This Is War (for a Game Industry's Soul)

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The Swedish Army drafted Patrick Bach in the early 1990s and tried to make a soldier out of him. No such luck. Mr. Bach couldn't see the point of pretending to protect a country at peace since the Napoleonic wars. The only part he liked was the shooting.

Twenty years later, Mr. Bach commands a high-tech army that is at war all the time. As the creative force behind the Battlefield series of video games, he must make sure that players come back again and again, no matter how often they get whacked. Which, if you are keeping score, is about seven billion times in the last two years.

For months, a development team in Stockholm has been frantically preparing a new version of the game. Played out in desolate cityscapes, on the sea and in the skies, Battlefield 4 is a dream of Armageddon without civilian suffering to make things messy. Already, fans are hailing what one early reviewer called "an insane new level of destructibility."

Bloody and dramatic as it is, Battlefield 4 is only the opening move of a bigger effort by Mr. Bach and his colleagues at Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment, or DICE, a development studio owned by the Silicon Valley gaming powerhouse Electronic Arts. They are trying to create a new type of military shooting game even as the genre confronts technological, narrative and public relations hurdles. If they fail, video games will be that much closer to extinction.

Like big-budget movies, newspapers, printed books, DVDs and other once-dominant means of conveying information and entertainment, traditional video games like Battlefield -- played at home, with a special console or maybe a souped-up PC and the biggest possible screen -- are under digital assault. A handful of programmers in a garage can put together a crude but compulsive smartphone game in a few weeks. These games are designed to be played in snippets, anytime and anywhere, making them ideal for a busy modern life.

Mobile games are not exactly complicated. Fruit Ninja involves slicing animated fruit in half. ActionPotato is all about trying to catch potatoes. Candy Crush Saga consists of rearranging pieces of candy -- and is played 700 million times a day, its creator says.

Immersive games like Battlefield, on the other hand, require years of intricate work by hundreds of software engineers and artists. They demand an investment by players, too: $60 plus quite a few moments of attention. And they are tied to technology going the way of the rotary phone. PC sales are dropping as users migrate to tablets, while sales of the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation consoles have wilted 40 percent in the last two years.

Traditional video games will not disappear tomorrow. It is a multibillion-dollar business, with shooters like Battlefield its most enduring category. The visceral thrill that players get from their virtual guns -- the ability to reach into an imaginary world and destroy things -- cannot be replicated on a smartphone, at least not yet.

Electronic Arts is nevertheless trying to extend franchises like Battlefield to devices, because it must. But at the same time, it has to grapple with the threats undermining traditional gaming. Though the classic consoles are getting reboots this fall, there is no guarantee that new models will permanently revive the format's fortunes. In 2006, Nintendo introduced the Wii to iPhone-type excitement. The latest version had a tepid response. The new Xbox and PlayStation will get more attention but face an undercurrent of doubt.

"Nintendo, Microsoft and Sony are beyond the point of no return in this industry," analysts at Asymco warned in a report last month titled "Game Over."

Even a relentless optimist like Frank Gibeau, a veteran executive at Electronic Arts, acknowledges that the industry has become much more complicated.

"When you take technology and entertainment and slam them together for a highly demanding user base, you're in the deep end of the deepest pool," he said. "The movie business is tough, but this is really hard."

The first-person shooter, which allows a player to be the character instead of just an observer, took off with the demon-slaughterfest Doom in 1993 but had its best run after 2001. The games drew inspiration from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the real-life exploits of the Special Forces. Studios often worked in collaboration with former members of the United States military.

Danger Close, a Los Angeles studio also owned by EA, released last fall the 14th incarnation of Medal of Honor, a shooter that was promoted as the ultimate in realism. But reviewers disparaged it and gamers rejected it. Don't look for version 15 anytime soon; EA shuttered the studio.

Mr. Gibeau explained EA's new shooter strategy: "We're doubling down on the DICE team."

Which is how it came to pass that a bunch of guys in Sweden whose knowledge of the American military comes from watching "Saving Private Ryan" and "Platoon" is now making EA's only contemporary military shooter. Being peaceniks might even give them an edge. War is such a foreign concept here that they must reimagine it.

"We understand war is sometimes necessary -- nothing that someone chooses, but it happens," Mr. Bach said. "The drama is how you deal with it."

DICE is in the middle of Stockholm. In July, ferries were making the rounds of nearby islands, delivering Swedes to vacation cottages for a chance to revel in the all-too-brief warmth. It was a little annoying, actually. There was a game to be finished, but people were on holiday.

"It's only when you get to the end that you realize how much you have left to do," said Karl Magnus Troedsson, the DICE general manager. Mr. Troedsson supervises about 300 people here, most of them with facial hair. Like Mr. Bach, he is in his early 40s, a pale, skinny fellow, although more groomed. "As the song goes, I'm calm as a bomb," he said.

