BMDQ&A: Game Designer Niklas Fegraeus On Playing In STAR WARS’ Backyard

"STAR WARS is for everyone."

I visited EA Redwood Shores this week to check out Star Wars: Battlefront, the new online shooter from Stockholm-based Battlefield / Mirror’s Edge developer EA DICE. While I’m reviewing the game for a different site, I did get a chance to sit down with the lead designer, Niklas Fegraeus, to talk about the process of making the game and working in the Star Wars sandbox.

BMD: How did your relationship with Lucasfilm come about?

Niklas Fegraeus: [After the Disney acquisition] EA was given license to make video games within the Star Wars universe, and we as part of EA were asked to be part of that, and we went “yes!”. And after a few weeks or months of conceptualising, we pitched to Lucasfilm. We went over there and went “hey, this is what we want to do. What do you think?” And they liked it, which was very cool.

How do you balance making an original game with working on a license that’s already so well-established and owned by someone else?

It has been quite a ride of joy and amazement! I come from being a Star Wars fan myself, from - how do you say “skin to bone”? - through and through. I’ve grown up with it and had it with me throughout my life. And so I want to make it right, I want to respect the universe, and I want to embrace its identity, so that everyone who loves the stories, loves the places, loves everything about it like I do, can feel the connection. And we had Lucasfilm involved with that, because they of course know a lot of the details that I don’t. They are the guardians of the truth and the keymasters. Having them help on the way, and explain where the boundaries are, what the things are about this that make it Star Wars, is the best tool to make that happen.

Did anything surprise you in that process?

I was super surprised at the level of access we got. That was like, “whoa.” But when it comes to the world, I like to believe that I’m too much of a fan to be super surprised - and hopefully that’s true!

How has the Star Wars license affected the overall design of the game, now that there’s a much broader potential audience for it?

Star Wars appeals to a huge crowd of people, and not all of them are avid shooter players. But I think the vast majority of them all have dreams and fantasies about being a soldier in the battle of Hoth, or flying an X-Wing, or being a stormtrooper. So I hope Battlefront could be like their introduction to first-person shooters - something that allows them to jump in and have fun in a first-person shooter, because it is Star Wars, it captures those fantasies, and it’s a very inviting game.

It’s also inviting in that you can play as a male or female, in a bunch of different races, even as a stormtrooper. I think this is the first time we’ve seen female stormtroopers, which is cool.

The whole idea was that Star Wars is for everyone. So why would we limit that to just having males, or just this race? That was something we immediately brought to the table, and Lucasfilm was completely on board, saying, “of course that’s how it should be. It is for everyone.”

How have you designed the game around being accessible for Star Wars fans who aren’t hardcore shooters? Online shooters have a reputation for being difficult to get into.

The main thing that we did is acknowledge the wide array of fantasies that are out there. By focusing on “what is the fantasy about?,” that’s one of those things that gives people a way in, to feel it out and get their bearings, without starting out jumping into the worst competitive multiplayer competition you can find. My hope is that for players who are not super experienced, there’s a lot of stuff for them to do, a lot of modes for them to play, a lot of fantasies to have at their own pace. They don’t have to be subjected to the depth of competition that emerges down the line once you learn and rank up. I think that creates a good opportunity for people to jump in and see. “This is an accessible game for me; I can see there’s a lot of depth to be achieved down the line, but I can get there in my own way and at my own pace.” I think that’s really important. 

It’s good that hero pickups are pickups rather than killstreak rewards, so anyone can get a chance to be Luke or the Emperor, who for some reason is entering the battle himself.

He wants to crush the Rebels! What else is there?

It always feels weird to hear “the Emperor has been defeated,” yet we still go on fighting.

[laughs] Yeah, we’re still fighting! Who needs that guy?

Was there a conscious decision to not explore the prequel trilogy?

Yeah. The focus, the “main fantasies,” are from the original trilogy. But when it comes to inspirations for sound effects or whatever, we were of course inspired by all of Star Wars. It’s just about having a holistic view of what it is, and making sure that the fantasies we make are accurate and represent those things from the films.

DICE created an original planet for the game - Sullust - which we’d heard about before, but had never seen in canon. How did that come about?

We wanted to create something of our own. Well, not “our own,” but we felt that it was a super exciting opportunity to put our own creative minds together and make something that belonged in the Star Wars universe. We picked Sullust because it is mentioned in the films.

Nien Nunb’s a super memorable character!

Yeah! You have one Sullustan in the movie, and the Empire even references Sullust at one point. So it felt like something really cool to do. It’s mentioned as a volcanic world, and with Lina [senior producer Sigurlína Ingvarsdóttir] being Icelandic, which is a very geologically active place, it felt like we could really use those things to make the visual identity of Sullust. We got to create that, and that was pretty amazing, because now we can “own” part of Star Wars.

And with the new canon rules, that’s now the official look of Sullust?

Yeah! I think it’s considered the visual identity of the planet. And that’s something to wear in your hat.

One of the things that surprised me about the game is how funny it is. There are a ton of tiny in-jokes in there, like the Darth Vader “Nooooo” emote, or Han Solo’s shoulder barge ability. Did you all just chuck in your favourite funny moments from the movies?

That’s absolutely accurate. Star Wars is never far away from fun. It’s in its DNA. There’s always wise-cracking or banter in the middle of what would otherwise be grim war and death. So to me, it wouldn’t be Star Wars if it wasn’t fun as well, with the wise-cracking jokes or the iconic things. Like the Han shoulder thing is when he, you know, chases the stormtroopers through the Death Star and then faces a hundred of them. It was good to capture that side of his character. 

