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Interview with Lars Gustavsson

GameCentral speaks to the design director of Battlefield 1, about the difficulties of turning the First World War into a video game.
The reveal of Battlefield 1  couldn’t have gone better for EA and developer DICE. Not only did it become the most liked video game trailer on YouTube but arch rival Call Of Duty: Infinite Warfare became the most disliked. At the unveiling we saw a few extra minutes of gameplay footage, that hasn’t yet been revealed to the public, but that only inspired even more questions for when we spoke to design director Lars Gustavsson.

Some of these were the more straightforward questions about how the story campaign will work, or exactly what locations, weapons, and vehicles will feature in the game. But others related to the First World War setting itself, which is a lot more problematic than the more clear cut politics of 1942. Especially given the horrifically cruel weapons fielded by both sides.
But Gustavsson was very open about the problems, and how they could be turned to the game’s advantage in terms of new gameplay possibilities and educating people about the realities of the war. As you’d expect there were many things he wasn’t able to talk about at this stage, but we should learn even more.

GC: I’m always very interested when I see developers come up with the same ideas at the same time, but completely independent of each other. It happened last year with Halo 5 and COD both inventing a similar sort of jetpack movement system. And this year both you and COD have moved away from modern warfare, albeit it in different directions. I wonder what you’re trying to get away from by doing that, or perhaps what you’re trying to get back to?

LG: It’s a good question. As a consumer of media in general, I often see the same thing – for example in movies, where suddenly Disney or Dreamworks have gone in the same direction…

GC: That is weird, yes. Like with the two CGI ant movies.

LG: Yes, exactly. And we ask ourselves the same question every now and then when it happens, but I think in general we all get inspired by the world around us. This game has been in the making for quite some time, so for us we had been in the modern era since Battlefield 2 released in 2005. And then Bad Company 1 and 2, Battlefield 3, Battlefield 4… So for us, it was about finding new fun gameplay, and also creating a new kind of energy and challenge for the team – especially for many of us who’ve been around for a long time.
We’ve nurtured this dream since probably going back to the days of Bad Company and the aftermath of early Battlefield. Where we saw the potential in The Great War, especially as there was a mod called 1918 which was very much about flying biplanes. So it’s been a dream and we’ve had people here who’ve been nurturing this dream all along, and when we, after Battlefield 4, looked at where do we go next this seemed like a perfect fit.
We started with, of course, looking at what new type of gameplay do we want? How can we change the formula while still keeping the core ingredients of the epic scale, the team play strategy, and dynamic battlefield? All of the key ingredients – the land, sea, and air – that are kind of the core formula for Battlefield, but take it into a new direction. And then this seemed to be the perfect match.

GC: There are lots of reasons why a WW1 setting is difficult though, and hopefully we’ll get into a few of them. But strictly from a gameplay perspective there’s the obvious problem of trench warfare seeming very restrictive. And even if you get round that there’s the fact that the guns are very slow and inaccurate, or that the tanks never really worked very well. How accurate have you been to that? How much have you found you’ve had to change?

LG: So, as with all Battlefield games, we start with doing extensive research and then getting a better understanding of the world and everything that is in it. And I think a lot of people know a lot about the Second World War, or even Vietnam and the more recent wars. But World War I, or The Great War, is more unknown. For us, as we started to dig deeper, it was obvious that this was really the end of the old world and the birth of the new, in so many ways that many of us weren’t even aware of. They didn’t really teach us that at school. So for us it was a discovery as well. How everything from women’s rights to factories… there’s so many layers to it.
But with that came the sort of transition from marching armies in colourful uniforms to mechanised warfare. Which was very far from the Napoleonic War. By the end of the war it was mechanised combat, with camouflage, and submarines, and bomb strikes, and everything. So for us, instead of seeing these challenges as something negative we’ve tried to turn it around and see it as a possibility for new gameplay.

All tanks won’t be the same… modern tanks are a result of evolution since the first tanks of World War I and so they have evolved into the best possible solution, with minor differences between. But this makes it even more interesting for us, to give it different types of gameplay. Battlefield is built around a sandbox where we provide different tools, and what keeps the checks and balances – the rock, paper, scissors system where there is no superior tool on the battlefield – they all provide different advantages but also have disadvantages.
So each tank will be stronger in one way, but also weak in one way. So, for us that’s an opportunity rather than something negative. We definitely struggle with it every now and then but once again we remind ourselves that we want to do things differently.

