I had the opportunity to interview the Design Director for Battlefield 1, Lars Gustavsson of Sweden. We covered details about his journey into video game development, Battlefield 1 historical gameplay accuracy, recommendations for those wanting a career in video game development, et cetera.
Even if you’re not a gamer, I think you’ll find the talk about “war pigeons” to be interesting. Original article was published over at Military.com, but it is also down below for posterity. Video of our discussion about “War Pigeons” is also down below.
Swedish military veteran Lars Gustavsson is EA DICE’s design director for Battlefield 1, which is now available for Playstation 4, Xbox One, and Microsoft PC.
Battlefield 1 is set in World War I and features a wide array of game modes, from a single player campaign that allows you to assume the role of multiple characters throughout conflicts around the globe to a plethora of multiplayer modes that all feature epic scale, immersion, strategy, and destruction. All of these modes feature incredible attention to detail of the weaponry and vehicles (tanks, planes, ships, et cetera) that were the greatest warfare technological advances of the Great War. One can control all the aforementioned vehicles and even take flight with a war pigeon (yes, you read that right).
Lars Gustavsson tells us about his path to becoming the design director for Battlefield 1, passion for telling untold stories of the Great War, aspects of the game, and offers advice to anyone who wants to pursue a career in video game development.
Can you give us a bit of background on where you grew up and how you eventually began to work on Battlefield 1?
Well, I grew up outside of Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, in northern Europe. Born in ’68 and always been interested in drawing, kind of the artistic side. But after getting into school and starting to work it was kind of — I ended up on the regular line and then did work in the factory and accountancy and then IT manager, but always kind of nurtured the dream of doing the artistic side.
And at the same time I didn’t want to — I wanted to do something where it felt meaningful. And then I actually did a tour in the states with a blues band, going down to the jazz and blues fest in New Orleans back in ’93. And then we traveled up to Memphis and down to Austin and up to Dallas and lots of great people and lots of great bands.
The key thing that stuck with me was really their mantra that you should do what you like and what you believe in. You only live once. So I went back and studied computer graphics and kind of looked at the games industry, but also the computer graphics for the movies industry.
But then, once again, through a blues friend, I was made aware there was a company here in Sweden called Refraction Games that was looking for artists and I applied and got the job. And that’s basically in Refraction Games where we did the very first prototype for Battlefield 1942 while we were building a game called Codename Eagle.
So that’s — I’ve really been with it from the very get-go. And I mean life is always hard with what career you want, so I did military service in Sweden, which was mandatory before, applied for UN service, but then, I guess friends and making money and traveling and all of that caught my attention and I ended up in this industry.
What was your position and when did you serve in the military?
I was within the artillery. ’87-’88.
So your designated title is design director. How would you describe your job to a layman, if somebody was just asking you what you do for a living?
So I’ve been heading up with the design crew of around 30 people. And a designer is basically the one who takes an idea and potential concept into, more or less, a proven blueprint that we can build the game around. And so my job is where we have great ideas and dreams and hopes of what this game could be. And in this case we really wanted to move into a new era in order to find new gameplay after all the years with contemporary warfare.
Then it’s my job to bring in those ideas and turn them from what could be events that happened during the war or how kind of weapons and machines work and turn that into something that can become a good and balanced game. So it’s really putting a filter on it and translating it from experience into systems and then into the game where systems become experiences again.
So I’ve had a bunch of great designers who’ve done work with the different parts of the game. It could be the core experience, which is the vehicles, the weapons, the soldier, the interaction with the world. We have the world group and the world designers who created the destruction, the dynamic weather, designed the levels, the worlds, who designed the game modes for: How do we interpret battles during this war into something that can become a game?
And then, of course, UI/UX kind of interaction design for hubs and menus, as you need to portray a lot of information that you just get thrown into, which would be in the real events you’ve gotten a lot of that information firsthand, where you can look at your weapon and realize how much ammo you put in there and how much you have left. But all of that we kind of had to interpret for the player.
What kind of experts military-wise did you pursue for things like that, like how much to put in the mag, does this gun fire correctly? Did you do a lot of work with military experts in the field to capture those nuances for each weapon, plane, tank, et cetera?
With the Battlefield games through the years, we have been involved with a lot of military advisors. So the core team have spent many hours, and especially the audio team, on the shooting ranges with weapons. This game, primarily, to be honest we’ve been looking a lot into historical facts, videos of how these weapons worked, where they look at replicas and real ones with photo scans and did everything we could in order to recreate these weapons.
Some of them are definitely harder to find these days, but a combination of museums, internet, and — I mean there’s definitely weapons that are still around today, so many hours spent at shooting ranges as well, both to capture kind of the feel, but very much also to capture the soundscapes. I think for those who played, for example, Battlefield 4 most recently and come into Battlefield 1, it is a very different soundscape and we wanted to recreate this.
