The big Battlefield 4 interview: DICE leaves technology behind

Frostbite 3, Wii U and why it's not just about pretty graphics.

Having just an hour earlier listened to Sony delve deep into the power of the PlayStation 4, it comes as a bit of a shock to hear Battlefield main man Patrick Bach tell me that DICE is moving on from technology during our meeting at the Game Developers Conference.

For years Battlefield and pretty visuals have held hands as tightly as high-end PCs and expensive graphics cards have. Now, half a year ahead of the release of Battlefield 4, it seems pretty visuals are not the point.

This represents a seismic shift in attitude for a developer famed for its stunning graphics, and one we'll just have to get used to. The people behind one of the biggest military shooters around are thinking more about the experience, and those famous Battlefield moments, than they are pushing polygons.

But what does this change in mindset mean for Battlefield 4? Predictably, Bach and single-player producer Tobias Dahl won't say anything about Battlefield's multiplayer - for many players the only reason they play. Nor will they discuss the inevitable PlayStation 4 and next Xbox versions. But they do talk about the single-player campaign, which, for them, is hugely important.

Read on for DICE on that 17 minute gameplay video, why BF4 isn't coming to Wii U and more.

What has jumped out in terms of feedback to the gameplay trailer?

Patrick Bach: In general we are extremely overwhelmed with positivity, if you look at the big picture. Then what pops out is, we want more. Where's multiplayer? That's good, probably. It's not good when people are upset, of course, but it's good people are interested.

Playing multiplayer in front of people doesn't give the audience the full picture.

Battlefield executive producer Patrick Bach

It's part of the plan. We haven't planned it that thoroughly from that perspective. It's more like, what do we want to show first? Let's show something that explains the whole game as much as possible. Playing multiplayer in front of people doesn't give the audience the full picture. It's more about ticking off: what is new with the engine? What is new with the feature set? What is new with how we handle weapons? What is new with vehicles? We tried to integrate everything into one demo. It turned out to be the opening of the single-player campaign.

So you're saying hardcore Battlefield players will understand a multiplayer-focused reveal, but others won't?

Patrick Bach: I'm hoping no-one will doubt us, that we will build a decent to great multiplayer. I understand why you might be interested in seeing more about the details and nitty gritty of multiplayer. But to show something to the world for the first time, it needs to be graspable. Showing something that has a narrative and a coherent flow, that then includes on multiple levels different features, down to the very detailed features, is a must when you reveal. Otherwise we would only catch the attention of the people who are extremely avid multiplayer fans.

It doesn't feel like Frostbite 2 has been out - or been used - that long. Why introduce Frostbite 3 now?

Patrick Bach: Frostbite 2 has been out for two years and been used for multiple games. But it was developed primarily for Battlefield 3. Just the fact other games are using it is of course a positive, because it gives us more bandwidth and more engineers. EA, instead of buying an engine or developing another engine, they can just add people to the Frostbite project.

There's been a lot of work. Frostbite 3 grew out of where we were with the Frostbite 2 engine. Like Frostbite 2 was tailored to Battlefield 3, Frostbite 3 is now tailored to deliver Battlefield 4. We are the guinea pigs, pushing what is possible to do from a game engine perspective.

We've come to a point where it's not important to talk about Frostbite that much. Frostbite is a tool. We have passed the point where we will impress people by talking about the technological wonders. What will impress people is the experience we'll get from the output from when you use the engine.

It's like a car engine. Some people care about that, but in general, how fast is it? What does it do? What does it sound like? What does it feel like when I press the pedal to the metal? You don't care about the nuts and bolts anymore. 30 years ago you could have sold a car based on the engine. Nowadays you take it for granted. It needs to be state of the art, otherwise you don't want it at all.

To us, it's about the experience you create with the engine that is important. Some people care a lot about, oh, that particle system looked great, or that skin shader looked awesome. And of course that is important for us as developers. But going beyond technology, and not counting polygons, and seeing if you can get people to care about these characters, is to me a great testament of great technology.

I'm extremely tech geeky. I care a lot about shaders and polygons, trust me. We all do at DICE. But we saw, and the Frostbite team saw, that for us to evolve beyond that, we needed to stop caring about that. We needed to look at: what is it that we want to create? And then reverse engineer that into what technology we needed to create that.

There have been struggles, of course, with the whole mindset change. When you talk next-gen, we're not talking consoles, we're not talking technology anymore, because most new technology is based on an evolution of old technology. It's more memory. It's more powerful GPUs. It's more powerful CPUs. But it's still the same technology at its core, and you can do more with it.

Next-gen needs to be more than just more polygons. To us, it's like, how do we evolve the gameplay? How do we evolve the narrative? How do we evolve the things around the technology? How do we make it more Battlefield? So, moving elements from multiplayer into single-player is one way of evolving it. How do you get people to care about the characters, is also lifting the bar, rather than just doing the stereotypical stupid shooter, where you don't care about the missions or why you're doing what you're doing, and why do these guys around you even exist?

