An interview with the Star Wars Battlefront II Designers on Loot Boxes, Criterion’s input, and chickens

by on November 13, 2017

After two solid days of playing the multiplayer of Star Wars Battlefront II at DICE there were perhaps more questions than answers in regards to a lot of the big talking points. Despite playing for at least 12 hours I still wasn’t entirely sure how the Star Card system, which allows you to effectively equip perks for each class, character and ship, worked. While trying to figure out how to unlock certain things, it took a group of four journalists the best part of 10 hours to eventually figure out.

Add on top of that the surprising, at least to me, the revelation that Criterion had built pretty much all of the spaceship flying bits, and the discovery of chickens freely roaming certain maps and you can see why it was important to sit down with Dennis Brännvall, design director for Battlefront II at DICE, and John Stanley from Criterion who is a designer on the Starfighter Assault mode.

Mike Stubbs: I’ll start with the chickens because this has been an in-depth conversation for the last hour and a half since we discovered them. Has there ever been chickens in Star Wars, officially, before?

Dennis B: I’ll say this. Every single creature or animal that’s part of the living world, is formally approved by Lucasfilm.

So they gave it the all clear to have chickens?

Dennis B: Yes.

Is there any AI behind the chickens?

Dennis B: No.

How does it, like, roam around mindlessly?

Dennis B: They are randomly scripted stuff, not artificial intelligence. Not yet.

There’s a lot of changes compared to the first one and I think, progression is quite a big one on how that works. Why did you decide to make the progression system how it is right now?

Dennis B: You mean in terms of loot crates?


Dennis B: All that stuff?

All that sort of stuff.

Dennis B: I’d say, it dates back pretty far into going back to Battlefront 1, in terms of players really feeling like ‘we don’t want a season pass, we want free maps that everyone can be part of and whenever we deliver something, we shouldn’t split up the community. Please keep us together.’ We wanted that, we agreed. And then it’s been a journey, the same journey, of figuring out how do we make sense out of that desire, which we share, but also the reality of making games and live content?

So, we’ve done a bunch of stabs at progression based systems. We had one in for the closed alpha, which we didn’t necessarily hear a lot about because it was closed and behind contract and all that stuff. And then we got feedback there, we took another iteration, got feedback in open beta, now we have a different iteration for launch, and I’m sure there will be feedback there, and then we’ll do more iterations, it’s all part of this journey to create credibility between us and the community, making sure that your voice actually matters to us. We want the same thing as you do, and let’s help each other out in finding that road to where you feel like you are invested in this progression system and we feel like, in the same way, it makes perfect sense for us to continue to maintain this game for years to come.

So the Star Cards that you get, you can equip more than one. But, in order to unlock that second slot, you need to get five cards. But then there’s also kind of the progression, the level of progression that you get at the end of every game, the XP. Why have you started to kinda separate those two systems instead of having it as one collective progression? Where say you unlock that slot for levelling up.

Dennis B: Right, I think, at the core of it, the separation comes from a desire to still maintain tactical choice when you start collecting cards for that particular character, so that say that you have two or three cards, but you have all your three slots available. Then you would just equip all your three cards. Part of that is, making sure that everyone understands the system, and it can be quite complicated, making sure that you still feel like, ‘I have three cards, and I only can equip one of them currently, so I’ll equip the one that I want.’ That was the intent of separating the two systems.

However, we’ve heard some feedback, it’s not just you that feel like ‘Um, maybe it should be done differently.’ So, that’s part of why, just alluding to, then we’ll … that’s feedback that we’ll take a good look at, and then we’ll try to adjust accordingly. These systems are likely to change as the game develops.

Obviously the Star Cards, there’s loads of them. You said over 300.

Dennis B: And rarities to that makes it a lot of cards.

Are you at all worried that’s kinda too much? People might see that and go ‘well, I don’t understand, and don’t want to get into that.’

John S: It all depends on your play type. There’s gonna be the completionists out there that are like, ‘I want all the cards!’ And then for other people, they’re just gonna be like, ‘Y’know what? I don’t care about these other cards. All I care about is Darth Maul, so I just want all the cards for Darth Maul.’ And there’s still enough range and enough depth in Darth Maul, that they can play him for a long time and still feel rewarded that they’re gaining more cards. So it’s like, kinda careful balancing act to the system, really.

Dennis B: And we also looked at the type of loot boxes that you can get, they’re split into troopers’ vehicles and then heroes, and that sort of breaks it into about 100 cards each that you can dedicate yourself to. If you’re a trooper player, if you’re a starfighter player, then that will vary, too, so we do, even though it looks impressive in videos, saying ‘Oh, 300 cards!’ It’s not necessarily something where like, you see all these 300 cards on the screen at one point, it’s actually more condensed than that. I think that each hero has six to nine cards available at launch, so there’s a bit senses of this, too.

