutely say that we lost [player] trust in the game's launch and the early parts of this year, yeah. We still probably have a lot players who won't trust us to deliver a stable launch or a stable game. I can only say...I don't want to saying anything because I want to do. I want them to look at what we are doing and what we are going to do and that would be my answer. I think we have to do things to get them to trust us, not say things to get them to trust us. Show by doing.
For the coming games, I am certain that these won't be repeated because we've changed the way we work and we changed how we react to community. We're not as secretive anymore. And I think that's the key. It's just a giant project, any Battlefield game is a giant project. And the more input you can get early, the better, and the more you can be open with changes you're making or ideas you have, the better, I think. Because our community is much smarter than we probably give them credit for.
"I can absolutely say that we lost [player] trust in the game's launch and the early parts of this year" -- David Sirland
One of the Battlefield trends that I've noticed is that every game is bigger and bigger; more features and more perks and things like that. I can understand why you guys want to do that. But do you also face greater challenges and bottlenecks when you work this way and make things bigger and bigger?
Absolutely, yeah. Personally, and this is not an EA statement, but personally I think we should make smaller games and build them out as a service and make that part bigger. Start with a solid, solid core and build on it. Much like we did back in the day [with] the older Battlefield games. The expansion packs were more giant. Almost like Bad Company 2, I guess. Going smaller in terms of at least the number of features, key features, and staying true to the core of Battlefield should be first and the most important, after stability and performance.
What, for you, is the core or the essence of the Battlefield series?
I think it's an approachable FPS where the hardcore and noob alike can have fun in a giant sandbox; that's Battlefield for me.
Is the size of your backend/infrastructure/network team...how does that compare to where it was last year?
It's still the same backend team, as they're operations and they're based in Stockholm. We are working with them on releases and maintaining the backend systems. A lot of the backend system is EA-wide, so that goes for any game. And that's the same as it was at [Battlefield 4's release in October 2013]. The action team that works on issues and bugs and whatnot is obviously smaller, but then the features team is much bigger.
When you launched the DICE LA studio, I was kind of confused about exactly what your role within EA and within the Battlefield franchise is. Could you clear that up?
The reason to start an LA studio is because there's a lot of talent in LA [laughs] of course. And we had no DICE presence here and we wanted to attract quality developers and quality people; and DICE is a strong brand and they wanted to expand in a way that covers the globe. So in that sense, that's the reason for creating the studio. We're a smaller studio, and we started with a different outset. I think we kind of set the studio up in a different way...because normally when you make games [with] two-year span cycles there's a lot of work at the end of these projects and it burns people out and you have all those ups and downs. We can't really do that if we're supporting Battlefield games for the foreseeable future; we have to do it in a different way. And I think that's the biggest difference between us and Stockholm.
If you could go back to October 2013 on the eve of Battlefield 4's launch, did you think at the time that the launch would go well?
I wasn't part of the core Battlefield 4 team then. But I was part of the development team of BF4. Looking at the beta, which went, to be honest, really, really well; it was super stable and everything worked. We were stoked to release the game and we thought it would be a great launch. Sure, there would be issues, there's always issues. But we didn't think there would be issues to this degree, obviously. The beta kind of through us a curveball, for sure, at least me, coming from the [operations] side of things. The numbers, stability, all that kind of stuff looked really good.
How would you say the launch issues shaped DICE as a studio; what have you learned?
We probably learned a lot about our community. [We] probably wouldn't have been as open as we are now if it was a regular launch, if you will. We probably wouldn't have learned as much as we have. But we probably wouldn't be as close to them [fans] as we are either. So that's a positive result out of this. Other than that, I think we had to do more general, base game work as a studio than we were [planning] to do. We would have probably helped more on the other expansion packs that came out of Stockholm and that kind of stuff instead. So doing work on China Rising and Naval Strike, Stockholm made those two packs; maybe we would have helped them more on those packs instead of just doing base game stuff.
Do you think the Battlefield franchise overall has been damaged in any kind of way as a result of Battlefield 4's troubled launch?
I think from a trust perspective, absolutely. I think we have to earn that back. That's why I'm here. That's my end goal. I want to earn our trust back and I want to make them happy and like Battlefield again.
After the teases from Battlefield 4's Final Stand trailer, what kind of potential does DICE and EA see for a future-focused Battlefield game?
There's always a potential, I guess. I don't know how much we can talk to directions or anything like that. In this pack, we still wanted to stay within the modern realm, if you will. Just looking at any prototype weapon out there that gets announced, that the military's working on; they work on those for like 25 years. So that's kind of the idea we went with here. If the future is 2142, what would a future prototype weapon look like today that ends up being the rail gun or the hover tank, and what not? That's kind of where we wanted to go with this pack. We still believe it's in the modern era; sure, we're totally hinting and winking towards 2142, and that's where we would end up going down this road. But we don't see that this all-future, either.
Battlefield 4's DLC season comes to a close later this fall with the release of the appropriately titled Final Stand. EA also plans to release a $60 Battlefield 4 Premium Edition that includes the main game and a Battlefield Premium membership that gets you the game's four previously released expansion packs (China Rising, Second Assault, Naval Strike, and Dragon's Teeth), as well as Final Stand when it finally does launch.
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