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Indestructible: DICE's Karl Troedsson on Battlefield 3

During gamescom, Alex Donaldson cornered DICE GM Karl Magnus Troedsson and to discuss upcoming juggernaut Battlefield 3, rivalries, and what the firm's plans are for the future.

Softly spoken and ridiculously articulate, Karl Magnus Troedsson is a calming interviewee. Even amidst the noise of people grabbing free coffee and taking breaks in the sit-down area of EA's gamescom 2011 business booth he's an absolute pleasure to interview. Every answer is clear, simple, and well thought out, and the PR rep accompanying him seems to relax as the interview wears on, knowing all too well he's not going to say something obtuse or off-message.

Underneath the calm surface, though, is a master of destruction. Karl is the vice president and general manager at Digital Illusions, CE, or DICE, the developers behind the building-collapsing, gun-toting, 64-player and stunningly realistic Battlefield 3. In our brief time with Troedsson, we chatted about the BattleLog, Rivalries with other titles, Frostbite Engine 3, and why Battlefield 3 had to wait until now.

VG247: It’s been a long time since Battlefield 2. What was the reasoning behind now being the right time to go back to that style of gameplay?

Karl Magnus Troedsson: Well, there’s almost a bit of a scenario where stars were aligning and it felt like the right time, really. There’s a lot of stars that have aligned, I would say. One of them is core things like technology; when we built the Frostbite 1 engine and we built Bad Company 1 those stars were aligned like ‘ok, we have next gen consoles – PlayStation 3 and 360 – we’ve built a new engine to utilize that power – stars align.

But we didn’t feel we got as far as we wanted with PC gaming – Bad Company 1 didn’t come out on PC at all and the PC version of Bad Company 2 even though we’re proud of it wasn’t a proper sequel in any way to Battlefield 2, which had a very specific PC focus. So now we have the Frostbite 2 engine which allows us to do so many more things – especially on PC, that was one of the stars that just – click – it came into place.

The second one was probably what the team wanted to do themselves. After Bad Company 1 and 2 which both had a bit of a slapstick humour – a slightly goofy feeling to it – the team really felt that they wanted to build something a lot more authentic; the word authentic is very important to us. That was aligned with what Battlefield 2 actually was – a modern shooter with a much more authentic tone.

So it was like that’s good – click – another thing that came into place of what we wanted to build. And also I would say that perhaps the experience of the team is at the right place. We feel like now – because Battlefield 2 is very near and dear to us in the studio, and just making a quick ‘oh this is Battlefield 3 and throw it out there-’ that would never work because we’re proud of what the former game is and still is; there’s still a lot of people playing it.

We couldn’t make a sequel if we didn’t feel we could deliver it at the quality that we wanted it to be, so that’s probably the three big things that make it feel like this is the right timing to release Battlefield 3.

We couldn’t make a sequel if we didn’t feel we could deliver it at the quality that we wanted it to be.

Was it ever difficult coming back to this and doing it on the console as well? To get that sense of scale and scope and have some of those vehicles that have more elaborate control schemes and fit them to a controller?

It has been a challenge, but this is where even though this is a sequel to Battlefield 2, I’d say it’s also an ‘experience sequel’ from Bad Company 1 and 2. We’ve learned a lot about making console games from those games. Naturally introducing jets is a big thing on console – we debated for a long time if we should even have them or not and then we said ‘No, let’s go for it’ but it comes down to scaling.

Scaling the Battlefield experience we have done before, as well. So those huge open 64 player multiplayer maps on PC – we scale them down to more of a 32 player setting which works well with the 24 players on console as well, but we can still keep the jets and helicopters and this kind of stuff. It hasn’t been an extreme challenge, but naturally it was something the team had to tackle head-on.

You do pull the maps back a bit for the console versions, then?

Absolutely. You can’t play a 64 player map for conquest with 24 players – it would just feel very empty.

Can you explain the reasoning behind what happened with 1943 on the PC – why it fell by the wayside for a while and ultimately was cancelled completely?

