Posted October 26th 2011 by J. Edison Thomas.
Like everyone else who counts in America, I picked up a reserve copy of Battlefield 3 yesterday and spent the entire workday looking forward to entering a brand new world of online multiplayer shooting. And by "brand new world" I meant hopefully very similar to Battlefield: Bad Company 2, a game I already like, with enough improvements to justify the purchase and shake off the fatigue of a well-worn experience. But then, when every Xbox 360 player on the Eastern Seaboard tried to actually play the game online, EA's servers shit themselves.
After several false-starts in trying to get a game in with my regular Battlefield squadmates, I resigned myself to playing online multiplayer alone. It was still fun. "Whoopee, I'm flying a goddamn jet!!" But then I was knocked out completely before I'd even finished a match. I tried again an hour later; still no luck. All in all, it seems the Xbox 360 servers were completely down for about three hours, from around 7:00–10:00pm EST. This is also known as "the only time I have available to play games during a work week," so I was understandably upset. Some might say first-night jitters are just a cost of doing business in the business of shirking responsibilities to play videogames, and others would say this is unacceptable and heads should roll. Those in the latter group would be correct; those in the former are tools.
Servers showing their strain on opening night for a game this high-profile isn't anything new. But the fact that it does happen is not evidence that it should happen. If you pay for a game on Day One, it should do everything promised on Day One. And for gamers on the Xbox 360, these people are paying twice for the ability to play their games on a premium online service with minimal hassle. First, of course, is the Xbox Live subscription fee, which many subscription holders see as their License to Complain. The balance of wallet-to-whine dictates that I get to throw a bigger bitchfit when I can't play with my toys than the kids who didn't pay for theirs. But beyond that, Battlefield 3 employs the Online Pass system of twisting consumers' arms into buying the game new. If you buy new, you get a code that allows you to play online with your purchase; if you buy used, you have to buy the pass separately. The purpose is to offset the cost of players who tax EA's servers without giving EA a cent of their money, and at worst it's a decent compromise between gamers and developers. But the flipside is that if there's going to be a doorman at the party, the party inside needs to actually occur.
Beyond this pressure to buy the game new, the push of the entire industry is to buy the game as soon as possible. From publishers to retailers, the marketing is geared towards funneling in as many gamers as possible into a game's launch window. Take, for instance, the latest gimmick in the war against the used games market: pre-order bonus content. Customers who pre-order get Battlefield 3: Limited Edition, which includes the day-one DLC "Back to Karkland," which includes exclusive maps, weapons and vehicles. Regular purchasers of the game will get Battlefield 3: Shitty, Intentionally Lacking Edition and will have to wait around a month for this content, which will cost them $10 at the time.
On top of the Back to Karkland DLC, individual retailers offered their own retailer-specific pre-order bonuses for the game. Gamers who pre-ordered their game through Amazon got unique dog tags, whereas those who pre-ordered through Best Buy were given SPECACT camouflage skins. GameStop, the rightfully-loathed war profiteer playing both sides of the New Games/Used Games conflict, bested them both: gamers who pre-ordered through GameStop got access to special guns that other gamers will never see. Well, unless they pick them up after killing a GameStop customer in multiplayer, in which case, nice going.*
Now, you can debate the validity of pre-order content and what role it plays when it's used to bolster the profitability of a genuinely good product. Our forum community is doing just that. But the end result is that these are all intentional moves on every end of the supply side of the table engineered to unleash a huge demand on the launch day of a title. This is not a case of a surprise influx of online players who just happened to surge by some grassroots word-of-mouth frenzy. It's by design. So what's happened is that a tremendous amount of effort went into overbooking this venue, and the safeguards weren't in place to ensure that a band could actually play come concert time. By all rights, the result of such a boondoggle is to have a riot on your hands, but luckily all the pissed off customers were sitting in their living rooms instead of loitering in EA's place of business. After a lengthy beta and, well, the fact that making this game work is pretty much their entire job, it's no less than a months-in-the-making fuckup. The end result is, even if the game provides a stellar experience this weekend, or even tonight, the message EA sent is that getting their games on launch day is probably a waste of time, if not a hassle waiting to happen. And when the competition launches their counterattack only two weeks later, waiting is not something you want to encourage your customers to do.
*You may recall I mentioned at the outset of this article that my copy of the game was a reserve. After much deliberation, I went through GameStop; I am a weak and pathetic man.
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