Loading the DICE
Creative director Lars Gustavsson on the birth of Battlefield, the changing PC gaming landscape and the importance of community
Ahead of next week's Nordic Game conference in Malmo, GamesIndustry.biz spent some time with one of the keynote speakers at the event - DICE creative director Lars Gustavsson, a man who's been with the company since the very birth of the Battlefield franchise.
Here he talks about the journey from the very beginning, and also offers his insights on the development and evolution of the PC shooter genre, lessons learned during the transition to console development, and the importance of communicating well with your community.
Q: What's your reason for getting involved with Nordic Game?
Lars Gustavsson: I guess one of the key reasons was that I was contacted and asked if I could come and do a talk. When I started out ten years ago the Swedish games industry was almost non-existent, I didn't really know about any developer other than DICE, so I was surprised to find a job.
But down through the years my key inspiration came from being down at a GDC in Australia in 2002 and seeing how united the game developer community seemed to be in that country. They have a lot of things that we, in the Nordic countries, also have - being in a different time zone to American publishers, being small countries, and just having lots of small things to overcome before being on the same terms as everyone else.
To me it's key that you get together, you share success and you share mistakes, and you unite as a development community rather than go after each other as furious competitors.
Q: There does seem to be a good community in the Nordic region.
Lars Gustavsson: It's a small world up here, and we don't have that many people to shuffle between the companies. In the long run you import a lot of knowledge from other countries. A week after I started at, what was then Refraction Games, ever since then all meetings and documentation has to be in English.
We do have lots of people from abroad, but in all if you want to stay in Sweden but work in a different company to try something new, then it's a small world. People get around - there are game developer pubs where people get together and talk about stuff they do, and to be honest there's no real reason to be hostile. We're all trying to do the same thing, and what always strikes me when I meet other developers is just how humble and accessible everybody is.
Q: With the number of key franchises in development, particularly by companies from Sweden, it seems to be a good time - but how is that reflected in the domestic market?
Lars Gustavsson: We definitely have a strong gaming community, and I think on the PC side we were - if not on the forefront - definitely up there. The Swedish government had a good initiative with bringing computers into all homes, via subsidised prices on rental. Having good broadband connections as well has helped the community to grow strong, and especially on the Battlefield franchise we have a strong community.
Q: You've been involved with the Battlefield franchise from the very beginning - did you suspect back then that you were working on something special that would come to be a byword for PC shooter gaming?
Lars Gustavsson: I was fortunate - I had ten years of working experience in totally different areas, and decided to use my drawing skills to get into the games industry. I came in with about one year of development left on a game called Codename Eagle, which was the predecessor to Battlefield.
I guess the vision when the company was founded was to make a multi-player game where soldiers and vehicles of all different types meet and clash online. You can definitely see that in Codename Eagle - it's not a high-rated product, but we quickly grew a strong community that loved the multi-player, and I think the team's passion was definitely in the multi-player too.
Already when we made that game, and during that first Spring when I came in, we played it a lot and loved it - and definitely saw the potential in it. So in that Spring of 1999 we did an enormous push to create a demo of what we saw as the natural next step - Battlefield 1942. We built a level in the editor from Codename Eagle, and we added Tiger tanks, fighters, B-17 bombers, submarines and battleships... we had everything.
We saw that our community loved it, but we didn't get big recognition for it - mainly because the single-player game definitely wasn't as strong. And I guess even online gaming wasn't that big at that time.
Q: That's a good point - Sweden was generally ahead of the curve in terms of broadband penetration, but back in 1999 building an online game was still a brave decision.
Lars Gustavsson: Yes, and even though the initiative from the start was to focus on the multi-player, we had a publisher that brought us back to reality and told us that we probably wouldn't be able to sell it without a single-player component.
I guess the team didn't have the same passion for the single-player - it was extremely ambitious, and with our knowledge... there was a lot of ambition and good thinking put into it, but time, money and experience didn't take the single-player part all the way.
But multi-player was what we played every day, and that one got quite solid - if we were having fun giggling and screaming every day, then we felt most likely other people would to. And we were right - and that stuck with us.
We went in the Spring of 1999 to E3 and showed that Battlefield demo, but people hadn't really seen Codename Eagle at that time so they didn't really know what we were showing. They just saw this demo, and didn't really believe it could be technically achieved. We had to go home and basically put it to one side while we finished Codename Eagle first.
But in early 2000 when we were done, we'd then been bought by DICE, and with more money, more self confidence and more knowledge in the company we started making the engine for Battlefield 1942.
Q: From those early days the Battlefield to the franchise offering today, it's come a long way.