As a developer sometimes we have to make tough decisions regarding where we put our efforts. DICE is a big studio compared to Sweedish terms – a big company – but if you compare it to other titles and the amount of people they’re putting on their projects we’re quite small, actually. Sometimes we have to make tough decisions about where we’re going to spend our efforts.

In that case it was basically that we didn’t have the manpower to build it on PC. We decided that, ok, you know what – even though we went out and promised it, we can’t do this. Instead of just making a shitty throw-out version – that’s not what we do, we always try to build things to quality and be innovative and these kind of things in our games, and if we can’t do that we’d rather not do it at all.

In the end that time was better spent on future titles like Battlefield 3.

You’ve done storyline in Bad Company, but this is the first time that the main-line series has had a full story. The main-line series is more serious, so how much did you get the insight you needed to build this realistic story?

The team that had built this game – a lot of that core team has been with us since the beginning of the franchise. Our lead multiplayer designer Lars Gustavsson was in on the Codename Eagle days – he’s basically Mr. Battlefield. So they have gained a lot of experience over the years regarding how does it feel to fly a jet or how does it feel to fire this weapon – from first time experience to talking to contractors that come in and help us to actually going down to a range and firing ourselves and also looking at reference material as well, of course.

There’s a lot of accumulated knowledge there, but for this product we have also used special operatives that come in – Andy McNabb has helped us out, advising us on mocap shoots – what kind of animations we should do, moves to do, how to hold a weapon, how to breach a door, this kind of stuff. Also things like how military speak, what kind of language do they use – it’s really good for us to have that kind of contact with different personnel and we’ve had more of them – not just Andy McNabb – more of them, from the Swedish Military, the US Military – but Andy McNabb is definitely the most high profile one.

You’ve got a very intense rivalry going on – do you feel that it’s absolutely achievable to beat them, or are you merely interested in being the better received game critically?

I will say this – as a developer at DICE we are very focused on building the best game that we can. We’re trying to build the biggest, the best Battlefield game we’ve ever done. We’re also trying to build a game that we want to play ourselves, and we’re also trying to build a game that we know the core consumer of Battlefield really wants to play.

On a day to day basis we’re not very involved in this whole ‘title fight’ or whatever you want to call it from that point of view. Winning for us is not about beating them in any way; it’s about surpassing what we’ve done before.

Actually, we want to expand it – we want to get more people in to play the game, that’s why we’re putting a lot of focus into the single player and co-op to attract more people into the franchise because we want more people involved and hopefully move over to multiplayer when they’re done because multiplayer is the heart of everything for us.

So we’re not too – on a day to day basis we’re not very involved in this whole ‘title fight’ or whatever you want to call it from that point of view. Winning for us is not about beating them in any way; it’s about surpassing what we’ve done before. We want to build a better game than Bad Company 2, we want to surpass the sales we had of that product – it was a huge success for us and EA I would argue in many ways of looking at it – both sales but also in quality and commitment from the community and community responses and such. So that’s our main goal – to beat ourselves.

Were there any key issues bringing all the features of Frostbite 2 across to the consoles?

Well, it’s always challenging to build on a platform that has such a specified set of requirements but we have been doing that for quite some time. The biggest challenge was actually a bit more to utilize all the power of the next-gen PCs, I would argue, as they have come a long way over the past few years.

We’ve done PS3 games before, we’ve done 360 games before – the challenge was to do more on those platforms as well. With the help of Frostbite 2 the game has definitely come alive with the new animation, the dynamic lighting and these kind of things – it hasn’t been that much of a challenge but of course when it comes down to it you have less memory, a less powerful platform on consoles – so you have to scale down. A lot of game development has to do with putting priorities in different areas – where do you want to spend the power that you have, and while Microsoft and Sony’s platforms are still very powerful with a lot more power to find in them, it’s getting harder – the more you use of them the harder it gets to find those final percentage points of power to use.

It is very obvious though if you look at the typical console cycles the games that are released late – almost at the last part of the console cycle – are twice, three times as good looking than the ones at the beginning of the console cycle. I’m not saying that we are at the console cycle’s end right now – I think this console cycle is going to last longer than we’ve seen before – so there’s going to be much more to find as we move forward, as well, but the PCs are definitely moving ahead quicker.

