"Not a week goes by without us thinking, 'Imagine if we hadn't launched with loot boxes the way we did.'"
It's hard not to join Dennis Brännvall, design director for Star Wars Battlefront II, in his speculation. During our interview at Gamescom, he suggests that both the reviews and the consumers for the 2017 shooter would have focused on the content of the game "rather than the system that connected it."
"We would have been a different place, that's for sure, because we truly believe the game is a worthy sequel to Battlefront 1 and lives up to the legacy of the Battlefront franchise," he tells GamesIndustry.biz.
Sadly, that's not how things panned out. Complaints about the loot boxes that threatened to unbalance the multiplayer beta escalated to the point where EA pulled them from the game just 24 hours before launch, and then later removed the premium versions completely.
"Not a week goes by without us thinking, 'Imagine if we hadn't launched with loot boxes the way we did'"
Moreover, the outcry was heard not just across the games industry, but by politicians and government officials, the consequences of which the industry is still dealing with today.
Star Wars Battlefront II struggled to live up to EA's sales expectations as a result, yet the team at DICE has still be updating the game for two years, with no sign of moving on to another project any time soon. Of course, first Brännvall and his colleagues had to win back the community.
"We really needed to take a step back and do some house cleaning -- not completely dissimilar to Rainbow Six Siege," he says. "They didn't launch the way they wanted, but now it's doing well and I think we're on a similar trajectory.
"We hit rock bottom in terms of player sentiment but now it's climbing every month. We're delivering more content this year than we did in the first year, which is also a sign of a healthy game. The community's happier than it's ever been, especially with the big announcement yesterday. I think we had to take a step back, the team had to look at itself in the mirror a little bit, pick ourselves up from a really rough Christmas for everyone and then just get back to work.
"Now it's a lot of fun. It wasn't that much fun in the spring of 2018. That wasn't the best time at DICE, that's for sure."
Brännvall refers to the Gamescom announcement of all the new content coming to Battlefront II before the end of the year. The roadmap features everything from new maps, modes and characters, to a PvE co-op mode, the return of the large-scale Instant Action single-player battles, and (naturally) content to tie in with the upcoming film, The Rise of Skywalker.
It's a different strategy compared with 2015's Battlefront, which was expanded with quarterly DLC packs that segregated its multiplayer community. The new cadence of regular, free additions reflects both a renewed focus on the whole community and a change in DICE's approach to development.
"Battlefront 1 felt like we were in the sequelised transition phase, in that we knew the end date of Battlefront content before we launched it," Brännvall explains. "We knew it was going to be one year of DLC in a season pass, and then on to Battlefront II. And we treated it that way, like there was a bookend to the experience. So if there were systems in the first game that might not be working, we could prioritise fixing it for the sequel.
"It wasn't that much fun in the spring of 2018. That wasn't the best time at DICE, that's for sure"
"With this one, we challenge ourselves to undertake big overhauls of systems that aren't doing as well as we hoped because this is it, this is the game we're going to be working on. That's when it feels like more incremental -- there's client patches every month, new features added, whereas in Battlefront 1 we were patching it every quarter with a big DLC and it was mostly for paid users anyway. Yes, there were some bug fixes, but it was mostly for paid users. Now it's always for everyone.
"The team enjoys working on it a lot more because you feel like you're building up a community. It feels a lot more personal, and it's just a better game. It's more about improving the game rather than always providing value to the customer, which I think is the approach with a season pass."
While no details on the Rise of Skywalker content have been given, Brännvall says the team is "putting a significant amount of effort into it" and suggests it could be one of Battlefront II's biggest expansions so far. Essentially, the two-year-old, once-scorned shooter has found new life as part of EA's two-pronged Star Wars assault this Christmas, complementing Respawn's Jedi Fallen Order.
Brännvall assures there's no competition between DICE and Respawn, observing that the drastic differences between the game meaning there should be no clash or cannibalisation when the new film arrives.
"There are too many genres of Star Wars games you could make for a big audience of Star Wars fans," he says. "We're entertaining one, and it's really good to not be the only Star Wars game in town because of the expectations of entertaining everyone."
"DICE has been on the sequel treadmill for quite a while. We want to stick with our games a lot longer, and want our communities to feel well taken care of"
Adding Rise of Skywalker content to a two-year-old game (especially one that sparked such controversy) is also a surprising move on EA's part. Since 2015, the games have been on a two-year cycle, alternating with DICE's flagship series Battlefield, so we should have been due a Battlefront 3. Brännvall suggests that's not the way the Swedish studio wants to do things any more.
"DICE has been on the sequel treadmill for quite a while, and I think the industry is changing rapidly," he says. "We felt that, and we know that we want to build communities rather than customers. That's been a change in our approach. We want to stick with our games a lot longer, and we want our communities to feel like they're well taken care of.
"It makes no sense to constantly try to stop them playing the game they like and make them play the new game they also should like just because we don't want to work on the old game any more. It's not good for the community, and in this age, if it's not good for the community it's probably not going to be good for business either. That's why we're sticking with it."
Perhaps it's the curse of Battlefront 3. Following Pandemic's first two entries in the series, a third Battlefront was often rumoured and various leaked assets and videos from alleged prototypes have emerged over the years. With DICE still focusing on Battlefront II for the foreseeable, could we ever see a third entry?
"Even back when we took on the franchise, there were questions around whether we should call the first one Battlefront 3," Brännvall admits. "I'm not necessarily sure that whatever the fan expectations of Battlefront 3 are need to happen with a 3 at the end. I think you can get all the Battlefront fantasies that you want from our games.
"That's our mindset, trying to give you everything -- Instant Action is a good example of that. It's a throwback name to the franchise when it wasn't at EA, and people love that. That's been the key to going forward: respect the past. I'm not sure if we did a good job of that early on, but I think we do a much better job now."