Battlefield 2042‘s transition to a free-to-play model in early 2023 capped a dramatic reversal of fortune for EA‘s long-running military shooter franchise. Battlefield has been a core pillar of EA‘s catalog since 2002‘s breakthrough Battlefield 1942. Let‘s reflect on the storied history of this series, 2042‘s disastrous launch, and the decision to make it free across consoles and PC just a year later.
The Glorious Past of Battlefield
Across nearly 20 years and multiple console generations, Battlefield established itself as a leading multiplayer shooter thanks to its massive maps, vehicular combat, squad play, and memorable only-in-Battlefield moments.
Key milestones in the series include:
2002 – Battlefield 1942 – This PC exclusive debut laid the foundations of large-scale warfare featuring vehicles, 64-player matches, and sprawling maps based on WW2. It sold over 3 million copies and kickstarted the franchise.
2005 – Battlefield 2 – The PC sequel expanded on 1942‘s formula with modern weapons and equipment, high-tech graphics, and new modes like Conquest Assault. It sold over 2.5 million copies.
2011 – Battlefield 3 – After a console focus with Bad Company games, Battlefield 3 brought the warfare to vivid life on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. It sold an astounding 15 million copies.
2013 – Battlefield 4 – The sequel doubled down on BF3‘s modern combat premise with amphibious assaults, dynamic destructible environments, and cutting-edge visuals powered by DICE‘s proprietary Frostbite engine. It sold over 14 million copies.
2016 – Battlefield 1 – This bold departure shifted the action to World War 1, utilizing early 20th century weapons and vehicles to spectacular effect, backed by a poignant single-player campaign. It sold over 25 million copies.
After dominating the 2010s, the stage was set for 2021‘s Battlefield 2042 to continue that momentum into the next console generation on PS5 and Xbox Series X/S. Let‘s examine where it all went wrong.
Battlefield 2042‘s Rocky Launch
When Battlefield 2042 arrived in November 2021, it had the pedigree and pre-release hype of a blockbuster. But in an unprecedented turn for the normally steady franchise, 2042 suffered one of the most controversial and widely panned launches in recent gaming history.
In retrospect, warning signs emerged during an unusually limited pre-release beta period that restricted access to just one map. But on launch day, the extent of 2042‘s technical problems, missing features, and design missteps became painfully clear:
- Rampant bugs that caused crashes, visual glitches, and erratic gameplay
- Severe server connectivity issues leaving players struggling to connect
- Key social/legacy features like voice chat and scoreboard bafflingly absent
- Performance issues with frame rate drops even on powerful hardware
- Only 22 weapons compared to 20+ per class in previous games
- Wide open but uninspired maps with areas of dead space
- Tornadoes and weather events that were disruptive gimmicks
- Removal of the class system for generic Specialists
- Balance issues like helicopters being almost unkillable
These kinds of problems are not unheard of in ambitious multiplayer shooters, but the sheer scale of flaws right from launch turned even Battlefield‘s most devoted fans against 2042. Reviewers slammed the game, giving it the lowest MetaCritic average in series history at under 70.
And the player base evaporated even faster than usual for a disappointing release. According to publicly available player count data on Steam, Battlefield 2042 went from a peak of 100,000+ concurrent players at launch to under 10,000 within 2 weeks. Most triple-A multiplayer titles retain over 50% of launch player counts a month later – 2042 bled over 90% right away.
Here is a chart showing the precipitous player decline:
|November 15, 2021 (launch)||100,000+|
|November 30, 2021||24,000|
|December 20, 2021||13,000|
As we‘ll explore next, this required EA to take drastic action to revive 2042.
EA Shifts Gears to Games as Live Services
Major publishers like EA are increasingly moving big franchises toward a "games as services" model rather than releasing a single immutable title every few years. This means ongoing post-release support with new seasonal content drops, battle passes, microtransactions, and other avenues to keep revenue flowing.
For example, FIFA rebranded as the free-to-play FIFA 23 this year, moving away from annual sequels. Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Call of Duty have thrived with this approach for years now.
But Battlefield had stubbornly resisted this evolution despite the trends, perhaps rested on its laurels based on the surefire success of past entries. 2042 seemingly attempted to dabble in the live service model with its free seasonal battle pass system, but the overall package was not cohesive at launch.
When 2042‘s launch disaster and instant loss of players made selling paid seasons an uphill climb, EA pivoted to fully embrace the games as service approach. Making the base 2042 experience entirely free-to-play was now the only viable path forward.
Battlefield Goes Free-to-Play Amid Chaos
In September 2022, EA officially announced Battlefield 2042 would become free-to-play for all players some time in 2023. This transition happened in mid-February alongside 2042‘s Season 3 content update.
