Electronic Arts has a lot at stake in Battlefield: Hardline, the first-person shooter cops-and-robbers video game that debuts today. If it succeeds, it will open a new front in the Battlefield series, pivoting from modern military combat to something that’s more akin to Grand Theft Auto.
If EA can establish Hardline with gamers, it will have a new cash cow franchise in the multibillion-dollar shooter market. And it will validate EA’s Visceral Games studio, maker of the Dead Space series and its attempt to spread the spirit of Battlefield to a new category.
Steve Papoutsis, the general manager of EA’s Visceral Games studio, served as executive producer of Battlefield: Hardline. I recently interviewed him at EA’s headquarters in Redwood City, Calif. He said the designers focused on speed, story, and strategy to make both the single-player and multiplayer versions stand out. Hardline has a gripping crime-drama story that Papoutsis says will hold your attention like a favorite TV show.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: How do you position Battlefield now? Games like Grand Theft Auto out there, or Watch Dogs, and all the military games as well. What’s the message you would want to get to gamers about where Hardline fits in the larger world?
Steve Papoutsis: All the games you mentioned are great. Hardline lands squarely in the Battlefield world, but we’re bringing a new flavor to it with the emphasis on speed, story, and strategy. We’re re-creating these cops and criminals situations that provide strategic gameplay, emphasize teamwork, and play really fast. With the new vehicles and gadgets, everything is about getting players into the experience, having fast engagement times, and having fun.
GamesBeat: What are some of the new modes and experiences in multiplayer?
Papoutsis: Hardline features seven game modes, two of which are classic Battlefield modes: Team Deathmatch and Conquest. Then we have five new modes. Those include Hotwire, which is a mode where both the cops and criminals are trying to take control of vehicles placed around a map. The longer you drive a vehicle, the more points you score, and the better chance you have to win the match. It’s focused on high-speed chases, crashes, jumps, and working as a team.
Then we have Blood Money, a match where there’s a pile of cash on the map that both the cops and criminals are trying to get to. The police want the cash as evidence and the criminals just want the money. Both teams race toward that cash and try to bring it back to their own vaults. It creates a lot of cool opportunities for players to sabotage the vaults and steal money from the other team.
Heist is your classic cops-and-robbers mode, where the criminals try to break into a location, like a bank, to get away with the loot and take it to helicopters that are waiting to extract the cash. The cops are trying to stop them. Then we have two all-new e-sports-focused modes, Crosshair and Rescue. These are five-on-five modes geared toward the competitive players that want to have a very fast, frenetic experience.
In Rescue the cops try to rescue hostages the criminals have taken. That mode plays out over the course of various rounds. Crosshair features permanent death. Once someone’s out, they’re out until the match concludes. In that mode, the criminals are trying to take out an informant the police are escorting to a getaway location.
GamesBeat: Battlefield’s known for its realism. I wonder how you’ve approached some of these scenarios where the criminals are maybe unrealistically well-armed, with helicopters and things like that. Is the focus just more on fun there, or did you try to take a degree of realism into account for Battlefield fans?
Papoutsis: We definitely put realism in the forefront of our decision-making throughout the course of development. We researched a lot of different cop-versus-criminal situations. Things like D. B. Cooper jumping out of a plane. There are situations where criminals do have access to things like helicopters, as one example.
We also got great feedback from our early beta on some of the weapon choices we had. Battlefield has such a rock-solid grounding in rock-scissors-paper gameplay, where various elements counter each other. In our early beta we had things like rocket launchers as part of your loadout. Those were great for taking out vehicles or helicopters. We needed those from a design perspective. But players felt they were too overpowered, and to your point, not really appropriate for the fiction.
Our design team went off and thought of ways we could include those things and make them more special, so that when you obtained one of those it really felt unique. They created these battle pickups throughout the map that almost become mini-objectives. If a team can control them, they have access to that more high-powered weaponry.
GamesBeat: With the transition from military to police situations, did you just delete a lot of things and add a lot of other things, to keep that sense of variety?
Papoutsis: We built this game from the ground up. Everything in it, from the animations to the weapons you’re using, we created at Visceral. Those elements were brand new assets. You might see something you think you’ve seen in a previous Battlefield game, but we actually made that. We put a lot of emphasis on creating all of the assets, making our own flavor, but still having it feel very much like a Battlefield game.
