We've all heard the phrase before: "WoW Killer." Ever since World of Warcraft's player base breached the eight-digit milestone, the game industry has been hunting for the one huge MMO title that could topple WoW as the biggest MMO on the block, and they certainly did try. And by "they," I mean every big-budget game development studio on the block. Instead of one huge MMO crushing the WoW player base and knocking Blizzard's super-game off its pedestal, an endless array of smaller niche games chewed away at WoW at the ankles. Today, World of Warcraft is sinking toward its demise, and while some of us have made suggestions as to how it can be saved, the real question isn't how long WoW can stay on top, so much as what game has even a remote chance at taking Blizzard's crown. There are very few game franchises that could pull it off. And in this installment of Game Ideas, we're going to focus on one such franchise: Electronic Arts' Battlefield series.
The imposter BF MMO's
In April of this year, EA released a massively-multiplayer Battlefield game, called Battlefield Play4Free, which is, as the name suggests, free to play and supported through micro-transactions. They've also previously released Battlefield Heroes, a candy-coated, cartoony addition to the BF family. But while these games boast mildly RPG-like featuressuch as talent trees, they don't really go the full monty into MMO land. Can you imagine the impact on the game industry we'd witness if Battlefield really went all-out and produced a proper, full-featured MMO?
Some Basic Features
So here's the game idea for this edition: A proper, full-featured Battlefield MMO, taking place in an open WWII environment and boasting all of the social elements we've all come to love from other games. You start out as a private in the army of your choice, with the option of playing for the United States, England, Germany, or Japan. Your adventure begins on an army base, learning the ropes of the game through training, completing missions (quests) to earn experience points and level up, and making some initial friends. When you level up appropriately, you ship out to the front, where your commanding officers, also players, develop battle strategies to take "global flags." Your fire squad, platoon, company, and division will all complete a variety of "assignments," which are large collections of missions, with the ebb and flow of conquering land driving the war all throughout Europe and the South Pacific.
The game would be particularly popular if it deployed a free-to-play account system. You buy the game (and any expansion packs that come out later), but almost everything else is free. You can't reach the level-cap, operate vehicles, or use rare weapons without a low-cost subscription ($9.99 per month or so), and you can't use super-rare weapons or drive massive vehicles (naval ships, bomber aircraft) without a full subscription ($15 per month).
Constant action is a constant turn-off
One thing that FPS game designers need to realize is that constant action is quite exhausting. Sure, it's pretty awesome to see my Apache helicopter shot to ribbons, and bail out just as it's exploding, only to land on a tank and rig it with C4, hopping in an APC and speeding off as that tank turns into a grilled cheese sandwich. But nonstop high-octane gameplay tends to burn gamers out. The Battlefield MMO, as I'd design it anyway, would save the high-velocity action content for the battles, with missions (questing) being a bit more relaxed. The social elements of an MMO -- making friends, establishing or joining guilds, chatting in trade chat about Chuck Norris -- are what keep players coming back over and over again. And piling a platoon into a C-47 and having players pilot that aircraft for ten or fifteen minutes to reach a drop zone behind enemy lines gives players some breathing space to chat and establish the sorts of friendships that will keep them logging into the game day after day. Without the social element, a Battlefield MMO would just be another exhaustive shooter game.
Ship on a stick!
When I think of all the games I've played in the Battlefield series, the one map that I persistently call my favorite has always been Midway from Battlefield 1942. I think my friend Miles summed up how many BF fans feel about getting rid of ships when he and I played Battlefield: Vietnam for the first time: "For the love of God, why did EA/ Dice get ride of naval combat?!" There has never been more epic a feeling in the history of games than driving a battleship for the first time, with its massive guns besieging the two tiny islands on the Midway map. If beaching ships is your concern, EA/ Dice, then nerf them so they can't be beached. But naval combat was one of the most awesome elements of Battlefield 1942, an experience not yet trumped by anything in an FPS game (well, not for being truly epic, anyway). The Battlefield MMO, as I'd design it, would bring back naval combat, with entire crews of sailors working on aircraft carriers, destroyers, battleships, and submarines (and none of that one-person-per-sub stuff, either!).
Will we ever see a real Battlefield MMO? Probably not. And if we did, I doubt the folks at EA/ Dice would get it quite right... they'd make it too hardcore for casual gamers to get into it, or they'd make it too casual for hardcore gamers to want it. They'd under-sell the social aspects, and they'd make it too FPS-ish and not enough RPG-ish to appeal to a super-massive MMO audience. But if the folks at EA/ Dice really threw the dice (hah!) and gambled on some original gameplay mechanics, a Battlefield MMO would have the potential to wholly reshape the game industry from the ground up, and raise the bar on MMO design for a new generation of aspiring game developers.