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 meantime 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. Read on for his thoughts on MAG, the first-person shooters he's looking forward to, and the future of Battlefield.
Q: There are a lot of first-person shooters coming out this year. Which one in particular are you worried about in terms of the competition?
Patrick Bach: To be honest, I'm not worried. I think it depends on what you want. If I want a first-person shooter and I'm into cowboys and Indians, and this game is a modern day military shooter, then this isn't what I want. If you want a game like Battlefield then I would argue there is no competition. There is no other game that can give you this package of, firstly all of the multiplayer components, the vehicular action with on foot action with all these game modes and 24 players with destruction. There is no-one that I've heard of so far that is doing this. And I know single-player is the same thing, we have such variety, we have all the personality of the squad and on top of that the more serious scenario the game is set in. There are some really interesting games coming out that I would like to play to see if they are fun.
Q: Was there any one in particular that caught your interest?
PB: I'm looking forward to seeing what Brink is all about. I think it looks interesting. I wouldn't say its competition but it is a different take on the genre and I like it when people try to think differently.
Q: The game I wanted to ask you about is MAG. The unique feature for them is these huge 256 player battles. Do you think that the Battlefield games would work on that scale?
PB: I would rephrase the question and ask "is more numbers fun?" We ask ourselves how many players is fun? In Battlefield 2 we supported 64 players but the most popular game mode was 32 players because with 64 players it created chaos and you couldn't get any structure on the battlefield. Stuff is happening everywhere and it just feels chaotic. With 32 players you can get some structure and everyone can compete in a better way. If you base a game on a number, that this game is fun just because the number is high, I think you're going down the wrong path. I'm not pointing at any specific games, but if you're trying to sell a product based on a number then I think you're forgetting what is important with a game, and that is "how well does it play?". "How balanced is the game?" You can take the same feature list that we have and place it in a really crappy game because the feature list only tells you what is under the hood but it doesn't tell you how it drives. And that of course is the hardest emotion to convey; how do you sell that emotion? How do you sell quality? What is quality? Well, it just feels right. Well, it's two thousand components working in correlation to get it to feel right and you can't really point a single one of them out, and if you have to, you have to pick something like destruction or the number of vehicles or weapons. This is why we want people to get hands on with it; this is why we have the beta and the demo, so they can see what it feels like to play instead of trying to whack a number in someone's face and saying "we have more".
Q: I'm just curious. From a first-person shooter perspective, you talked about balance earlier - it just sounds like having that many players would make it almost impossible to balance it out.
PB: Yeah. I tried it myself at an early stage. It's hard to say. You need to play it for an hour to actually say this is something I will spend time on. I think that's why it's hard, if you don't have a single-player component, to get people's attention for more than 10 minutes. If you don't like the first 20 minutes of a really, really deep game, then you might miss out on the awesomeness that will show up. If you don't have a single-player component you have to rely on that those first five minutes are awesome or that people are invested in the game so they keep playing even if they don't get it. It's a hard balance. We tried to do both. In multiplayer it's been a focus for us for the game to be easy and fun the first time you play it, because Battlefield is a huge system with all these things that can happen, and it's really hard to throw someone in there for the first time. You have all the things going on and you have to figure out what to do, who to kill and where to go. The more players you have, the more chaotic that might be.
Q: Do you think they've taken a big risk then? That's what some people seem to think, even if the multiplayer is really good. Going into it without a single-player game, do you think that's kind of a roll of a dice?
PB: Yes. We've done that. We've made multiplayer-only games and we know that you'll hit kind of a limit on how many people start to pick it up. So we went away from it for a reason, and we noticed with Bad Company 1 that that was a good way of seeing it. We still know how to build a great multiplayer, and you want that, but you also want the drama and adventure of a single-player game that can feed into that portion of the consumer base. Yes, it's a big risk to pick one or the other.
Q: Having said that, Battlefield 1943 was multiplayer only. It's a smaller project, but a massive success. When I spoke to Gordon Van Dyke a few months ago I got the impression that you guys weren't in a massive rush to follow that up. That surprised me as it's a great game. Why the reticence to make another one?
