Business and Boomsticks: DICE’s Lars Gustavsson, Pt. 1

Friday, 4 November 2011 06:10 GMT By Patrick Garratt

Why are the Bad Company boys wearing swimming trunks? Patrick Garratt gets the answer, and more, in an extensive interview with DICE creative director Lars Gustavsson.

During our visit to DICE’s head office in Stockholm, Sweden, VG247 had the rare opportunity to sit down with Gustavsson and talk about something other than Battlefield 3. Read on for insight into the future of Bad Company, DICE’s cinematic inspirations, the EA acquisition, pushing the envelope, and much, much more – and come back Saturday for another serve.

Codename Eagle

Codename Eagle was developed by Refraction Games and released for PC in 1999. The studio was purchased by DICE shortly thereafter, and the base Codename Eagle tech, running on Refraction’s proprietary engine, was used to prototype the first Battlefield game.

To start at the very beginning, do you consider Codename Eagle to be the first Battlefield game, or did it start with 1942?

I think 1942 was the first Battlefield game. I still have and I intend to make it work for – next year, it’s ten years from 1942′s release, and I still have the prototype on my hard drive. It was made in Codename Eagle, where we put up the first prototype, but even though that’s the embryo of 1942, it wasn’t born yet, so.

You’ve obviously as a firm got a huge release history going back to 1991. When did it become clear that Battlefield was going to be a focus for DICE? Was it around the time the EA acquisition or was it before that?

I think 1942 took everyone by surprise. We knew that we had something good already after Codename Eagle, so to be honest 1942 was more refining a concept, making everything we wanted, since Codename Eagle was… Part of it was the publisher wanting us to make a single player game since a multiplayer only game couldn’t really be sold.

So 1942 we got to what we really wanted to do, and I think that showed. Since then the sales numbers have been just trending upwards. I think we learn more and more, we reach a broader audience. But I think it wasn’t until Battlefield 2 that it was a force to be reckoned with.

How do you think the EA acquisition has affected the outlook of the studio in general? Obviously now you’re working for the greater good of EA as opposed to just focusing on your next project – do you think that’s a fair thing to say?

“I think we came at a point where EA turned around, and started to really promote their studios, rather than making them disappear into the belly of the beast.”

There was a lot of fear within the community when we became part of EA, “it’s the end of the franchise, the end of DICE.” I think we came at a point where EA turned around, and started to really promote their studios, rather than making them disappear into the belly of the beast.

I’ve been working with EA since 2001 – the whole franchise. It’s been really good co-operation. As long as we keep doing good stuff, they’re happy. For us it’s probably less of the late night meetings and stuff like that, and more “freedom under responsibility,” if you see what I mean.

You’ve always based Battlefield on your own tech; it’s a huge part of your company, the actual engine. Do you think that’s been a key factor of Battlefield’s success?

I definitely think so. The tech has been core from the very start.

When we were making 1942 everyone said it couldn’t be done. And we went around everywhere, and talked to every publisher, and they said “no no, sorry, looks cool, but we don’t think you can do it.” I think through the years we’ve proved time after time that we can do things that other companies can’t, because of our own engine.

One of the latest additions, destruction, really proved this – and it isn’t easy to do, it’s not for free, but it adds so much on the battlefield. This time around, it’s the fidelity, it’s the physical experience. I think we keep on pushing the boundaries.

Yes, we do look at what our competitors do – but I think we are our own biggest enemy. Not seeing competitors as enemies, but we constantly challenge ourselves. There’s so much we want to do, and since we have an amazing tech group, and with the Frostbite engine, there’s so many – I mean, the sky’s the limit.

It’s like people say here, “we can do everything – it’s just a matter of time and money”. So you need to restrict yourself and be wise about it.

You said it was really when Battlefield 2 came along, that everything cranked up a gear. What was it that changed at that point?

“Battlefield 2 was a tough one for many people; it’s the longest crunch we ever had.”

I think part of it was, you know, proving to ourselves and to others that it’s not a one hit wonder. It’s also maturing as a game, and as a studio. There’s no doubt, there’s still a bunch of us around from 1942, but [Battlefield 2] was a tough one for many people; it’s the longest crunch we ever had. 24 people building that behemoth, while we have hundreds on this one.

