Outside, it was a warm October afternoon in Redwood City. The Bay Area city was alive with the usual hustle and bustle of commerce. But one building was special. In the sprawling campus that is Electronic Art’s corporate headquarters, fierce battles in the Star Wars universe were taking place, as they had never been before, in a press preview of the upcoming ambitious Star Wars Battlefront II. We managed to not only get our hands on the campaign (more on that here soon!), but also sat down with the game’s Director and Designer for a quick chat about what this game means to them, and how they could convey an authentic Star Wars narrative within the context of Battlefront‘s diverse setting. Check out the transcript below.
PlayStation LifeStyle: What was today’s focus?
Mark Thompson, Game Director, EA Motive: What you played today was the first three chapters of the single player campaign. It starts with the prologue, which opens before the events of the battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. So this is seeing Iden in Inferno Squad on a very high-stakes infiltration mission to locate and destroy intelligence that could jeopardize Palpatine’s plans for Endor, which as we all know is luring Rebels into a trap, and using the Death Star to destroy them all. Then, chapter 1 is the battle of Endor. This time, it’s a familiar event, but told from the perspective of the Imperials. So you get to see it through the eyes of the Inferno Squad, as opposed to through the eyes of the rebellion in the movies. Chapter 2 takes you beyond known Star Wars time, to start writing some of that new history, where Iden escapes from Endor and reconnects with what’s left of the Empire, and sets out on her part of Operation Cinder, which is what the Empire does next, it’s Emperor Palpatine’s posthumous plan for the Empire.
PSLS: How much creative control did Lucasfilm give you and your team to design the game that you wanted to make?
May Ling Tan, Game Designer, EA Motive: I think they understood what was needed to make the game compelling, and to make the game the best that it could be. A lot of the process that I can speak to as a designer was the refinement of a lot of our ideas and prototypes that we, early on, brought to them. One of the biggest examples were the droid abilities that you got to play with. A lot of the technology that was involved in building the droid’s abilities had to make sense within the Star Wars universe, and had to fulfill that player fantasy. It also had that additional need to be relevant to the players’ gameplay styles. So there was a lot of back-and-forth and checking up with DICE, with Lucasfilm to see what made sense in the universe. How does the electro-prod shock work? How does it function in the Star Wars universe? The droid has another ability, like the shield: how do shields work in the Star Wars universe? What can it repel and what can it not repel? Things like that. It involved a lot of discussions with Lucasfilm, to make sure it was authentic as possible in the universe.
Mark Thompson: On the story side, they were very very flexible, and very collaborative. They just want to tell good stories! They want to make sure that Star Wars storytelling is the highest that it can be, and that everything is connected, and part of one big universe. So it was really interesting to work with a group of people whose job it is, is basically to make sure that Star Wars storytelling is good, because coming to the campaign, that is what we wanted to achieve as well! So we have a lot of common ground to start from. Like May Ling said, mostly, it’s them helping realize our ideas in a way that is authentic to Star Wars. So a lot of the times it’s us having an idea, but not being able to express it in a way that’s completely true to Star Wars. They have the expertise to know that a certain event has happened, or something like this has happened before, or that isn’t how the Empire functions. People in the Empire talk to each other like this, or, things like Iden’s droid. We had the idea to give Iden a companion droid, so she could seem more superhuman than a regular Stormtrooper. So we went to Lucasfilm, they had the challenge then, on their side. How do we rationalize a Stormtrooper with a droid on their back? So they suggested the ID-9 droid from Star Wars Rebels. A character called the inquisitor, who is part of the Empire in Star Wars Rebels, who has a back-mounted droid called the ID-9, that has similar functionality to the idea we were proposing for Iden. But we wanted more flexibility. So they said, why don’t you make this the ID-10? Why can’t this be the next model up? This could be the next model they made, at the ID droid factory. Little things like that, just grounded them, made them more authentic. I was talking with someone at EA PLAY, who is obviously a bigger Star Wars fan than I, who said, “was that inspired by the 7th sister seeker droid in Star Wars Rebels?” I was like, “Yes it was,” and I could feel really good about that! When you’re a fan of something like Star Wars, and you see this kind of connectivity, it makes you feel warm inside, like the franchise cares about how much you care about it. I think that’s one of the things that’s fantastic about Lucasfilm and the story group.
PSLS: Speaking of story, since you are talking about the point of view of the Empire, would you say from a game design standpoint that this gave you more freedom, or was it more restrictive?
May Ling Tan: Well, when we first started out to figure out what made Iden who she is, we were working with a core that already existed, based on what DICE had already built with the first Battlefront. There were a lot of core abilities that the troopers already had. So we tried to draw from that as much as possible, as much as it made sense. But we knew we had to step it up a bit more, and give her more abilities that could convey that feeling of her being an elite trooper. She has more reach than what a normal trooper would usually have. So once we figured out we needed to expand beyond what DICE already had with normal troopers, that’s where ideas like, okay, we need to give her a companion droid, we also wanted to inject a different flavor in terms of combat. Like what you see with the stealth mechanics. That was something that would not make a lot of sense in multiplayer, for example. But in the single player campaign, it made a lot more sense. The pace was a bit more slowed down, players had a bit more time to assess their surroundings, to be able to read the battlegrounds, to be able to absorb the story. So a lot of those mechanics came hand-in-hand with the experience that we wanted to focus on for the campaign. Those were then floated to DICE and Lucasfilm, to make sure that it fit in with this larger product that they wanted to build.
