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3 Interviews

Interview: DICE on dividing Battlefield and conquering Star Wars

By Andy Robinson on Monday 23rd Jun 2014 at 3:42 PM UTC

EA appears more determined than ever to shake off its image among some quarters as a cold-hearted, overly cooperate organisation.

Under its new chief executive, the publisher is taking more of a developer-centric approach to its all-important game announcements. Gone are the dubstep earthquakes that used to accompany dazzlingly brash and bright game trailers, in comes the calmer - but no less passionate - interview segments with each game's creators.

Key to that was showcasing EA's Sweden-based DICE outfit, which offered early glimpses of the dream Star Wars collaboration, along with the return of cult favourite Mirror's Edge.

But why were the reveals so brief? And when will we see more? Following EA's media briefing, CVG met with DICE general manager Karl Magnus Troedsson for the latest updates.

What is DICE's key message for its fans at E3 2014?

DICE general manager Karl Magnus Troedsson

The biggest thing at the show for my group is of course Battlefield Hardline, which we ended EA's press conference with and is the next big instalment in the series. That's being built by the Visceral team in California, but we also have a couple of other things. We also have Star Wars Battlefront, which we gave a bit of a progress report on, and of course the new Mirror's Edge game. Both of those are built out of the DICE studio in Stockholm.

Even though we haven't announced a lot about those games, we decided that we wanted to give people a sneak peek at what's going on with those games. We've changed a bit. You would've noticed in the EA press conference that we're showing more work-in-progress stuff and that's a very conscious decision - we want to invite players closer to what we're doing, rather than just show the glitzy surface. Open up a bit early, have a conversation and let people see the process and what's happening in the background.

Beyond the press conferences, what does that new initiative of opening up to the public actually mean from a development perspective?

Well, one of the typical examples is that we try in an organised way to focus-test those sorts of things, but we want to get even closer to our players and get their feedback. So secretly in the background we've invited key people from the Battlefield community to the studio and just had them sit and play the game in an early stage, long before E3.

We had a conversation with them and asked, 'OK, so what do you think about this game?' And the stuff that came out of that was deeply helpful to our developers. They got good, quality feedback direct from the people who love to play the games.

We have done this in the past, and we're always scouring the internet for feedback on Twitter and forums, but it's not the same as sitting in a room and having a conversation, because the internet can warp a lot of feedback. It's always very black and white: people who are upset are always very vocal on the internet, while those who are having fun might not be heard at all.

Getting that personal touch with our fans is really cool and definitely something that we're going to do more of in the future.

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Does that community engagement extend to your other projects?

We are doing some tests now. Other teams inside EA have been doing this for a long time with their long-running franchises and we have done this with Battlefield in the past in different ways. But this is the first time we've done it so early.

A lot of this is based on learnings from challenges that we've had in the past, like the launch of Battlefield 4. We want to get ahead of that. That's also one of the reasons that we have a beta that we announced at E3 - people are literally sat at home right now playing Battlefield Hardline. It's because we want their feedback, but also because want to test our systems in the background early, to make sure that we have a good launch.

DICE has gone from working on just Battlefield, to now being responsible for many franchises. How challenging has it been to ramp up the studio's workload?

As anyone running a studio would probably tell you, in the history of a game development team there are certain milestones that you pass, where the company changes. You go from that garage mentality of 30 people, grow about 50 after your first game and then realise, 'oh shit, we're a company now'. You're not just making games with your friends any more. Then when you pass 100-120 employees, you realise that you're getting pretty big.

DICE has made this journey over the past year, but to your point it's been accelerated now because there's a lot of stuff going on in Stockholm. When that particular Star Wars deal was signed, DICE Stockholm wasn't supposed to work on that game. But me personally and the people at thew studio were like "we have to work on a Star Wars game! This is our dream come true!"

Battlefield Hardline is being created 'mostly' by Visceral Games.

So we made some significant changes and that's why we started the DICE LA studio, because we took bulk work from DICE Stockholm and moved that to a different location. That freed up a team in Stockholm who could then work on Star Wars Battlefront. There are more changes that come with that, but all of them are very, very positive as long as you have a risk-aware mentality when you do something like this.

Culturally, has it been difficult to incorporate collaboration into your workflow, whether with DICE LA or Visceral?

I wouldn't say that it's been difficult, but I'd also be lying if I said there hasn't been a journey going on. It's been many years since we started our collaboration with Visceral working on expansion packs for Battlefield 3 - we have that sort of work going on all the time. Delivering a Battlefield game is huge undertaking and even though it might seem that it's just one studio that has worked on it, there are always tons of people involved in actually getting it done.

