DICE's Creative Director on Battlefield 4, Lars Gustavsson, talks to T3 about brining a touch of human reality to EA technologically impressive shooter
Battlefield 4's demo really looks like an action movie shot from a first person perspective. Is that the intention - to put the player in what feels like a Hollywood blockbuster action movie?
Overall, I think everything we've been doing with this game, when it comes to single-player, has had a lot of our focus on putting in multiple angles. When it comes to the attempt to delivering a human connection to what is happening to the humans you see on the screen, we've taken a lot away from Battlefield 3 in what we did right and what we could have done a lot better. I'd say, though, we learned a lot about how to build a story and how to build human engagement.
This time round we'll be focussing on one main character, and the story will be less about the geo-politics surround them. That'll just be a backdrop that motivates who you are and why you're doing what you're doing, but the story will be about the character and the group he's in and the relationships and different agendas in the immediate situation.
From that perspective, when we built the technology for the game, a lot of it was aimed at removing the flaws and have the player focus on just what's happening on the screen.
On that point, you're saying a lot of the technology is about removing visual and production flaws? Do you think the problems Battlefield 3 had with its story and its human engagement can be solved by technology?
Look, technology is beautiful, don't get me wrong, but it's almost like... Well, let me put it this way; I had an interesting class in EA for Creative Directors. We had a series of people from different entertainment industries to describe different techniques. One of them was a stage magician, who at the time was working in Vegas at the time. His point was his performance was all about how things look, and not how things work behind the scenes.
We work really hard with our tech and we are extremely tech savvy, but in the end, [the tech] can't take the upper hand. It can't take control of your product. We have to bear the motivation in mind; why do we do it and what are we trying to achieve with this tech. Look, I think we did a great job with Battelfield 3 and the Frostbite 2 engine, but those are simply the foundations for what we've built since. That's all aimed at making animations flow, to make characters come alive - to hopefully make players stop concentrating on the inner workings. In the end you end up in a kind of uncanny valley. We need to bridge that gap and reach the point where players stop caring about visual tics. Otherwise it would be easier just to use cel-shaded characters.
We also work hard with the technology to open up the gameplay and give the player more tools. Like I said, technology is beautiful, but you have to keep in mind why you're building it in the first place.
It seems there's a huge new focus on the characters. In the demo I was really impressed in how human - and non bot-like - their movements were and how they had visual and vocal tics that made them seem more alive. Was that one of you big goals in how you used the tech?
Oh yes, if we talk tech and animations; we're using real actors in making this game - maybe you saw Michael K Williams (from The Wire) in there. If you create great tech and you have lousy characters you won't obtain a decent result. Same thing if you uses great actors and crappy tech. You have to make sure you have all the pieces are in place for you to deliver. There's not a night that passes where we aren't worried that we haven't checked everything. When you're building a game you get very close to it so you can be incredibly confident in your own work and then you show it to someone else and their reaction is 'uh-oh!'
On that note, one of the aspects of the demo that I felt almost broke the immersion, was the scene where two of the soldiers had to cut off the leg of a third in order to free him from under some fallen rubble. It was done so quickly and it seemed unrealistic. But to make that scene realistic, you'd be creating something that may get you into trouble with the MPAA ratings board. Do you find the graphical fidelity of your game makes some areas of authenticity off limits?
Well that comes back to the uncanny valley I was talking about earlier. Once you step beyond there, you're stepping into a dangerous place and we work hard to bridge that.
In the instance you're talking about, one of the soldiers comments that the person with his legs under the rubble, has legs that are absolutely crushed. So the leg is actually only hanging off by just the skin. So that allows us some leeway there.
It's exactly as you say, though: we're trying to deliver on a bold vision. It's an exciting journey to see how it all comes together, though. To build drama on this scale is quite an undertaking.
You're also touching on some touchy politics in the main story. One of the critcisms levelled at Modern Warfare 2 came over the fact that a lot of Russian audience members didn't like the way their country was portrayed in that game. You're reveal hints at a plot that involves high-ranking Chinese and Russian officials and a US top brass that's quite willing to sacrifice their soldiers. How are you navigating that without alienating huge audience number?
Obviously it's a minefield. I remember I was lead designer on Battlefield 2 and already by then we were looking at places in the world to set the story and we ended up, instead of setting it in a real country, we invented something called the MEC - the Middle Eastern Coalition. That's because we didn't want to make any grand political statement. We wanted to make an exciting game and we wanted to tell a story.
It's the same thing here - even though the setting is far more relatable. It's something that we have in our heads day and night; the key is that the story is about a group of people caught in the middle of a series of events, rather than some big geo-political statement. The geo-politics are simply a backdrop to a human story. You're right, though, it's something you have to be careful with...