Battlefield 1 surprised people. The World War 1 setting came out of left field, as did a remarkably deft single-player campaign. At a recent event at EA's Redwood City studio, I spoke to Valerian Noghin, lead designer of the new They Shall Not Pass expansion, about what's next for Battlefield 1, as well as how DICE reconciles the huge tonal differences between single-player and multiplayer.
Nathan Grayson: Why wasn't the French army in Battlefield 1 when the game first came out? A lot of people seemed pretty miffed by that decision.
Valerian Noghin: The main game focused on the unknown stories and heroic battles in exotic parts of the world that people maybe didn't know about. The global aspect where you have people from all over the globe coming to fight in Europe and the Middle East.
When we decided to focus on fronts, the French campaigns and battles, that's when we decided to create this DLC — to give them proper attention and really focus on them. To make sure we bring them aboard and have everything they're known for. We're gonna do exactly the same for our next DLC, which is called In The Name Of The Czar, where we focus on the Russian army and the Russian front, which is also missing from the main game.
Grayson: Did you ever want to include the French and Russian armies in the main game? Or were they always planned to be DLC?
Noghin: It was a matter of scope, capacity and what we wanted to focus on. We wanted to focus on the global conflict and the unknown for the main game, and we knew that we would get to these other parts of the first World War. So that was the decision we made at that point.
Grayson: Verdun is a pretty crazy map. Everything is on fire, and the map itself has a sort of oblong structure to it. Will future Battlefield 1 maps continue heading in this more extreme direction?
Noghin: We see the value in doing so, and Verdun is the perfect example. The Russian front will have a lot of ice — frozen terrain, frozen ground, and snowstorms. By the time all the expansions are out, we'll probably have one of the most varied, if not the most varied, Battlefield games ever done.
Grayson: Verdun is an especially interesting example in that it seems like it could be really frustrating to play on if the fire was too prominent. I could see it turning into a game of The Floor Is Lava, and I'm not sure people come to Battlefield for, er, that particular experience. How much work did it take to tune it?
Noghin: The intention was to get the setting right. You should feel like you're engulfed by flames, that everything is on fire. This is what we've seen in descriptions from people who were there. But we would never let it affect gameplay too much. We've seen feedback on existing maps, places where there are patches of ground on fire, and you'll burn if you enter them and people don't really expect that. So that's something we will tweak.
It's also a matter of how it scales and adds to the aggressive fire we have in the game, like the flamethrower or the flame weapons on vehicles. We keep addressing that, but we wanted to reach balance where this map is fun to play and accessible. It would be a pain to say that you can't take one step forward without catching on fire. In the current version, you still feel like you're surrounded by fire. There's also extreme weather, particles that are flying up through the air. You feel like you're in this atmosphere of Hell, basically.
Grayson: I think people were really surprised by Battlefield 1's single-player game when it first came out. The first portion, especially, goes to great lengths to highlight the fact that, basically, war sucks. I don't think many big-budget video games have stared so unflinchingly at the pointless carnage. But on the other hand, you have the multiplayer, which can be really over-the-top, not to mention full of opportunities to get sweet new gear and laugh as people die in ridiculous ways. How do you reconcile those two seemingly opposed elements of your game's tone? Do you feel like multiplayer undercuts or trivialises the message of single-player?
Noghin: It's a tough thing to do, for sure. I think the key is treating it with respect, and that's something we really managed to do with the single-player campaign. It's a very serious matter, a tremendously gruesome event that happened. Then you jump over to multiplayer, where the focus is gameplay that's accessible and, well, fun. I mean, that is the word [you'd use to describe it], right?
For me, and I might just be speaking for myself, it becomes more like a sport. You have other players, so what's going on in that environment becomes less important. It's like, "I want to compete against other players." If they win over me, I'm gonna try to adapt and be better. That kind of thing.
That's why I believe that single-player is the perfect place for treating subjects like this with the respect they deserve, while multiplayer can focus more on team play, gameplay variation, vehicles, and a chaotic sandbox that creates these crazy scenarios. That is the balance.
Grayson: It's a bit odd, though, isn't it? Like, you said that the environment in which these things happen becomes less important in multiplayer, but you still picked these historical environments and this particular war in which you, on one hand, made a statement about the horrors of war and, on the other, made war seem really cool and fun. Were there ever times when you'd done all this research, read these personal accounts about how awful it all was in order to portray these things accurately, and then had to ask yourself, "OK, how do I make this, of all things, fun?" Was that ever weird for you?
Noghin: Those kinds of discussions happen all the time when we design these things. It's not like we have a template that says, "This is how we make a game," or, "This is where we draw the line."
If you look at the single-player stuff, especially the beginning, we open with a black screen that says you're not expected to survive. That's a very bleak opening, a very dark way to open a game. You come home expecting to be entertained, and then you see that screen.
We tend to decide these things as a collective choice. There are definitely some things where we're like, "No, we absolutely should not go there." And then we'll start with that in mind and keep going.
Grayson: Are you planning to explore the real toll of war further with Battlefield 1? Will there be single-player DLC?
Noghin: Since the single-player was so successful, it's definitely on our radar. But at this time, we're committed to our four expansions, and those are only multiplayer. But again, we're listening, and we know that people really appreciated the single-player. So did we.