Lars Gustavsson: Indeed, and sometimes I have to pinch myself. Here I am looking out over a sunny Stockholm, and we've got probably the loveliest view you can get in the city. From where we were sitting ten years ago, in a tiny, sweaty apartment trying to get our first game together... it's been a long ride.
Q: The PC gaming scene has changed significantly since 1999, particularly with respect to the shooter genre, which conventional wisdom once dictated would never be a success on console... What's it been like working through that time and what do you think are the reasons for it?
Lars Gustavsson: I came from the PC audience before starting up here and for a long, long time - to be honest all the way up to Bad Company - I was knee-deep in PC titles, which probably coloured my opinion on what a shooter is, and what it should be.
To me, Battlefield: Bad Company was an eye-opener, and for a very long time I think the PC audience was seen as the hardcore, the most competitive and dedicated audience. Maybe at one time that was partially true, but now we definitely see a fanatic shooter audience on console.
I think one of our biggest mistakes with Battlefield: Bad Company for example was that when we started making it, laying out the plans, the view on the gamer was that it's a console audience, and we need to treat them a bit more gently, since they're less experienced...
Well, when we shipped it - it was quite a long project - the audience had grown, matured, played more online... so they knew what a shooter on a console should be like, what to expect.
So I think in some areas, as lead designer on that project, I feel that we could have done a better job of meeting those expectations, even though I was extremely pleased with the project.
Q: Is that something that influences the way you think about future projects?
Lars Gustavsson: It definitely does. I was lead designer on Battlefield 2 for example and on that one we picked out the elements that we felt were missing from Battlefield 1942. And then in 2142 we tried to make it easier to find friends to go out and play online, and so on.
Now, looking at our console audience, we just had this discussion that we should more or less handle them on equal terms. A lot of PC players like me have become old farts, with children at home, and it's harder to find the time to sit in front of the PC. Therefore, when they find a good shooter title they'll expect more or less the same possibilities when they fight it out in a console game as they would in a Battlefield PC title.
It still means that what we've always had as a mantra but never really succeeded in delivering on is that we've always had quite a high entry level into the franchise - it can be overwhelming to come into, especially the early games where we didn't have any proper matchmaking. But that's something we're working with, regardless of whether it's PC or console, we just want to give people a more gentle way into the franchise.
Q: The Battlefield franchise has always had a strong community - the videos with people performing stunts in-game spring to mind - that's quite a testament to the product, isn't it?
Lars Gustavsson: I think a lot of that comes from the heritage of Codename Eagle, where we'd designed it to a certain point, but we found a lot of different ways of playing it. And the community definitely found different ways of playing it...
At that time the key thing was that it's an open sandbox - we don't tell you what to do, it's up to you to solve the problem. We hand out a number of tools, and they're balanced according to a kind of rock, paper, scissors idea. In following through the franchise, we can never expect what the audience is going to do, and that's the beauty of it to me, especially since it's a challenge to balance all these pieces.
But when you see what the community makes out of it, it's totally amazing. Everything from stunts, different approaches to solving problems and taking out an enemy, to all of these movies... they make cool stuff with our game.
Q: How difficult is it to keep on good terms with your community?
Lars Gustavsson: I think we've been pretty honest about what we've done right and wrong. We're a bunch of normal blokes trying to make good games that we enjoy playing, and give the people around us the same experience. We've definitely had our problems with how to support a game properly, how you test a game that requires 64 players online properly, and so on - but with constant communication and the will... it's been a long road but it seems like it's appreciated by the community.
We're fortunate to have a self-cleansing community in that if somebody gives feedback and is going over the top, a lot of the time the rest of the community will help to clarify things. I'm not saying that we're perfect and we constantly work with new initiatives to better talk to the community - it's an ongoing effort.
Also the methods of communicating have changed over time - it used to be forums, but now it's anything from forums, to Twitter, to God-knows-what else... it's a hassle just to stay on top and learn what the audience prefers.
Q: How is the Battlefield: Heroes title coming along?
Lars Gustavsson: It's going well, they're working hard at it upstairs, and they've had some good attention. It's interesting for the Western market - we're all so unused to how this works. You can see from journalists to consumers to developers that we're not used to working with this [free-to-play, micro-transactions] model, so it's a challenge for us as well.
But it's coming on nicely, and the team has done a good job. Many times you can get the idea that beta tests are a kind of concealed marketing tool, but the team definitely at this time wanted to use the beta to guarantee that we have a good experience, to not rush it just because more people want to get in and try it out.
Come June the open beta should go live, if everything holds up.
Lars Gustavsson is creative director at DICE. Interview by Phil Elliott.