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Getting Steamed up about software delivery

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 24, 2006
(Issue 2412, Leaving on a Jet Plane)

'Battlefield 2" developer DICE (and publisher Electronic Arts) has taken a page from competitor Valve ("Half-Life") in terms of communicating with users of their best-selling game.

For the past half-year or so, whenever you log into a user account in Battlefield 2, you see a small splash window. Last fall, it was generally an advertisement for the "Special Forces" expansion pack. Earlier this year, it was often an ad for the upcoming (as this is written) "Euro Force" booster pack.

Then, in mid-February, DICE used this one-way form of communication to apologize for the latest patch (1.2) and to announce that the Euro Force booster pack was being put on hold until after programmers fixed the patch 1.2 problems with a version 1.21 patch.

Damage control

Given the ongoing bug and stability issues that have plagued Battlefield 2 since its release last summer, giving the impression that fixing as many of them as possible was probably the least DICE could have done without alienating even more customers.

Still, it was refreshing to see a game publisher admit they screwed up. Hey – "Battlefield 2" is no more buggy or unstable than Windows, and you don't see any mea culpas coming out of Redmond, Wash., do you? More impressive is that the apology and promise of a rapid fix came only four days after the original (apparently screwed-up) patch was itself released (at least the third major upgrade to BF2).

"Battlefield 2" has become probably the most popular non-massively multiplayer online game right now, with tens of thousands of folks playing at any one time. Given that the largest maps and servers only allow 64 players at any one time, and there are just as many (if not more) 32- and 16-player games as 64-player, that means there are thousands of BF2 servers up and running at any one time (generally between 2,800 and 5,000, in my experience).

While some of the servers are run by EA and others by broadband Internet service providers (a form of online marketing in both cases), many others are underwritten by online gaming clubs, or clans.

So there is tremendous brand loyalty from users toward BF2, despite the fact that users have been complaining on forums about crashes, system freezes and other hiccups since the game's debut.

The point is, BF2 is perhaps the best online combat game ever devised – even if that design has yet to be implemented to a standard we would all like.

The Steam model

But it seems a fair assumption that once the current rash of bugs are fixed and the new patch released, DICE and EA will get back to using the communication window on login to once again start touting its planned "Euro Force" booster pack.

What makes the "Euro Force" booster different from the Special Forces expansion pack is that the Euro Force is only going to be available as a download (well, and the $10 cost for the Euro Force is considerably less than what "Special Forces" tends to go for at retail).

This was undoubtedly influenced by the success Valve is having at selling and distributing software via the Steam software it developed originally as an anti-piracy measure for "Half-Life."

In addition to verifying that only one person is using any copy of "Half-Life" (meaning you have to be online even to play single-player), Steam also lets Valve communicate with its users via the Steam windows. You can even purchase and download new software (like the "Day of Defeat: Source" mod) from within the Steam environment.

The DICE system isn't nearly as integrated as Steam; if you click on the Learn More button within the BF2 login panel, it closes BF2 completely and launches your default browser, taking you to the EA online store.

So it's still a fairly straight-forward and easy to figure out process.

The fact that "Euro Force" and an upcoming all-tank booster pack are only being sold online means that EA – the largest of all computer game publishers – thinks the Steam model is solid.

And where EA goes, the rest of the industry tends to follow.