DICE is much, much more than ‘the Battlefield studio’ these days. A Mirror’s Edge sequel, plus a fleeting glimpse of the next Star Wars: Battlefront game were among E3’s most electrifying reveals, a stunning one-two punch from the Stockholm studio that shows how much its parent company EA trusts, treasures – and invests – in its output. DICE’s Frostbite engine will power several other cherished series, from Need For Speed through Dragon Age to the next Mass Effect, too.
But they’re all a little way off; Battlefield 4 is DICE’s most pressing project, and its now-familiar peak season battle with Call Of Duty is about to explode. We sent our resident Battlefield expert to quiz the series’ executive producer Patrick Bach about what longtime players can expect to see in the next game, from the greater focus on destructibility to how the Swedish studio plans to overturn lukewarm critical response to the series singleplayer campaigns to date. Here’s our conversation in full.
The first thing I noticed playing is you can essentially reduce the buildings in the middle to rubble, something you weren’t able to do to many structures in Battlefield 3. How important is it for you to restore that Bad Company 2-style destruction for Battlefield 4?
Very important. I think we heard that quite a bit, that ‘oh in Bad Company 2 you could do all this destruction but in Battlefield it was nothing!’ It’s not really true, first of all. I think the biggest difference between Bad Company 2 and Battlefield… there were two big differences. One was the engine, Frostbite 1 and Frostbite 2 was a big shift which means in some cases you take steps forwards and in some cases you take steps back because not all systems can evolve at the same rate. The rendering model changes how you build things, how you distribute things, how much memory everything takes… It’s not a linear ‘all things will be better and better and more just because time passes'; it’s still the same the hardware, still the same limitations that you have.
And the other thing is there was quite a lot of destruction in Battlefield 3, the problem is that it’s a much more realistic game, in a way, whilst Bad Company 2 was more arcadey, more standalone buildings, small villages, stuff like that – it never went into urban areas. And urban areas are more massive when it comes to structures, you can’t just take down skyscrapers all over the place. So there was those limitations and also the focus on believability of the environments. So with that comes the point that it feels like you can’t destroy anything, and that was something we wanted to fix.
The ability to start on one side of the map as in Bad Company and just make your own path – that was something you lost in Battlefield 3. I was wondering are there maps where you’ve restored that kind of play?
You can carve your way through?
Absolutely. And that’s back to how you design maps, you know. You can’t do that with the Siege of Shanghai map because it wouldn’t work, it’s a design issue. You can’t figure it out, even if you wanted to, what would it be? You don’t want it to turn into a super-arcadey game where a bullet takes down a building and you take everything down and it turns to rubble. So it’s also about how you design maps: what is the theme of a map? How does this theme work together with destruction?
It’s also balance. Bad Company 2 was 100 per cent rural maps, even though there were structures there you could take down you never had cities or any urban areas, really. It was random buildings out in the open. Which is great fun, but doesn’t feel very realistic or believable. So what we did is we looked at the map design, finding certain maps that had more of the themes we had back in the days where you could take down things completely because it feels good; it doesn’t make it… it doesn’t give you the same feeling as the urban levels but it gives you another feeling, a feeling of power. You create a map that is still believable. These islands do exist, but we’ve changed things around, [added] military installations on these solitary islands where you can more-or-less take everything down and turn it into rubble.
One of the things with Bad Company was everyone had that grenade launcher…
Yes, that was also one of the reasons it felt very powerful but also unbalanced the game quite a bit, it felt random, arcadey, explosive… we still have them, but it’s not a part of your standard kit. You have to… we wanted the kits to be more different. So all the kits have offensive, destructive abilities but it’s not something you get day-one to show destruction, it’s something they pick and choose.
You seem to have settled on a class structure for Battlefield now, what is it about this particular make-up that you’re satisfied with?
We’ve always done metrics on how our classes actually work. There’s one set of feedback, which the verbal feedback you get from individuals, that sends you feedback or the send you in person and they have an opinion about balance. And then we have the data that we can actually look at how the balance works out. And what happened with Battlefield 3 is that we – I won’t call it struck gold – but we actually got the point where had almost a 25 per cent use per class in the game. Where the spread of classes and the amount of points that you get, the amount of progress people get, the use of the different personalities, was almost perfect.
And we were mesmerised – ‘oh my God, this actually works’. Because we’ve always been striving to find a game where your personality should be reflected in the class and how you progress, and how you play. Because we want different personalities to be able to play the same game in different ways. And I think the cool thing that happened with Battlefield is we found that having four classes makes it very easy to have the first pick. You have the first pick and you say “ok, I understand what these classes do”, you get into them and you start to stray away from the multitude of paths you have within that class. It means we can tune your personal career through the classes. Adding more classes will just move the depth more up to the surface, it wouldn’t really change anything, it’s just you’d move that up and have some people say ‘oh you need classes!’ but, like, to do what? It wouldn’t do anything more than it does today.