And Abraham’s tank in Battlefield 4 sounds very different when it winds up compared to much more kind of brutal, raw horsepower that kicks in when you hear these older tanks starting. And as a general mantra for when we designed the game, we wanted to put players in the shoes of someone that was there at that time, where these machines, these weapons were the latest and greatest. This was brand new out of the factory. It’s not a black and white movie from hundred years back. So that was very important to try to capture how this must have felt and looked like and sounded.
So the opening scene in Battlefield 1 is very intense and moving with its exploration of PTSD as well as the different perspectives of many soldiers who died in battle. It seems that you are very open about the horrors of World War I and not simply trying to glamorize it. There are hero aspects, of course, but there’s also the depressing and very real part of the chaos. Was that something you were aiming to capture with this? Was it a political statement of sorts?
Yeah, for us, as quickly as we had decided on building upon this era since — after Battlefield 4 we looked at kind of where do we go next. We have been building contemporary war for such a long time, since 2008, that both for our community, but also for ourselves, we wanted to find new grounds for new gameplay and experiences. And this idea about the great World War I had been around for such a long time, but had never really had the right time.
So we started to look at different eras, but this era came back time after time. It hadn’t been really portrayed in games, even in movies and so on it’s much less portrayed. For example, the second World War, almost even Vietnam. So for us it was very important that we approach this both with — I think many of us in the team walked around with preconceptions of this conflict, that it was more or less only the Western Front and it was trench warfare, but this was something that was a global conflict that took place all over the world and that quickly became one of the key things we wanted to portray, kind of the untold stories, the unexpected places, and not only serve the first thing that comes to people’s minds.
And for the second part, I mean this is still and kind of — it’s about hundred years ago and we wanted to treat this conflict with respect. And as such, we did two things: One, what you just talked about, the reflection upon, as in this case, what war is about and the life expectancy at the front line during these times, but also in not doing a traditional campaign where you are one protagonist that goes through the war in the battlefield —
Mows everybody down?
Yeah, what Battlefield is really about, for those who don’t know, it’s a sandbox. We provide tanks, planes, boats, all the different types of soldier classes and you can basically play any of them in multiplayer. And to induce that type of gameplay in single player through the eyes of one protagonist would made them into some superhero, kind of almost comic style, and we felt that that didn’t match how we wanted to portray this. Instead we chose to portray it through the eyes of different protagonists, from different sides during the way, in different situations. Kind of normal people in kind of abnormal situations and then being able to take it all the way and let each and every one of them tell their story.
Along that vein of taking it very seriously, did you expect some of the blowback from putting an African American soldier on the cover?
I think as a whole — I mean, once again, when we approached this, we really wanted to find the untold stories and take you to places that you didn’t know about. And this was one of the stories that caught our attention very early on. That was one of the stories we wanted to tell and I think on a whole, if we step back and look at it, we were nervous for the whole concept as we came out and started to talk about the game in early May for — as always, you work so hard, but then when you put it into the spotlight of media and community, will they like it or have we chosen the wrong era? But we’ve been happily surprised that as a whole people have been very positive to the choice to go to this era.
And also the way we portray the war, the darkest side of it as well. And also how we include, like for example, the Harlem Hellfighters. So I would say in the big whole it’s definitely been on the very positive side.
So one thing I was really excited to see was the idea of war pigeons because a lot of people don’t realize how prevalent they were, even going all the way back to ancient times. I think they ceased being used in 1957. There were even war hero pigeons that flew multiple missions, received medals of honor in some cases, and even delivered their message despite being wounded.
Can you talk a little bit about adding war pigeons to Battlefield 1?
Yeah, that was something that — I think we had two extremely passionate people in the studio, one Martin Copperhead who came to me back in 2008 and was really sincere and brought forward lots of material and really wanted us to build a game around this era.
And since then, him and our creative director, Stefan Strandberg, have worked really hard in kind of how to portray this and then finding the right silent film. And with that, tons of reference material the team has been sitting in for days with watching historical movies. In fact, there’s one photo that came back to us every now and then, and that’s a tank from this era, which looks extremely brutal and it’s kind of the raw material, nuts and bolts, almost like it was kind of a ship hub. And then out of the lid, the little hatch there, you see the hand stretching out and releasing a white messenger pigeon.
That quickly became something that we wanted. It was so symbolic that we wanted to get it in there. And it’s been great.
That was a beautiful moment, by the way, it was very moving for me to watch that. I just thought it was expertly done.
Thank you. And we’ve gotten a lot of positive response on it and even references to people who — and relatives who worked with messenger pigeons. And as you said, I mean with the Cher Ami was one of the pigeons that we got inspired by, who got wounded and got awards or medals.
