There’s a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford that’s as insightful today as it was when he first said it. “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Ford, of course, was talking about mass-producing automobiles in 1913 before there was any corresponding demand.
But one hundred years later, we still don’t often know precisely what we want. The only difference is that today we’re able to take to Twitter and Facebook, and overwhelm creators with our unsolicited demands.
Patrick Bach is all too familiar with that kind of vociferous community. More than once, a quote from Bach has been maliciously boiled down to a salacious sound-byte expressly designed to agitate gamers into clicking links. “Someone will probably rip a quote from this interview and turn it into something really bad, because that’s what they usually do when I speak,” begins Bach deliberately, in an interview with Gameplanet in Los Angeles.
We’re here to talk about Battlefield 4, the next highly-anticipated instalment in the ongoing series of modern combat games renowned for their huge scale, and mix of infantry and vehicular warfare.
“We have a very vivid community, so we get a lot of feedback on what works and what doesn’t work,” says Bach. “Battlefield has become something that is very big, and very wide – very multidimensional. I think we’ve come to understand that we need to use ourselves as the quality bar on what we should do. I think we’ve started to trust ourselves more after Battlefield 3 than we did before. We were a bit more nervous.”
These are lessons that have been carried forward into the development of Battlefield 4, says Bach. “The worst thing that we could do is dilute what the game is all about. Maybe sometimes listening too much to the wrong people, adding the wrong features, building the wrong game. We need to go back and say, ‘Look, what is it supposed to be?’”
“As you’re expanding the experience, you need to look at how you can nurture that core experience.”
Bach uses the example of destructible structures, an innovation first introduced in Battlefield spin-off series Bad Company. “That was a huge risk. No one had done that before, what would it do to the first-person experience. Would it ruin the whole game or would it actually enhance it? Once we started to walk down that line, we discovered this actually works. It’s an added dimension to the gameplay that keeps the core experience intact.”
In Battlefield 4, DICE has set out to take the concept of destruction further with what it calls “Levolution”, something that sounds like it was dredged up from the blackest pits of the marketing department.
“Levolution is a concept rather than a feature, I would say, where we want the players to drive the change in how the environment looks and works, and also having different dynamic elements,” says Bach. “If you’re sneaking up on me and you bump into a parked car, the alarm will go off. If you go through metal detectors or security systems in a shop, the alarm will go off. We have sprinkler systems that will start if there’s a fire. You can shoot fire extinguishers, and they’ll explode to create a cloud you can hide in. You can shoot down supporting pillars. You can take down a whole skyscraper in the Siege of Shanghai map.”
These lessons are being brought to the singleplayer campaign as well. Bach is candid in describing issues with Battlefield 3’s somewhat underwhelming singleplayer campaign, and how DICE intends to improve on it in Battlefield 4.
“We want to build the ultimate Battlefield movie, but with gameplay that is encompassing the freedom that you have in multiplayer. I think in Battlefield 3, if you want to talk post mortem, we did not do that. That was a big mistake.”
“The key to singleplayer is to move closer to the core values of multiplayer, because that is where Battlefield came from. We’re looking a lot at player autonomy and player choice, where the player can actually use the battle field much like they do in multiplayer to find a means of taking out the enemy or overcoming the obstacles in front of you.”
For Bach and the team, the ‘ultimate Battlefield movie’ doesn’t look like the work of Michael Bay. “He’s not bad at what he does, but he wants to do his own thing. We’re not into that. I think we are aiming to focus on, in singleplayer, the characters in the war, rather than ‘war-guys talking about war-things.’”
“You’re in a situation which is horrible, you’re put into these situations for a reason, and then you’re still a person, how do you react? You want to have elements of fear, trust and disappointment, when it comes to narrative.”
Nonetheless, there are also limitations as to what a game can achieve in storytelling while still conforming to the conventions of the genre. “You need the narrative to drive the action forward, but we want to add a little more depth to that while keeping in mind that it is a Battlefield game, we’re not trying to build something else, and create something that is difficult for the player to understand,” says Bach. “We know what the player wants when they pick up a Battlefield game, but we also want to add a twist on top of that.”
Differentiation is critical in a genre and a market that has become cluttered with me-too competitors. “I think the landscape has been a bit too lucrative, which maybe attracts the wrong games, or the wrong developers because they just want to monetise – ‘how hard can it be?’ – tick all the boxes,” contends Bach.
“We have never really tried to win. We’ve tried to build the game we want to play, and I think that’s hopefully been a very positive thing.”
“I think we’ve been lucky. When we built our first Battlefield game, we asked ourselves if it was possible to build a first-person shooter with vehicles. It has never been done, we’re crazy to do it, let’s try.
“We’ve kept doing that. That, to me, has been the most – how can I put it – liberating feeling of all: looking at what you want, then building that and having people say, ‘Wow, that’s amazing,’ rather than doing market research, or maybe only looking at the community.
“You should listen to the community, do market research absolutely, but that can’t be your creative driving force. It can be a check box – yes, approved by community, yes, approved by market research – but it can’t be the spark, it can’t be the passion. That needs to come from the team.”
Battlefield 4 is coming to PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on the 31st of October. It will also be available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One after those consoles have launched.