Did you consider dumping classes altogether? Just having Call Of Duty-style build your own loadout?
We talked about that as well. But I think you would dilute the core of what a Battlefield game is. And I think four [classes] seems to be a very working structure for us and it makes it very easy for people to get into the game.
So that’s something that’s working very well for Battlefield, is there anything about Battlefield 3 that you weren’t satisfied with that you wanted to address with this game?
Destruction. Destruction was something we weren’t quite happy with. There were some balancing things when it comes to the kits that we’re also looking into…the Recon now has more defensive and offensive ways of playing. Customisation – we saw how popular it had turned in Battlefield 3, so we’re adding more customisation options. One thing people don’t talk about that often is the menu, the UI system.
In Battlefield 3 the UI was not that strong, but I think this is better.
This is better, yeah. We spent a lot of energy on that. Battlefield, you could argue, is a very complicated game in one way, but it’s also a very simple game in another. We didn’t want to remove, like, spawn points, we didn’t want to remove the option to spawn [with] friends, to spawn in vehicles…because previously that was a mess. In BF3 that was not good. It was horrible at times.
Now we have re-thought the whole process of what is important from a ‘getting into the game’ perspective. We settled on the top-down map. If you’re a PC player you should be able to double-click and get right into the situations. If you’re using a pad it should be very intuitive to go: ‘oh I want to go there’ and then hit deploy and you’re in the game. And having this feeling of looking down at the battlefield, having that be the most important thing rather than seeing the characters spawn – we moved that all down into the corner, a helmet-cam kind of view. And we’re keeping that interface throughout the game. So the Spectator Mode uses the same core functionality, the Commander Mode uses the same functionality, so the whole spawn interface is kind of the core of how you view the game until you spawn in.
You were saying Battlefield is different things for different players, and for me it’s vehicles, always vehicles and destruction. And with Battlefield 3 you took the vehicles and the destruction out so there wasn’t much left for me, but with destruction back in I feel better. There’s something else, too, with the 60 frames thing: it feels snappier, more responsive. I didn’t necessarily believe before that Battlefield lent itself to that small skirmish-based combat. But now it feels like it does. Can you tell me some of the changes you made to make that kind of close quarters combat without vehicles just better?
One thing is bringing up the framerate, which is of course something we’re doing with the next-gen consoles. But also looking at latency and lag, stuff like that, to make it a snappier experience without losing the tactical depth. Having snappier controls doesn’t really go against the tactical team play, the vehicular battlefield feeling, it just makes it tighter for everyone. So we’re improving the game for everyone rather than trying to force people to have a more slow, tactical game. That game is still there.
We wanted to increase that depth, but at the same time we want to make the game tighter, faster and cooler for everyone to play. So I think we’re finding a sweetspot between the big conquest, classic Battlefield – vehicles, jets, tanks, everything – adding back in destruction where everything feels like it gives you feedback when you interact with it. Adding the dynamic maps with the Levelution concept, it’s a very interesting concept when you look at what Battlefield was and what it’s turning into, where everything is affected, everything has a tactical reason to be there.
So when the storm comes in on the island map, everything changes. It’s not only looking different, the waves are now different to ride. The attack boat is not that powerful anymore because it has a problem aiming in the waves; it’s easier to get away with a jet ski. The view distance is changing for snipers and helicopter pilots. I think we’re getting to the point where the game is going from being a system to a game. My biggest revelation [during press interviews] is that not a single person has asked me about features. They don’t ask how many guns is in the game anymore, they ask how it feels. That’s exactly what we want it to be, we want this to be a Battlefield experience rather than a set of features that we try to sell the consumer. We want people to see it, feel it, experience it, rather than having it be like ‘oh here’s the new feature set, here’s the new gun, the new tank’ – we have that as well but it’s a part of the package.
I feel these days that Call Of Duty does more and more feel like a selection of features. Battlefield for me is a story-generator; whenever you finish a mission you’re like ‘did you see this part? I did this thing…’ It creates good stories. But I will ask you about features, seeing asyou haven’t been asked: does every map have a Levelution gimmick?
Yes. But I wouldn’t call it a gimmick. You have what we call the ‘epic moments’.
Are they all player-triggered?
Well, it depends on the map. Most of them are player-triggered but weather is not something in real-life you would trigger. All maps will have something you can talk about as the ‘epic event’ that happens. But more importantly with the Levelution system, we don’t call it a feature, we call it a concept, because it’s a set of features that we string together to create dynamic maps. We have everything from opening gates to closing shutters and bringing up bollards to stop vehicles. You ride elevators, you have birds in the bushes that reveal your position, you have metal detectors, car alarms, stuff like that. And then of course you have the destructability and weather changes. In the Siege of Shanghai, when the skyscraper falls over, it creates a dust cloud that changes the view distance on the map, so we tried to take all of these things and put them onto all maps. So it’s not a game about one thing. It’s not a game about destruction. It’s not a game about scaring birds. It’s not a game about rain. It’s a game about everything being dynamic, everything changing, and then having maps with very clear themes where players can talk about the map where ‘oh, this thing happened…’
Battlefield has always had very clear, simple maps. Wake Island is the best multiplayer map of all time. Although in Battlefield 3 it was much too big…
It’s weird, people always say ‘we want big maps, you bastards you made this small… I hate you, maps should be bigger’ and then you do Wake Island and it’s like ‘I hate you, it’s way too big’. It’s like ‘what do you want?!’
