DICE tells IGN about making massive combat arenas.
by Colin Campbell
September 20, 2012
Battlefield 3’s third DLC release, Armored Kill, arrived for Premium members earlier this month, with everyone else getting in on the action September 25th.
Like all its predecessors, Armored Kill adheres to a certain theme. Back to Karkland, released at the end of last year, re-imagined maps familiar to Battlefield 2 players through DICE’s shiny Frostbite 2 engine. In June, Close Quarters arrived, offering tight, claustrophobic interior maps. Now we have Armored Kill, which is all about the great outdoors, wide open spaces teeming with planes, helicopters, and tanks galore.
The four new maps on offer include Bandar Desert, the biggest map in Battlefield history. There’s a new mode called Tank Superiority and new vehicles including ATVs and mobile artillery.
IGN caught up with DICE lead designer Niklas Fegraeus to talk about the vehicles in the expansion and the challenges of designing large-scale combat arenas.
Vehicles, of course, have always played a leading role in the Battlefield series and DICE has a lot of experience working with the endless variety of military hardware available in the world. Fegraeus explains, “The vehicles included in Armored Kill are all representations of real-world vehicles. We think that's important, because it provides players with a sense of authenticity.
“We basically look at what we want gameplay to be, and then we compare that to what we have in the real world. Sometimes it's more focused on the one thing, sometimes it's more focused on another. But in the end, they both come together into something we believe works in the game and enhances the experience.”
Usually, somebody has to go out and really get familiar with these chunks of military hardware. DICE says it prefers real-life experience, rather than just blueprints. “It's one of the perks of the job that some members of the team have to actually try these weapons out. We do lots of research and we talk to advisors who work closely with the vehicles in order to get a really factual and cohesive image of what the equipment is. It all comes together when we feel like, ‘Okay, we understand this now, we have some solid material we can use to create this in the game.’”
One of the problems DICE faced with creating this expansion is as basic as ‘bigger means more’. The maps are huge. They are made out of assets, mountains and airstrips and valleys. Fegraeus says, “The biggest thing is the scale. We can't really fit any proper vehicle gameplay into a super-tiny area, a hallway or something. So it's a requirement that we go for a big scale. The challenge with that, of course, is then we put a lot of strain on the hardware. Every single piece of land needs to go into memory.
“It causes a lot of mind-bending to go into the design of the levels. For example, if you believe it would be awesome for the gameplay if we could have this airfield over here, and then it turns out that, unfortunately, due to the scale of the surroundings, we need to put a big hill here, because otherwise too much stuff would have to be rendered at the same time. There's always this iterating back and forth on design versus what's technically possible.”
But there are gameplay and level-design considerations too. First-person shooters are incredibly complicated balancing acts, between a shotgun and an SMG or an RPG and a sniper, for example. Anything out of kilter punishes the player.
But when you add vehicles to a combat arena, especially a large variety of very different vehicles like tanks, helicopters and jet fighters, complexity becomes exaggerated.
“When you have jets flying at super-high speeds and tanks rolling around the ground at low speeds, how do you make those two work? We take inspiration from real life, where a helicopter is a threat to a tank, and tank is a threat to a lightly-armored vehicle, for instance. We need to make that balance be represented in the game so it makes sense, so it doesn't break what you imagine the battle would be like.”
To a certain extent, playtesting never ends. Lessons have been learned throughout the Battlefield franchise’s history going all the way back to Battlefield 1942 (2002). “You always have this idea when you're developing the game that ‘I think this is going to work just like this’. Then when you get the game out to the public and you have all these super-hardcore players and fans all over the world playing it, the game takes on a life of its own. It's always very exciting as a developer to watch that happen, to watch it unfold after you release it.”
As always with FPS multiplayer maps, metrical analysis plays a big part in level design. “We can pull stats out regarding things like where people die the most or why they congregate in one area. We look at flank routes, for example, and we try to figure out why people are behaving in a certain way. Stats are a really good way of getting a nice base for detecting those things and understanding those things and making calls on what to do, should we want to improve something.”
There are two more DLC packs coming out for BF3. Aftermath is due at the end of the year, followed by Endgame, and then the beta for Battlefield 4. Fegraeus says he’s not ready to talk about that game just yet. But on the general subject of DLC, he says, “Everyone plays BF3 differently. Some people just play it to fly planes. Other people just like the SMG-and-shotgun aspect of it. There's a Battlefield for everyone playing it and so when we focus on these different aspects through DLC and try to really focus on a theme for the different experiences, people really like it.”
Finally, we talk about dinosaurs. DICE has been playfully engaged in a long-running Internet joke about dinosaurs and Battlefield 3; two things that, on the face of it, shouldn’t have anything with one another. And yet, in Back to Karkland, there was a neat little Easter Egg hunt for toy dinos. Some have been debating, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, whether or not we will see actual dinosaurs in a future map-pack. He says, “Well, we have lots of cool dinosaurs in the game, that's true, like all the hidden dinosaurs on Wake Island. It's a little treasure hunt. But, well, it's a funny thing. The future will tell.”