In the movies, the Rebels are supposed to be the underdogs, so they’re less well-equipped. But in a game, both teams have to have a chance of success. How do you get that balance while maintaining the identity of the factions?

That’s a big challenge, actually. The whole identity of these two sides - the Rebel Alliance and the Empire - is that one is this huge, powerful, scary, mechanised army, and the other is a guerilla force, using what they have and sticking it to the big guy. An easy way to create balance is to just mirror the sides and give them the same opportunities and the same abilities. But I think that would take away from that feeling of asymmetry, the feeling of playing the Rebel Alliance. So we said from the beginning that they need to be different, so you have that strong feeling of the Empire’s “we’re going to crush you!” and the Rebels fighting back. But it still needs to be balanced. It still needs to be a fair fighting chance for both sides. And the solution to that is almost on a level and mode basis, using different tools to create that balance. And I think we actually managed to get a pretty good combination of it "feeling" like David versus Goliath, but still being kind of fair.

Part of the fun is role-playing - “crush the Rebels” or “push back the Empire.”

The commander voices that give you the orders are specifically directed in that kind of way. “You can do it!” or “Crush them!”. It’s fun to play as the bad guys sometimes.

Is the music all the original recordings, or has it been re-recorded? Was there original composition in there? I thought I noticed some stuff I hadn’t heard before.

That’s a good question. I know we got the original stems, which made the sound people really geek out. But how it was compiled, and how much happened to it before the final result, I don’t really know exactly. It’s a large mix of original sound, pre-written music, new music, and new recordings. Using only snippets from the films doesn’t create the full soundscape - we have to create some of it ourselves to complete the picture.

And the sound effects, as well, really help to sell it. Did I hear the Wilhelm scream in there? Or an imitation…?

[squirms] Uhhhhh...I know we put it in the trailer...

I’m sure I heard it.

Hmmm. [hesitates] You’re probably right! I don’t know. It’s probably the sound department’s little secret, if that’s the case.

Did the team go to the original shoot locations to get the photogrammetry data [a process where textures and models are created directly from real photographs]?

We went to all the shooting locations from the original films. There were two reasons for that. One, of course, being to gather photogrammetry data. But there’s a second reason that I personally like to highlight, because it’s actually more important than people would probably believe. And that is actually being there. Once you’ve been there, you carry the experience of what it’s like to be there with you. So when the recreation happens, and you take all the photogrammetry data and start building it, you know what it’s supposed to be. If you only have the data, you can create a lot of things with it, but perhaps not the right thing. I was really surprised by that, and really happy about it as well, because it has been super valuable when it comes to reaching the final result we have. 

The Jakku DLC is releasing before The Force Awakens comes out. What's the intention in terms of setting up that world before we see the movie?

We wanted to somehow give players a little taste of something before they go see the film. That’s how I feel about it myself - I’m playing Battlefront, and I know this new film is coming out, and I go “ahhh, I want to see it so badly.” That’s kind of how we approached it. But of course, the film was being produced [while we made the DLC]. It didn’t exist. That’s what it’s like making something in parallel. But we did manage to get some sneak peeks and bits of information from our collaboration with Lucasfilm. It had to be DLC because we couldn’t get it done in time, but its a thing that bridges a bit into the film. You see the film, and you see this landscape with crashed Star Destroyers and stuff, and you want to know what the **** happened here. And that’s what we were able to capture in this little DLC that we’re making. And due to the fact that we wanted it to be part of the game, we made it free for everyone. We just have to get it done!

The game’s coming out next week, which must be a relief, but it’s been interesting here watching you watch us play. What’s it like to finally see non-EA employees play the game?

On one hand, it’s the greatest reward ever. You want to see the smiles on people’s faces. You want to hear them cry out “yeaaah!” or whatever it is. You want to see that emotional reaction, because that’s why you do it. At the same time, it’s also terrifying, because you might get the other reaction. You might see people play this thing you’ve worked on for months and think it didn’t really work out, people don’t get it, or whatever. You’re afraid that that might happen. So wherever you might have playable code and have people playing it, I’m like, really nervous, but also really happy at the same time. And when it works, and you see people really get into it, and they’re able to wrap their heads around it and have fun with it, and smile and laugh, it’s like you’re walking on clouds.

I think it’s like that when you release anything creative you’ve made. It’s existed in this little bubble, and then you’ve gotta let it go.

It’s your little baby. “Okay, little one! Go!” It’s exhilarating and nerve wracking at the same time.

What aspect of making a game like this do you feel doesn’t get enough credit from players and the press?

When it comes to specific disciplines not getting enough credit, there are classic examples from game development. A lot of the back-end work - the technical management, the people responsible for day-to-day workflows and so on - they never get any credit from actual consumers of the game, because people just don’t understand what they do. What they do isn’t immediately visible. So all the love to those guys from my perspective. But if there’s one thing in general that I would like to highlight, it’s that it’s extremely unknown for people out there what it’s like to make games. When I look at some of the genius that goes into game development...if there’s a Nobel prize for smart solutions, it could be given to a lot of video game people. Just the difficulty involved in making something like this is completely unknown to a lot of people. For me, it would be so cool to see some of that knowledge being put out there, and that could help that appreciation to reach those people.

Totally. Thanks for chatting, good luck with the launch, and I look forward to seeing how it goes from here.

That makes two of us!

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