What makes me the most proud of what we showed yesterday is that people seem to know the characters by name after 17 minutes. That's pretty decent. You don't see that that often in video games. You don't often even pick up who the characters are. When people are looking away when you cut the leg, even if you don't see it, to me that's pretty cool. We created an impression with the audience so you actually care about what you see on screen.

What makes me the most proud of what we showed yesterday is that people seem to know the characters by name after 17 minutes. You don't see that that often in video games.

Patrick Bach

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But how exactly have you done that? What is different this time that means what you've just described happens with Battlefield 4?

Patrick Bach: There's a big shift in mindset at the studio when it comes to creating experience rather than just creating technology, or, how big are our maps? That discussion is fading away. It's all about, does it feel cool? Do you like it? Is it awesome? And then we reverse engineer that into, what features do we need to do that?

We've been building Battlefield games for more than 10 years now. So we know what Battlefield is and what it's supposed to be. We want to build the best possible Battlefield game. But to go beyond Battlefield 3, back in 2011, we had to rethink what we were trying to achieve. Rather than, let's make more maps and bigger maps and more players, it's like, no, what is fun? What do you want out of this? How can we evolve the experience?

And then, what's the next-generation of games, looking beyond the technology? Technology is not an issue for DICE anymore. We have one of the best game engines in the world. You can't win by having a slightly better engine. You win by having a better experience.

To us it's been a mental shift in how we build games in general, which I think is extremely healthy, especially for a tech-heavy company like DICE.

I would suggest if Battlefield players care about the technology behind your games it's probably because of your heritage with the PC and pushing graphics. Perhaps your fans will need a change in mindset as well to go along with yours?

Patrick Bach: I think our fans have changed their mindset. We can see we have fans who are old school, who are more about numbers. It's like classic game journalism and the back of the box feature set, and what I see as the new wave of gaming journalist, who talks about the experience. You don't even judge games by graphics and audio, as you did in the past. The experience is nine. You judge it on how it feels rather than what it is. You don't use a measurement to see how good something is. You taste it and ask, is this good? Yes! I like it.

I think our fans have changed their mindset.

Patrick Bach

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Then, what is different about Battlefield 4 that improves the overall experience, as you describe it? What exactly have you done to change it for the better?

Patrick Bach: The demo you saw was single-player. The most important lesson we learned was, let's not try to make something that is not Battlefield. It's needs to be more Battlefield. It sounds a bit quirky, but it's actually that simple. We have the heritage. We know what Battlefield has been and we know where we want to take it. We don't want to get rid of what Battlefield stands for. We want to make it more like that.

So looking at single-player, we felt we were walking down the wrong path. We did some exploration when it came to narrative and epic moments and recreating Battlefield moments in a narrative way, but there was some exploration for us when it came to the actual gameplay.

What is it you're doing in multiplayer that you love? We have the freedom of choice. You are part of the action. You are part of these Battlefield moments. So, twisting that around and then turning that into, what is that in single-player? Opening up for choice. Opening up for more destruction, because we dialed it down a bit in BF3 from where it should have been. Dialing those things back up again to where they should be, and then integrating the narrative into the Battlefield moments.

And as you saw in the demo, you're actually a part of these experiences. You slide down the collapsing building while shooting with your normal controls. It's not like a press X to win quick time event. You're backing away from the chopper tilting on top of you, avoiding the blades, because that is the natural way of doing it.

In multiplayer you wouldn't have that exact moment, because it's more of a rock, paper, scissors mechanic. But you have moments like that, when you're avoiding a jet crashing in front of you. We're trying to build the Hollywood movie version of Battlefield in single-player while adding the interactive elements of multiplayer into single-player. So you have the ultimate Battlefield multiplayer experience with the narrative added on top of it, that propels you through the story.

It's hard to show off in a 17 minute demo, but it will feel different when you play it because you will be a part of all of these things. You will play as one character that is you. You will have your squad around you, that can be compared to your squad you have in multiplayer, where it's like your friends with their quirky personalities doing the crazy stuff around you. But also helping you and you helping them, and trying to marry that into the narrative of the single-player.

It's a single-player with the heritage of multiplayer. We're trying to look at what we've done and do more and better.

We're trying to build the Hollywood movie version of Battlefield in single-player while adding the interactive elements of multiplayer.

Patrick Bach

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Tobias Dahl: We're reaching out to the player to participate. That's very important. We don't want to have epic set pieces where you sit down and relax and put away the controller and enjoy the nice explosions in slow motion. We want to encourage you to make choices and interact with those set pieces. You should be a part of them. You should not be the silent observer sitting there and watching it.

That's what happens in multiplayer, right? That's the cool part of multiplayer, when people start talking about what they did.

