It has been two years since Battlefield 3 launched to critical and commercial acclaim. With huge maps crammed full of modern combat vehicles, the game was the most visceral attempt to bring open 21st Century battlefield combat to multiplayer gaming.
At the end of the month EA’s DICE studio will unleash the celebrated series’ forth incarnation, Battlefield 4, on PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3; with next-generation versions waiting in the wings for the new consoles’ launches in November.
I caught up with Battlefield 4’s Lars Gustavsson at the recent EB Expo in Sydney to talk about the game.
Hi Lars, can you tell me a bit about yourself and your role in Battlefield 4’s development?
My name is Lars Gustavsson and I’m the creative director for Battlefield 4. I’ve been in the game industry since 1999. I started out working for a small studio called Refraction Games. After just three or four months we made the first prototype for Battlefield 1942, a demo showing off everything from submarines to B17 bombers. We then became part of DICE and I became the producer for Battlefield 1942. Then I moved on as lead designer on Battlefield 2 and then a creative director on Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4. So lots of Battlefield, fourteen and a half years of Battlefield.
What have DICE strived to do with Battlefield 4? What has defined the development process?
Well, first off we knew that the next-generation of consoles was coming out, with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Early on we decided that we would build the Frostbite 3 engine around scalability in order to give current-gen the best possible experience and also to make the most of next-gen and PC.
As a game I think it was to keep on pushing the boundaries of what a dynamic battlefield can be. To expand on the level of destruction and interaction; for instance, introducing the possibility of going from calm water to stormy seas. We wanted everything in the game environment, to the highest possible extent, to be there for a reason and to have player initiated events impact gameplay.
On top of all that we wanted, with the next-generation of consoles, to finally deliver the 64-player multiplayer experience that people have been asking us for and have it all running at 60 frames per second.
Then there’s the improved Battlelog social network. I could go on forever. It’s the biggest game that we have ever done.
We waited six years between Battlefield 2 and Battlefield 3 but only two years between 3 and 4. Why is this?
I guess we met up with a nice bunch of rogue warriors called Bad Company. We had had our time with Bad Company and I think that taught us a lot. It was refreshing for the whole studio to take a very different approach to Battlefield. Who knows if they will come back in the future.
The community has constantly been on at us, asking if we had forgotten about Battlefield 2, asking where Commander is and why it wasn’t in Battlefield 3. Commander mode was something the community wanted for a very long time; so with the crazy explosion of Battlefield 3 and huge amount of player feedback, we went and addressed it all directly with Battlefield 4.
The next generation of hardware was also a good reason to do Battlefield 4; to finally be able to give consoles 64 players. To keep on pushing what we can do with the Battlelog social network, which was seen with scepticism to start with, but now has been fully adopted by the community. Now we are also taking it to the console players which there left out a bit in Battlefield 3.
It really felt like with the enormous response from the community there was no lack of ideas and inspiration for Battlefield 4.
Can you tell me about the differences between the PC version and those on the consoles?
Of course, it depends on what PC rig that you have. Overall with both the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 you have alternative input methods with the Kinect or with the gyro, voice on the Xbox One with voice commands and so on.
What about the map sizes?
The maps, whether you play on current-gen or next-gen or on PC, are all the same size. Of course on next-gen and on PC you will get higher density, more detailed worlds. But, overall I’m super-amazed by what the team have managed to do with the current generation of platforms. The core gaming experience should be the same. That’s been our goal all the way through.
What lessons did you learn from Battlefield 3 that you‘ve taken on board for Battlefield 4?
Well, we think that Battlelog was the right move. We’ve finally got a way for people to get together for Battlefield, to check out new updates and socialise all one place. And that is why we kept on investing in it, integrating it into both current gen and next-gen for Battlefield 4. In fact, on next-gen, it is fully integrated.
We learnt a lot about what people wanted in the single player campaign. There was some feedback around it having a more Battlefield feeling, having more freedom to choose on how to attack a problem. So we brought in a lot of Battlefield multiplayer elements into single-player. You can now use your squad to engage targets and have more choice in terms of what tool to use to solve a problem with. We’ve added scoring and kind of a social gameplay in the single player.
We used a lot of things that we learnt from building single-player in Battlefield 3, like dramatic events and dynamic battlefields, in the multiplayer game. We’ve called this Levelution and it ranges from bringing down a skyscraper or flooding a city to change the gameplay, down to the little things like cutting the power before you go into a building so you can use your night vision.
So I think that it has been extremely healthy to look at what we learnt from building the different parts of Battlefield 3 and then bringing it into Battlefield 4. We’ve also had an enormous amount of feedback from the community on what they like, what they want to see more of, what they what changed and so on.
You’ve touched on the single-player aspect little bit. The single player campaign in Battlefield 3 was seen by many as the game’s weakness. You said that the single player experience has been improved for Battlefield 4 with the introduction of more Battlefield-style gameplay elements. I’d like to go a little bit deeper into that. Can you elaborate?
Yeah, we stepped back and looked at the single-player campaign. We’ve had lots of feedback about Battlefield 3‘s single-player; we had a lot of people come and tell us that they really liked it. Then there are those that expected more of a Battlefield feel to the single-player. We looked into giving the player more freedom to solve problems. So if there’s a tank, it’s not like you just walk over and pick up the tool to take it out. It is up to you how you sort out your tank problem. It’s more about us providing you with the tools, rather than the solution.