Industry analysts largely agreed this was EA admitting 2042 was a lost cause as a traditional $60 paid title, and trying to salvage the wreckage. But EA framed it as a consumer-friendly initiative, with VP Vince Zampella stating: "We will transition to a free-to-play model…This will open up Battlefield to a wider audience."
While goodwill and altruism surely wasn‘t EA‘s main motive, the shift did at least provide an opportunity to bring lapsed players back into the fold and rebuild 2042‘s tarnished reputation over time.
Making 2042 free came alongside improving the game itself throughout 2022 based on massive amounts of player feedback and criticism. Core features like voice chat were added back in along with new Quality of Life enhancements. The pacing, gunplay, maps and balance received targeted tuning to iron out many rough edges.
Two new maps dropped as free additions in Seasons 2 and 3, with two more SPECIALISTS adding some welcome new gameplay variety. The improvements have slowly made 2042 feel closer to a finished product after the half-baked launch.
A Cautious Community Response
Fan reaction to Battlefield 2042‘s rocky year finally going free-to-play has been mixed, ranging from enthusiasm to skepticism. Long-time Battlefield player Isaac G. shared his complex reaction:
"As someone who bought 2042 at launch and was crushed by how bad it was, part of me is annoyed that new players get it for free. But mostly I‘m just glad that more gamers will get to experience the improvements DICE has made these past few months now that barriers to entry are gone."
Other players expressed concern EA would abandon 2042 entirely after going free, leaving it in perpetual limbo with a skeleton crew – a fate that befell Black Ops 4. But so far, the Season 3 updates show DICE remains all-in on 2042 for now.
Making 2042 free-to-play does inherently extend its lifecycle in EA‘s catalog even if it remains a disappointment. The influx of new players enticed by a $0 upfront cost will keep servers active. That at least sets the stage for the possibility of a full comeback.
EA Had No Choice – The Math of Games as Service
While EA‘s handling of Battlefield 2042 post-launch has remained controversial, the business realities of the situation left them with little choice but to go free-to-play.
With the premium games market dominated by console and PC storefront subscription services like Game Pass and PS Plus, asking players to shell out $60 or $70 just for access to the base 2042 experience was untenable amidst weak reviews and word of mouth.
Based on 2042‘s launch sales of around 4.2 million units, EA generated only about $250 million in revenue even at full price. For context:
- Battlefield 1 sold 25 million units for over $1.5 billion revenue
- Call of Duty averages over $1 billion yearly from microtransactions
For a live service game like 2042 with ongoing development costs, $250 million is a disappointment. EA needed ways to both grow the player base and enable ongoing spending from those players. Hence the pivot to free-to-play with cosmetic microtransactions and premium battle pass tiers.
While risky, it was EA‘s only logical choice given the new realities of the gaming landscape.
Where Next for Battlefield After the 2042 Disaster?
Looking ahead, the future of the once mighty Battlefield franchise sits at a crossroads following the 2042 debacle. EA reportedly cancelled a third planned 2042 season and a rumored battle royale mode as it reshuffled plans.
But EA could look to reinvent the franchise by returning to the beloved Bad Company spin off series with a new entry, after handing the original Battlefield series back to DICE to rescue following 2042‘s development by multiple studios. Predecessor Battlefield V sold over 7.3 million units despite its own rocky reception at launch, so there is hope 2042 is a painful but temporary stumble.
Still, EA faces a long road to regain player trust. 2042 going free-to-play pulls back the curtain on the instability of the AAA gaming business model. Even legends like Battlefield cannot take success for granted anymore.
The Bittersweet Necessity of Free-to-Play
Battlefield 2042‘s plummet from most anticipated shooter of 2021 to free-to-play disaster in 2022 reflects the gaming industry‘s volatile winds.
For major publishers like EA, the business realities often dictate unfortunate decisions regardless of fan sentiment. After Battlefield 1 exceeded expectations, chasing trends like battle royale with 2042 rather than playing to the franchise‘s strengths caused a crisis of identity.
In the games as service era, failures at launch can no longer be left for dead as one-time missteps – the show must go on. So BF 2042 rises from the ashes as a free experience for all, with a chance at redemption but no guarantees.
EA‘s players first claims ring hollow considering 2042 launched as a buggy, feature incomplete mess. Yet offering that experience for free does provide potential value. Time will tell whether players burned at launch are willing to come back or if trust is permanently destroyed.
If DICE can continue delivering quality new content and improvements, 2042 may slowly mutate into a serviceable experience – the live service model in action. But for many fans, this saga represents the end of an era for their beloved franchise. BF 2042‘s path to redemption remains open, but the road is long.