So to kinda change track a little bit. Flying around in space stuff is probably more a question for you John. The flying around in space when you first get into it, you’re kinda like ‘Whoa, these controls.’ But then everyone kinda said they hit a point where it clicks. How did you kinda make that happen. How did you get it so simple that you can just pick it up and eventually get it?

John S: We just pressed the magic button! It’s just, it all really starts off with what we do at Criterion, always, which is starting off with a visual handling, and how we expect the face board to feel.

So, there was a number of things that we knew we wanted to do for Starfighter, which was give the player more agency, allow them to feel like they can control the ship better. And, make them feel like an X pilot. And so, the combination of those two things, we knew that the initial part of ‘Oh this feels a bit weird’, is because you have that full control over the ship. We put things in there to allow to assist players, so there’s things like auto-roll. So, if you’re controlling the ship and you’re spinning it around, you can turn auto-roll on, and it will level you back out of it. There’s that ease-in, but then yeah, we wanna make sure that there’s that kind of skill mastering to go forward as well.

The main reason for that is we wanted the players to be able to feel like they were creating these iconic Star Wars manoeuvres that you’d see from the films themselves. So, if someone is chasing you, yeah I can barrel roll and go underneath a Star Destroyer and then come up and lose somebody in a debris field at the same time as using my countermeasures or whatever it is I’m doing.

It’s just kinda about layering, really. Making sure that, as players get in, they kind of feel more and more out the system.

Also, in that mode, there’s a lot of quite tight areas, kind of either in a building or under a ship or something like that. But, it feels quite generous with not dying if you hit something, considering it’s a small space I didn’t die that much. How did you get that to work out?

John S: That’s good, right?

Yeah, that was good.

John S: So, yeah, I mean, the way we did that was to just flat favour the player. And again, that’s again a bit of a mantra. If we’re finding that players, for example, are colliding with a particular piece of geometry, then they will make the collision box slightly better for that player. Stuff like, the inside of the Unknown Regions level, you played with the Resurgent class Star Destroyer. Inside that space is really tight, in the beginning, so we tried to make out, pull out as many things as possible so it’s easy to fly around with it still being within authentic Star Wars universe.

Yeah, having that in mind of always favouring the player, just helps out a whole bunch. Because it’s never fun, like you said, to keep crashing into stuff. I think you’re moving so fast, too, in these starships, that if, technically they do clip through each other, the machines and stuff, you don’t really see it because you’re moving so fast.

Dennis B: I’m happy I don’t take damage from that.

John S: Yeah.

So, for me I do a lot of esports. Obviously you’re not necessarily pushing for an esport, but do you think there is kind of a possibility of competitive, play? Do you think that Battlefront can support that? Or is that not something you ever looked at?

Dennis B: It’s certainly something that we as a studio, are interested in. We’ve announced stuff for Battlefield 1, Incursions and all that, which the studio is really excited for, which as been a long time coming. And we’ll see what future holds for Battlefront. We’re not really communicating anything right now, but we’ll see if there’s a desire, then we’ll certainly give it another look.

Obviously, Battlefront’s audience is massive, you’re gonna have the super casuals, to the super hardcore. How do you create a game that caters to all of them?

Dennis B: I wish I had a good answer to that. I think we were asked a similar question about the past game, which I think a substantial amount of criticism was aimed towards ‘This is too casual for me, there’s not enough of a skill gap between the really good ones and the sorta medium casual players.’ And, I think the only way that we can improve on that is to actually listen to the feedback and then take more steps to make that happen.

This time around, I think there’s a lot more depth to it. There is a larger skill curve, and there’s a lot more tactics involved in how we added the valour point system, for example. That is just a clear cut way. Is the best way for you to play just to play a Stormtrooper until you can become Darth Vader? Or can you be more strategic with your choice, like I know I’m coming up on this level and this phase, therefore I should spend my battle points here instead of there. And if I invest in that character now, I’m actually gonna get to Darth Vader quicker. There’s a lot of that for casual players, it’s more like ‘This is the points I have and this is what I want to become and that’s it. That’s all I ever care about.’ But for a more advanced player, there’s gonna be all the sidetracks of understanding how that system works and that’s one example of how you can sort of cater to both.

And then we’ll see if it’s the same happening for the progression system. Where are the places where either casual players fall off because they don’t understand it or it doesn’t interest them, and where are the places like John’s point about being able to flatten out the starfighter automatically versus not being able to be so like, that’s an excellent example of where, if we just give them this option, then the world opens up for these types of players. We’ll continue iterating and finding the sweet spot in all of these features across the game. But it’s not easy.

So, the last question is something that we ask everyone. Whereabouts do you keep your tomato ketchup? Is it in the fridge? Or cupboard?

Dennis B: In the fridge.

John S: Wherever the kids have decided to put it back, like, yeah, usually the cupboard.

Dennis B: That’s weird.

Interview was conducted at DiCE HQ in Stockholm. EA paid for travel and accommodation for the trip.