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Battlefield 1 Interview: "It's Not Worth Stepping on People's Memories"

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A conversation with DICE's Lars Gustavsson and Danny Berlin about the game's origins, setting, and storytelling potential.

On Thursday last week, one day ahead of Battlefield 1's world premiere, EA aired a nine-second teaser video which depicted a man's face looking up to the sky, eyes wide and mouth agape, as something out of sight engulfs his head in shadow.

Naturally the question was what, exactly, was the man gazing up at. One hopeful person at GameSpot was praying it was a giant Reaper vessel from the Mass Effect series, leading to his dream scenario of a series crossover. Another thought it could be some advanced manned airship that would push the Battlefield series into the near-future so it could encroach on the space that Call of Duty is occupying.

It was, in fact, a zeppelin; a humongous sky vessel commercialised just before the First World War and had sunk into obscurity shortly thereafter.

In teaser-trailer parlance, a Giant Thing in the Sky is an ideal way to catch the eye, but there's more to the zeppelin than razzmatazz. It is a colossal floating symbol of how fast technology was moving at the time. It was strange and impressive and alien and, when it cast its shadow, a little terrifying.

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Lars Gustavsson, design director DICE, reminds me that WWI had thrust time forward. It triggered the outset of the world war age, it catalysed the fall of empires, and it brought in the industrial age.

"Just imagine being a farmer during this time," he says.

"You've never seen a car, you've never seen a bicycle in fact, and then comes an armoured tank and an airship. It's just hard to imagine that contrast."

But how much of the real time and place will Battlefield 1 tread into? Where will it draw the line between fiction and history? We spoke with Gustavsson and lead designer Danny Berlin shortly after the Battlefield 1 world premiere to get more of the finer details.

GAMESPOT: Prior to this interview I asked some of my colleagues what they immediately would like to know about Battlefield 1, and the most popular question was about the zeppelins.

Gustavsson: Ah.

They wanted to know whether the zeppelins can be piloted, and more about their role in this world you've created.

Gustavsson: Haha, this is a tricky one. These are... [Long pause]

Is it a case of you not knowing the answer yet, or...?

Gustavsson: No it's more than that, we have areas that we are starting to talk about, and there's areas that we're going to talk about later. But just like you see in the trailer, there's a plenitude of vehicle types. You saw the battleship in the trailer, you saw a lot of interesting stuff, so there will definitely be new and cool gameplay in there.

I get the impression from your answer that there will be talk about the zeppelins at some point. Are you holding that information back?

Gustavsson: Yeah we're saving it for a later date.

No Caption Provided

Okay then, let's talk about something else. At the Battlefield 1 presentation, your colleague Alex [Grøndal, senior producer] spoke about multiplayer and referred to a "persistent squad system" - I wasn't sure what that meant and was hoping you could clarify.

Gustavsson: I think, traditionally, we haven't gone all the way with joining people as a group and keeping them as a group all the way through a multiplayer session, but with a persistent squad you get to team up, get into a server together, but also switch between the servers throughout the session. You can jump between experiences without having to break up your group.

Team-play is so important in Battlefield, so knowing that you can still have the same team and same squad as you persist through everything is important. That's the message we got from the community.

So about the name: is the "1" in reference to the WWI setting, or something else?

Berlin: It's not, actually. We're calling it Battlefield 1 for a couple reasons. First off, we've never had a Battlefield 1 before. We started with Battlefield 1942, and went from there. But in the same way, we're also titling it this way because we're going back to our roots. We're bringing back that Battlefield flavour, with sandbox maps and wide open places for you to play. We're seeing how we can take our roots and make them something new again in 2016.

Speaking of roots, multiplayer is often the thing that makes a Battlefield game a Battlefield game. What will be different this time around? You mentioned a few scenarios that lead me to believe you're breaking away from some of DICE's recent series entries.

Berlin: It's more important that you pay attention to the world this time around. There's that rock-paper-scissors Battlefield is known for. With land, air, and sea combat, we're stretching that into even more possibilities.

