Bach on the Frontline: Battlefield 4's lead producer readies for war
Cross-generation juggling, hitting launch day and why the internet is wrong
In relatively few years, DICE has become a cornerstone of EA's development output. Not only is the Stockholm studio behind the huge Battlefield franchise, it has also proved its ability to create beautiful niche content in the form of Mirror's Edge and world-leading tech like the Frostbite Engine - now being used to power several of EA's key franchises. On top of that, it's widely recognised as one of the most pleasant and highly respected places to work in the industry.
EA clearly sees the value in both the studio's output and its staff, recently promoting studio head Patrick Soderlund to head of EA Sports, giving him the purse strings to around 70 per cent of the publisher's income. With the next gen machines rolling off production lines around the world, another Patrick has found his responsibilities ramped up significantly, finding himself at the tiller of EA's premier FPS franchise, steering a console launch title for the first time in its history. That Patrick is Patrick Bach, who was speaking about the pressures of the recent months at BAFTA's illustrious London headquarters earlier this week. We caught up with Patrick before his talk to get an insight into just how hard it is to create a game across five platforms, two of which haven't even had their technical specifications finalised for the majority of the project, as well as why people on the internet will always complain, new approaches to matchmaking and why you'll be fighting another war as an American.
Q: You've been rolling out the Battlefield 4 beta recently. Open betas are always a trying time, how has this compared?
Patrick Bach: Like I said to someone else today, in the first hour of the beta we got more playtesting than we'd have previously during the entire project. The feedback you get is huge. We're trying to compare our list of feedback and bugs with the list we're getting from the community. While we know that what people are playing isn't the latest game, it's one or two months old, we're comparing notes on what is already fixed.
But in general the beta is about load-testing, it's about testing the back end so that you don't end up in a Rockstar situation where the game doesn't actually work on day one. We've been in that situation previously for the same reasons, where you're expecting one scenario and then it turns out to be completely different - it's really, really hard to cater for that.
We're getting really good feedback. I think we've got more or less everything that people have found now, people are finding less and less and just playing for fun. So for us it's extremely helpful, even though it hurts because you know people aren't playing the actual game and you hope they don't think that they are.
Q: That load-balancing point brings up what I was going to ask later, are you going to be taking advantage of the recently announced Xbox Live Cloud Compute services which Microsoft has been offering?
Patrick Bach: Not from day one. The reasons for that are multiple. We started this project before these plans were locked down, so we didn't dare fiddle too much with it. Also, we're not Xbox One exclusive, so we needed a solution that would work on all platforms. We're on five platforms, so we need something that's Battlefield, not Xbox One.
"I think people might not grasp how hard that is, to develop a game at the same time as the hardware"
Q: The schedule for the launch of the next generation isn't quite as busy as you might think, especially with Watch_Dogs getting delayed. That's potentially a good thing for you, leaving it open for you to become a really big early seller. What are your expectations?
Patrick Bach: Well we've been very aggressive with Battlefield 4 in that we want to be out at launch with the next gen consoles. I think people might not grasp how hard that is, to develop a game at the same time as the hardware. We've been struggling quite a lot to keep up with the changes we've seen - both sides need to adapt and you end up being late. Everything is very complicated. Battlefield itself is a really complicated game, so it doesn't make our lives any easier.
So we knew we'd set ourselves a tough challenge, but people on the outside seem to think that because there are going to be launch titles, it's easy. What are we spending all our time doing? They don't understand how hard it is! Talking about Watch_Dogs, I don't blame them, there are times when we've considered doing the same thing - luckily we've overcome those hurdles and thought about what the game actually is on the next gen. We've had an excellent team working that out at the same time as the game itself, which is a big struggle. We can see that a lot of the next gen games coming are, arguably, lesser when it comes to the scope of features because of this problem.
Q: Coming out with a game that's not just cross platform but cross generation is incredibly tough too, what are your predictions for the split?
Patrick Bach: If I knew I'd tell you, but honestly I don't know. No-one knows. There's normally a lot of speculation on these things but it feels like everyone is deliberately holding back because it's so hard. Just look at the example of the PC business a few years ago, everyone was saying it was dying and we were stupid to lead development with it, but at the same time Steam was rising. Now, PC gaming has never been stronger - partly because it's so much more than traditional PC gaming, which you could argue has moved onto console. PC gaming is more indie than ever, more experimental than ever. It's also more blockbustery than it ever was - there are some really big games on the PC. You can also see the hardware manufacturers really pushing the bar on PC when it comes to everything from CPU to memory. You can argue the same thing here: it's not a question of if they move over, it's when they move over.
The new consoles are really powerful. I love playing on console and PC, but when I pick up a controller on one of the new consoles, it's much closer to PC, but on a big screen, on my sofa with a controller. That's big.
Q: That's obviously very much on the mind of Valve at the minute. Do you see the recent Steam O/S and hardware announcements having much impact?
Patrick Bach: I think there's a combination of ease of use and output. Most consumers don't really care what platform they're playing on, they just want a great experience. It's like watching a movie - if you go to the cinema you don't really care about all the symbols that flash up. People don't really care if it's digital or optical projection, they just want the great movie, it's the content that matters.
In the end if it's PC, or console or even iPhone, people just want to play great games. If PC wants to be bigger then they need to look at the ease of use of their products and that's really hard, because PC is multi-layered. It's big, but it's still niche, the niche market for geeky things is still big - we're all nerds. We all love hardcore things, but we also like ease of use. Nobody could sell me a stove that I need to experiment with to make it work. I just want it to work, but when I'm at my PC I could argue the opposite: why can't I do this or change that?
It's more about who you are and what your needs are and for most people content is your need, not the machine it's running on.