It was really putting Battlefield 2 together under those circumstances, and with that kind of trailing behind you, proved to ourselves that this is something we can do, and we do it well.

You’ve released some very successful products based on the Vietnam War. Why do you think that conflict specifically is such a good fit for the concept of Battlefield and for the Battlefield fan?

I think a lot of it … When we’ve been making the Vietnam games, we’ve based them a lot on the movies. After making games about wars that have existed or are in the future for such a long time, I think you realise a lot of it, for me and for others, is what we see in movies, rather than what we actually know – we haven’t experienced it. I don’t think you’ve seen so much live footage, either.

I think the decision to base the games on the experience from the movies, spice it with the phantom fighters, the helicopters, the vegetation and everything has been a good concept.

From 1942, we’ve tried to be neutral. It’s a sandbox; one team happens to be dressed up as Germans or Russians or Americans, but it is really fighting in known battlegrounds. Thus, starting making Battlefield Vietnam, both teams had to have an equal chance to win – which is a very cool challenge as a designer.

For example, one team has one type of gadgets or tools – the other team need something to counter it. It calls for some cool asymmetrical thinking.

Does it help you from an art perspective to have those icons like Hueys and M16s?

It definitely does. Every game has made the studio grow in a certain area. 1942 was probably in every area; we just learned a lot about how to make a full-blown game.

Battlefield 2 we improved the whole team play – team play communication – and the soldier experience, since the vehicle experience was quite good in 1942 but the soldier experience wasn’t so developed yet. Battlefield 2 took that one step further.

Battlefield 1942′s audio was a one man
production.

And so we continue with every game. I think audio is one of the more recent ones that’s really gone from- we had one guy, with the assistance of a couple of programmers that helped out now and then, to do the audio on 1942.

He was sitting in Gothenberg – his name is Magnus Walterstad, and we were sitting and talking on the telephone, and it was kinda “oh, someone saved over my files, and now I’ve lost everything I did during Easter”, and he was just miserable. He’s still around. He worked on the new Vietnam as well. But the whole thing is we’ve taken it from something … kind of amazing, that he managed to pull it off and do so many new things, to now a full blown department and we win awards and Baftas.

I think it’s the whole experience nowadays. The early Battlefield games were mechanics. They were mechanics with, for that era, a good look – but still not as full blown as it is nowadays. With Battlefield 3 it’s really painting a full painting, while during those days it was monochrome or something – you misses some areas.

I think we learned something for everything we do.

Did the Bad Company series come out of your need to find traction on consoles?

Of course, to survive as a studio we wanted to see if we could move into the console area. We knew that we had done a really good first game on consoles with Modern Combat – especially on PS2, with multiplayer it was an amazing experience. And then with the new consoles coming up, we really wanted to go all in.

To deliver on three SKUs was… Two things. It would be more money for the studio to do what they wanted to do, but also, a key learning, and the studio has always been about “where can we grow, where can we challenge ourselves”.

I think pushing those buttons and going into consoles has given us so much.

You had a real win with Bad Company 2′s multiplayer. I know plenty of sort of “soft core” players who have put in hundreds of hours on that – especially on PC. Did you see Bad Company 2′s multiplayer as a test bed for what was going to happen in Battlefield 3?

“Battlefield 3 is the sum of everything we made up to this date.”

If those things happen, it’s not intentional. I would say Battlefield 3 is the sum of everything we made up to this date, whether it’s Mirror’s Edge or any of these games. Calling it Battlefield 3 and not Bad Company 3 means that it is a very different kind of product.

Still, we have all this good experience on how to deliver a really good tight shooter, a good vehicle experience, to tell a good story, so. That it was a test bed I wouldn’t say, but we definitely gained experience that will help us now to deliver a really good game.

Is Bad Company going to continue as a franchise?

Who knows?

I don’t.

The Bad Company squad might be out there on some sunny island, drinking mojitos and… thinking about what to do next.

Latest