It wouldn’t be to our advantage to get rid of things like Team Deathmatch or Conquest. Those are modes players have enjoyed for years. We wanted to make sure we’re delivering for the Battlefield veteran that wants those things. At the same time, we realized that this is a new game, a new entry in the franchise. We need to bring freshness, innovation, uniqueness to the game. That’s why we took that approach, making sure we went through and crafted everything in the game ourselves.
GamesBeat: Do you have some favorite maps or new twists on the maps?
Papoutsis: Some of my favorite maps are Glades, Grow House, and The Block. Those are three I really enjoy. Our maps range from small to large, but I think our sweet spot is more in the medium-sized maps. Cops and criminals tend to have a different experience. When you watch it on TV or in a film, the two factions are closer. When you think about modern military situations, the two sides don’t talk to each other. They talk to themselves. In a cops and criminals setting, you always seem them talking back forth to each other. The engagement distances are much closer. Again, in modern military settings, you see people with high-powered scopes far away from each other.
In our game we wanted to make it feel like your favorite TV crime show or movie. We have more of the banter going on between the factions and the engagement distances are closer. That also leads into one of our big pillars, which is speed. We wanted to make sure players could get into the action quick and not have any long periods of inactivity or running to one spot or another. We wanted to make every second you’re in the game compelling and fun and full of opportunities for strategy and teamwork.
GamesBeat: Five against five sounds like a new trend in multiplayer these days. It’s very MOBA-like. What was the thinking behind putting those modes together?
Papoutsis: There’s a huge community of e-sports players who want highly competitive game modes. We thought we should tap into that and try to deliver game modes that support that community. We talked to a lot of people outside the development team, to gamers, and we found out that these modes that are highly strategic and teamwork-focused really are interesting. We wanted to take that and couple it with our spectator mode and allow gamers the ability to stream these matches. Hopefully it gets picked up by the community and takes off. People can feel that they’re gaining experience and skill. They can get into matches that are both highly competitive and highly rewarding.
GamesBeat: Can you talk at all about the single-player right now? I saw the preview of the beginning of the game and the later stages. The story seemed very compelling.
Papoutsis: With our single-player, we felt like that was a big opportunity for our studio. We put so much of an emphasis in previous games on single-player and storytelling. When we got the opportunity to work on our own Battlefield game, we felt we needed to bring those skills to bear.
What we’ve done is we’ve created a single-player campaign that we hope plays out like a season of your favorite TV show. The story is focused more on people over plot. It’s not about saving the world. It’s more about the individual characters, the dialogue, connecting with them and the situation they’re in. We did a lot of work with actors in the game that have been on numerous TV crime shows – Kelly Hu is one, Alexander Daddario is another. We also connected with writers and directors from those shows to get an understanding on how an episode of a show is constructed, how it pieces together and flows through an entire season.
The other thing I was really excited about was the design concept of providing more player choice within that narrative. This isn’t a game where you’re going to go and do things that will change the outcome of the story. It’s a linear narrative in that sense. But the second-to-second choices within the gameplay allow for a lot of different outcomes and strategies.
You can play our game non-lethally if you choose, using the taser and the freeze mechanic to go through much of the campaign without having to use lethal force. If you’re a player that enjoys lethal force, though, you can do that too. Our metagame rewards players who play the game more like Detective Nick Mendoza would want to – using non-lethal methods, doing case files and investigations. Piecing those things together awards experience to unlock additional weapons, gadgets, and attachments. It also awards more battle packs.
GamesBeat: You had to make choices like which criminal to point your gun at, trying to make them surrender.
Papoutsis: That’s our freeze mechanic, yeah. Freeze is a big part of the game. When you think of cops and robbers, what do cops do? They pull their gun out and say, “Freeze!” We wanted to create that moment for players and make it a compelling gameplay mechanic that allows them to feel empowered, to take out enemies without having to shoot them.
GamesBeat: It seemed liked some of the tools you could use to investigate crime scenes were pretty high-tech. Is that where some of the Battlefield heritage comes in, having cool new gadgets to play with?
Papoutsis: One of the neat things about the cops and criminals fiction is using a lot of cool gadgets and technology, whether it’s high-powered scopes or ziplines or things that allow you to assess and scan an environment. We created this gadget called the scanner that you use in single-player. It allows you to identify clues and objects in the world that you can analyze and get additional information out of. Once you’ve done that, you can piece the clues together and solve these mini-case files we have throughout the game. It’s a fun tool. It’s a little bit on the high-tech side, but we felt like it leaned into the idea of being a detective.