#78: Battle cry

It's the most wonderful time — and possibly the very worst idea — of the year.

I am once again reminded of the Salad Cream story. For overseas readers, Heinz Salad Cream is a sickly condiment that’s been a fixture on UK store shelves since 1914. It is, shall we say, an acquired taste. Back in the late 1990s, sales of Salad Cream were in the doldrums. Heinz let it be known that it was considering discontinuing the product; the outrage-happy UK tabloids seized upon the story, and as a result of the uproar sales went through the roof. Needless to say, Salad Cream didn’t go anywhere: there is a bottle of it in my fridge right now (a statement that I estimate will lose me 50 subscribers). It takes a special sort of cynicism to come up with this sort of marketing tactic, I think, but you can certainly see the logic in it, even grudgingly respect it.

Perhaps EA might have considered doing something similar with its beleaguered Battlefield series, a game that has somewhat faded from the public consciousness in recent years, and which has only returned to it in the past few weeks because Battlefield 2042 has endured such a terrible launch. Instead of threatening to kill Battlefield off, however, EA is doing the opposite: it has announced plans for a “connected Battlefield universe”, overseen by Respawn boss Vince Zampella. The new LA studio, Ripple Effect, that made BF2042’s Portal mode and is also helmed by Zampella, is working on a new game; a mobile title is in the works at Industrial Toys, Bungie founder Alex Seropian’s studio; and the new Seattle outfit headed up by Halo co-creator Marcus Lehto is to work on “a variety of experiences” that will lay the groundwork for “storytelling opportunities now and well into the future.”

This is a sort of anti-Heinz tactic: no one likes this thing we make anymore, so we’re changing the recipe and making more of it. Righto. I suspect there is also an element of the old look-a-squirrel diversionary play to this. The timing of the announcement feels like EA’s bid to wrest back control of the conversation around Battlefield given 2042’s well-documented troubles, after yet another terrible week in the headlines. (There’s plenty to choose from, but I think my pick is the latest update rendering some PC players unable to aim.)

Battlefield seems miserably ill-suited to this sort of endeavour. Sure, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is one of the great marketing initiatives of our time, but it worked because Marvel had a vast stable of popular characters that all shared the same universe, but had rarely been seen in the same place at the same time. By contrast, I would argue that Battlefield’s historic success has been driven by its near-total lack of story or personality. Its characters, such as it has them, are not its people, but its vehicles, its guns, its maps and modes. These games are sandboxes in which players make their own fun; blank pages onto which players write the stories. I cannot recall a single narrative beat from a previous Battlefield game — even the one to which Amy Hennig graced her estimable talents. Besides, just how many meaningful stories are there to tell about war at this point, whether in games or elsewhere? Just how much left is there to say about the horrors of etc and so on? And do we really think EA, with its track record, is a company likely to find it?

Battlefield’s problem isn’t a lack of narrative, or of cohesion, or of volume. It is that it really has no place in modern multiplayer gaming. Its ‘lots of players, big maps’ shtick has been appropriated and surpassed by the likes of PUBG, Fortnite and Warzone. It is a full-priced game in an era where the most popular shooters are free. Doubling the player count for this year’s entry, from 64 to 128, has gone down terribly with the game’s community, and is another example of the sort of reductive thinking that has led us to what I suppose we must now call the BCU. I wrote a while back that Battlefield is a dad-game; this new venture marks the series’ passage into its divorced-dad phase. It has had an expensive haircut and bought a motorbike, and thinks itself improved.

Of course, it’s always possible that this is another intended vector for EA’s stated interest in blockchain and NFTs. Perhaps EA, the dollar signs in its eyes as it considers how ownable, tradeable goods in FIFA Ultimate Team might further swell its coffers, has been thinking about how to crowbar this stuff into its other games. Maybe it sees the BCU as bringing about a world in which Battlefield is eternal; your NFT collection of costumes and gun skins, dot sights and callsigns coming with you from game to game, powered by a marketplace that, rather than resetting every other October, just grows bigger and bigger, forever. Well, they do say war is hell. I suppose it sort of fits.


  • An update on Halo Infinite’s Battle Pass, which I wrote about at spittle-flecked length last week. It’s a little better now, with more XP on offer for your first handful of matches each day, but progress is still too slow and the rewards are still rubbish. It’ll be Season Two before we see any meaningful change, and I’m not holding out much hope. In the meantime, Microsoft has announced another sticking plaster of sorts: Game Pass Ultimate subscribers will receive monthly bonuses for the multiplayer component, beginning with XP boosts. I get that Infinite’s PvP is free-to-play, but it’s a bit rum that those who don’t subscribe to Game Pass, but pay full price for the singleplayer stuff, are deemed unworthy of these bonuses.
  • Still, that’s probably preferable to the latest news from PlayStation Plus. Free to subscribers this month is Godfall, the swiftly forgotten Gearbox looter-brawler. Except it isn’t the full game: rather, it’s just a collection of endgame activities that is also free on PC through the Epic Game Store. An upgrade to the full game costs $45. I can’t remember the last time I got actual value from my Plus subscription, and seeing the Godfall news decided it was time to cancel. Turns out it auto-renewed last week, so screw me, I suppose.
  • The FTC is suing to halt Nvidia’s proposed $54bn takeover of UK chip maker Arm, citing competition laws. The deal is already under government investigation in the UK for similar reasons.
  • On a similar note, a group of Democrat lawmakers have introduced a bill aimed at banning scalper bots from hoovering up stock of, among other things, new consoles. The fact that the bill is called the Stopping Grinch Bots Act means, I suspect, that the intent here is largely performative and it will not travel far through the greasy mire of the US legislative process. Good to know that the Dems are pro-Christmas, though. Always nice to have this stuff cleared up.
  • And while we’re here, six US state treasurers are putting pressure on Activision to take action in the light of its harassment and misconduct scandal. Okay, that’s quite enough government stuff for one day, I think.
  • Hazelight has abandoned the trademark for its cheery co-op platformer It Takes Two, one of my favourite games of the year, after beady-eyed lawyers for Take-Two Interactive called foul. Perhaps they’ll be going after the estate of Marvin Gaye next.
  • United Talent Agency has launched a new SPAC (special purpose acquisition company), catchily named UTA Acquisition. UTA is raising $200 million for the initiative, which will be headed up by former Nintendo of America boss Reggie Fils-Aimé.
  • Twitch has finally responded to creators pleading with the company to do more to combat hate and abuse on the platform. Twitch is hiring ove- ah no, wait, sorry, it’s just a machine-learning tool designed to spot and permanently ban abusers.
  • Four days after a presumably lucrative switch from Twitch to YouTube Gaming, noted (apparently) streamer Ludwig Ahgren has been — and I promise I am not making this up — banned from YouTube for ‘policy violations’. A lovely way to round off the week.

And there you go! Apologies for my absence on Wednesday — I was busy with Secret Things (and boring IRL stuff). As ever, if you’ve enjoyed this, do please give it a share: the last couple of weeks have been great for new signups, so any help you can give to keep the train a-rollin’ would be greatly appreciated. Have a wonderful weekend, and I’ll see you all on Monday.