At EA's recent April Showcase, we caught up with DICE's Niklas Fegraeus, lead designer on Battlefield 3: Close Quarters, to talk about the upcoming expansion to the popular FPS, reflect on BF3's successes, and discuss the state of the genre in general.
Matt Gardner (Dealspwn): Battlefield 3 has long been a series synonymous with vast maps, vehicular combat, and the open-warfare captured in its brand title. Why take that action inside into a cramped environment, and why now?
Niklas Fegraeus (DICE): I think the strength of Battlefield, as a game, is that it is this big sandbox where you can have all of these different experiences. I think it's probably the greatest strength of the game - that one second you can be this, you know, squad soldier with his friends running around, covering an area, protecting zones and flags - and then the next second you can jump into a jet and just soar through the air and start blowing up tanks or whatever.
I think what we as a studio wanted to do was emphasise and capitalise on those experiences. So when we thought about how to do this, we began breaking the game down into those core experiences, and that what you see now. So with Close Quarters, our second expansion pack [after Back To Karkand], you can really focus in on that infantry combat; and then in the fall we have Armored Kill, which focuses on perhaps our more traditional epic-scale, vehicular warfare stuff.
When I play Battlefield I play all of those thing. Sometimes I jump into a tank, because that's what I want to do at that moment, and then the next moment I might run around on foot because I want to have that experience. With these expansions, I can now have focused content dedicated to those experiences, and giving the player those options has always been a big part of the plan for Battlefield 3.
Matt Gardner: This new focus on close quarters combat has led to a new variation on a classic Battlefield game mode too. Can you tell us a little bit about Conquest Domination?
Niklas Fegraeus: Conquest Domination is simply a marriage between our traditional Conquest recipe, and those tight infantry combat elements. We tweaked some of the rules and fiddled a bit with how the game works to create an action-heavy, but still very tactical Conquest experience.
Matt Gardner: I have to say, playing the Donya Fortress map, it became rather quickly apparent that teams that stuck together did far better than teams of mavericks, and there's a much faster pace to this Conquest experience, and you constantly have to be watching your back and watching entry and exit points.
Niklas Fegraeus: Exactly, that adrenaline rush, that intense nature, is at the core of the Conquest Domination experience. Everything happens much faster. so when you capture a flag point, for example, you know that you are in this room. Enemies can't come from every angle, they can come from that door, or that tunnel. So you say to yourself, I need to cover these routes, we need to work together as a squad to secure this area. So have still have tactical elements, there's still an emphasis on teamwork that I think has always been a part of the Battlefield experience, but now with a heightened sense of pace and action and tension.
Matt Gardner: That was very much reflected in the trailer we saw, with chips of wood and chunks of plaster flying everywhere, but although that seemed a little exaggerated compared to the few rounds we've just played here, it did seem like walls were a little more prone to bullets than before. How much has the engine been tweaked for this expansion?
Niklas Fegraeus: We have pushed for something we call 'HD destruction'. So when you're surrounded by destructible materials, so you have these walls and fences and furniture etc., if those things were to remain static, it wouldn't really bring the nature of an indoor firefight to life. so we really wanted to push the destruction to its limits, we really tried to use every ounce of extra juice we could from the engine to take advantage of these smaller environments in order to bring that HD destruction to life.
Things are flying all over the place from just rifle fire, and the debris from that rifle fire just piles up on the floor, and creates this sense of "Damn, I can really shoot the crap out of this place!" and I think that's important for the experience, and I'm really happy where we ended up.
Matt Gardner: That's true, I mean previously you needed fairly heavy ordinance to rip chunks out of walls, but obviously that's limited in an infantry-only expansion. Have you made the maps and the walls themselves structurally weaker to facilitate this HD destruction?
