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Electronic Arts unveiled Battlefield 4 at a special event this week during the Game Developers Conference. EA has a lot riding on the game, and Patrick Soderlund, executive vice president, is the one responsible for executing on the game’s development and launch this fall. The title depicts modern combat in an intensely dramatic and realistic way. (Here’s our preview)
As we noted earlier, the giant independent video game publisher is betting an awful lot on this game franchise. Battlefield 4 represents a huge investment by EA in a video game that feels like a next-generation experience, and consumers may have to invest in new hardware to play it. Battlefield 4 intends to make players feel as if they were completely immersed in a modern combat battle. This kind of game — coming this fall — is so important that it could make a difference for EA’s valuation in the stock market.
If EA messes the game up, as it did with last fall’s Medal of Honor: Warfighter first-person shooter, then it will lose another battle for consumers with rival Activision Blizzard. But if it pulls Battlefield 4 off flawlessly, it could sell millions more units than its predecessor did and take some market share from rival Call of Duty. EA has had more than 65 million people play its Battlefield games over the past decade. That represents sales in the billions of dollars. For the title, EA created a new version of the Frostbite engine, which renders the game world and its 3D animated sequences.
GamesBeat’s Rus McLaughlin and I caught up with Soderlund this week at the launch. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: You’re looking to do more storytelling and insert more drama in Battlefield. What was the thinking that went into that?
Patrick Soderlund: The thinking is, when we realized we had technology that was at the level that we have today: This is a team that continuously pushes the boundaries of what you can do. These are guys that want to be the best in the world. When they told me their vision for the product — that they wanted to make a game that was more believable, more human, where the characters meant something to you as the player — I had a hard time believing that they could pull that off. It sounded too ambitious. So I said, “Okay, prove it to me.” This was eight or nine months ago. They showed me a snippet of a character interaction, and it floored me.
GamesBeat: What was that interaction?
Soderlund: It was a simple scene where you had two characters talking. Then there was a little bit of involvement in the talking, some interaction. I found it to be more filmic, more dramatic, more believable than anything I’d seen before. That’s when I realized that I had to support them in this idea. As a game creator, I love their vision. I love their expression. I just felt like, “This could be really big if we do it right.” Fast forward X months and here we are. Hopefully you could see that on stage today.
GamesBeat: What more are you pouring into it now? This is a bigger effort, right? You have a new engine and a bunch of other new stuff.
Soderlund: We’re talking about what you saw today. Obviously Battlefield is a multiplayer game. We’ll talk about that later. The focus for us is to create a single-player experience that is more like that — a narrative multiplayer game. We want you to experience something that feels more open, more variable. You can play the game on your terms, rather than the game playing itself in front of you. Patrick said it very well on stage. We go back to our heritage, where we come from, which is multiplayer. As I said in my presentation, the DICE team has continued to improve. They’re now state-of-the-art storytellers as well as awesome multiplayer designers. To me, that’s the mix there, and it can become something unique and exciting.
GamesBeat: Can you tell us some details on the platforms?
Soderlund: [chuckles] The demo is on a custom-built PC to our own spec using Frostbite 3. Frostbite 3 is our own proprietary engine. It’s not a commercial engine.
GamesBeat: So the consoles are all kind of the same technology now? Do you think it will play equally about all of those?
Soderlund: This is not about consoles today. But Battlefield is a multiplatform technology. It’s always been.
GamesBeat: Were there some lessons that you got out of Medal of Honor that you can apply to this?
Soderlund: This has been in development at the same time that Medal of Honor was in development. These teams are very separate. They have different leadership. These guys need no hand-holding. They’ve proven that over and over again. You have to separate the two. This is nothing to do with Medal of Honor.
GamesBeat: Is there something about the demo, do you think, that shows that there’s a lot of room to grow in this category? Is there something here that will make people dish out the money for a new rig or a new console because the experience is so much better than Frostbite games before?
Soderlund: I can tell you whatever you want. You have to ask yourself what you saw. If you believe that’s the case, then that’s probably what consumers will agree with.
GamesBeat: What does Frostbite 3 let you do that Frostbite 2 didn’t? We were all very impressed by Frostbite 2
Soderlund: There are so many things that we can do. The characters that you saw today, we could not create them in Frostbite 2. If you want to go hardcore tech, there’s a bunch of features in the engine that we probably should keep to ourselves that allow us to show the game off, as far as visual fidelity. As you could see, there’s a lot of things moving around in the game. Effects and background detail and things, the sheer amount of moving objects.
You can take out a single technical feature and that could be cool if you’re watching at a GDC tech session. To us, it’s not about tech. It’s the sum of everything, from how the characters look to how they move to how actors, for the first time, are displayed the way they look in real life through the game. That’s why it feels believable. You see the movement of their faces. The gestures they make are the same ones they made when we captured their performances.
