Inflation in the “Battlefield Moment” Economy

Battlefield Moments. Those events in a game that are so epic, so wondrous that you can’t help but want to share them with other people.

My first Battlefield Moment hit before Battlefield had even come out. I was at a LAN cafe in Brisbane — LAN cafes were huge spaces filled to the brim with computers, housing anywhere between 20 to 200 gamers and internet denizens — and they’d just then installed the Battlefield 1942 demo on the PCs.

64 people, all in the same room, roaming Wake Island. The map would end, one side would be declared the victor and all 64 would play it again. Nobody was leaving. No game had done anything like this in my time. Nothing had ever come close. Battlefield 1942 was a hit and it hadn’t even released yet.

But that wasn’t the moment. Far from it. A Battlefield moment is something that could have only happened to you. A sequence of events that nobody else could have experienced (within degrees of certainty). And mine was a doozy.

Wake Island, the demo map,  saw the US against Japan, a Pacific Theatre battle for the ages, where the objective was to capture all possible spawn points and kill all enemies. The US started with all points held, but we enter this story most of the way through. The Japanese forces, through grim determination and great effort, have managed to secure and Capture every single point on the Island. They did this without a moment to spare, too — their tickets were all but bled dry, and they were destined to lose if not for this hail mary play.

And so it was that there were just three US Soldiers left on the island. Me, and two other guys.

We’d been pushed off the South side of the Island, unable to hold it alone against the overwhelming masses against us. We’d shoved out to the water’s edge, a fantastic area for counterplay thanks to steep cliffs and many opportunities for unexpected angles of attack. But our guerrilla warfare efforts weren’t going to work on our closest cap — they had too much ordinance on the point to let it happen. So me and one of my teammates left for the Airfield spawn. One member of our trio stayed behind, no doubt earning his own Battlefield Moment as he took on half the Japanese Navy to buy us time.

We got to the Airfield and my lone teammate immediately jumped in a Zero. I could have killed him for that. Our tickets were bleeding fast, and we needed as many people on the point as we could get — and there were only two of us. But it was a demo for a brand new game, and even in 2021 I still see people who won’t get on the fucking point.

He died before he left the runway. But his time in the plane meant he’d also spent time in the point, even briefly, and as the tank that destroyed him careened into the Runway cap point, the flag ticked from neutral white to the red white and blue. Blue text read “The Allies have Captured the Airfield” (or something, it’s been 20 years). A cheer went up through the Cafe, and the entire US team spawned in. The Japanese forces, who’d almost had their own Battlefield moment in capping our flags to barely scrape out a win, were too depleted to repel us, and we won.

Since that time, every Battlefield game has given me its own set of Battlefield moments. It’s why I love the series so dearly, why I eagerly await Battlefield 6. But playing Hell Let Loose, my current shooter obsession, made me realise something, and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

Battlefield moments are being devalued at an alarming rate.

Battlefield moments are, of course, just emergent narrative. That’s probably why i like it so much — because in my opinion, emergent narrative is the holy grail of video game storytelling.

If you’re not familiar with the concept, I’ll break it down for you. Emergent narrative is a story that isn’t scripted, but instead comes to be (emerges) as a result of the interplay between a game’s systems.

So if you have a Cassowary that roams an area of an island in Far Cry 3, and it happens across a group of soldiers who are roaming a just barely overlapping area — the slaughter that ensues is emergent narrative.

In multiplayer games it’s a little different. The systems at play in a game like DayZ — which, in its mod form, was probably the best emergent narrative tool I’ve ever seen — are designed to push players in certain directions. So where the Cassowary and the Soldier had routes they followed, DayZ saw players acting on systems that impacted their priorities. Food, water, shelter, meds — these things forced players to head to certain areas.

And because other players were also reacting to the game’s systems, they would find themselves in similar areas. And because conflict is the essence of drama, narratives emerged around what happened next.

Battlefield games are like that, but more structured. Thanks to sheer scale and grandeur, you’re able to tell far broader stories than you might in other directly competitive multiplayer games.

The narratives that emerge from an arena shooter all follow a similar trend. “And then I snap railed him” is to Quake 3 Arena as “And then they broke up over a simple miscommunication” is to a CW superhero TV show.

But as games scale up, those stories get broader. Counter-Strike’s five-v-five gameplay sets the scene for incredible Aces, or unlikely clutches. World of Tanks increases both player limit and map size, allowing for the unlikely Scout tank rush or the miracle T10 kill.

And when we reach games on the scale of Battlefield, at 32 v 32 or more, the possibilities grow again. Especially because it allows you to be boots on the ground, the guy in the tank or to fly a plane or helicopter — the conflict scales, and so the drama scales, but when players can be tanks, the nature of the conflict changes too. And so too does the nature of the drama.

So it is that we have Battlefield moments where a gruesome twosome of special forces commandos can sneak behind enemy lines in Battlefield 2 and blow up the Commander’s trailer — giving their own team the boost in morale and brief extra momentum they need to take the win. That’s one of my favourite memories of Battlefield 2, playing with my mate Heath at the time. It felt like it took forever, but when we accomplished our task it felt epic.

Or, when being strafed by an Apache, you shoot it down with your dumbfire RPG only to have it crash land directly at you, sliding its way to your feet like a dead Kaiju. Bad Company 2 was full of crazy shit like that.

But as the series continued those moments became more and more common. A dam blowing up was epic the first time it happened, but thanks to Levolution it started to become the norm. Sandstorms and trains and blimps meant crazy shit started to happen all the time.

And as a result, the Battlefield Moment was devalued. Not worthless, but worth less. Because these constructed moments, they’re not as unique. Certainly they’re still your own, but as the pace of the game ramps up and the setpieces fly in, the Battlefield Moment suffers.

Contrast this with my current game du jour, Hell Let Loose.

Hell Let Loose definitely has Battlefield moments. Those times when the stars align to create an epic tale for you and your team, when you’ve done the unthinkable or unexpected and managed to come away with success.

And while recency bias might be at play, I think Hell Let Loose has better Battlefield moments than recent Battlefields for a different reason — because it is happy to let players create them.

In its rush to streamline the Battlefield moment concept, to manufacture them in a way that everyone could get a taste, Battlefield games removed the player from the situation and depersonalised the emergent narrative. Battlefield V did a decent job of returning the player to the mix, but it still holds player’s hands a lot of the time. Put short, Battlefield was creating moments for players, not allowing players to create moments.

Basically, the sovereign state of Battlefield ordered its treasury to start printing currency, creating inflation in the Battlefield Moment economy.

Fortunately for Battlefield, the line of succession doesn’t necessarily inherit the entirety of its predecessors’ economies. We saw that with Battlefield V following Battlefield 1 — for all the former’s faults, it did curb the devaluation of the moment a little.

Hell Let Loose combats this inflation the classic way — heavy taxes. For every brilliant moment you have in HLL, you’ll get about 60% of a kick in the dick. For every ridiculous experience sniping on Omaha Beach Offensive you get the idiotic one of trying to cross a river in a game where players can’t swim.

This probably isn’t the route for Battlefield, though. Hell Let Loose gets away with it because it’s the little guy, but EA’s monster franchise won’t be afforded the same wiggle room. 

But Battlefield 6 — rumoured to be simply “Battlefield” the mononym — can continue to bring value back to the Battlefield moment if it plays its cards right. Rumours talk of near-future warfare, the biggest battles the series has ever seen and close to Bad Company levels of destructibility. As long as it can put the player at the centre of its emergent storytelling — and avoid screwing with the TTK every other month like Battlefield V did — they can right the ship.

I hope they do.

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