The first thing that needs to happen [in the collaboration process] is that people need to reach out and get to know each other. Because as soon as people venture beyond the studio boundaries, they realise it's not as scary as they thought.

But of course - and I bet a lot of fans are thinking this - this is the first Battlefield game that is developed by another studio. There has been so much knowledge transfer going on, that the initial fear that might have been there internally has gone away and we believe that when our fans play this, any fears they might have will be washed away. I can guarantee you that Hardline will definitely be a Battlefield game. We're keeping all the core pillars.

What's the reaction to the beta been like at this early stage?

I haven't had time to read much, but my general feeling is that it's very positive, which of course makes me very happy. It's always scary as hell as a game creator to go out and show what you've been working on, because blood, sweat and tears goes into making games like this and having people judge it is always then scary. In this case, we're putting our game directly into the hands of gamers and their feedback cannot be incorrect. But so far it's been very positive.

"We are only going to release new Battlefield games if we have great ideas. That's a promise."

Can you give us a clearer view of what specifically DICE's involvement is in the development of Hardline?

The game is being 'owned' by Visceral and they built it, so I don't want to go into specific details about who does what, but of course there is an element of DICE helping out on some parts of the multiplayer, since they have such a strong pedigree. But there are different ways of helping out; the knowledge transfer, consulting on how to do things and also bulk work like who builds what vehicle.

I don't want to go into specific details but I can say that much. Most of the work is being done by Visceral on both multiplayer and single-player.

During the collaboration process, have you taken measures to ensure that Visceral's Battlefield game doesn't cannibalise your own numbered instalments? How, if at all, are they different?

That is one of the questions I get a lot: "oh, you're annualising the Battlefield series?" We are only going to release new Battlefield games if we have great ideas. That's a promise. We're not going to just release new games because of the calendar.

That's one part of it. The other is of course that I don't actually mind if there is some cannibalisation, because our audience is then still playing Battlefield. In the past we have been working quite serial: we release a game, people play it for a long period of time, and then we drop another game and they jump over to that. But now we are going to take care of our products in much more of a parallel way, which means we are going to keep taking care of Battlefield 4 even after Hardline comes out.

Naturally when it comes to expansion packs and content etc, that will be more focused on that latest game. But when it comes to patches, balance updates and maybe introducing some new features, we are going to continue to do that with BF4 at the same time.

Have you set any rules at all for differentiating Hardline from BF4 etc? Thematically they are quite diverse.

Yes and no. It was very clear from the beginning that whatever Battlefield Hardline would become, it needed to be a Battlefield game. And that meant it needed to stay true to the core pillars of team play, strategy, destruction, vehicles and large maps. I can guarantee you all of those things are absolutely in this game. But at the same time we don't want to just build another game: Visceral has to add its own flavour, change it and bring innovation - and they definitely have.

Two examples are the zipline and grappling hook, which might sound trivial but for those who actually play the game, I think they can testament to how those things are going to change the gameplay and strategy. You can zipline between skyscrapers, or use a grappling hook to climb to places that you couldn't before.

These are influences that definitely come from having a new team building the game. We're not talking about the single-player campaign right now, but I think that when we do people are going to see that it's a different team creating this.

The Battlefield series is known for its generous post-release content plan. Is this something that will remain with Hardline, despite the switch in developer?

We've nothing to confirm right now, but naturally we're happy to see that so many people are engaging with our products long after launch. Of course we take that into a count when we look at Hardline.

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Can you give us an update on how Star Wars Battlefront is coming along? It seems like just a year ago the ink was fresh on the deal...

Well it's not that different from how we go about building a Battlefield game. You get a group of passionate individuals together, form a team, present them with a framework and then they start filling that. The team has basically attacked this game because they're so passionate about it. They're doing really, really well.

The only difference is of course that we're working with an outside partner in Lucasfilm. I can't go into all the details about how that collaboration works, but what I can see is that it's been an overwhelmingly positive experience.

The way that I would sum it up is we have one game team with a lot of experience building games, who are so passionate about Star Wars, and then you have a team inside Lucasfilm who are also gamers and want to see us make a great game. The two groups are basically coming together: passionate people with one task at hand. It's been a very cool collaboration.

"We don't feel limited in any way [by Lucasfilm]. We feel completely enabled"

How much creative freedom do you feel you've been given with the license?

That's what I meant when I said it's been a good collaboration, because when you're working on somebody else's IP it can often turn into a bit of a challenge I bet. But that's why this has been so positive, because the teams are working together. I won't go into specifics, but what I can say is that it's been extremely positive. We don't feel limited in anyway. We feel completely enabled within this framework.

