-- "War," the song goes, "is not the answer."
All apologies to Marvin Gaye, but war is what's going on in video games right now. And perhaps the biggest war game showdown to date kicks off this week with Electronic Arts' release of first-person combat game Battlefield 3, available Tuesday.
EA, the No. 2 publisher in the U.S., has Activision's multibillion-dollar Call of Duty franchise in its sights. Deploying Battlefield 3 two weeks before the Nov. 8 arrival of the next Call of Duty installment, Modern Warfare 3, is part of EA's extensive campaign to gain inroads into the $5 billion first-person shooter game market.
At stake is leadership in one of the hottest genres for the $60 billion global video game industry. First-person shooters currently account for about 16% of all console video game sales, and that's expected to increase, says Baird Equity Research analyst Colin Sebastian. Action games such as the Batman and Uncharted titles make up 22%, followed by 16% for sports games such as Madden NFL and NBA 2K
More than two years ago, EA began putting into place a strategy to loosen Call of Duty's grip on gamers. The first salvo was last fall's Medal of Honor, a reboot of the franchise that only a decade ago itself was the top first-person shooter franchise. Medal sold five million copies but amounted to a mere flesh wound, as Activision's 2010 release Call of Duty: Black Ops rolled on to set a sales record of 25 million copies.
Battlefield 3 appears to have more firepower. An on-the-rise development studio, DICE (Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment), has gradually built a following with its Battlefield series of games. Armed with its new Frostbite 2 technology to create Battlefield 3's cinematically fluid graphics, buzz has been building about the game. EA says pre-orders for Battlefield 3 are seven times that of previous Battlefield games and approach 3 million.
Stockholm-based DICE, acquired by EA in 2006, "set out to conquer a titan, to make a better game than the best shooter in the history of our industry, and do it by a wide margin," EA CEO John Riccitiello said recently on Fox Business News. "We set out to do something great here, and I think we have."
Battlefield's assault on Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 "is certainly more aggressive than we have seen in the past," says Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR) analyst Jesse Divnich. A recent trailer for the game, accompanied by the raucous Jay-Z track 99 Problems, carried a tagline of "Above and Beyond the Call."
And a future downloadable game map is called "Warfare." "EA is trying to position itself," he says, "so that when the next generation of consoles comes out, they can be there to innovate quicker and better than its competitors and, hopefully, overtake Call of Duty."
A fair fight or mismatch?
Even though Activision and EA are the top two U.S. game publishers, analysts don't think Battlefield 3 can contend with the next Call of Duty game.
For starters, Call of Duty is one of the top entertainment franchises of all time in terms of recurring revenue, Sebastian says. The last two Call of Duty games — 2010's Black Ops and 2009's Modern Warfare 2— have taken in $1.5 billion and $1.3 billion respectively at retail. That rivals the movie Titanic ($1.84 billion) and, combined, matches Avatar ($2.8 billion), Sebastian says.
EA is driving this idea of a "battle" between two powerhouses, he says. But that might be more corporate hype than reality. "Battlefield is a very strong video game franchise but not an entertainment juggernaut like Call of Duty," Sebastian says.
He expects Battlefield 3 to sell well, especially the PC version, but doesn't expect it to be a "must-have game for the holidays. …Call of Duty is a must-have game now."
Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter says EA has succeeded to a point by trying to "provoke Call of Duty players to check (Battlefield 3) out. … I don't think that they expect that this year, everybody is going to abandon Call of Duty and embrace Battlefield 3."
A win for EA, he says, would be to sell about half of what Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 does. "That would be a huge victory," Pachter says. "What EA doesn't want is Call of Duty to outsell them 4-to-1."
He notes that this is a battle that Activision itself had to fight years ago. In 1999, EA published the first Medal of Honor game for the original PlayStation. Originated by filmmaker Steven Spielberg, the World War II-based franchise has gone on to sell more than 30 million copies.
Among those who helped develop 2002's Medal of Honor: Allied Assault was a core group that left to found Infinity Ward, the studio that eventually created the Call of Duty franchise and the subsequent Modern Warfare games that dethroned Medal of Honor.
When Medal of Honor ruled, annual sales of a few million copies was considered a victory. In contrast, Modern Warfare 3 is projected to sell as many as 20 million copies by year's end.
What EA and DICE are trying to accomplish, "is essentially what Call of Duty did to Medal of Honor, but with much higher stakes," Pachter says. "And EA has more to lose, because it could screw up on Battlefield. Nobody knows if it's good."
Interest in shooter games is high enough, and "the market is big enough for both of them to exist and succeed," Divnich says. With the onslaught of advertising, new players may be recruited to one or both games.
"We expect each one to perform well in (its) own right," says Bob Puzon, vice president of merchandising for video game retail chain GameStop. More than 4,000 of its stores plan midnight launch events for both games. "They each have a large, loyal fan base, so the excitement and trash-talking is buzzing throughout the gaming world. I wouldn't say it is a clash — just two high-caliber shooters that gamers are passionate about and launching within a two-week period."
Ready to rumble
From within its glass-walled offices above the bay in Stockholm that leads to the Baltic Sea, the Battlefield 3 development team has focused recently on fine-tuning its game so that it is primed for combat.
"When it comes to the 'title fight' out there and to actually how we market the game, that is what we leave to Electronic Arts," says Karl Magnus Troedsson, general manager of DICE. "We know they are very good at it. We … just try to build the best game we can and hope that is enough. "
While Swedes are not known as boastful folks, "we are competitive," Troedsson says. "First and foremost, we compete with ourselves. Naturally, we are looking at what the leaders in our genre do, as well. We want to get up there and give them a challenge. A run for the money, so to say."
Anticipation has been building for Battlefield 3 since an impressive gameplay video was shown at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco in March. The action had a Black Hawk Down-documentary feel, with U.S. Marines in the Middle East under attack from a sniper, then a skyscraper toppled by an earthquake.
The game's single-player story, like that of the Modern Warfare games, is based in the near future. Main character U.S. Marine Sgt. Blackburn has uncovered a terrorist plot. Additionally, the game has multiplayer modes that can be played by up to 64 players simultaneously on PCs (up to 24 on PS3 and Xbox 360).
Last month's online test of the multiplayer system attracted more than 9.5 million players but had some bugs and took some criticism from gamers who didn't like the featured game mode. But Troedsson said the feedback helped DICE fix problems and stabilize the online network.
However, EA didn't provide copies of the console version of the game to reviewers in advance of Battlefield 3's launch, as is the standard with most top-tier launches. (USA TODAY was given a copy of the PC version. See our impressions at tech.usatoday.com).
Interest in the game is peaking, says DICE Marketing Vice President Lincoln Hershberger. Battlefield 3 was named the top action game at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo. Gamers have watched 100 million Battlefield 3 videos on the Internet, and nearly 2 million have "liked" its Facebook page, he says. "The network effect of people sharing those videos and, generally, spreading the word, is that it grows exponentially."
Fans on video game social-networking site Raptr.com voted 3-to-1 for Battlefield 3 over Modern Warfare 3 as the game they are most looking forward to.
As with sports and business, competition "builds a lot of interest and creates a lot of innovation and new ideas," Hershberger says. "Whether it's the graphics engine, the multiplayer features, the social-network features or the way we deliver our story. All those things go into making a great shooter and are continuing to propel the category to higher levels."