I recently attended the D.I.C.E. Summit in Las Vegas (which is not related to game developer DICE, actually), and there I interviewed the entire gaming industry. OK, that’s not entirely true, largely because many D.I.C.E. attendees spontaneously break out into hives if anybody so much as mentions the word “indie.” But still, I talked to a whole mess of people. I encountered EA chief creative officer Rich Hilleman on an award show red carpet, so time for chit-chat was brief. Given recent events, however, I had to ask: what’s the deal with EA and hideously botched launches on games like Battlefield 4 and SimCity? And while Hilleman (very vaguely) promised change, I found his response more than a little upsetting. Read on and see what you think.
RPS: SimCity and BF4 both had terrible launches. SimCity didn’t work for more than a month, and BF4 still has issues. Surely you’re overhauling how you approach launches internally from now on?
Hilleman: I’m not sure I accept your premise. Battlefield 4 has been an exceedingly successful product on both consoles and PC. From a sales perspective, from a gameplay perspective.
RPS: Sure, BF4 is fundamentally a good game, but you can’t just write off months of glitches and server issues. Some people straight up could not play for the first couple weeks.
Hilleman: I think there was a lot of noise about the game, but some of that is a function of your surface area. The more customers you have, the more noise becomes available. We did things wrong. We know that. We’re gonna fix those things. We’re gonna try to be smart about what customers want in the future.
But I’m not willing to accept – and I don’t think most of my customers are willing to say – “it’s a bad product, I wish I didn’t buy it.” That’s not the conversation we’re having now. I think what we’re hearing is, “You made a game we really liked. We would’ve liked it a little better if it didn’t have these problems.” Many of those problems we can fix, and we have and will.
RPS: Have you looked into ways to improve your process? Better internal testing? Better beta testing? Early Access is all the rage these days, and that generally starts in alpha. I feel like BF4 should’ve had that tag on it when it launched.
Hilleman: I don’t have the numbers off the top of my head, but my impression is that BF4 had more than 10,000 beta testers before it shipped. Now, some of the problems we had were related to systems that were not released. Beta testing on an unreleased system is difficult.
What I would say is, there were dynamics that were different this time. There were organizational differences. Some of those have been fixed already. Many of those conditions will not be the same next time. Some of those fixes aren’t going to solve the problem next time, though.
The obvious and glaring issues – the ones we heard most about from our customers, the ones that matter most to them – we’ve really gotten on top of those and they’re fixed. What is most important is to know how to not have the problem next time, and that’s kinda what I’m proudest about.
RPS: How radically are you changing the process next time? Are you, for instance, going to focus on giving DICE time and space to iron out all the bugs?
Hilleman: That team got to ship that game when they wanted to. I don’t think we really pulled it out of their hands. But the process changes dramatically ever time. If you were to take a look at the process behind a gen three launch and a gen four launch, it’s 80 percent different. So the next major number release for Battlefield will likely have an 80 percent process change, because time has passed. So that’s why I talk about changing for the future, not changing for mistakes we made last time. If I reproduce what I did this time, it’s guaranteed to be 80 percent wrong anyway.
RPS: As a customer in the wake of all this – SimCity, Battlefield 4, etc – why should I buy in during another EA launch? Why should I trust, say, Titanfall?
Hilleman: Titanfall is made by a different organization. Respawn has very firm control of their project. Best I can do for you.
[Red carpet pit lords crack whips until Hilleman is forced to exit]
Much shorter than I would have liked (for obvious reasons), but you get the idea. I hope Hilleman’s is not indicative of general rhetoric among EA brass, because this is the sort of habit I think they should be trying to break with a ten-ton sledgehammer. Trust is massively important, and EA’s effort to re-earn it in the past many months has been confused at best. It’s awful, too, to see potentially great (or at least solid) games eclipsed by crummy launches. If EA doesn’t consider a game that doesn’t work at launch to be a “bad product”, then there’s cause for concern.
If nothing else, DICE has been extremely apologetic over the whole fiasco, and fixes have been slow but steady. Will that translate into improvement next time or on other EA games, though? Only time will tell. Fingers do-deca-double-septuple crossed that the worst is finally over.