There's this common misconception that WWI was just muskets or something. But it wasn't. It was a time of new weapons--bolt-action rifles, automatic rifles, semi-automatic rifles. The freedom we have is massive.

There's this common misconception that WWI was just muskets or something. But it was a time of new weapons.

Danny Berlin, DICE

This was the first time ever that people saw light tanks, heavy tanks, armored trucks. If you pop your head up from a trench and see a tank about to roll over you, you should get out of there. In the air, we have bombers to clear the way for your troops. If you're in a bomber, you might want to have a buddy scouting for you on the ground. Dogfights with multiple people in planes, someone in the rear seat shooting at the person behind you. And of course battleships can demolish entire shorelines.

These vehicles and weapons and methods will all play into each other, in true Battlefield fashion.

Will that open nature that you're returning to be present in single player as well? You mentioned on stage that the campaign aspects might give us more freedom as well.

Berlin: We can't talk a lot about single player yet, but yes, we're trying to lend that feel of a Battlefield match to the single player as well. There are stories we're telling, and they lend themselves well to those larger areas and maps you've come to associate Battlefield with over the years.

Let's talk more about World War One, because it appears this game will be set within the events of that conflict. Are you building fiction or is the game based on historical facts?

Gustavsson: It is set against the backdrop of World War One. As we started this, after Battlefield 4, we asked ourselves how can we build new experiences and new fun gameplay. I've been doing this almost half my life now, for seventeen years, and with that I feel we have an obligation to find new ways for people to have fun.

So when we started to look at the different possibilities, we quickly saw that there was something there [with World War One]. Ever since we've had mods, in fact there was a very important one called Battlefield 1918, we have nurtured the dream that we should do this [set a game in World War One].

What we realized when we did our research was that this [WWI] really was the dawn of all-out war, it was the dawn of modern warfare. A lot of hardware was created during this time, from mechanized warfare and camouflage, so to depict it is such a great opportunity.

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What should players expect to see in terms of historical accuracy?

Gustavsson: As always since Battlefield 1942, we have done extensive research into finding the authenticity and picked out the core gameplay pillars. One of those core gameplay pillars is perceived realism.

What do you mean by that, "perceived realism"?

Gustavsson: It is that we base the game on authenticity, and we extract those pieces to create a game, meaning that we don't get bogged down by history.

It's interesting you say that, because what immediately springs to mind with World War One is trench warfare, operational paralysis, trenchfoot, a severe lack of progress, near-suicidal attempts to go over the line.

Gustavsson: From a certain point-of-view, that was one of our fears as we walked into the project. But when we started to look at it, this was a worldwide conflict. It stretched from China to Europe and all over the globe. Trench Warfare was just a small part of it. The fights in the deserts, the fights up in the mountains of Italy--there were so many things that I, at least, hadn't heard about.

I always thought the battle for oil started later, in the Second World War, but it started within this era. So we went from the picture you're painting, but realized that there's so much more to World War One than trench warfare. There was the invention of new technology, the need for new weapons, the creation of light machine guns.

The world changed during WW1. There were four great empires that ceased to exist just because of it. Lots of great inventions came about during it, even things you don't think about like trench coats and zippers and teabags.

When you were on stage with Alex, he said that this war would be told through several different perspectives. So the implication is that the single-player campaign takes you across the world and shows you their stories through different battles. Would that be accurate?

Gustavsson: Yes, you get to follow their views of the war. Through them you get to see how the war changed the world, and how people were changed by the war. It really was the death of the old world and the birth of the new.

So these several heroes, will they be fighting battles that actually took place?

Gustavsson: I can't go into too much detail; it's something we're saving for later. I'm really looking forward to digging deeper into the topic.

Okay, so generally speaking then, is the wider idea inspiration or is it replication?

Gustavsson: [Long pause] Let's start with inspiration.