With its sleek offices, DICE looks like a start-up. In fact, it traces its history back two decades. "It was a group of teenagers in their underwear," Mr. Troedsson said. "We probably have pictures." For budding tech geniuses, it was a fertile place and time. Sweden prized engineering, and it was good to be a geek. Broadband made early inroads, so even that period's primitive PCs could do some complicated things.

The weather helped, too.

"Nine out of 12 months here, it's pretty dark, it's pretty rainy, it's pretty snowy," Mr. Troedsson said. "Sitting indoors together with friends, doing things with computers, it's a pretty comfortable hobby."

For some, it was more obsession than hobby. "I stayed inside during the summer as well," said Mr. Bach, whose formal title is executive producer.

To the technology and the weather, add a third important element: cultural deprivation. "There was no cable. It was state television only, which meant socialist children's programming," Mr. Bach said. "Things like Chinese shadow theater. Hungarian reruns. Horrible, horrible things. Our core tastes were founded in a void."

The original DICE crew made demos, which are computer art projects that were popular in Sweden, and then video pinball games. Its breakout game was set during World War II, and offered a variety of settings and vehicles; it had global appeal. "No one wants to play a game where it's the Swedish Army versus the Norwegian Army," Mr. Troedsson said. "Even Swedes wouldn't play that."

That game, Battlefield 1942, did well enough to prompt sequels and updates, as well as an acquisition offer from Electronics Arts. The deal, completed in 2006, changed the ownership of DICE but not much else. Battlefield 3, released two years ago, was the title's biggest hit, with sales approaching 20 million copies.

This is a triumphant time for young Swedish hackers, now all grown up. Beyond the success of DICE, there is Minecraft, which is essentially interactive Legos. Based a few blocks away, Minecraft came out of nowhere to garner tens of millions of dedicated players, many of them children. King.com, whose Candy Crush dethroned Zynga on  Facebook, also has roots here.

Here's one explanation for all this Swedish success: Gaming is losing its roots in narrative.

"I hate to say this, but storytelling does not come naturally to Swedes," said Patrick Soderlund, the most senior member of the DICE ruling triumvirate. "But we're good at designing systems, and that's what these games really are. Minecraft puts a box in front of you and says, 'Do whatever you want with it.' Battlefield is a system designed for entertainment rather than for telling you a story."

As Mr. Bach puts it: "The story is just the coating on the game. The game is now the experience of playing it."

The stereotype of a gamer is a moody teenage boy, virtually and literally shut off from everyone else. The modern reality of gaming is that it skews about a decade older, and that players are playing with their friends. Like every other leisure activity, gaming is now social.

Friends might play Battlefield for hundreds of hours. That's tough luck for the next would-be blockbuster they never get around to, but it also creates problems for Battlefield itself. How do you get more money out of these players? In-game purchases of things like better weapons have not worked; fans resent them if they need them to play the game.

"It's the old dilemma of consumer goods: you don't want someone to buy something and never have to buy it again," said Michael Pachter, a gaming analyst. "The reason we sell so much salsa is because we eat so much of it. Mustard, on the other hand, you just use a little. Better to sell salsa than mustard."

The DICE recipe for Battlefield 4 is to create a virtual sandbox, a free-form environment where, thanks to the Internet and high-speed connections, up to 64 friends can come together as a team or compete. It will be new yet familiar, awesome as well as comfortable, violent but defanged.

That is a tall order, maybe just this side of impossible, for a guy whose commanding officer told him that he was such a bad soldier he would never amount to anything in real life.

"My military experience felt like it wasn't for real," said Mr. Bach, whose intensity is masked by jokes and a two-day stubble. "Sweden is neutral. What does an enemy want from us? A Volvo factory? Nothing was at stake."

Now quite a bit of money is at stake. Grand Theft Auto V, released last month by Take-Two Interactive Software, made $800 million in its first day, a gaming record. Grand Theft Auto long ago transcended its roots as a gritty action-adventure game to become a cultural phenomenon. Fans had been waiting five years for a new version, an eternity in game time.

Electronic Arts would happily settle for a little less from Battlefield, but needs at least a solid hit. Its much-hyped Star Wars: The Old Republic tried a subscription model last year and stumbled badly. Rumored to have had development costs of more than $100 million, the game immediately lost a third of its players. "We got the tech right and the game right," said Mr. Gibeau, the EA executive. "But we got the business model wrong."

In mid-2012, EA's share price fell to its lowest level in more than a decade amid fears that the company's transition to mobile devices would come up short -- the same apprehension that felled the highflying Zynga. The crisis culminated last March with the resignation of John Riccitiello, EA's chief executive.

Fashions and passions shift. Players have an ever-expanding abundance of entertainment options, and their love is always on loan. EA is on the mend -- the stock has doubled off its low, and revenue from digital sales is replacing dwindling packaged software sales. But in a blockbuster world, each game has to pack a wallop. In 2008, EA published 67 console and PC games. This year, fewer than 10. "You want to be in the business of creating 'The Avengers' and 'Avatar,' not 'The Lone Ranger,' " Mr. Gibeau said. "You only have so many slots, so this better be epic."