Niklas Fegraeus: I would say that we've simply included different types of walls. There are still really heavy walls and surfaces, and if you fire your rifle at them you won't make a hole, because it's made of reinforced concrete or whatever. But then again, we have walls of really thin plaster that you can rip apart with just a few rounds, to create holes and see into the next room, opening up new tactical options. So in terms of map design, we've tried to make it more visually interesting and tactically challenging for players. The destruction means a lot more in this expansion simply because players are all contained in these smaller environments.
Matt Gardner: Perhaps one of the main criticisms of Battlefield 3 when it emerged, were the suggestions that DICE was trying to play someone else's game rather than their own, with a number of comparisons to Call of Duty. Taking the Battlefield experience inside, are you worried about further comparisons with Activision's elephant in the room?
Niklas Fegraeus: I think that there are always going to be comparison between modern day shooters, simply because they portray a lot of the same things, with similar kinds of experiences. So you have soldiers fighting other soldiers in modern scenarios, on battlefields you'd see on the news or whatever. So comparisons are always going to be part of it. The most important thing for us is to think more about how we make the experience of our game really cool and really fun, and that's what our challenge is. Whatever it's being compared to, whatever feedback comes, we take that to heart of course, but it's kind of unavoidable, that's the reality of it.
Matt Gardner: Well we have three shooters here today [BF3, MOH: Warfighter, Crysis 3], and although the FPS genre has always been popular, do you think we're reaching a crunch point of shooter fatigue in the industry? The statement "there are too many shooters" pops up a fair bit in comments sections and forums, do you think that's true? Has the genre become oversaturated?
Niklas Fegraeus: That's a good question and, as you say, the shooter genre has been around for a very long time, and it's growing every year. It's the biggest video game genre today, so I don't think there's a huge worry. But if it were to happen, if there was shooter fatigue and people started leaving the genre, I think the challenge for a developer in that genre would be to find what makes it interesting again. I mean, that's always the challenge, right?
I only see a bright future for Battlefield because we enjoyed some great success with BF3, we're really happy, and the fans are fantastic, and so I look at it very optimistically. Everyone's very happy and proud of where we are.
Matt Gardner: Looking back on the last six months or so, a large part of the Battlefield 3 experience has been the introduction of Battlelog - giving players feedback, stat-tracking, bragging tools, and creating a central hub for a burgeoning Battlefield community. What have DICE learned from the release of Battlefield 3 and the elevation of the brand into this massive global force?
Niklas Fegraeus: It's been a huge learning experience. Introducing something like Battlelog was a massive undertaking, and I think everyone is really happy with the way we landed on our feet, and how the fans have understood what Battlelog is supposed to be. I think having that sense of community realised in a quantifiable sense has really helped, and it does increase your relationship with the game, and hopefully the series going forward.
Matt Gardner: I've been a Battlefield fan for the best part of a decade now, getting into the series with Battlefield Vietnam. Not many people had explored the setting and that kind of appealed to me, and Conquest was a huge part of that. But I also hugely enjoyed the Bad Company series. Is there a possibility of Bad Company 3 in the future?
Niklas Fegraeus: Well there's a possibility, of course, but nothing that we have announced. We like to keep doors open at DICE, and if it turns out that everyone wants Bad Company 3 then that's what we'll do.
Matt Gardner: On a personal level, I found the narrative elements of Bad Company 2 to be better than those of Battlefield 3. Though I could respect the framing devices of Battlefield 3, the squad aspect in single player - creating a relationship between the player and these larger-than-life characters - worked for me.
Niklas Fegraeus: Well it depends what works for the game in question. Bad Company was all about having that squad of misfit guys, indulging in that banter, that camaraderie. People loved that, but with Battlefield 3 we really wanted to have that authentic feeling to it. It depends what you want the game to portray. Everyone's going to like different bits and things, it just comes down to where the creative process ends up. So it's difficult to look into the future and see exactly where we'll end up in a year or two's time.
Matt Gardner: It interesting that you mention authenticity, and that's become something of a buzzword today, with the guys at Danger Close stating that they're making "the most authentic FPS ever". But do you feel that the FPS as a genre can hope to deal maturely with real-life events, and the emotional impact and the moral greyness of war?