So it was a big part to the point that we even brought it into multiplayer, where we — it’s a game called War Pigeons, where two battalions are caught in No Man’s Land in a stalemate and the only way out is really to find the last bird coop and write the message and send it out for fire support. And that was kind of the inspiration into building that game of the war pigeons.
A couple rapid fire questions. Will we see games like Battlefield 1 go cross platform? About a week ago Gears of War 4 came out and Microsoft is providing customers an extra game key for the PC version as well. Do you think that’s something EA is interested in or is it different because Origin has their own platform on PC, much like the Xbox Play Anywhere initiative?
Yeah, I’m interested seeing how that is panning out. It’s not anything that we have any news about at this point, but I can’t really tell about the future.
Thoughts on VR in Battlefield 1 or any Battlefield series?
VR has been in the background all the time and it is a super interesting area. What I’ve seen and what we’ve tried definitely requires some dedicated work in order to make the most out of it and not kind of backfire. We’ve seen from our Star Wars Battlefront team in the studio that have things going on there.
For Battlefield 1, we decided early on that with the nature of a Battlefield game we wanted to deliver this one without VR in order to allow it to be everything it can be. But one of the things I promised myself now that we’re transitioning from delivering a game to the community and more into working with the community for the years to come and supporting and finding new, cool stuff for them, it’s to look deeper into this.
Out of pure interest, but also to see where the industry is heading. So it’s an interesting area and I definitely think that there’s potential. Too early to tell for Battlefield, but I’ve learned through the years to never say never.
Do you have any thoughts on the Nintendo Switch console trailer that was released? Are you very aware of that at all? Is it on your radar?
It’s on my radar. To be honest, I — the person, the UI designer behind me was watching it during the day, but I’ve been too busy. So after interviews tonight, I’m going to dig deeper. So it’s a bit early for me yet to have an opinion about it.
So big question here: Military.com has a lot of active duty and veteran readers that may want to someday work in your field. To get where you are today as a design director of Battlefield 1, what do you feel is the optimum path to travel, like lessons you’ve learned? Is there a shortcut? You would say, I would do it this way if I want to be a video game creator and not learn something else? Do you have any opinions on that?
I mean it’s all dependent. I mean today it can be hundreds of people if you make bigger games. But it’s really about where your interests — from what direction your interests comes and whether it is — if it is pure, whether it’s delivering weapon experience, vehicle experience, and getting the authenticity there or whether it is creating the worlds, the battlefields.
If you’re interested in creating the worlds, the battlefields, and the correct drama and environments, there’s definitely a lot of editors on the market that can really get into modding scene, which can be more or less for free, and then start creating levels and getting an understanding for how to best utilize the 3D space. This is really something that you don’t even have to have an education. You can do this at home. And if you just show good stuff as you approach a company like DICE and prove us, then that could be the ticket in. (NexusMods.com and ModDB.com are good places to start).
Otherwise, there’s definitely schools for design these days, which is in many ways a good way to start. I mean I got into this industry at the age of 30, so it’s never too late to get in there. And what’s good usually with these schools is getting a wider understanding of not only design, but also the art side and the soundscape, the programmers, assisting them.
I think the one key thing as a designer you need to have is a good understanding for what builds a good experience, but also the skills to communicate, to mitigate, to work with the rest of the teams, since what you’re trying to do as a designer is to find the blueprint, the recipe that then the rest of the team will rally around to create in the game.
And so those are probably the two main paths in that I can see.
And either way you choose, I think, once again, it’s never too late to get in there. And it’s extremely rewarding environment to be in since it’s extremely hectic, but also extremely creative. And when you come to this point of the project when you start getting people’s feedback, and even to the point that I’m longing for being able to play at home myself, it’s a very pleasant place to be. I’ve never been in a workspace like this before.
What’s next for you at DICE? Are you working on Star Wars Battlefront or will you continually be working on Battlefield for the time being?
It’s a very good question that I’m actually trying to find out myself. But here and for now, I mean my most immediate plan is really to — in the old days when a game came out, that was just about the end of it. You shipped the game and you took a long vacation and you started to wonder what to do next. These days the launch of the game is actually the beginning of kind of a long cooperation with community. These days we have a very dedicated fan base that we constantly communicate with to see what more would they like to see within the universe. What improvements, are there balance tweaks and tunes we can do? So it is really to transition the team from creating a product to maintaining a product and continuously pushing it forward. So I’m in that transition process now and that’s what I will be doing for foreseeable time.
Do you have any great Star Wars Battlefront II insider information for us yet?
I have, but I can’t tell you [laughs]. I’m sorry.