What a Long, Strange Clip It's Been - Battlefield 3, EA, and the lost war on DRM

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My brother recently bought a copy of Battlefield 3: Premium edition - literally two days before Origin put it on sale for half off. (Sorry man.) And, in a way, this timing illustrates the problem with Battlefield 3 as a whole.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

If you’re not a person who follows the all-too-common military FPS genre, Battlefield 3 is the tenth entry in the decade-old Battlefield series (if you count spinoffs and free-to-play distractions). It’s the major claim to fame for EA Digital Illusions CE (or DICE), and is arguably the chief rival of the Call of Duty series - in philosophy, if not sales. Battlefield eschews frenetic, twitch combat in the style of Quake, instead favoring massive, far ranging battles on colossal maps, full of troops and jets and tanks and dirtbikes.

To put it another way: Call of Duty thrives on competition, with its skillshots and dubstep montages and close relationship with Major League Gaming. Battlefield, meanwhile, thrives on shenanigans. I've long held the impression that DICE allows the series to be billed as a “realistic military shooter” with a wink and a nod - Battlefield has always played fast and loose with realism and physics, which means that stunts, tricks, and nonsense have been fixtures of the series. There’s the classic “zook” in 1942 (among others), the helicopter foolery of Vietnam, varieties of tricks in 2, 2142, and Bad Company. For all the stabs at simulation that the series makes, it’s almost an arcade shooter - and that’s arguably why Battlefield is so popular today.

This exuberance, the enthusiasm for absurd, is coded into the DNA of Battlefield 3. At its core, it carries the same shenanigans and tricks, the same frenetic fun. Having played the game since release, I’ve seen each expansion arrive, and with it, a new set of weapons, favored tactics, and more than a few bugs. With every addition, it’s pretty clear that DICE approached 3 from the same angle as the rest of the franchise; the “zook” exists in BF3, and there are a lot of silly things possible with the use of explosives, vehicles, guns, and combinations of each. I laugh a lot when I play Battlefield - there’s no surer sign of DICE’s work than that.

If DICE were publishing these games by themselves, it’s easy to imagine that the series would continue like this into perpetuity, mod support and private servers keeping previous titles alive for years, with new installments bringing fresh settings, factions, maps and graphics. But here in the real world DICE is an Electronic Arts subsidiary, and that sad fact is where things get muddy.

Battlefield 3 is a very, very good multiplayer game, but is sorely hobbled by its frameworks. Battlelog, the game’s browser-based game launcher and stats tracker, was so panned in its reviews that its promotional materials relied on a quote from its designer. As a stats tracker Battlelog isn't that bad, but as a game launcher, in its most shining moments, it reaches levels just shy of “competent”. Otherwise, it features crippled voice chat, poor party handling, and unexplained crashes. Dedicated servers for the game can only be rented from major providers - no server client is available for private use, even for unranked matches. Modding, aside from semi-clandestine graphics tweaks, is effectively impossible in Battlefield 3, as is any sort of LAN-only play (an increasingly common trait in PC games, but no less offensive to my ilk). Housing all of this is EA’s Origin client, which serves updates, Premium subscriptions, and the stomach-churning Shortcut Packs. Origin, to put it delicately, is a total fuckfest, a mess of garbage hastily assembled into a shape that could pass for Steam, but only if the user happened to be blackout drunk.

Let’s not mince terms here: these structures are all in place because they help EA make a boatload of cash. Battlefield 3 on PC is nigh-impossible to pirate, and the more they keep users locked into their content stream, the more inclined they’ll be to buy new content when it becomes available (rather than refreshing old content with modifications). While it's no Call of Duty, the intent is that this content will eventually be disposable. Premium was its own stroke of genius - collect the retail price up-front from users who want the DLC as it becomes available. Between my pre-order and my Premium subscription, I've dropped $120+ on Battlefield 3 - not counting the new machine I built along the way. (PC Gaming, ladies and gents! -Ed)

The ultimate truth is that the publishers have won on this front. Battlefield 3 has been a rousing success for EA, even with the slew of negatives they introduced. Just like Modern Warfare 2 was for Activision. And SimCity. And Diablo 3. Gamers have finally realized that we really, really suck at boycotts. Problem is, we realized too late.

Think of it this way: it’s easy to avoid ordering a shit sandwich, until they start making the bread out of shit.

Gamers will always crave the experiences that games offer us, especially the shiniest and newest games, so we hold our collective nose and slog through the frameworks to get to them. Always-online? Release day issues? No dedicated servers? With a heavy sigh, and a token signature for an online petition, we reach for our wallets. This in turn affirms to the publishers that they made the right decision by including restrictions and introducing problems. They foist further restrictions on their next title; we buy it anyway. The cycle continues anew. The war’s over, everyone. We lost. Mark my words: EA and Activision are committed, married, to this kind of restrictive DRM. We will never see DRM-free titles, or even sensible protections, from them again. And it’s our fault.

In spite of this, I don’t regret buying Battlefield 3. I scowl and complain, from time to time, but in all, the fun I've had has been worth the price of admission - learning curve, expense, and all. Meanwhile, my brother, brand-new to the game with its replacement just around the corner, is more frustrated. Paying full retail just before a 50% price drop is bad enough, but starting without unlocks is salt in the wound. The offer to buy them for twenty-five bucks probably isn't helping either. Add the looming threat of timed obsolescence, and the whole thing is a towering, precarious pile - if the game weren't so fun, I imagine he’d have some buyer’s remorse.

He probably feels some anyway, but if that doesn't encapsulate modern capitalism, I don’t know what does.

I’ll await the Battlefield 4 reveal with some skepticism. My brother will await his Origin support ticket with the same. In the meantime, for us both, it’s back to Karkand.