“It’s an idea that’s been around for a while,” DICE LA Producer David Sirland told us when talking about a community-driven initiative that is now helping shape the future of Battlefield, both for Battlefield 4 and for Visceral Games’ upcoming cops and criminals-themed Battlefield title, Hardline.
Led by a dedicated team at Digital Illusions CE’s most recently opened studio in Los Angeles who’ve already left their mark on the series with Battlefield 4’s Second Assault and Dragon’s Teeth expansions, this initiative, called the Community Test Environment (CTE), launched back in May of 2014 for Battlefield 4 Premium members on the PC. It opened the doors to Battlefield’s passionate community, providing some of the franchise’s most dedicated gamers with a direct line to those making the game and calling the shots.
Now, the launch represents a shift in EA and DICE’s outlook on things, paving the way to what the company calls a “player-first” approach to game development. Helping to undo Battlefield’s tarnished image painted by broken game updates and buggy content launches, the CTE also serves as a commitment to quality.
Already, studio members at DICE LA are delivering on this promise and showing Battlefield fans that they are listening. Battlefield 4’s latest update, better known as the “Fall Patch,” has proven to be one of the game’s most successful update launches yet while packing in some of the biggest gameplay changes seen to-date. Recent testing for Battlefield 4’s upcoming Final Stand expansion not only gave gamers early access to brand new content, but it also helped lead the way to what will likely be a much smoother landing on PC and consoles later this Fall.
But, if the CTE really was ‘an idea that’s been around for a while,’ why wait so long to start working with a community that’s always been so eager to help?
We were lucky enough to pose this question and more to Mr. David Sirland in a recent talk where we discussed DICE LA’s recent success with the Community Test Environment and Battlefield 4, as well as what this initiative may mean for the future of Battlefield.
MP1st: Why wait until closer to the end of Battlefield 4’s life cycle before kicking the CTE initiative into gear? Was Battlefield 4’s reception and passionate player feedback what got the ball rolling?
Sirland: “It took way longer than we wanted to actually get it out there. We had it internal for a while, but there’s a lot of legal hoops and other things like that to get something like it running.”
“Battlefield is obviously a really good franchise to use this on. As you said, we have really engaged players that really care about the game, even though they might not like an incarnation. They have a lot of opinions and want to voice them, so it’s a great way to get all that feedback early enough so we can actually do something about it.
“I think, for Final Stand, our upcoming expansion pack for BF4, it’s the first time we actually did this the way we envisioned it to work. So, basically, we showed stuff before it’s actually even Alpha and get a lot of initial feedback and then we will try to work on that and show it again and, you know, get another set of feedback and hopefully we’ll address a lot of the issues people had the first time around. And, then, eventually release it [as] hopefully a more stable and high quality release because of it.”
MP1st: Are you able to share anything you learned while working with the community on Final Stand content?
Sirland: “Oh there’s so many things. It’s a lot of small things, obviously. I mean, at that point, when we tested it the first time — the ‘pre-release,’ as we called it — we were at the point where game modes are basically in their really simple layout. We basically put them out there on the map we don’t know exactly — there’s no cover, path, you know.
“So, mainly, I think the best feedback we got from [testing] was the maps themselves; Did [the community] like them? Which maps are the most popular? Which parts did they not like playing? Of course, we get a lot of stats as well [like] people getting killed in this area more than another. That kind of stuff. But, mainly, it’s the maps and how the layout works and how they play and if there’s any real problem areas.
“I’m thinking of a very long list of fixes. I think we can’t probably address all of them, but we’ve addressed a majority of it and then, of course, changed things as well. And, that was our plan, initially, too. It might not be the perfect layout for this Conquest on this map and we’ll want to tweak that and so on.
“And, we will show it soon enough. I think, in a couple of weeks, we will show it on the PC again in, I think, more-or-less Beta form, or even later. I don’t know exactly what you would call it at that point, but more-or-less the release candidate, if you will. So, we will reiterate then what changes we’ve made and what we listened to and how we thought about the feedback and so on.”
MP1st: Perhaps you can’t speak for other studios, but, in addition to Visceral Games’ upcoming Battlefield Hardline, do you see future Battlefield titles benefiting from the Community Test Environment, as long as it’s producing positive results?
Sirland: “I would think so, yeah. As I said, it’s up to every game and it is a bit of a hassle to set it up initially, but I would bet so. I mean, just looking at the latest patch that we released this week, how much of a stable release that was compared to other releases in this game’s history, it gives us a lot of confidence in doing — because it had so many changes, this patch. It’s a huge patch. It’s almost like half an X-pack in terms of features, or code features, anyways, which is where big things can go wrong and you create other follow up issues.
“We feel really confident that running something through a test environment where we have this amount of people — I mean, we don’t have a couple of thousands of people on there. We have a couple of hundred people active day-to-day. But, it gives us so many hours of continued testing and playing on these maps…
“…it’s just impossible to compete with that from a QA standpoint because we get thousands of hours compared to hundreds of hours. But I think you will see more of this in the future. I can’t talk for any of the other games in particular, but I think it will happen. I think we are showing that it works.”
MP1st: Yeah. It really seemed like the hype surrounding this “Fall Patch” was almost on par with previous Battlefield 4 DLC releases.
Sirland: “Yeah it’s really cool to see!”
MP1st: Now, surely, what the community wants for Battlefield 4 and what you as developers envision for the game don’t always line up during testing.
MP1st: Do you weigh one outlook more heavily than the other, or does the key lie in balancing all perspectives?