As gaming technology improved over the years, shooters tried to simulate the experience of actual combat. This process reached its logical endpoint with Danger Close's hiring of two elite Special Operations veterans to write Medal of Honor. The studio brought in more than 20 other commandos to make sure that all the gear was right and that actions and reactions in the game were what they would have been in the field.

The first problem was that some of the operators didn't have permission to be there. Seven active-duty members of the SEALs, including one who was involved in the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, were censured by the Navy for violating their nondisclosure agreements.

The bigger problem was that the game failed, signaling that authenticity was a dead end. It might have been something the fans said they wanted, but who can trust the fans? One of Mr. Bach's rules is this: Don't use data to decide what to do.

"Then you end up saying all the numbers point in this direction, so I went there, but not because I believe in it," he said. "You'll end up like the phone companies, with a mediocre product based on what the audience claimed it wanted."

For Battlefield 4, DICE has no military advisers. Instead there is a gear guy, a Swede whose hobby is collecting uniforms.

"He comes in, we play dress-up, and if it looks cool it goes into the game," Mr. Bach said. Otherwise, research is done with YouTube.

A bigger priority is making the game more vivid. Video games aspire to the level of virtual reality, where the players are in so deep that they forget they are in a game. There is nothing that shooter players hate more than a lack of cause and effect. It breaks the dream.

"I remember throwing stones as a kid," Mr. Troedsson said. "I've broken quite a bit of windows in my time. You hit something; there's a great satisfaction. You aimed and fired. It doesn't have to be a gun for the game to work. It could be a slingshot. You could throw flowers."

But it is a gun. The number of shots fired in Battlefield 3 during the last two years is 4.2 trillion. Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that reviews games for parents, faulted Battlefield 3 as having no positive role models or positive messages, adding that it "glamorizes and glorifies modern military combat." But it also said that playing the game with others was "extraordinarily satisfying."

"It's a delicate balance," Mr. Bach said. "You don't want to be too goofy and cartoony, removing the drama and the importance. But you can't go the other way and say there is no morality involved in creating a contemporary shooter, because there is."

That is why, for instance, players cannot shoot civilians in the game. It was a conscious choice to eliminate the wrong kind of bloodshed.

Every time a disturbed young man goes on a real-life shooting spree, the debate about violent games flares anew. "We read everything and think, 'What if it's true?' " Mr. Bach said. "Because that would be horrible. We'd probably stop the same day."

When shooters have not been accused of promoting violence, they have been billed as military propaganda. Mr. Troedsson would not mind being a recruitment tool, but he has recruiting for a different organization in mind.

"I don't want our players to be inspired to join the army," he said. "I want them to be inspired to become great game developers and in 10 years join us."

In one corner of the DICE offices, a programmer was toying with the digital face of the actor Michael K. Williams (Omar, from "The Wire"), who plays a member of the team of United States soldiers. Again and again, Mr. Williams's face was decomposed into data, then built up. The goal was to make him just sweaty enough. Saving the world is hard work.

Another programmer was fiddling with the layout of a ship. The teams needed to be able to climb to a higher deck, but there was no staircase in real life. Presto! One was added. It's a good thing that authenticity is no virtue here.

"We have experts in every area working to create this bigger whole," Mr. Bach said. "I sometimes compare it to building the Pyramids."

Tobias Dahl, a producer, noted dryly, "The Pyramids were built by slaves."

Working here is a dream for gamers. What could be more fun than revising your favorite game, month after month, year after year? Visitors are warned, almost as if they were at a zoo, not to poke or prod the programmers. The office is very quiet.

In the gaming room, where executives and quality-control testers gather for daily bouts, it is a different story. This is the highlight of everyone's day, the moment when employees revert to pure boyhood bliss. Mr. Bach was so eager to play that he practically pushed a colleague out of his seat. "I'm competitive," he said.

Mr. Soderlund, whose promotion last month to head all of EA's console games underscored the company's Swedification, snorted when he heard this. "If you think he's competitive, I'm five times as bad," he said. These guys are competitive about how competitive they are.

The locale being tested in the game was a Chinese prison. Mr. Bach took a quick spin storming it: he killed three people in the game and was killed three times himself. He sighed. "That means I'm mediocre." There were all sorts of bugs to fix as well.

Mr. Bach needed to improve his game, and he will work relentlessly until he does. But a successful launching of Battlefield 4 next week will merely bring a new set of struggles. The game needs to be extended to smartphones, but even EA's Mr. Gibeau is unsure it can have enough of a presence there to fully engage players.

With Disney taking over the "Star Wars" franchise from George Lucas, DICE has been given the opportunity to create a new "Star Wars" game. It could be another fabulous franchise. Or perhaps the studio's first big failure.

Looming over these concerns is the crucial question: What could possibly make Battlefield 5 -- due in just a few years -- an even bigger deal than Battlefield 4?

"More features. More extras. More destruction," Mr. Bach said, with a touch of frustration. "Every new game needs to be the next big thing."

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times. First Published October 19, 2013 2:01 PM


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