"There will be a tipping point. Once consumers start to pick up games for that console they could pick up our game as the primary shooter"
Q: You've staged a very prominent marketing campaign this time, more so even than with BF3, and I'd say you're looking pretty good in the coming stand off with CoD. Given that cornering the market is so much about community, that people play where their friends are, if and when the shift happens it could be sudden and exponential. Could this be the year you take the crown?
Patrick Bach: Well, I disagree with the core of your question. I don't think there is a winner and loser in this case. You could argue that there is a winner in terms of revenue or sales, but we're not in the business of revenue or sales at DICE, we make games. We want people to enjoy our games. If there are plenty of people doing that, then we get the chance to make more. That's how we see it.
In my book being better is not always the same as selling more, but for argument's sake it's still about competing for people's time. I'd rather have people spending time on our game than another game, of course, or even watching TV or using their phone. I agree that in the next generation of consoles there will be a tipping point, that once they start to pick up games for that console they could pick up our game as the primary shooter. That's the first time we've ever had that opportunity, to be on display for a brand new console. I think that's very exciting: we've never been day one on a brand new platform.
Q: The Fishing in Baku video you released recently made a big focus of single player and you've spoken about trying to attract audiences which might be intimidated by multiplayer, is that going to extend to any single-player DLC?
Patrick Bach: In general single player is quite an investment so in a way you could argue that it's harder. Multiplayer maps will fit together with all the other things in multiplayer, single player is more of a unique experience minute by minute which makes it harder to add DLC.
But it's not impossible, we've seen games doing it, quite a few games. The question, is I don't know how successful they have been. We see Battlefield at its core as a multiplayer game. It's been a multiplayer game and it will still be a multiplayer game, that's where we put the hours in.
Also, looking at single player, it's designed to not be multiplayer. We don't want single player to be multiplayer, some people that love multiplayer get upset with single player, it's like 'yeah, but it's not for you.'
'You're not supposed to like this because you love that, so you should keep doing that.' This is for the people that one, like it, or cares about these sort of experiences and two, people that might maybe never play Battlefield. It's actually quite intimidating to start any multiplayer game, the first time you play something you feel very very vulnerable... people are very hostile and they will hunt you down and they will do things to you that you don't want them to. It's not very nice.
In single player you actually get breathing room to experience and try things out that you might need to understand for multiplayer. And at the same time we wanted it to be a unique experience. It's still the same core mechanics, it's still the same buttons, there's still the same stuff you can do. We're also giving people more multiplayer features in single player so they can kind of experiment more and learn how to go online.
Q: How involved do you get in the multiplayer communities, how tightly can you control that? Should it be your responsibility to try and make people behave pleasantly?
Patrick Bach: My biggest concern is when you see online feedback as truth, because we actually build into the game a lot of telemetry, ways for us to measure different things happening either... almost on a player level but also on a match level and see who won, what happened, how many kills did he get with his gun etc etc, making it possible for us to actually compare feedback from the internet with facts. And it's actually quite scary to see how objectively wrong people can be. Because they want to win, personally, therefore they claim the thing that prevents them from winning is a design flaw or a bug or something.
"It's actually quite scary to see how objectively wrong people can be"
Which we previously could have reacted on, we had updates with previous games where we actually made the game worse by reacting to feedback and not even the people who complained were happy about that because they were part of ruining the game and then they say 'that's not our problem.'
So rage on the internet can sometimes be seen as the truth, it's like the ultimate democracy where people have the power. But it's in our interest to keep the game balanced and stable and find the right things to tweak to keep things on top. If people are only using one gun in the game, the game is probably broken. If you are using the right amount of variation within the game, the game is probably pretty good because Battlefield is about variation.
We actually saw in Battlefield 3 that we had a really good split between the classes. I think it was like 49, 51, 49, 51 between classes, it was amazing. Still we read on the internet that certain player types... 'oh, there are only snipers and you should have a system that prevents too many people from being snipers blah blah blah.' But it's not true. If that was the case we'd maybe do more to that but we can even see that in the data now. I saw people saying 'oh, you haven't fixed the problems you had in 3 because there are too many snipers,' and it's like no, we can see on the data that you are objectively wrong about this thing.
Q: Microsoft is planning to take on some of the issues of online play with a ratings system which will separate players who have been reported as abusive, disruptive or otherwise unpleasant. Does that hold any concerns for you from a matchmaking perspective?
Patrick Bach: Yes, but we are adding a skill system. Previously we only had rank, but rank can just be a reflection of time. So, rank doesn't really show how good you are, just how used you are to the game. We've been looking at various ways of calculating actual skill - skill being more of a subjective thing that we're trying to objectify and measure. We'd previously used an ELO system, which is used in chess rankings, but that didn't work out. We've actually created our own system, now, which seems to work - we'll have to see when we launch the game. You'll actually be matched based on skill, not on rank. We're looking into more ways to do that, because it's more fun, playing with people at your level.
Q: You've gone with the US as the 'good guys' again this time around, with a Russian enemy. However, real life situations mean that people are generally becoming less and less willing to accept the US and its allies, the UK included, as the go-to default heroes. Is the decision to choose them as protagonists again down to marketing reasons? Would America, a huge market for the game, accept not being the game's protagonists?
Patrick Bach: I think you're right - it's not as easy to pick sides any more. We try to make a point of that, even though we're making a game where you have to pick sides: it's a narrative from someone's perspective. It's partially based on our fiction. How do you create a fiction which is understandable for the audience? We know who they are and it's a full palette of people around the world that want to play this game. How do we create a story which everyone can understand and live with?
We've been toying around with different ideas: what if you were Russian, what if you were German, what if you were Chinese? The problem is that you have the same problem with picking sides, no matter what side you pick. We're Swedes, so we'd love to do a story about Swedish soldiers, but we don't go to war that often so it'd probably be a pretty boring story.