DICE on Battlefield 4: “It’s the player that tells the story.”
An interview with Lars Gustavsson, Creative Director at DICE
by Daniel Geikowski
©2013 Daniel Geikowski
During the 2013 EB Games Expo held once again at the Sydney Olympic Park, I had the opportunity to sit down and have a chat to Lars Gustavsson, the Creative Director at DICE, ahead of the launch of their latest entry in the hugely-popular Battlefield series, Battlefield 4.
Being a fan of the series, I enjoyed the opportunity to pick the brain of a guy such as Lars. He’s a genuinely nice guy, and can hardly contain his passion for the Battlefield series. I’d like to thank him for his time, and also to the folks at EA for accommodating us.
Daniel: I guess to start things off, a lot of players feel that Battlefield and Battlefield 4 are very similar. With the introduction of the Frostbite 3 engine, is Battlefield 4 what Battlefield 3 should have been?
Lars: That’s always an argument; Is Battlefield 3 what 1942 should have been? No, I truly believe that when we finished making Battlefield 3 … we had the operations team integrated while building Battlefield 3, and it’s the operations team that do all the expansion packs.
They’re all the old war fans since Battlefield 2, old time Battlefield members, so they handle everything from cheating, to servers, from all of the things in and around Battlefield post-launch, and it’s always important that they are a part of the team while building the game, so they can carry on the spirit of Battlefield when they do the expansion packs and so on.
So what we did was we handed over all of the things we felt kind of … we felt so bad about not doing anything about the Earthquake section from the singleplayer, so they took it in Aftermath, and so on.
So what we did was kind of a hand-over, left it in their safe hands, then we had weekly meetings, where I as Creative Director talked to them, you know, core gameplay guys and everyone, just to see that we maintained the feeling of Battlefield 3.
Then we stepped back, and started looking at the future, and of course, when you have a game that’s now been out for 11 years there’s so many expectations.
I’ve talked to FIFA and Madden, they have the same thing you know, you expect so many things to be like it was before.
But at the same time you want a lot of change, so we worked closely with the community and really tried to see what are the things that we really need to improve, what are the things to change, and really to see that we focus on the right things.
So yes, there are definitely similarities to Battlefield 3, but that’s because we’re keeping everything that’s solid, and not start everything from scratch since then it might be God knows what, and then just build from there. That’s the strength of having a solid Frostbite team, and the whole power of a bigger than ever team.
Daniel: You said you worked with the community to gather feedback and build upon it for Battlefield 4. Battlefield 3 opened up the series to a greater range of players, what lessons did you learn in relation to balancing between new players and hardcore fans of the series?
Lars: I think we learned a lot. It was the right move to introduce smaller modes as well, it was intentional from the start, but it almost exploded.
So to have everything from the smallest modes in the Close Quarters pack, up to the biggest ones in Bandar Desert in Armored Kill, really show that we have an enormous community, and we also have a game that is … I’m biased; I’m on the inside … it is amazing to be able to do close quarters combat with destruction with that fast-paced gameplay that is rock solid up to 64 players.
Now with Battlefield 4 we kind of, we listened to that feedback, we want to provide all of those possibilities and experiences, but also to fix things where people felt that, “I’m new to Battlefield, this doesn’t feel rock solid input, there was some latency, some network issues,” a lot of that we’ve been working with to give you a much more rock solid experience.
If the controls aren’t good, you feel bad even though you should be blaming the game, so we worked with a lot of that.
A lot of people have a hard time when they’re new to Battlefield to master the vehicles for example. So we build in the Test Range which is offline, so you can try all vehicles types, learn to fly your jet or transport helicopter before people start shooting at you.
As you start unlocking things you can come back and try them out just to get acquainted, and really get a feel for them. We have new scopes where you can set the range and everything, and really master your things before you go into the battlefield.