Presumably the game is still at an early stage, considering EA only signed the Star Wars deal just over a year ago?

No, I don't want to comment on that. You'll see more when it comes out there.

Ok, well you've said on your website that the ambition is to create "the best Star Wars shooter of all time"...

Absolutely. When we decided to do this, we decided we we're going to do it right. We're going to build the game that we've wanted to see ourselves for a long period of time. The kind of games that we build are at the forefront of quality - they need to be the best sounding, the best playing and most fun games.

That's what we're trying to do. We're going to aim for the sky. Our ambition for this game is very, very high.

E3 offered a glimpse at Star Wars: Battlefront.

Is it important to differentiate Battlefront from Battlefield?

Yes, but a lot of that comes naturally because they're such different franchises. We approach this the same way with every game: how it is going to fit inside our portfolio? How is it going to sit with different types of gamers? Basically, we do our analysis and think about if for different demographics. We don't just compare it to Battlefield.

This is a different game, but historically going back the two games also share a lot of mechanics, because the original Battlefront games took some cues from Battlefield, I think we can say in a nice way. So naturally there are some nice overlaps of functionality and technology, with open landscapes etc. But from what the game is and the core mechanic, that doesn't worry me that they're going to be close.

It's been stated that we're going to see more of Battlefront in 2015, which is also the year that the new film instalment comes out. Does DICE have access to Star Wars: Episode 7?

I can't comment on the actual movies out of respect for the deal that we have with them, so I can't comment on that. But as you saw in our E3 movie, we've been given access to the archives. I was invited but couldn't go because I was held up with meetings... that's probably something I'm going to regret for the rest of my life! Naturally I talked to the team and as you saw it was a moving experience definitely.

So we have been given access like that and it's extremely valuable for the game.

Another exciting project we got a glimpse at via an E3 video was Mirror's Edge 2. What we saw looked very much like the original game... what can you tell us about what's going on with that project?

Not much. We're quite secretive with that.

Last year [EA Studios exec VP] Patrick Söderlund told us the sequel would be 'more action adventure' than the original...

What I can say is that if the last game focussed on first-person movement, it was definitely shown in the movie here that the DICE team will be focussing on first-person combat as well, to really nail and refine that. But I don't want to go into more detail on what the actual game is.

We did something different at the show this year and showed a lot of work in progress. If you actually go frame-by-frame through the movie you'll see there are missing floors and textures etc. We just decided to show something in progress, because it's not the environment that's most important, it's the movement or the message of what we're doing.

Fans of the game will just have to wait and see until we talk more about the actual game is and the vital mechanics of it. We've shown the combat and movement now, but there's so much more to talk about. What I can say is, this is not just going to be the same game as the last one. We're building Faith for a new generation.

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I sense there is some risk associated with the new directions the sequel is taking - EA has also said it's an open-world game now. Does that mean you have to be extra careful in how you reveal those new directions to the public?

We have an extreme attention to detail and that goes into everything; not just the game but how we show them and when. So yes, there's a lot going into this in terms of what we show and when we do it. Not everyone was comfortable at the beginning with showing work in progress stuff, but then that changed.

"Is Mirror's Edge a new IP? No, but it's been such a long time that you could almost consider it as one"

EA as a whole is definitely committed to new IP. I know we sometimes get some flack that we're not doing that, but it's actually to the contrary. Among the games that we announced at E3 there are some new, cool things. Is Mirror's Edge a new IP? No, but it's been such a long time that you could almost consider it as one.

There are a lot of new, cool games coming and it's definitely something that you need to do for the industry. I think it's cool to see that new IP can be introduced in different ways today; you can start with a one-man team and grow, or the other way where you have the big teams bringing something grandiose to market.

Of course the risk associated with the latter is much, much higher, but then of course the reward can be much bigger as well if you succeed.

Despite the successful launches of both PS4 and Xbox One, there aren't as many new-gen titles coming this year as perhaps many would've expected. Do you think the quick adoption of the new consoles took the industry by surprise a bit?

Everyone was very cautious, right? Speaking for the industry, I suspect there was a level of cautiousness. People were waiting to see. But I think what we're also seeing is that game teams are realising that it takes a big effort to make games with the kind of fidelity that is expected from these new platforms.

To be blunt about it, I think people are pushing out their games because they feel they're not ready yet, which is a sound way to think about it from some perspectives. I think we'll start to see this year more and more games that have matured on the platforms as well and this is just going to continue. Next year is probably going to be crazy, when developers are comfortable with the hardware and have been given a couple of years to work.