GC: The other problem is the politics and morality of the war. I saw [EA Studios boss] Patrick Söderlund talking about how he was convinced the game could be fun. But is ‘fun’ even the right word to be using in the context of World War I? I couldn’t help thinking of a particular Simpsons episode, where Bart ends up doing a monologue about war at the end. I can’t do an impression for you, but I did look up the quote:
‘Contrary to what you’ve just seen, war is neither glamorous nor fun. There are no winners, only losers. There are no good wars, with the following exceptions: the American Revolution, World War II, and the Star Wars trilogy.’

LG: [laughs]

GC: [laughs] Now, not only does there seem to be a lot of truth in that, but I can’t help but notice that you’ve done two of those already. I don’t think that’s a coincidence and nor is the fact that almost all other media – movies, TV, novels, and so on – that cover the First World War have a staunchly anti-war tone. But that seems almost impossible in an action game like this. So how do you maintain a necessarily respectful tone and sense of humility? Which I have to say wasn’t really evident during the unveiling.

LG: For me, I’ve been making the first Battlefield since back in 1999. And I think already during the making of Battlefield 1942 we did some extreme blunders in how we talked about the game. We stated that Battlefield has too good of a core loop, and fun gameplay, the Battlefield moments where people do crazy things. And of course we’ve been making war games all along, but with this game we have no intention of being disrespectful compared to, for example, Vietnam or 1942.
So, for us we have learnt so much about how it changed the world, and basically during those years created the foundation for all the Battlefield games we have built. We still have weapons in our games that are from this era, so for us there’s been nothing but an understanding of that this is a Battlefield game first and foremost. It provides a setting to the game. In the end it is entertainment but we don’t want to do it in a disrespectful way. So all the way through we’ve been working hard to keep that. I mean, there’s been many games ahead of us depicting fire, gas, and so on…

GC: Sure, and that was absolutely a question, not an accusation. But I have to admit that there was one moment in the unveiling where I did feel uncomfortable. There was a question from the audience about whether you’d have gas attacks in the game and the developer answered yes, with a huge grin on his face. And to me that was quite disturbing. But then for the actual trailer I was sitting there thinking, ‘This looks really cool’. So where do you draw the line? I honestly don’t know.

LG: For me it’s about how we’re portraying it all. And we’ve always worked really hard to stay away from gore and all of the exaggerated expressions.

GC: But doesn’t that just sanitise the history of it? Mustard gas is a terrible thing and people should be aware of just how awful it is.

LG: For us, we aim to deliver the classic Battlefield sandbox with all-out war. But with elements reflecting the era, so that it becomes a new experience and something that will hopefully bring people… I think so many people don’t really know what happened during these years and there were fights in China, Africa, and all around the world. That it shaped many of the conflicts existing in the Middle East today. There were so many things, in terms of empires that fell, new inventions… so many things that just changed the world.

GC: I don’t know if you were aware at the time, but some details of the game leaked out a few hours early, and everyone was convinced the game had an alternative history setting. Do you know where that rumour came from? Was that ever an idea you had? Because it does suggest a way to get over some of these problems we’ve discussed.

LG: No, I heard the rumours. We were running around like crazy preparing! [laughs] For us it was clear from the beginning that there was so much happening during these years, and there were so many things to depict… I mean, everything from horses in the Arabian deserts to sieges on the Italian Alps. But we set out the direction quite early on, that before we start looking at making things up, let’s look at what history provides us. And to be honest in the making of this game, many times we had to almost reel back since there were so many inventions, that if we had put them in the game we would probably get accused of not being true or walking into steampunk land.
But it’s real, all of the inventions that came up. But for us, with this enormous momentum in what was invented and the diversity in it, it really matches the Battlefield formula well. Both in terms of locations around the world, that we will take you to, and also the diversity in hardware. So for us we quickly realised that this is a good match.