PSLS: Obviously, there’s a lot of the original Battlefront in here, but can you describe some of the improvements that you have made to the game in general?
Mark Thompson: We can’t speak directly to it, in terms of core mechanics, everything we do is built on DICE, because we wanted that familiarity, the ability to move seamlessly between all the different game modes. But I know that, speaking on behalf of DICE, so they can feel free to disagree, the general philosophy was to kind of build on the foundation that they set out with the first Battlefront, which is like, keep it accessible, but this time around, add more depth. Add more refinement to the mechanics, so that the skill ceiling can actually be raised. I think Starfighter Assault is a fantastic example of how to achieve that. You know, Criterion reworked the handling model of ships from the ground up, so that it still had that level of accessibility, but it had so much more refinement, so much more ability to become and feel like an ace pilot.
PSLS: Sense of scale is important in Star Wars. There’s always massive battleships, you don’t really get a sense of just how big they are until you’re up close. Were there challenges in trying to reach that kind of scale of Star Wars?
Mark Thompson: Well, no, because we have the ability to go from being a pilot in a Starfighter, where you travel at such an incredibly fast [speed], and you have these big kind of sandboxy space moments. At the same time, we have the kind of contrast that, within the same experience, a moment later you’re a trooper on the ground, and suddenly you get to see the scale of the ship from the inside, and imagine just how big this thing was from the outside that you’re now part of. As a lone trooper, getting to infiltrate a ship and sabotage it, and then escape again, and then go back into the fray of the fight, it makes Iden seem like a special character. It really brings that special forces fantasy to life. The idea that this one character, this one TIE Fighter in this massive, sprawling space battle, because of the abilities and skills can penetrate the heart of the ship, isolated on their own, and come back out again. I think that kind of captures what’s most powerful about this kind of player fantasy of Imperial special forces.
May Ling Tan: One of the challenges when faced with a game of such breadth is making sure that players were able to seamlessly transition from one sort of gameplay to another. Jumping from ground combat to space combat, as seamless as possible. That players understood where to go next, what to do next. What abilities were available to them. That was a very interesting challenge, making sure that players had a frictionless experience as much as possible.
PSLS: What does it mean personally to both of you, now that the game is complete, and what do you hope that gamers take away from the whole thing?
May Ling Tan: I hope that the players walk away with the understanding of a different viewpoint right now. After seeing the story through Iden’s eyes, that there is a different side of the story. Not everything is black and white in the Star Wars universe! A compelling enough tale can be told from Iden’s standpoint.
Mark Thompson: I think from my perspective, it would be very interesting if, because the campaign is now single player, with story and narrative, I hope that we can attract some Star Wars fans that aren’t necessarily Battlefront fans, or aren’t necessarily gamers, or would self-identify as a gamer, that we could attract them to Battlefront, and they can play the campaign, and they could get a taste of the Battlefront experience, and then go on and enjoy some of the other game modes. I think Battlefront is a big thing in Star Wars, and I think it would be a shame if Star Wars fans didn’t experience what it’s like to be immersed in a Star Wars battle like that. I remember playing the first Battlefront, and being a Rebel on Hoth, defending against the marching AT-ATs, a very special experience for me as a gamer who grew up in Star Wars and loving the franchise, and getting to live that kind of movie-inspired moment that was authentic but still new. That was incredible, and I think, if the campaign attracts that kind of Star Wars fan, and brings them into Battlefront, and then through the campaign, we do a good job of showing them the ropes, and then they move on to enjoy multiplayer game modes, then I think we’ll be happy, and I think DICE will be happy as well.
PSLS: Do you both play multiplayer?
Mark Thompson: Personally, I played the shit out of Battlefront! It released before I was at EA, but I never play online shooters. I played online games, but I don’t play online FPS. But I made an exception for Battlefront, because I played the beta and I was like, “oh, shit, this is my childhood dreams come true!” So, yeah, I played through, by the end I think I was level 24 by the time I stopped playing, since that was the time I shifted over to Motive.
May Ling Tan: I didn’t play as much of Battlefront because…I suck at online multiplayer! That was pretty much the answer with Battlefront II. Having additional gameplay modes, I can see myself playing a lot more of it, and I can invite the friends that I usually play other online games with onboard. I can have more choices to pick from with Battlefront II, and this, I am genuinely excited to be able to share with friends. I know that there are lots of Star Wars fans out there, who play other games, but could not get into Battlefront because of the lack of choices. But now, with Battlefront II, there’s a perfect entry into the franchise that we can play together.
PlayStation LifeStyle would like to thank May Ling Tan and Mark Thompson for taking the time to speak with us, and to Electronic Arts for reaching out for the coverage opportunity at their offices. Star Wars Battlefront II launches on November 17, 2017.