I wonder how has the job of your map designers changed for Battlefield 4 with all these extra tools to play with?
We are not making it easy for ourselves, that’s for sure. You’re touching on something that is actually a problem for us. The complexity of building maps is increasing exponentially – first you have destruction now you have these other elements that are adding to the complexity. In the end the most important thing is the balance, so you know… a team shouldn’t be too over-powered by starting in one base, or one flag being easier to hold because you just do this, this and this. So using these tools is not always making our job easier.
Destruction is a big pain in some cases because there are so many ways for you to get to a point or a location and it’s really hard for us to know about all these things. The design of a Battlefield map is actually really, really complicated. Which, in the end, hopefully benefits the players because it turns into something quite magnificent.
The campaign in Battlefield 3 and in Bad Company 2… critics didn’t embrace it the way they embraced multiplayer. People love Battlefield for its multiplayer, not necessarily for its campaign. I wonder what feedback you’ve taken, regarding the campaign, to make the experience more satisfying this time?
Multiplayer for Battlefield is quite obvious. We’ve been doing it for a long time; we know what it is, we know what it should be. Singleplayer is way, way harder because there’s not set rule on what it could be or what it should be. So there’s all these expectations of ‘I want it to do this’ and ‘I want it to do that’ because everyone has a very fond memory of what multiplayer was and what multiplayer is so there’s no clear view on what singleplayer could be or what it should be.
So our take on this is that the most important thing is that it’s not multiplayer offline. Because then you should play multiplayer online, because that’s the core of Battlefield. So what we want to do is create something that feels very different, that does not have that much to do with Battlefield multiplayer from a systematic point of view. But more from an emotional point of view, so it’s the story that could be told within a Battlefield game. So having strong characters, a strong narrative; we’re looking a lot to the squad. Because the squad is very important in Battlefield multiplayer and we want to make it the same from a narrative standpoint for singleplayer as well. And also the freedom of choice, where it feels like I can choose different tools to overcome different objectives. So we’re trying to introduce more choice when it comes to weapons, ways of clearing objectives…
There were a number of times in Battlefield 3’s singleplayer where you’d see a guy in a window, pick him off, he drops. See another, pick him off, he drops. Those were the sorts of moments complained about by critics and players. I wonder how carefully have you addressed those tiny, granular things?
Of course you’re bringing up a very detailed thing but I that’s important. I think from a Battlefield multiplayer perspective, that’s not how Battlefield works and I think that was a bad design choice on our side. It’s more about understanding the situation and trying to cope with it rather than having triggered auto-spawners, repeating the same character over and over again. We see that in other games quite a lot and I don’t think we should compete with those games because that’s not the game that I find very compelling to play.
It’s interesting the Battlefield campaign doesn’t reflect much of the multiplayer. You have a jet level in Battlefield 3 but it’s not you flying the jet, you’re operating the gun and so on. But that surely would be an excellent opportunity to train players how to use jets.
Both yes and no. It’s actually more complicated than that. A lot of people have a problem flying in 3D. A tank – most people can handle that one. If you get into a helicopter or jet – not so easy. Having… turning it into a tutorial only, that could take some time. Some people are really hard to train when it comes to flying in general. So that example, we actually had it as a flyable jet in the beginning and testing it on people was like ‘no, this’ll never work’. It doesn’t matter how much you want it to work, unless you make it super-arcadey, like some of the jet games out there, it wouldn’t work.
In the nature of singleplayer… it’s another beast. It’s not supposed to be like ‘here’s the ultimate challenge, you will never be able to complete this game unless you learn how to do all these things'; singleplayer is about creating an enjoyable narrative in the world of Battlefield, rather than having it being a horrendous… like having to get a licence to be able to fly a jet to complete the campaign. You can have that in multiplayer if you want to. We’re actually adding a test range to Battlefield for people.
The first time since Battlefield 1943 you’ve done that, right?
Yeah. The reason is exactly this: instead of turning the singleplayer campaign into just a big tutorial, we actually created a tutorial map where it’s not ‘we are now going to teach you’ but rather ‘here’s a safe place for you to try everything out’. Do whatever you want, it’s a sandbox.
So it’s just a map with all the vehicles ready to go?
Yeah, and all the guns you unlock you can try them out, there’s target practicing to be done, flying, shoot at things… just try it out.
A custom designed map just for the job?
Yeah it’s a very non-hostile environment, so to speak, where offline you can try everything in multiplayer.