GC: The graphics, obviously, look amazing. But how much of what we saw is based on the version of the Frostbite engine from Star Wars: Battlefront? And how has it already evolved beyond that?

LG: DICE, from 1992 have been driving tech. Since that is what really made Pinball Dreams. The crew wanted to make people’s jaws drop. And from then on it’s been tech driven. Not for the sake of tech, but for what it can allows us to do. I think since Frostbite, with Bad Company 1, we found one way forward and since then many of the other teams at EA have started using it, and so we kind of stopped talking about versions and work more directly towards the mainline of Frostbite.
Which is an enormous boost, when previously we were one studio driving things forward. These days it’s the big EA organisation, so there’s a constant feed into improvements. So it’s hard to say where do you draw the line of what’s used where, but we can definitely say that we’ve kept on pushing the boundaries in all different eras.

GC: But when you talk about destruction effects that level the whole map or 64-player battles… that implies a significant jump over Battlefront. Which is already an amazing-looking game.

LG: Yeah, with Bad Company 1 we started to be able to do destruction. And for me, as an old wolf, it was a dream come true. [laughs] I begged on my knees to the programmer of Battlefield 2 and had a long list of things I wanted to do and he said shortly: ‘No!’ [laughs]
But after Bad Company 1 and Frostbite we started to be able to do this and that really stuck with the player, so for every Battlefield we continue to push the boundaries. And for this era, where machines were more brutal… but it wasn’t turbines winding up it was coughing machines… We wanted that to resonate in the world destruction and everything as well.

GC: I’m a big fan of Fighter Squadron in Battlefront, so I’m curious how much the aerial combat will resemble that in Battlefield 1? Because I know the biplanes of the era were surprisingly nimble.

LG: [a lot of hesitation] I guess the verdict will come from the audiences as they get their hands on the game.

GC: [laughs] Oh, is that something you can’t talk about yet? I was really looking forwards to that!

LG: [laughs] I am super excited about it! Since for me, I’ve been making games since… the first one was Codename Eagle with biplanes and then 1942. For me this a super interesting era, where the diversity of plane parts bring both lone wolf gameplay and teamplay, as you kind of pick and choose how you play it. [Presumably a reference to fighting in teams, and the fact that many of the biplanes are two-seaters – GC] It’s less about countermeasures and it’s more about your skill and getting back to those intense dogfights, which is something I’m super excited about.

GC: I don’t think I’m overstating things to say DICE are one of the preeminent multiplayer developers in the world.

LG: [laughs] Thank you!

GC: But I’m not sure many would say the same thing about your track record with story campaigns. I have to say I’m a little surprised you even announced one, I thought maybe you’d make it multiplayer-only, but what makes you think this time you’ll finally get it right?

LG: I think for us, in everything we do we put a lot of pride and passion and time into everything we do. And whatever we do we do everything we can to make it as good as possible…

GC: Even that’s not really a criticism. As I’m always told in bed: you can’t be good at everything.

LG: [laughs] For us we see this as a great opportunity, and while starting the creation of Battlefield 1 it was really around what will be our angle of attack? What excites us when we go to work and start building the campaign? And that quickly became: can we make it more Battlefield? Can we build more open areas, the different routes, the variety in tools in terms of vehicles and weaponry, so that there’s more player agency – thus creating more of your Battlefield moments.
So that’s where it started, and that flooded over into how we portray the war from a number of persons and their destinies. And how the war changed them and how the war changed the world. So for us, that’s really what’s been exciting us when we go to work every day and look into the future. Once we start to open that lid more it’s definitely something we want to speak more about.

GC: Just one last little question: will you have famous historical figures in the campaign? Many of the most important figures from the Second World War fought in the First, as well as famous literary figures and so on. Are those cameos you’d have in the campaign?

LG: Going back to talking about opening the lid, we’ll talk more in the near future. [laughs]

GC: [laughs] Okay, I’ll put it another way: will you I able to shoot J. R. R. Tolkien in your game?

LG: [considerable laughter] No comment!

GC: [laughs] Okay, well thanks very much for speaking to me.

LG: [laughs] No problem. Any time!

Source: Gamecentral/DICE

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