Battlefield 4: “It’s important to grow up a bit”

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DICE and EA want you to stop thinking that Battlefield is primarily a multiplayer shooter. GDC 2013’s reveal video showed us a generous 17 minutes of footage from Battlefield 4’s singleplayer campaign, but it didn’t reveal what the series’ dedicated following really wanted to see.

Millions came to Call Of Duty for the singleplayer, and stayed for the multiplayer; perhaps DICE and EA feel that they have won the battle in terms of online play, but can only win the war by beating its great rival’s bombast and spectacle in Battlefield 4’s solo campaign. We spoke to DICE executive producer Patrick Bach to find out more.

So why the focus on singleplayer rather than multiplayer?

It’s a great showcase of a lot of different aspects of the game. Lots of people say ‘oh, my favourite thing about Battlefield is this’, and depending on the personality of the consumer, they want to see different things. If you look at this demo, you can extrapolate a lot of features that you can then translate into either the singleplayer or the multiplayer.

The cinematic elements, like the Mirror’s Edge-style running and the thick dust cloud that obscured all vision; those surely can’t be appearing in multiplayer?

No, most of those things will be part of multiplayer. Then again, if it destroys the multiplayer experience, we will of course tone it down. Dust clouds taking over the whole map could be really cool, but it could also be too much. For us, without spoiling anything, you can see the possibilities we have with the technology and the creativity on the team. We could potentially do all of that. We have this saying ‘fun first’ – even if it looks great, if it’s not fun to play then it’s just a pretty picture. For some people that’s important and cool, but to us it’s just one of the elements of the great experience.

The demo we saw was set in Azerbaijan, specifically in Baku. Why did you choose that location?

It’s actually again, this is the opening of the game. We want to create a segue into the rest of the game, without spoiling too much. Azerbaijan is on the border with Iran, where the last game was set. They are in the same region, so they have a lot of crossover, when it comes to culture and other things. But in general it’s a segue into the rest of the story – but I don’t want to spoil too much.

What are you trying to achieve with the campaign mode this time around?

We tried to create… I won’t call it a Bond opening, but you see a build-up from showing you different parts of the actual gameplay and showing you game elements. But also from a narrative standpoint, we wanted to open it up: ‘who are you in this squad? Who are your squadmates?’ and of course then ‘will this evolve into the future? What’s the hook?’

One of the things we’re most happy with is that people actually pick up on the characters. They remember their names. How often do you do that in a game, really? People talk to me about the characters, for a game like Battlefield, you could argue that it’s just a shooter, so who cares. For us it’s important to grow up a bit and create a great story, a character you care about, where you feel involved in their actions and that’s based on the core idea of the whole game, that we want to move elements of multiplayer into singleplayer. If you’re playing multiplayer, you actually care about the guys in your squad, those are often your friends, they have their personalities, you help them, they help you, and they have their own mindset. Now we need to create a singleplayer that mimics that feeling.

Our goal is to create the perfect Battlefield movie, where you do all the things you do in multiplayer at some point, where you have choice, where you have these characters that you care about, that evolves over time. We actually have features that are pulled directly from multiplayer instead of having two separate paths.

Both Jesse Schell and Warren Spector spoke at GDC about movies and avoiding replicating them completely – there are things you just can’t have from movies, such as cuts or showing things when a player’s not there.

Some people do that anyways; they do cuts and they show stuff and jump from third person to first person and back. To us, we talk a lot about player autonomy. We want to keep the player as the player and be a part of all these scenes. If you have a dialogue, you should not be standing there and no-one cares about you. You need to be invited, someone is at least looking at you as you pass by.

Can you talk about the two next-gen consoles?

No.

Can I ask a separate question then, about DICE’s perspective on motion control? Does it work for you guys?

We are not interested in things that don’t make the game better. There are a lot of gimmicks – people throwing money at us – ‘can you implement support for this quirky control thing’. No, it doesn’t make the game better. We are extremely open to innovation, but if it’s a gimmick, there’s no point unless it adds value to the player. Touch screens used to be a gimmick, because no-one could get it to work until iPhone came out and used it right. It adds to the experience, and now everyone is doing it. To us it’s the same with motion control and perceptual gaming in general; if it adds, great. If it’s a gimmick, ignore it.

There’s a certain element of military tourism in the CoD and Battlefield games. You go to an area, blow it up, and leave it devastated. That’s a very American view of the world but it doesn’t seem to me a very Swedish view of the world. How is it that a Swedish company is making so many bombastic games?

That’s a hard question. Sweden is a pacifist nation. We are extremely pacifist. We came to the conclusion that it doesn’t pay off to go Viking on things. We use the fiction of these themes and we’re extremely interested in these themes. It’s fun to play war. You can see kids doing all the time and parents trying to stop them. It’s apparently built into human nature to run around and try to hit stuff.

We’re quite childish at DICE, and we’re fascinated by technology and hardware, fascinated by guns. Not what guns do, but the functionality of guns and the acutal hardware. Same with vehicles; we love tanks, jets, helicopters are awesome. To us, the fiction of war is very interesting. You can see a Bond movie as all these themes about ‘what if’ and that’s how we create Battlefield as well. Because Battlefield, in its core, in the world itself, is about the plethora of what could go on on a battlefield. We try to not confuse war with Battlefield too much, even though the fiction is there. We base it on war, but it’s not, it’s a simulation.

You have made pacifist games before, like Mirror’s Edge, which punished combat. Would you want to do it again?

Maybe. It’s still interesting. We still very focused on making sure when you played Battlefield, that it’s very clear what it is. It’s a game, it’s a fiction, and it’s about me versus you having a fight.

It’s one of those pulp militaristic novels that sells by the bucketload, right?

Yes, and the people reading those aren’t warmongers; they just want the fiction and the drama.