I have a frankly frightening amount of interview material from my trip to see Battlefield 3 at EA DICE HQ earlier this week, but before I lower myself into the tenth circle of hell that is transcribing the main hour of it, here's an interesting side-discussion that came up when I asked Twitter for a few question suggestions. One of the first respondents was Minecraft-maker Notch, who asked us to ask DICE "What are some best practices and lessons learned when awarding long-term rewards in a highly competitive game like Battlefield 3?"
Here's what BF3's executive producer Patrick Bach had to say in response - which led to a discussion of best practice for creating in-game unlocks, how he thinks Bad Company 2 got it a bit wrong, and why he reckons devs should try and keep improving and expanding their games for several years after launch instead of putting out annual sequels. Whatever could he be referring to?
RPS: I have a question from your countryman Markus 'Notch' Persson, who asks “What are some best practices and lessons learned when awarding long-term rewards in a highly competitive game like Battlefield 3?”
Patrick Bach: Oh… Let's see if I understand the question. Is he talking about the actual in-game rewards, or the development rewards?
RPS: I'm presuming it's about the higher-end persistent unlocks.
Patrick Bach: I think the learning we've done is that if you make a good game, people spend a lot of time with it. If you make a great game, they will never leave. I think we maybe miscalculated with, for instance, Battlefield Bad Company, with a year. It's been out for a year and a half, and we thought people would spend probably half a year playing it and then it would start to trend down. We're actually at the same number of people playing today as we had three months after shipping. So it's quite steady, how many people are playing the game. It actually went down slightly last Autumn when some other games were released, but it went right back up over Christmas when we released the Vietnam expansion pack.
So people are today playing the exact same amount of games as they did back then. So of course we miscalculated that, because we thought people would stop playing. And then people rank out and they unlock everything, and they start to feel fatigue for not getting more stuff. So I think the challenge is to figure out how long people will play this game for, and then make sure you have enough stuff for you to unlock. Because it's not fun to have to play for ten years to unlock the last thing – that doesn't make the game better, it makes it seem that there's no point to continue. But then again, you still want that carrot, dangling in front of you.
For Battlefield 3, we known that people play even more than Battlefield Bad Company 2, so we're planning for even longer unlocks, a bigger unlock tree. So I think, to us, it's understand how long people will play the game for, who will play the game, and how they will play the game. Based on that, which is the only information you can speculate on, try and give as much as you can for that period of time. So what we're doing is, for instance, is deepening the game, but also broadening the game. Depending on your play style, you can actually unlock stuff based on a specific weapon or a specific class, rather than have everyone unlock everything.
RPS: Do you consciously factor in wanting people to move onto whatever your next game is , rather than stick to the older game, when you plan the length and number of unlocks?
Patrick Bach: But maybe you don't have to build the new game, do you? If people like the old one, then keep fixing that one, update it and make it even better. I think sometimes it turns too mechanical when people release new games every year, and just focus on 'how can I sell another copy, another copy, another copy?' Of course companies need to make money to survive, but you can actually provide for the title you already have out on the market. You don't have to leave it, just because you've shipped it. You can go back to it and think 'can we add something to this, can we change something, what do people want?' And then if you keep doing for a longer period of time, why start building something new? Of course you can always plan for the big next step, but if that's in two years, or three years, five years…
RPS: [About 20 other questions which we'll run next week].