EA will have seen the success Activision has had with its Call of Duty franchise and want a piece of the pie. Medal of Honor is making a comeback later this year, but in the mean time the publisher's first-person shooter success rests on the shoulders of Swedish developer DICE. The Battlefield creators are finishing up Bad Company 2 in preparation for a March launch, and we caught up with senior producer Patrick Bach to get the inside story on how they went about an all-round improved sequel.
Q: The first Bad Company did really well, lots of people liked it, but the consensus seems to be that the single-player was slightly weaker than the multiplayer. Is that your perception as well? What's been your attitude going into single player this time?
Patrick Bach: I think you're completely right. That was more or less the first time we had a stab at a single-player component for Battlefield in the studio. Not only were we creating Battlefield on a console, we also did single-player, and we created a completely new game engine on top of that. So why have a few problems when you can have plenty of them? So we kind of stacked up all the problems and of course in the final product you can see that there are some really positive sides, but there are also some weak spots where you can say, hmmm, that could have been done better. So it's an obvious answer to focus on the weak spots, but if you only focus on the weak spots and try to mend them, you kind of lack the vision of where you could go. So we tried to take that aside, and then create a new vision for where we wanted to go in the end. What's the ultimate goal for the single player for a Battlefield game?
And of course Battlefield is all about the sandbox, the vehicles, the variation and stuff like that, so those were the keywords we took into single-player. On top of that we took what's good about the single player [in the last game]. A lot of people liked the squad, but some people felt it lacked military focus. It's a military shooter, so why does it feel they're just playing around? So by adding the back story, making sure that people got the back story, making sure that all the weapons and vehicles and all the military stuff gets more focus... It's not that it wasn't there, it's just that people didn't see it. It's also partly due to how the game was marketed. It was marketed as a goofy, happy gun-gun game, and that's also something we took with us here - to show what the game is all about, to market it in the right way so people "get" it.
Q: So you want this game to be perceived as being less goofy - or taken more seriously, perhaps I should say?
PB: "Taken more seriously" is probably better because the squad is still there, and they still have the same personalities. We got a lot of positive feedback - extremely positive feedback - that the game felt more personal, in a way more realistic, than other shooters. It wasn't a superhero game; it was a game about people in a war. So that is of course something you want to build on, and make sure that you get the same feeling and the same warmth from the actual people, so they're likeable. You don't want the hard-ass guy that no-one cares about - you want the guy that, you know, I can relate to that person. That's probably something I would say if I was in this situation. So you want likeable characters. And then of course one of the big things that we found lacking, and that we felt we could expand on, was the variation. Not only from a vision standpoint, because we can make pretty visuals and go from place to place, but also in terms of gameplay - making sure it's not the same run and gun all the time. When it's the infantry experience its how the enemies behave, how the squad behaves, and also the gameplay objectives - why am I here, what am I supposed to do? And then on top of that you add all the vehicular action that is a part of when you play multiplayer - you can man a machine gun, take a ride in a helicopter, drive this vehicle to wherever you want - and you make that a part of the single-player as well. You give people the full spectrum battlefield, so to speak, instead of just having a maze and a rail.
Q: From what I've played so far of the single player, it feels like there will be a lot of set pieces mixed into the action. If you look at Modern Warfare 2's campaign, it was almost like an extended set piece. What do you think is the optimum balance for this, to make a good first person shooter?
PB: I think we're getting to a point where we can actually prove that we know this is what we want to give the player. The balance with set pieces... A set piece is an awesome narrative tool to get you from A to B to C. You make sure that everyone sees this cool movie, but it feels like a game. Everyone will see the same movie, and you will get the same experience, and therefore you can orchestrate it and direct it to be exactly this or exactly that. But then again you want freedom - not only in terms of choices, but also the feeling that it's not on rails. This wall is not part of the maze, this wall is a wall. I wonder what's behind it. I'll blow it up and have a look. Because that's a very important part of how your brain works. You want to find out more, and to find out more in a classical linear narrative arc... you want the page-turner thing. I wonder what will happen next. But in a game, since you're in control, you want to figure that out. I wonder what will happen if I go this way? I wonder what will happen if I shoot that guy and take his vehicle and I drive that instead of running? I think the game wants me to run, but I will try to challenge it. And you don't want the game to break, you want the game to handle that in the way you expect it to. And I think that's the biggest challenge: how do you handle a maze where you can break the walls? Then you lose that kind of narrative pacing that you're striving for. So what we're trying to do is to build both. You build the path because you want the narrative arc, but on top of that you have to build a system that can handle when things break and when things change. I can tell you that is quite challenging!
Q: How important are the destruction mechanics to this game? Are you concerned it will just be perceived as "The destruction game"?
PB: When we talk to the marketing or PR people they want you to pick one thing about the game, "what's unique about this game", and we'll say the destruction so they'll build the marketing campaign about destruction. When we started we said we will build the engine to support the destruction in a way that we haven't seen before because we asked ourselves "what will all games have in five years?" And it was more than five years ago when we started, we saw that as a piece of the puzzle. You want physics in a game, you want rendering, you want trees, you want rocks, you want soil, you want all these pieces and we saw destruction as one of these pieces. It's not a feature you put on top of things; it's actually a piece of the environment. The environment is now destructible, yes, but it also can do other things where destruction is part of that system, so it's really more part of the sandbox rather than a feature or tool that goes on top of the sandbox. To your point destruction isn't a feature that you want people to say this game is about destruction, it's a game of Battlefield where destruction is a part of the environment. Of course destruction is all around you, the bigger the gun, the bigger the hole.
The cooler thing with our destruction is the result over time. Even in single-player when you start the map everything is pristine and tidy and when you're done it's just a burning wreck. Everything is changed, there are no more hiding points and you can't play the game the same way as you did at the beginning of the map. You actually have to change your play style and this creates a very dynamic game world. If somebody hides behind the same wall to snipe you can destroy this in the game. This keeps everyone on their toes and I think that's really cool, the way you can screw with people's behaviors by changing the environment.
Check back soon for part two of our interview with Patrick Back, in which he talks about MAG and the challenges in making a game that supports so many online players.