Patrick Bach: Or the Battlefield moments, as we call them, when you see these videos on YouTube of crazy stunts. It's like, did that just happen? That was amazing.

Tobias Dahl: We're moving that into the single-player campaign. I've read some feedback regards to the linearity of yesterday's demo, but you can play it however you want. It's a playground for you to play around with. You can take the vehicle if you want to. You can drive down there in the middle of a huge amount of enemies and try to solve it that way. You can take the right flank or the left flank.

Patrick Bach: In BF3 we never did that, and that was a fail. We still have a lot of people who liked the campaign in BF3, but there were a lot of people who were like, this is not Battlefield. It's a shooter single-player yes, and it looks good and it plays good and it's cool, but it's not Battlefield. That actually hurt us quite a lot. It was like, what? It's not Battlefield? We need to fix that.

Tobias Dahl: If you compare the BF3 single-player campaign with BF4 with regards to story, you played as multiple personalities in a geopolitical story. This time around we wanted to explore real people's reactions and actions inside that world, rather than tell the story about the geopolitics.

Of course there will be a geopolitical reason for the war, but that's not necessarily the story we want to tell. It's much more interesting to see desperate people taking desperate actions to achieve their goals in this war, rather than have scenes of politicians sitting around a table talking about solving the war. That's what we're trying to explore this time around.

Patrick Bach: It's easy to look at other shooters, where it's like, here's the game where you run and shoot stuff, and you have these cool things happening, and then you cut to the reason why this is happening, and you have a cutscene, or a predefined sequence during which you have to explain why you're doing this, instead of merging that into the actual gameplay, which is of course much harder.

So, as I'm going along I understand why I have to go there. You don't have to cut to a completely new scene to give context, and then back to the random shooting of people. That's hard. It's easy to just build a shooting gallery and then have someone create the story and the cutscenes for you, and then back to shooting gallery. Games have moved on.

More on Battlefield 4

Do you really believe your work with the single-player campaign for BF4 will mean those who dismissed it in BF3 will give it a shot?

Patrick Bach: Yes, absolutely. We see single-player as a very important part of Battlefield nowadays. We had a lot of people playing single-player. Not everyone finished it, but not everyone finishes the best single-player only games either, which is a bit sad. Thus the debate on how long a game should be. If people don't finish them, who do they have to be 40 hours?

We see single-player also as a training ground for multiplayer. And we want people to have the opportunity to try things out and experience stuff you will experience in multiplayer. There are also a lot of people - some evil people call them noobs or lame - who don't want to play multiplayer, because it's very competitive. You end up in a session where everyone just shoots you in the head, and you feel daunted by this competitive landscape. People want to have an experience, and if you're afraid of all these people who are flying around and shooting at you, single-player is a way for you to get that experience without feeling completely bashed in the head.

There are a lot of people who are really happy we are building the single-player. They don't even dare to say it out loud, because all their friends will mock them. But Battlefield is no longer a multiplayer-only game.

There are a lot of people who are really happy we are building the single-player. They don't even dare to say it out loud, because all their friends will mock them. But Battlefield is no longer a multiplayer-only game.

Patrick Bach

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You're saying people will just have to accept that?

Patrick Bach: Yes.

Some have suggested you shouldn't bother with single-player at all and just make a multiplayer game, since that's what almost everyone loves most about Battlefield.

Tobias Dahl: There are so many single-player only games out there that would love to have the amount of people playing their campaign as we have. Honestly. It's a huge IP we're working with and there are a lot of people who are playing our single-player campaign. They might not be as outspoken. We have a huge fan-base we want to satisfy. It's a perfect opportunity for new players who want to start playing Battlefield and see if it's something for them.

Patrick Bach: We sold 18 million copies of Battlefield 3. I haven't read 18 million comments. The ones I've read are only from a thousand people. Should those thousand people be the spokesperson for all the other players? Or is that just a certain type of player, which we are trying to take care of?

There are so many people who play games who don't write on forums. Either they silently agree on everything that is being said on the forums, or they just don't care. They just see it as a great piece of entertainment, and they play it and enjoy it and then they're done with it. The other people live Battlefield. Those are our avid fans we're trying to please the most, because we are avid Battlefield players as well. But there are different types of Battlefield players, and we have to accept that.

Even back with Battlefield 1942, there were people who were extremely avid, but there were some casual players as well. But no-one cared about them, really. They just played the game and everyone was fine with that.

Some Wii U owners are disappointed to see Battlefield 4 is not coming to the console. What, exactly, is the reason for that?

Patrick Bach: The biggest problem we have right now is we don't want to back down from what we see as our low spec machines. We right now don't have support for the Wii U in the Frostbite engine. The reason for that is it takes development time. What should we focus on to create the best possible Battlefield experience? We are now focused on PC and the current-gen platforms, and then there might be other platforms in the future that we can't talk about...