I noticed one inspiration in the trailer; a bright red triplane. Just from a legal perspective, are you allowed to name a character The Red Baron?

Gustavsson: In anything we do, just like with treating history with respect, we need to double-check all our decisions. It's easy to make those mistakes.

No Caption Provided

Is it the Red Baron, then?

Gustavsson: I will be talking about this at a later date.

What, do you think, are the ethical challenges in making entertainment out of a real war?

Gustavsson: So I've been part of the full journey since Battlefield 1942. And being a Swede, who had stood on the side during the world wars, many times you can find we were a bit naive because of that.

We realized this when we created Battlefield 1942. We got input from players all around the world, saying it was insensitive. Very quickly in this project, we realized that it's not worth stepping on people's memories for building a game.

Since Battlefield 2, in fact, we've been doing that. When we released that game, things in the middle east were sensitive, and so we created the Middle Eastern Coalition.

We're trying so hard to treat it respectfully. We want to depict the era, but with the purpose of building fun gameplay with variation. In the end, it's entertainment, we're not trying to make a statement.

We do want to surface the fact that there is more to the war than trenches. It's something that dawned on us, and I think it's going to be interesting for players as well as they get to play it. Hopefully it will broaden their horizons with what took place.

I imagine yourself and the lead designers would need to make those judgement calls all the time, as in what does and doesn't cross the line, about what's respectful, what's entertainment. It must be hard.

Gustavsson: It is. It's super hard.

Also I'm guessing that the more research you put into this, the more you find out about what happened, the more you're humbled by it. The more it gives you this profound sense of perspective, about what's really important and what isn't. And I imagine that makes your job harder still.

Gustavsson: Yeah, it does. Soon into the project we said let's not start by coming up with things, let's research everything. And we realized there were just so many things that inspired us. There was so much invention during this time. We even found out about fake trees used as camouflage for snipers.

There was so much invention during this time. Steampunk grew out of it. Tolkien was inspired by it.

Lars Gustavsson, DICE

Steampunk grew out of this. Tolkien was inspired by the war. There's so much that grew out of this inventiveness that, to be honest, you wouldn't need to come up with anything.

You also mentioned on stage that your destruction effects will be broader. This is something which you have reigned in on, at least a little, in recent Battlefields. Just how destructive will environments be in Battlefield 1?

Gustavsson: We're still holding back some elements of what we're doing, but as a whole, we have tried really hard to ensure that this is a really destructive environment. But as you heard during our presentation, one player controlled the dreadnought [Royal Navy battleship] and was levelling entire levels. I really hope players will appreciate it.

I wanted to turn attention to Battlelog too, EA's catch-all service for multiplayer games. It's been criticized for being laggy, for getting in the way, for causing more fuss than being useful. Will it be employed in Battlefield 1?

Gustavsson: It's an area that we'll be starting to talk more about later, but for us, Battlelog has been a great central hub that ties players together.

It's interesting that Battlefield has returned to its roots concerning pre-modern war. When you look at the future for the series, and indeed the genre, what do you see?

Gustavsson: It's always tricky to guess. But at least for us, the future is about enabling the players more and more, to shape their own experiences. To dictate the rules and guidelines for what they want to do. So I think it will be less about us telling the community what the game will be, and more seeing them as the directors of the experience.

Of course we still need to be at the helm of the ship. The famous line by Henry Ford springs to mind, in that if you asked people what they wanted before cars were invented, they'd ask for a faster horse.

I'm not saying the community doesn't come up with fantastic ideas. They do. But I think that to shape something great you still need to have a vision.

What you're saying reminds me that Battlefield is one of the bigger franchises where multiplayer superseded the single-player campaign in terms of importance. How important is the one-player story in Battlefield 1?

Gustavsson: To me, it's like both multiplayer and single-player have different roles to play. I think it's incredibly important to tell the story of this era. You have so many ways of telling that story. So I think both have important roles to play.

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Rob Crossley

Rob Crossley was GameSpot's UK Editor between 2014 and 2016.

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