We rebuilt the AI to adapt to more open environments and built in more distractions for players. The result is, overall, a more Battlefield-like single-player experience. I truly hope that people will like it.
We’ve also engaged a lot of good actors. We tried to centre the story, the narrative, the journey that you make around things that are easier to relate to; rather than saving the world from a nuke. So overall I’m really happy with what they have managed to accomplish and I’m super-excited to see what people think when the get their hands on it.
Most people I know, with Battlefield 3, played the single player campaign – got it out of the way – and then spent the next two years playing multiplayer. Did you ever consider just going back to multiplayer and bot matches, because that’s how I remember Battlefield?
Yeah, I get that question quite often. I would say that – who knows in the future – but right now we feel that we learnt so much with Battlefield 3, we really want to do single-player. Will single-player and multiplayer merge more in the future? I don’t know. But what we’ve done now, the crossbreed with Battlefield single-player and multiplayer, I think is a healthy mix. It’s not like we are removing people from working on the multiplayer to build single-player, we just have a bigger team.
What new vehicles are we going to see in Battlefield 4?
Overall, I think we are up to over forty vehicles. I think that there are seventeen new vehicles. We’ve introduced the Chinese Army, and we’ve also replaced vehicles within the US army, and so on, to reflect changes in the real world.
When it comes to new vehicle types we have, for example, the new stealth fighters and the new attack boats- which I personally really like. I think that the team has done a really great job of depicting the raw power of these monsters on water. Our vehicle gameplay has also had an overhaul; helicopters have got new handling.
One of the big mistakes with Battlefield 3 was that when you started as a soldier with a class or a with a vehicle you started more or less bare-boned, naked; so you had to be at your best when you started to play the game. If you got into a jet fighter you had to start with only your cannon; which is OK if you are an ace pilot and have the skill to cope with that limitation, but not for a newcomer. So now, if you are a soldier, we equip you with easy to handle weapons to start with. In a plane you will have countermeasures and missiles available from the beginning to ease you into the game.
We spent a lot of time making the game accessible; we’ve introduce instructional videos and game modes to teach new players. We have a test range where you can, in a peaceful environment, learn to fly your helicopter or your plane without being shot at. We worked with the interface to give players a better understanding of what happens when you customise your weapon. The deploy screen has had a complete complete overhaul to make load-out selection a much easier experience.
How many multiplayer maps does Battlefield 4 ship with and will I be able to play Wake Island again?
The game ships with ten multiplayer maps. Wake Island? No, not at launch, who knows in the future. It’s been around for some time. What’s your favourite version?
Getting in a boat in any one of them and sneaking around when everybody is fighting to get those capture points just about does it for me; to get to the top of the leaderboard without firing a shot.
Yep, that’s me as well. I’m not the best mano-a-mano.
I’m getting older, my fingers getting slower.
Same here, but that’s what I like. You know, being able to play the game my way. How many people have the opportunity to craft a Battlefield game that is suited to them? I’m in a good place.
What changes from Battlefield 3 will players notice the most in the Battlefield 4 multiplayer game?
We have a much more dynamic battlefield. There’s more use of water in environments and water affects gameplay. There are new game modes. There’s the introduction of Commander Mode. We’ve got bigger numbers in squads with improved squad and team-play.
We’ve created a new field upgrade system for squads to encourage people to play together. Basically your squad can choose a field upgrade path which contains four unlocks. As long as you all play together and do actions together you will start gathering points towards unlocking these upgrades; but if all your squad gets killed, you go lose your points. So we hope that that will help you work together as a squad and work with your commanders. So there are lots of team-play possibilities.
With the new Battlelog integrated into the game, you can have your Battlescreen next to you if you have an iPad or android tablet running the app. This means that you can have an overview of the map right there; you can change your loadout using it and, if you’re squad leader, you can even give orders via the app. Or you could just use it to find your friends to play with.
Interesting, because my next question was going to be about the Battlelog mobile app; I’ve been using it with the beta. I’ve got it on my tablet sitting next to me. It doesn’t seem to be running 100% with the BF4 beta, but I can see the possibilities. I think that it is going to be cool.
It’s as we like to say, you play it your way. It’s not just a cheesy pitch it’s honestly the way we think about Battlelog. If you are a lone wolf and you only want infantry, you can play like that. If you want a 64-player match in a squad with a commander, you can play like that as well. We provide Battlelog so you can pick your favourite way to play.
You are also able to connect with friends; find the best players in your street, in your city, with the new geo leaderboards. We have so many tools there to use, if you want to. We don’t charge you extra for them it’s all included with the game.
And finally, why do you think Battlefield is so much better than Call of Duty?
That’s not up to me to judge, but…
You must have an opinion.
Well, my honest answer is that I’m full of respect for what the Call of Duty guys do. I play a lot of shooters and I’ve been playing Call of Duty all this time. But I do thing that the strength of Battlefield is that we can provide exactly what you want to play it your way, from team deathmatch up to a fully featured dynamic battlefield. I would be stupid to tell the customers what’s best, I shouldn’t diminish customers own opinion. But I think that we have a very strong product that I highly encourage them to try out since it is a beautiful battlefield.
Thanks very much for your time, Lars, I wish you all the best with the game’s release.
Thank you. See you on the battlefield!
Battlefield 3 will be out on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC on 31st October in Australia and 1st November in New Zealand. Versions for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will be released late November.