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'Star Wars Battlefront': a fine line between authenticity and fun

The Star Wars Battlefront franchise has a simple goal: to put players in the middle of huge, sprawling battles ripped straight from the films and wider fiction. Whether that's battling the AT-AT walkers on Hoth or an X-Wing squadron above Sullust, you're made to feel small -- just one of many soldiers fighting for the Rebel Alliance or Galactic Empire.

The latest installment, which arrives just before The Force Awakens, has to walk a difficult tightrope. Fans want an accurate portrayal of their favorite scenes, but developer DICE also needs to make changes to ensure it's fun to play. Often, that means twisting and manipulating the original source material. "Yes, I want to pilot that walker, or I want to fly that vehicle, or I want to be in that trench and stop that onslaught of Stormtroopers," Niklas Fegraeus, design director for Star Wars Battlefront says. "It's about identifying key fantasies and bringing them together in a sandbox. And then trying to figure out -- okay, how do we make these things work in a fair way, so that people don't have a bad experience?"

Directing the action

The new Star Wars Battlefront game is multiplayer-focused. Although there are missions that you can play offline, there's no traditional campaign mode. Up to 40 players can be fighting simultaneously, so it's imperative that DICE is able to shepherd them into filling certain roles and completing specific objectives. Otherwise, the authenticity of the experience begins to break down -- living out your ultimate battle fantasy on Endor is pretty difficult if everyone else is messing around on speeder bikes.

"It's really tricky," Fegraeus explains. "On the one hand, you want players to feel completely free, like they're masters of their own fate and have agency in this world. But you also need them to perform a role, because the other players on the server are looking forward to a certain scenario to try to win, or battle or experience." DICE is tackling this problem with a methodical paper trail of objectives, obstacles and unlocks. Here's an example: while I was playing the new "fighter squadron" demo, I was tasked periodically with defending a Rebel transport ship. On the flip side, the team playing the Empire was being commanded to take down the craft in their nimble TIE Fighters. Some crucial points were on the line, so everyone was obliged to race toward the ship and take part in a dogfight.

"It's like a story told through game systems in sequence," Fegraeus says. "Just having players take part in those, in that sequence, creates the game."

Making small missions epic

Everyone wants to be the hero, but not everyone can take control of the Millennium Falcon or slash through Stormtroopers as Luke Skywalker. Battlefront has always focused on the less famous soldiers that took part in these spectacular battles, and the series' greatest achievement is making these small roles feel exciting and meaningful. On Endor, one of your missions could be to take out a deadly AT-ST walker. While this happened in the films, it was only a brief moment that conveyed the large conflict and plight of our heroes. To make Battlefront authentic, DICE needs players to revel in these smaller challenges -- together, they form Star Wars' iconic and multi-dimensional war zones.

"We call them micro-rewards," Fegraeus explains. "You need all of the systems to support the narrative and say, 'There's always a little reward for you.' It can be an experience like taking down a walker, or it can be something like a very powerful gun. You litter the path of players with these micro-rewards that keep them engaged so they're always saying, 'Yes, I'm a part of this and I'm doing well. I'm a soldier in this struggle and it's all up to me.'"

Adding to Star Wars

Creating such diverse missions and rewards is challenging. Only so much was shown in the original films, so the DICE team has to delve into the deeper Star Wars universe to find new ideas and concepts that fit. Occasionally, that means coming up with ideas from scratch too. Defending an escape pod or satellite dish might sound obvious, but the designers have to be meticulous about how they build upon such a cherished franchise.

Luckily, Lucasfilm is more than happy to lend a helping hand. "They're the stewards of this universe and know everything," Fegraeus says. "So the fact that we can work with them so openly, and that they help us so willingly when it comes to coming up with what these solutions can be and do -- it makes it really easy for us to find an idea that fits."

Internally, the team at DICE uses a development term called a "camera left moment." The premise is ridiculously simple: Consider your favorite shot in the Star Wars movies, and then imagine what would happen if you turned the camera slightly to one side. What would you be able to see? What would actually be happening? Visualizing these make-believe scenes allows the team to quickly prototype and flesh out their modes and maps. However, sometimes there are no shots at all to draw from. DICE was given permission to use Sullust -- a planet mentioned in Return of the Jedi -- for one of its Battlefront maps. The world had never been visualized before, so the studio was able to work with Lucasfilm to bring it to life. That alone could make the game an integral piece of the Star Wars saga.

The success of Star Wars Battlefront hinges on DICE's ability to balance authenticity and playability. Again, it's a difficult tightrope -- lean too far in one direction and you'll make a game that's visually immersive, but boring or frustrating to play. Swing too far the other way and it'll feel like a betrayal of the Star Wars franchise, filled with alien or inconsistent additions. "It's something that goes on basically from day zero to launch, and you just try to find that perfect balance," Fegraeus says with a wolfish grin. "It's also part of the fun."

Images credit: EA

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