PB: I wouldn't say that we're not thinking of it, because we are. It was an experiment and a successful one. Great quality. People got it. Some people hadn't played Battlefield before, so they got their first taste of it, and thought, wait a minute, this is actually awesome. We think that will obviously be a good connection to this product. If you got the quick fix from 1943, this will be the main dish. We haven't said no to building more digital distribution-only games, but we need to be careful. You shouldn't just try to make money out of things. Just because it's a success, doesn't mean you want to milk it. Battlefield is a delicate product that we want to make sure we're getting the most out of. Pushing out more 1943-like products could actually damage the franchise.
Q: It's a nice attitude that you don't want to milk the franchise. A lot of people don't take that attitude. Moving on; Battlefield 3, when that comes out... is it going to have a hard time following this game?
PB: Personally, I have a lot of confidence in the studio. There's no one that can match us when it comes to technical, artistic and gameplay balancing. I'm not worried about the quality of any future products. I'm quite sure that whatever might show up from DICE in the future, this will be the stepping stone to what might come up in the future. So, no, I'm not worried.
Q: One aspect of Bad Company 2's multiplayer which sounds really interesting is the hardcore mode. It sounds almost as if you're moving into ArmA, Op Flash territory...
PB: Yeah, it's more like that. Of course you can choose. You can choose if you want to play in this mode or not, but I can tell you that those layers of complexity, of how big the game is, really add to the whole thing. You can play the game your way, without trying to sound like a gimmick. Most of the things we're doing are feeding into player behaviours. Everyone at DICE is an individual. We don't want a game that is tailored to one specific person. We want it to be like: I like shooters, therefore I will like this game. How can we satisfy anyone?
Q: Lots of people are really worried about casual games, and I understand that as gaming has opened up, the Wii has brought people in. There's a concern that hardcore experiences are being diluted. Is that a valid concern?
PB: Yes, I think people are right in that. The biggest problem is that people made a lot of money on making noob-friendly games, because then the big mass market can pick it up. It generates money and then everyone wants to make their games, well, we can call them accessible, but in most cases it's not accessible, it's sloppy and kind of stupid. I think it's the attitude on how to create something that is accessible. It's like movies. You can make a movie that your mum can watch, but you can also love it and think this is a really good movie on a different plane to what mum likes. The great movies include everyone, but on different levels, and I think that's the challenge of making an accessible game. Accessible doesn't mean you make it stupid. It only means that when you pick it up, you will get it. Then it can be as deep or as hardcore as any shooter. We use rank to make sure you only meet people who are of a similar level, and on top of that we have the more extreme modes - you know, some people in the studio hate these. I don't want to play it. I'll just die. That is correct, you will die. If you're not cautious you will die. If you don't play together you will die, and that's the fun part of it.
Q: Do you think there's a chance hardcore gaming could die out? In 10 years time are we still going to have hardcore gaming?
PB: I will be very surprised if hardcore gaming disappears. I think more and more people are understanding what hardcore gaming means, because of the opening up to a broad audience. So there are people who didn't know they were hardcore gamers, who are introduced to more aggressive game modes, like the one we're showing here today. So I think that will open up. It's like sports. Just because a sport is small, doesn't make it hardcore. Just because fewer people play ping pong than football, doesn't make football a sissy sport. You can play it on different levels, and you can be more or less hardcore. You can play it on a party, you can play it in international leagues. It's not the sport itself that makes it hardcore or not hardcore, but then you have sports that are only hardcore. Lacrosse, and stuff like that. You think, why would you play that? There are different ways of seeing it. There will always be people who want to have their unique little quirky game mode. We still have people that only play 1942. They like that and will stick to it. They will not move on. We try to take the best pieces from all our Battlefield games and merge them into the game we have today. So, hardcore gaming, absolutely, but it will change.
Q: I'm curious. When you're playing Bad Company 2, what class do you favour?
PB: I think that because of my personality, I will play Assault, because I play stupid. I'm very aggressive and like to humiliate the enemy, finding snipers and stabbing them in the neck. That's of course the straightforward approach. You fall back into that when other classes don't work out. You've got to play it for a few hours to find your favourite class, and then your favourite game mode.
Battlefield: Bad Company 2 is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on March 5.