Niklas Fegraeus: I do, I really do. I think that games offer such a unique platform for classic storytelling and drama, and those tools you use to stir up emotions in the player. Interactivity, which is this amazingly magical additional layer that you add on top of what you might term "normal" storytelling, that's the key.
The games industry is still very young in comparison with other mediums, especially when it comes to storytelling and exploring how interactivity can feature in that. Often the stuff that we've seen in the past owes more to cinema and books than games themselves. So there's still a long way to go, there are still loads of new and interesting methods of storytelling to explore, and that's a future I'm looking forward to experiencing, and I hope to be as much a part of it as I can.
Matt Gardner: Are Danger Close right? Do they have the most authentic shooter, or have DICE got it in the bag?
Niklas Fegraeus: I think the key difference here is focus. They're very much focusing on the Tier 1 Operator, that really, really, super-trained, elite soldier, who gets deployed for pinpoint operations across the globe. Battlefield, on the other hand, is all about the big war machine, and the range of experiences within that umbrella.From the foot soldier, to the armoured vehicles, to the screaming jets overhead, all that stuff. So I think authenticity is key for both Battlefield 3 and Medal of Honor, but from slightly different perspectives, with slightly different approaches to the modern military shooter. At the end of the day, that's what gives these two games games their separate individual strengths and appeal.
Matt Gardner: So what does authenticity mean to you, to DICE, and to Battlefield?
Niklas Fegraeus: Well I think there's an important distinction to be made between authenticity and realism. I think that some people tend to confuse the two. When people talk about realism, then you're talking about making the experience real, making it reflect the reality of the situation. And, to be fair, war in real life is not very fun, I would imagine. I have never been to war, of course, but I'd imagine it would be pretty horrible. I think what you want to do, when talking about how to make an authentic experience, is to take the elements that make your version of war, the one that you present in the game, believable.
It can come down to simple things: does the scope look like a real scope? Do the enemies respond to gunfire appropriately? Is the sound of a bullet hitting a wall right? That's what makes it believable. In that sense, it's important to make the game world authentic, it fits, it works, it makes sense. But it's also important to remember that you're making a game, to remember that it has to be fun to play, whether with friends or alone. I don't think it's right to necessarily ignore that aspect in favour of something you could call "realistic". Making your game world authentic is key. Realism is a much more difficult concept to apply.
Matt Gardner: With Close Quarters there is a sense that Battlefield is perhaps breaking slightly new ground itself, even as it enters a domain currently dominated by other franchises. What is it that you feel elevates Battlefield, and makes it stand out from the competition?
Niklas Fegraeus: What makes Battlefield stand out is its versatility. We're able to offer a wide-range of experiences, with a focus on squad play, and working together, and that's really what this new content is all about. Not only that, but Frostbite 2 allows for dynamic environments, to bring the game world life with accurate physic and destruction elements and the like. This is just a focus on one part of the Battlefield experience. If you likeBattlefield, if you like the core mechanics, it's just going to emphasise that further and you'll feel right at home.
It's about giving players the freedom of choice. If you'd rather jump in a jet, or roll out in a tank then you can go do that as well. You can pick and choose your game experiences, and we want to make sure that as many tastes are catered for as possible.
Matt Gardner: Well you're following this up with Armored Kill...
Niklas Fegraeus: Exactly, so there'll be something for everyone, and we're going to have some absolutely huge maps for that one.
Matt Gardner: Can you tell us anything at all about the third part of the new DLC - End Game?
Niklas Fegraeus: (Laughs) Oh no, we're not talking about End Game right now. We're trying to make some really cool, themed expansions, and End Game will be no different in that respect. But as far as details go, it'll be revealed later this year. You'll have to wait and see.
Matt Gardner: Thanks for your time today.
Niklas Fegraeus: Thank you.
Battlefield 3: Close Quarters is out this June for PC, PS3, and Xbox 360, with Armored Kill arriving in the autumn, and End Game this winter.