One of them you can.

Patrick Bach: Yes, in theory, but we won't. But it's important to understand it's about focus and setting the bar. Where do you start? What's the minimum? What's the maximum? What's the scale in-between.

Tobias Dahl: We have long experience with scalability. We've always been making PC games. But we don't want to ship different games dependent on the platform. We need to set the limit somewhere, to have the lowest spec for this title.

Patrick Bach: We could probably make a Wii U game in theory. But to make the most out of the Wii U, that's a different game because of the different peripherals. We want to utilise all the power of each console.

Are you saying it's not about the power of the Wii U itself, rather, it's about the controller?

Patrick Bach: It's everything. We could potentially make a Battlefield port for the Vita. But what would that game be? Is it something we could scale down from what you saw in the gameplay video, or would it have to be a complete redesign of the whole game?

It's about, where do you put your focus? And the Wii U is not a part of our focus right now.

It's about, where do you put your focus? And the Wii U is not a part of our focus right now.

Patrick Bach

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What version of the game did we see with the gameplay video?

Patrick Bach: PC.

I assume you're still using the PC as the lead platform for BF4, as you've done with previous versions.

Patrick Bach: All our tools are on PC. The editor is on PC. So it's easier for us to test and play on PC. The workflows are super optimised, so it's very easy to test on any console we have, but still you're working on a PC. And since we're trying to push the boundaries of what is possible and then find ways to scale that back into the lowest spec and then the full range of consoles, we see PC as the natural target platform for the super high-end when it comes to graphics.

You can just add more memory if you need to. You don't have to fit it in memory. We have all the GPUs we want and if that doesn't work we just add more GPUs. So it's easy for us when we create prototypes and we create testbeds to use PC.

We have a heritage of being PC driven. So PC is the core platform. That doesn't mean we switch focus back and forth, because we want to create a great experience on all platforms. It's not only a PC game anymore. We sold plenty of copies on console for BF3. So the argument it should only be PC for instance is not valid. This is a multi-platform game. And we need to focus on each platform at certain times.

We hear people complaining about us having BF3 being a console port to PC. It couldn't be less true. It's the other way around. That game was built from the beginning as a super high-end PC game, and then the Frostbite team gave us the toolset to be able to scale that down and fit it on consoles. The game wouldn't have looked and played as well on consoles if it didn't have the high target of PC.

It's easier to scale down rather than up. You've seen games that try to scale up. It's still low fidelity but with high-res textures, or some new shaders, but you don't get the high-end experience on the low-end consoles.

Tobias Dahl: Going back to the Wii U, it's also a matter of scope. We can only work with so many platforms per person per day. It's a time-consuming thing to be a multi-platform title.

Have you been able to improve the frame-rate for the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, or are we looking at 30 frames per second again?

Patrick Bach: I won't go into detail on exactly what we're doing. Let me put it like this: the Frostbite 3 engine is not only about high-end. It's also about workflows. So it's easier for us to optimise and create better experiences on consoles, due to the fact we're pushing the bar and simplifying and creating easier ways for the developers to build the games in general.

30 or 60 frames per second on consoles is a discussion on fidelity, still. What is most important right now? Are you willing to cut down on features to get it to run? If you remove destruction and vehicles of course we could increase the frame-rate. But that's a core part of the game experience. We still have 24 players on the Xbox 360 and the PS3, which still is a high number compared to other games. There aren't that many shooters with a higher number, and those games don't have destruction and vehicles.

I would never sacrifice the core Battlefield experience to get higher frame-rate. But then again, higher frame-rate is something positive. So, we'll see what happens.

Patrick Bach

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It's a balance. I would never sacrifice the core Battlefield experience to get higher frame-rate. But then again, higher frame-rate is something positive. So, we'll see what happens.

Tobias Dahl: There are so many other things than just frame-rate. There are so many things going on in the background, such as how the camera behaves and how often the server updates, that we can enhance the smoothness of the experience. But let's talk more about that later.

Patrick Bach: There are more things than only what you see with pretty graphics and what the guns sound like. That's the top level. When you see a demo everyone sees the graphics. But there are so many things under the hood you won't notice until you've played the game for a couple of hours that we are working like crazy on.

Previously when Battlefield was only big, we struggled to feel confident that people would actually play this game. Now we're confident people will play it, because we see the numbers every day. People are still playing Battlefield 3 quite a lot. So we're hoping we will prove we will make an even deeper experience, not only when it comes to the graphics, but also, when you've been playing for X amount of hours, we want it to open up and become this great experience.

The graphics will fade away. Audio will fade away. You will stop thinking about it, and you will go deep into the core game mechanics. That's where we want people to see the big change. It's not only about pretty graphics and all the things we've shown in the demo, but there are things under the hood we're doing that will improve the experience.

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