The reaction to Battlefield 2042's launch last year was dismal. Dissatisfied players copied-and-pasted lists of "missing" features and cited criticism from a former Battlefield dev as proof that developer DICE had lost its way. The Steam user reviews were ruthless. ("I'd rather buy WinRAR," one player said.) DICE delayed the large-scale war shooter's first season by six months, and its average concurrent player count plummeted.
A year later, DICE wants us to give Battlefield 2042 a second chance.
If you haven't been keeping up, Battlefield 2042 just entered its third season, which among other things added a railgun and a map set in the Swedish wilderness, the third free post-launch map so far. A fourth season is coming early next year (the concept art below is a sneak peek at the Season 4 map), and DICE just announced (opens in new tab) that a fifth season will follow it. Battlefield 2042 was recently added to Xbox Game Pass Ultimate and EA Play, and you can try it free on Steam and Xbox this weekend (opens in new tab). If Battlefield 2042 had been in early access, this would be its 1.0 release event.
"We've got the game and the quality to a place where the team wants to bring more players in," Battlefield 2042 senior producer Ryan McArthur told me on a call earlier this week. "And we weren't there early on. We didn't believe it was fair to bring new players into a game where the experience didn't live up to what it was intended to be. So: We're there. I think that's a good point for us. However, from a live service perspective we want to keep doing more. We want this game to be better."
"We're feeling really good about the direction the game has gone in and is going," said associate producer Alexia Christofi in a separate call, "and we want to not just show it with words. We want people to jump in and play and see if they think, 'Oh, yeah, actually, this is totally not what I expected' given the history of looking on the internet or whatever."
If they did look on the internet, prospective Battlefield 2042 players would still find many negative user reviews, Reddit threads, and op-eds from the launch and the following months. Every decision DICE made was lampooned at the time, and bitterness lingers today.
"The launch was not easy," producer Nika Bender told me. "Let's be completely honest."
The dissatisfaction wasn't just about bugs and performance issues, although there were those. Battlefield 2042 went all in on scale, doubling the normal Battlefield player count from 64 to 128 with larger maps than the series has ever seen. I liked the sense (opens in new tab) that Battlefield's gameplay had been unoptimized and made ganglier, but most players didn't take such a whimsical attitude: They felt the maps were unserious and needed more infantry cover. They also lamented that their squads were disorganized due to the lack of voice chat or distinct class roles, and wanted more guns, more vehicles, and more features from previous Battlefields.
During the development of Battlefield 2042, the goal had been "to push" and "be innovative," according to McArthur. When it reached players, however, it became apparent to him that some "core essence" of what makes a Battlefield game fun was missing.
"[Players] loved the chaos," said McArthur. "But with that chaos you need to be able to feel smart, you need to be able to be strategic. Chaos for chaos' sake sometimes isn't as fun."
"We shot for the moon, and we just missed," Christofi said regarding the launch. "And I think delaying Season 1 was difficult for us. It was hard, but the team realized that we were totally doing it for the right reasons and that we needed to focus on, like, 'How do we make sure that the feedback from the community is more embedded in what we're doing?'"
Over the past year, DICE has fastidiously documented that embedding of player feedback. Among other things, the developers have been systematically reworking Battlefield 2042's launch maps, explaining the big decisions in detailed blog posts (opens in new tab). Two new map reworks will release later this season: Manifest in Update 3.1 this year, and Breakaway in Update 3.2 early next year. There are two more map reworks to go after that. Also coming in Update 3.2 is a limited return to a class system. The specialist characters aren't going away, but their class designations will now restrict the kinds of throwables and secondary gadgets they can carry.
McArthur doesn't think these fan-requested alterations mean they've abandoned Battlefield 2042's identity—it's still got a 128-player playlist and specialist characters, as well as the Battlefield Portal custom mode tool—but it doesn't sound like DICE is the same studio it was when it surprised fans with the Battlefield 2042 reveal, ran a quick beta period, and then released the game. At least for now, the studio is all-in on the philosophy that making games is a collaboration between players and developers.
According to McArthur, Battlefield 2042's creative director now "looks at himself less as a designer, and more of a translator" of player feedback, someone who is able to determine what players want based on what they're saying.
"Much of the feedback we got was negative in that it was aggressively, aggressively negative, but that didn't make it wrong," said McArthur. "And the key for us was to comb through it and go: 'If you strip out the emotions, what did they say? What are they missing?'"
Like other developers, DICE also looks at statistical data and runs its own internal playtests, but they've learned that it's a mistake to "create stuff in a silo" and expect players to love it, says Christofi. Battlefield players have played and provided feedback on Update 3.1, which includes the specialist rework.
"We're really keen on getting that feedback now and recognizing that our players are the ones that love Battlefield, they've always loved Battlefield, and there is a lot that we can learn from them," Christofi said.
McArthur hopes that people will eventually say the same thing about Battlefield 2042 that they say about Battlefield 4: "Well, it launched rough, but man is it a really good game now." The work toward that goal is ongoing, but one positive sign for the game is that concurrent player counts on Steam jumped after the start of Season 3, reaching peaks not seen since shortly after launch. And among the critical players who stuck around, the tone of the conversation is changing, according to McArthur.
"They still want more content," he said, "they still wish we hadn't learned the way we did, but the conversation that they're having is turning from negative into constructive into, in some cases, positive."
There are at least two more Battlefield 2042 seasons ahead, and McArthur said that the team wants to continue making Battlefield 2042 the best game it can. The new Season 5 map will reprise an unknown location from Battlefield 4, depicting it "engulfed with vegetation" in the year 2042, which sounds cool, and although Battlefield 2042's extraction mode didn't take off and DICE has put it aside, some Battlefield Portal custom mode could still blow up.
Bigger comebacks have happened: No Man's Sky, Rainbow Six Siege, Final Fantasy 14. If this free weekend doesn't turn out to be Battlefield 2042's big moment, it should at least result in a lot of feedback, and we can be sure that DICE will see it.
As for the next Battlefield game, nothing appears to be coming soon, but there are a few irons in the fire. EA recently opened a new studio in Seattle called Ridgeline, which is working on a singleplayer Battlefield campaign. Ripple Effect, the LA-based studio that led development of Battlefield Portal, is working on its own thing. Battlefield GM Byron Beede also confirmed to PC Gamer that something new is in pre-production at DICE.
"We're already in pre-production on the new Battlefield experiences coming out of DICE, Ripple Effect and Ridgeline Studios," Beede wrote. "As a global team now across multiple studios, we are out to unlock the full potential of this franchise as one of the best first-person shooters around. This global effort is allowing us to work on those new experiences while also continuing to have a team dedicated to the future of Battlefield 2042."