Although we might not be there, is that something that you would personally like to see sooner rather than later – consoles as powerful as today’s high-end PCs?

I would say yes and no. As a developer, it’s always interesting to find a new console to start working on, but I also know how challenging it is for us as developers to go through the console cycle. When you get next gen technology there’s a lot of investment financially, there’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears that needs to go into upgrading the engine or whatever – so from that point of view I wouldn’t mind if that took a bit longer so we can settle in on the platforms we have and then move ahead.

I think that more importantly the platforms that we have are really powerful as well, so there’s still a lot to be had than what we’re doing now. Of course, then you have the devil on the shoulder saying ‘oh, more memory! More GPU! More CPU Power!’ The more we can get the better – the more we can get on screen. It’s always a balance between how ambitious we want to be as a developer.

Can you give me a little bit of an insight as to why and how you decided to go with the BattleLog, and why on PC you decided to pull matchmaking out of the game executable and into the web browser?

Actually it’s interesting because I’ve been doing tonnes of interviews here now and everyone seems to love the game but I don’t think everyone really graps what the BattleLog really is. You seem to have caught on to it – it is actually a very groundbreaking feature – on PC, you don’t really have a main menu. You’re actually playing it from the web.

The main idea is this – we wanted to create a social connectivity between the players that we hadn’t had before. It’s not just about looking at stats, and looking at what you did in the last round – it’s about connectivity, finding friends, seeing what they’re playing... easy ways of finding new friends and connecting to other social networks etcetera, so it’s definitely been more of a social network kind of twist to the Battlefield community we’ve had before.

Were any of the decisions to do these things influenced by your web-based game Battlefield Heroes?

Well, yes and no. We’re perhaps more inspired by the social networks out there – anything from Facebook to Nike Plus, I don’t know if you use that – where you can compete and challenge each other and see what people are doing and cheer your friends on, talk s**t to your competitors etcetera. That in combination with the fact that we wanted to influence e-sports and these kind of things in the game as well meant that BattleLog was the right way to go.

Now it’s also a point to make that console players will have the BattleLog as well in their main menu – it is their main menu, really - but we also want players to if possible play with a computer at their side so that they can see the deeper experience of BattleLog at their side while playing.

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Are you planning to do any extras like tablets or phone apps or anything like that? A lot of people play with their phones nearby, for example.

We haven’t announced anything yet, but there definitely is. There’s long term plans for how we want to engage the community not just while you’re sitting in front of your console or computer, we want you when you’re sitting on your own on the bus or the tube or whatever we want you to connect into the game experience.

Not play the actual game per se because the Battlefield 3 experience is a hardcore, HD, AAA experience – even the iPad 2 which is an amazing, powerful platform – whatever’s going to come in the future will be great – but just connecting the BattleLog to the different mobile platforms is definitely going to be a way in which we want to embrace the community in new ways. That’s definitely a core thing for us.

You can never answer these questions fully for obvious reasons, but – you guys have been almost a pure Battlefield Studio barring Mirrors Edge for quite some time. Do you feel like after Battlefield 3 is finished that you’ll want to experiment again, as you did with Mirrors’ Edge, or will you just be continuing to build more Battlefield?

Battlefield is the core of the studio. DICE was founded – before my time we did pinball games, racing games, a lot of stuff. Since Codename Eagle came out and followed by the success of Battlefield 1942 it has been a core thing of what we’ve been doing. Naturally, we’re going to keep doing Battlefield games – we love Battlefield ourselves, we’re still building the game because we love to play it ourselves.

That said, DICE is also committed to not only making Battlefield games. If not for anything else then for our own mental health as developers. It’s good to actually have some different creative output to your game development skills. Mirrors Edge was definitely one of those type things that we did, and we are committed to doing other things as well.

We haven’t announced anything, but there are... a couple of things... on the backburner that might happen in the future. We’ll see what happens.

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