We reworked HUD elements, how you get into the game. We added, similar to racing games, a good overview you know, if I … we added more possibilities to customise *laughs*. So then we added the possibilities to see the impact of, “If I add this scope, this grip, and what does that do to the handling?” and so on, just like in racing games to get a good overview.
We added a lot more things you know, like game mode movies and all of these things to just help players get into the game.
Daniel: The various expansions packs in BF3 catered to one playstyle over another. With Battlefield 4 are you trying to balance that out on all maps?
Lars: In a way I would argue that for example on Bandar Desert, we had the intent that even though it was the biggest map ever, if you weren’t into vehicles you could fight in the concentrated city level, so we always try to cater for that, and also you could play the smaller modes and get that more intense feeling.
We learned from building Team Deathmatch and these smaller modes in Battlefield 3, so I truly believe that they are more solid. We have Domination in from the beginning which is also smaller and maybe more accessible than Conquest.
Overall, just like we did with Battlefield 3, we tried to have a wide range smaller to bigger, but not the biggest and the smallest. We have a similar mentality here, and then we’ll see where we go with the expansion packs.
Daniel: Battlefield 3 had a campaign, similar to the Bad Company series, and that showcases the big awesome setpieces. Are you attempting to integrate that into multiplayer with the falling skyscraper, the naval battleship, in order to create that big cinematic feel?
Lars: Yeah, I mean for many games we’ve been looking at, for example in Bad Company 2, there were these ending scenes that happened, and for Battlefield 3 to be honest, for a long time we had start up screens and ending screens, but in the end we cut them.
We felt slightly that we were trying to tell the story to the player where in Battlefield, it’s the player that tells the story.
Rather, we got inspired from what you said, what we had learned from building Battlefield 3, to induce a lot of these epic events into multiplayer, have them player-driven, and then build up the most dynamic Battlefield ever.
Also, we started with the new water technology in singleplayer and at some point we said, “This is too good to not have in multiplayer!” So we started looking into networking and we managed to do it. So now you can go from flat surface, to raging sea.
All of this shows that by going at Battlefield from two different angles, from the singleplayer approach to the multiplayer, we learned a lot as a team and I think the consumers will gain from it in the long run that multiplayer got these highly-dynamic battlefields.
From skyscrapers, flooding cities, breaking dams, God knows what … down to the little things where you know, some of them might seem minor, but in the heat of battle being able to set the perfect trap from cutting the power, to raising vehicle bollards and just outsmarting the enemy completes the battlefield, in combination with destruction and dynamic water.
So all of that happening in multiplayer while in singleplayer in the campaign we induce, similar to team play by having you squad engage targets when you order them to, to introduce a score system and letting you have a layer of persistence in kind of a social layer as well.
So there are a lot of things, we opened up the gameplay to not only give you one tool, but a number of tools to solve a problem, as well as opening up the enemies to take better use of environment and be less predictable.
Daniel: That’s the thing, it helps with the longevity of the game that not two battles will ever be the same. In terms of the big setpieces such as the skyscraper, is going to be similar to the antenna in Caspian Border? Will they happen at a certain point, or can players instigate them at any time?
Lars: Yeah, we definitely got inspired by the antenna in Battlefield 3, but we always struggled since we got it in late, and it always came down and we couldn’t get it away, and it blocked all the gameplay and so we ran out of time.
But we took inspiration from it, so this time around it is player-driven. For the skyscraper you need to take out the pillars downstairs, and we hope that players will, if you’re a good team in piloting, use your transport helicopter and your attack helicopter to guard that tower, and you will be superior in owning that base up there, while if your worse at piloting and better on the ground, you will go for those pillars to bring it down, and thereby hopefully securing it constantly.
So hopefully there will be a tug of war, and we try to induce this on every map.
So player-driven, some of them can happen later on, so when the storms do kick in on Paracel Storm in here (Battlefield 4 EB Expo Booth), there will be lightning striking one of the windmills there, and from then on you’re free to shoot at it, take out the remnants, and unleash that battleship that rams the island.