We almost had to create a new breed of game designers. We call them game directors now. We’re now directing actors to participate in an interactive experience. That’s something that we’ve had to learn. It took us a long while before we got there. The first test we saw, I said, “This isn’t going to work.” We had to learn how to get better at this so we could direct a game. It’s very cool, but at the same time, it posed some challenges. The guys have nailed it. I couldn’t be happier about what they’ve done. We’ll give consumers a very different experience than what they’re used to. I hope you saw that today.
GamesBeat: Are you going for more spectacular, over-the-top action, or are you going for something more human and real? Which of those words are more appealing to you?
Soderlund: Go back to what you saw. This is a demo that, believe it or not, is more than 17 minutes long. When you look at it, there’s a lot of quiet moments. That’s not a surprise. It’s designed that way. At the same time, this is an interactive entertainment experience. We have to give you the spectacle, that blockbuster feel. You don’t want to go too over the top, to the point where it feels unrealistic. It still has to feel kind of realistic. It needs to feel right. If it feels right, it’s good.
GamesBeat: One of the things that was mentioned during the demo was an element of persistence. Does that apply to the multiplayer, or to the single-player, and how?
Soderlund: As Patrick said, we looked at what elements of multiplayer progression and social interaction we could then carry over to single-player. We’re not talking in detail about it, but you may have seen some things happening on the screen. Comparing yourself to other friends and how they’re progressing in the game. There’s a lot of features like that.
GamesBeat: You said this speaks for itself, but is there also a message you want to send out with it?
Soderlund: Of course. The message is, “We’re here. We’re very serious about what we’re doing. We believe we have something special.” I know we have a world-class team working on this. I personally think that we’re at a point in gaming where we can deliver an experience that is more dramatic, more believable, more human, and a lot more filmic. I heard a lot of people walking out of the theater saying that they thought they were looking at a movie, until they realized someone was playing it.
GamesBeat: This has to prove a lot of things to people. It has to prove that this is real gameplay, that this is how the game is going to look when you get it.
Soderlund: This was 100 percent legitimately someone playing the game. It was all live software. We had a crash in a couple of rehearsals before. I’m like, “Okay, this time, please don’t crash.” [laughs] It’s as live as it can be.
GamesBeat: Getting back to Frostbite 3, one of the things that was mentioned is that it allows you to iterate faster. One of Battlefield’s deficits when it was going up against Call of Duty is that it’s only able to compete every two years, whereas Call of Duty comes out every year. Does Frostbite 3 mean you could move more towards annualization?
Soderlund: What Patrick said on stage is true. We looked at the whole framework of the engine and said, “How can we get to better quality faster?” We realized that there were some flaws in how the engine was set up, and the tool chain around it. It took too much time to get to what we wanted. We spent a lot of effort on crafting a stronger and more efficient tool chain so we can get to something playable quickly. We call it “what you see is what you play.” Then, from there, we can put the iteration and polish on it. That’s what will get you quality. That’s the approach we’ve taken with the engine in that respect, and it’s one of the biggest improvements on the technology side. It’s rare that any developer has an engine that they can maximize to the fullest. That’s just not how it works. You can always do things more efficiently. A lot of what we’ve done has gone into make sure that we use what we have at the highest possible capacity and then adding to it.
GamesBeat: Do you consider this investment to be the biggest that EA’s making right now?
Soderlund: It’s a big investment, obviously, and it should be given what Battlefield 3 and Bad Company 2 have done. This is a mega-franchise. We as developers and game creators need to understand that we need to keep pushing the boundaries of what we can do with this, keep pushing forward so that consumers respect and love what we do. We’ll spend as much money as we need to make it successful.
Frostbite is the backbone of the Games label. It’s a platform that’s scalable, an open platform with each team contributing expertise to maximize the potential of each aspect of their game. It has hundreds of developers iterating on it. If we have a game team that specializes in narrative or storytelling or vehicles or physics or animation, they’re contributing to it. It’s a massive investment of human resources and development talent.
GamesBeat: How many different teams is that altogether?
Soderlund: We have a development team, an engine team, that continuously works on the engine. Game teams that use the engine make special additions and customizations to fit their particular needs. Then we decide what gets put back into the main branch of the engine. This is where EA’s size is an advantage. We have a community of developers working on this engine on a daily basis. We get new versions of it every two or three weeks. Then there are bigger steps that we take. Frostbite 3 is one of those big steps.
GamesBeat: When do you decide, “This is the cutoff. This is the engine we’ll be using.”?
Soderlund: It depends from team to team. The decision is based on what’s possible and what our development teams need. They’re the customers of the code base. They dictate what gets done. There’s a bunch of smart people working on this thing, and they have their own ideas on what needs to go in. We aggregated a number of advancements, and we’re able to cascade out a new iteration of the engine in Frostbite 3.
GamesBeat: You had some special guests here. You had John Riccitiello. Did he have a contribution to this?
Soderlund: John made a gigantic contribution to Electronic Arts as a company. I’m a good friend of his. He’s been involved with this and given his feedback and insights. The biggest thing he did, though, he’s always been a big supporter of what we’ve done and what we do. That’s why we felt it was appropriate for him to be here.