Sirland: “I’d say it’s almost [a few] things: The original vision for Battlefield 4, what it became, the Battlefield legacy of all other Battlefield games, obviously, our fans, and what we want to do here as the Battlefield team. We try to balance all of those kind of equally. It’s easy to listen too much to the community that are really, you know, the ones that scream the most.
“That’s tricky, of course, but we have quite a clear view of what we think Battlefield is and should be. And, you know, I’ve worked on a couple of Battlefield games and our Creative Director here, Thomas Andersson, for instance, he’s worked at DICE for 18 years. So, we have that kind of backbone to know when our gut feeling says this is a Battlefield decision. You know, we choose A over B, for instance. Like, we lowered the damage on the weapons because we want the engagements to be a little bit longer. We thought it was a little bit short to be a Battlefield game. That kind of happens from some kind of combined gut feeling, if you know what I mean.
“And then, of course, when we talk about, ‘This is the issues that we have, or this is the features that we want to implement,’ and we get a lot of feedback from the community in terms of prioritization, it helps almost the most in that regard. The biggest problem currently and the biggest [sought] after feature, that comes from the community directly. And, obviously, then, exactly what the feature becomes or if that will work, we will have the final say, of course. But, I think, one of the key things with the system are that we can put something out early and then iterate a couple of iterations and then end up somewhere where we’re probably most of us happy.
“Some example of that is the Rush thing that we’ve done. There’s some people out there on my Twitter that doesn’t like it at all, but a lot of people that like Rush are now playing Rush again because they are so much more balanced and tested, obviously, over a long time.”
MP1st: Were there any highly requested features during testing that you had to flat out say no to?
Sirland: “Normally, the people that request features are not — they know what Battlefield is and kind of have the same vision. The community and us are very close on that, I would say. In general, not all the time, obviously, but in general, they don’t suggest stuff that they think wouldn’t fit or wouldn’t work, normally.
“I think it’s mainly a prioritization thing. For instance, we would know that we have a release in a couple of weeks, so someone says, ‘Can’t you do this feature?’ and we have to down-prioritize it because it’s too big of a feature and we don’t have the time to get it out in the next release, so we have to put it on the back burner. That’s kind of going to happen now with the team-play initiative, which is our active initiative on the Community Test Environment, where we will have a couple of features baked into the Final Stand release and then we will continue past that with the other ones.
“So, for instance, we want to revamp how Field Upgrades work and change the rules a little bit and make team-play more viable using [Field Upgrades] as a tool. Maybe even add a field upgrade selection, if you will — a team-play-based one. And, that kind of thing was too big to get in this release and then we have to push it.
“But, other than that, we have to treat [Battlefield 4] as a living organism. We can’t just be rigid and say, ‘Oh, here’s our plans for ‘x’ months going foward, or ‘x’ weeks,’ or whatever. We try to get it out early, earlier than we would like. My developers here sometimes are like, ‘Ahh, it feels like I’m naked! I’m showing my stuff way too early!’ But it gives us really good feedback and it also gives them confidence because the choices they make, people like, normally.
“So, I think we’re starting to do that and we have to change our mindset as developers too because we’re used to the boxed product as well where we work on something for a year or more and then in the end we polish it and then release it and there’s a couple of patches, but it doesn’t really change that much. This is more-or-less flipping that on its head, right? We’re showing pre-Alpha, we listen to your feedback, we get another version out, and another one, and another one. And, even then maybe there are things that didn’t work out and we’ll remove it.
MP1st: So, Battlefield 4’s “Fall Patch” was clearly the culmination of core gameplay changes you’ve made in the first phase of the CTE’s initiative. Can you tell me a little bit more about your plans with the CTE’s second phase, the “Team-Play” initiative?
Sirland: “Kind of like the change to weapon balance that we did now to make the engagements longer, we will do the same thing to the objective play. We think people Battlefield a little too much on the K/D. And, we want people that come into the game new or people that haven’t been playing in a while, or whatever, we want them to come in and feel like, ‘Oh, hey. Playing Conquest, grabbing flags, and defending them actually gives me more or as many points as the guy that’s the best at killing people.’
“It’s always been a staple, to me, anyways, in Battlefield that you can succeed even if you’re not the best killer because you can be in a squad that kind of works together. So, scoring is obviously a way to promote that. There’s some UI overhaul that we want to do. We want to potentially add a little ‘Mission Widget’ that kind of tells you how you are supposed to be playing. So, for instance, if you’re playing Conquest, it would show, ‘Primary mission: Capture a flag,’ and how many points I get. We can kind of reiterate that as well.
“And we have a lot of ideas there where we want to take it going forward. Also, what we missed in the Fall Patch is a vehicle pass. We want to do a balance pass on vehicles and bug fixing and improvements in general to vehicles as well.”
MP1st: It sounds like you have a lengthy plan in place to keep working with and updating Battlefield 4. Do you see Battlefield 4 as a game that can co-exist with Visceral Games’ Battlefield Hardline launching later this Spring, especially since both games seem to offer a very different ‘flavor’ of Battlefield?
Sirland: “Yeah, I think that’s the point actually, to keep it alive and keep it healthy side-to-side with Hardline. Because, as you said, Hardline is a different flavor of Battlefield. It’s not a replacement, it’s a different flavor. Not everyone will like it. We hope most people like it, obviously, but not everyone will. And, Battlefield is still Battlefield and we will keep on supporting it.
“At this moment, I don’t have more details and I don’t have a end date currently set for Battlefield 4 support. But we’re going to continue to support it as long as there is players I would guess.”
MP1st: Great. Thanks so much for talking to us today, David.
Sirland: “Yeah, no problem. Nice talking to you.”
For more updates on Battlefield 4, Battlefield 4 DLC, and Battlefield Hardline, be sure to keep your sights locked right here on MP1st.