Bases shift around, there’s new Anti-Air supporting you, and there’s a lot of things that changes both the layout, the gameplay, and also making it a choice for players.
Daniel: That sounds awesome. What would you say are the most exciting things that would get players into Battlefield 4? Would it be these ever-changing maps, or the return of Commander Mode, making it an all-round integrated social and playing experience?
Lars: It’s hard to pick one thing.
Daniel: Yeah it’s kind of a big question.
Lars: I mean for me, it’s a huge step forward to be able to be on the next generation, deliver 64 players at 60 frames per second. We wanted it for so long, the community wanted it, but we didn’t want to remove vehicles or destruction to do it. So now we can do it.
So what you’re talking about with the social layer, to finally be able to integrate it into the console clients as well with full integration on the next generation of platforms, a lighter one on current generation, then also to sharing this experience amongst multiple devices.
You have the Battlescreen where you play on the next generation and PC where you have the overview the map, when you play in multiplayer you can give orders. We have the Commander screen so you can play as Commander in-game, or on the go sitting in the café playing as Commander on your iPad or Android tablet.
So we provide a lot of things on that social layer, and just a lot of tools that help you customise in real-time to connect with friends, and a lot of things that you don’t really need, it’s not really the base need for playing, but a lot of things that hopefully people will pick up on and make them feel like they’re more connected to the battlefield. They have more freedom to play it their way, since that’s what it’s all about.
We touched on it, Commander in-game, bigger squads … there are so many things … we talked about the connected battlefield, I mean one of my things, we talked about the water as well, and the introduction of new vehicle types like the attack boat.
Going from the drawing board of flat water surfaces usually mean that people just want to get off them, seeing what happened in singleplayer, getting it into multiplayer, inspired by the tanks in 1942 where you fought amongst the sand dunes, constantly losing sight, and trying to outsmart the other one, to come around and take them out.
I think the sound team has done it once again, an absolutely brilliant job with depicting these vehicles. I know handling on both helicopters and boats are right now my favourites, where just sitting and driving them, alone on the server is just sweet, and I’m on the inside.
Daniel: That’s great to hear. Lastly, any fan of the series, you’ll hear stories of some epic thing they’ve done. You see a lot of YouTube videos too. Is there any option for players to record this in-game? Or players have to use third-party programs once again?
Lars: It’s a question we’ve gotten a lot, also from the competitive community.
Our focus this time around has mainly gone to introducing Spectator Mode, which is something we’ve been lacking for a long time. But now it’s in there, we’ve been streaming from E3, from Gamescom, and just working with it to make it rock solid when we launch.
When it comes to capturing, with the next generation of consoles having possibilities to capture, to share, and I’m looking forward to see what people do with sharing functionality and Spectator Mode. We feel that the investment we’ve done now is the right step forward, especially with also as you say, a lot of third-party possibility of capturing.
We love, I mean I told someone here previously, first time I came down with work to be in Australia. I was down in Melbourne at the AGDC, and I talked about directly after shipping 1942 and already I showed a movie of how people did looping, bailing out of the plane then getting in again, and to see still with Battlefield 3 and now Battlefield 4, having all of these Battlefield moments.
It might sound cheesy sometimes but it doesn’t come from us, it comes from the community, and all these things we could have never ever come up with, they keep on doing it, keep on surprising us. To me as an old time veteran since the very first prototype 14 and a half years ago, that’s just sweet.
We managed to keep the core and constantly push the boundaries to make a bigger, better, cooler Battlefield.
Daniel: Well from the looks of it, you’ve done just that. We really appreciate your time, and hope you’ve had a great time down here in Australia, as much as we’ve had being able to experience Battlefield 4 before launch.
Lars: Thank you, it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Old veterans of the series, as well as the new recruits out there, you can venture into the destruction-filled battlefields once again when Battlefield 4 hits shelves on October 31st.