Star Wars Battlefront can’t be just Battlefield in dress-ups, but nor can it afford to bore hardcore shooter fans. How is DICE stepping to this tightrope balancing act?
Star Wars: Battlefront was on show at Tokyo Game Show 2015, and there’s a story in that alone – but when I had the chance to chat with lead heroes designer Jamie Keen I only wanted to talk about how in the hell you balance a title with this kind of non-gaming, mainstream appeal.
More so than with Battlefield, DICE’s flagship shooter, Battlefront has to be accessible to those who haven’t been forged in the fires of competitive shooters – Star Wars fans from all around the world.
“It’s a much more evocative experience. Battlefield – that’s a war thing. This isn’t. This is reliving the movies. Getting to do the what-if moments.”
“We’ll have the people who know DICE and know Battlefield, but there’ll also be a lot of people, when the world turns Star Wars-shaped come November, December that will be getting into the game because of that,” Keen said.
“One of the challenges from a development perspective is that you have to cater to both audiences. You have to be sure it’s not a dumbed-down shooter but at the same time it’s got to be accessible to people too.”
Honestly though – isn’t that what all developers and publishers say about every game? Easy to learn, hard to master; depth for the hardcore and accessibility for the casual. How is Battlefront actually going to do that?
“I think that’s where a lot of our offline modes come into play,” Keen offered.
“That’s where people can learn the mechanics of the game. They can still have the experience of the full-fledged one, and if they wanna transition into online, that they’re prepared for it.
“We have a big spread of difficulty in some of the offline modes, and that’s to get people prepared for online modes as well, to make sure they don’t miss out on those core Star Wars battles experiences.
“You have to make sure, entry-wise, that people feel empowered when they get into the game. You don’t want them to feel over-awed by it.
“That’s difficult from a development perspective because you’re doing it day-in, day-out, and you start to learn modes and how they work.
“And then you put it in front of someone who’s perhaps never picked up a controller before and you see how that works.”
The implication is that often, it doesn’t – and then it’s back to the drawing board.
Specifically in Keen’s area, which is bringing Star Wars’ iconic characters to life, one of the challenges is making the player feel like they’re in a real battle situation, where everyone matters and danger is real – but also that they feel as powerful as Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker should be.
“We do a lot of user testing to make sure we’re not blinded by being so familiar with the game,” he added.
“You put something in somebody’s hands and they just get lost entirely. So that’s one of our big reality checks – user testing.”
Meanwhile, experienced players will “breeze through” tutorials, and DICE has to tune to provide a challenge for these players, even in the offline modes.
“It’s a tricky gap to span,” Keen said, but he’s got some experienced in it, having worked on Battlefield: Bad Company, which itself opened the Battlefield brand to new audiences with a more accessible style of play.
I’m still not convinced. I mean, surely DICE has exactly the same aims with its other games? Surely Battlefield 3 and Battlefield 4 were designed with the same accessible, challenging seesaw in mind?
“It’s a challenge everybody faces,” Keen said. “For us, for Star Wars, it has a different kind of appeal, that broader appeal, so I think we have to be extra watchful of it.
“I think the user testing helps move towards that in a more measured way. I think it’s something that we’re doing more of now, which is really important.
“Over the years of working at EA, I think it’s something now – the whole ‘player first’ thing that [CEO] Andrew [Wilson] has put into place. It resonates a lot with people at EA. It’s something we’re really happy has come around.
“One of the things you see from that is, okay – how do people actually play games? Not making assumptions around design decisions but actually testing them out in the wild.”
A dream come true
As a massive fan, Keen knew he wanted to work on Battlefront as soon as the project was announced. At the same time, he said, he felt a little hesitancy.
“There’s a lot of expectation that goes with it,” he said.
But on the other hand, Keen said he’ll sometimes stand up and glance over at someone’s monitor and see them tweaking the Millennium Falcon, for example, and think: “Is this really work? Really?”
The core will be baying for Battlefront’s blood if it fails to hit the right note, because as well as honouring the broader Star Wars brand, it must live up to memories of the original series.
“Games have moved on a lot since then. It’s actually quite a long time since the last game,” Keen said. (It’s been ten years since 2005’s Star Wars: Battlefront 2.)
“There are certain things we want to pull through. The old Battlefront games were actually very similar to Battlefield. There’s a lot of that we want to bring through: that sense of freedom. Being able to do what you want to do, being able to choose all these different experiences you can have in there.
“At the same time we want to update it for a modern audience. We wanna make sure that we’re bringing something new that people haven’t necessarily experience or is more in line with what people would expect from a game in 2015.”
Battlefront (2015) isn’t Battlefront (2004), and nor is it Battlefield. So – what is it? What is it that makes Star Wars Battlefront a unique proposition, something we should drop our dollars on in November?
“Battlefront has a different feel. Jumping into an M1 tank or whatever it might be is very different from jumping into an AT-AT,” Keen said.
“It’s a much more evocative experience. All I can say is from a personal perspective is that it’s a lot more evocative. You stepping into the shoes of someone like Darth Vader, for example, or you stepping into a cockpit…
“There are moments that set the back of your neck on edge, all the hairs stand up. You get the moment when the X-Wings fly in, the S-foils kind of expand.
“That’s purely from the Star Wars side of things. It’s a lot more emotional experience, for me personally.
“A Battlefield experience – that’s a war thing. This isn’t. This is reliving the movies. Getting to do the what-if moments.”
Star Wars Battlefront hits PC, PS4 and Xbox One on November 10.