Since Battlefield 1942 first debuted in 2002, the developers at Sweden's Dice studio have refined and redefined the online multiplayer shooter genre they helped popularize. For their latest installment, the PC-only Battlefield Heroes, they're going back to basics with a game that's not only simpler than recent installments, but with a cartoony look and free-to-play motif, one that's also decidedly aimed at a more mainstream audience. We spoke to James Salt, the game's creative director, at a recent EA event to find out how this will all work and what prompted these moves.
Crispy Gamer: In simple terms, what is Battlefield Heroes and how does it connect to other games in the Battlefield franchise?
James Salt: It's a cartoony, simplified Battlefield game that we want to make sure appeals to everybody. We are hoping to make it very appealing to the mainstream by making it free and by taking away some of the complex stuff that was in Battlefield II and Battlefield 2142. It's still the same kind of game but a lot of the complexity has been taken out. For example, you won't get shot in the face the moment you spawn because the weapons don't do as much damage as in other games, there are no insta-kills. When you get hit, you'll have time to react. It'll be like you have a limited shield, and when you get hit you might be able to run off and heal.
Crispy Gamer: Where did the idea for this game come from?
Salt: The idea of doing a cartoon Battlefield has been in the head of Lars Gustavsson, the designer of Battlefield 1942, for a while; he's wanted to do one for years. As for the free part of it, Ben Cousins -- who's a senior producer on the game -- and I went to Korea and saw how they did free games there, and we thought, "Why wouldn't that work here?"
Crispy Gamer: But what happened first? Did you have the idea of a simple Battlefield and then the free aspect came up, or did you come up with the free aspect and then figure out that a simple Battlefield would work well with it?
Salt: It came about the second way. I was working on Battlefield: Bad Company when Ben took me into a room and told me we were going to try and make a free game. And Heroes came out of that because we knew it would have to be a more accessible game, and that led us to revisit all the ideas Lars had about a cartoony Battlefield.
Crispy Gamer: What era is it set in?
Salt: It kind of has a World War II theme to it, but it's not set in World War II. It's kind of like Advance Wars, which has some Sherman tank-looking things, or Metal Slug, which has a lot of WWII-looking vehicles, but it's not really set in World War II. The two sides are the National Army and the Royal Army, but the reason they're fighting is completely silly because we don't want the battle to be about anything in particular.
Crispy Gamer: So what are they fighting about?
Salt: Cycling results from the Olympics.
Crispy Gamer: People have fought over dumber stuff.
Crispy Gamer: Now does the game have a single-player mode or is it just multiplayer?
Salt: Right now it's only online multiplayer.
Crispy Gamer: And is it first- or third-person?
Salt: It's third-person, but with a first-person camera. I know that sounds kind of crazy. It's not like Mario, where you're kind of controlling relative to the camera; it's more like the camera is on a big stick sticking out of the back of your character. So it feels like first-person.
Crispy Gamer: Was this prompted by the fact that in Asia, especially Japan, they seem to like third-person games more than first-person ones?
Salt: That might've been in Ben's head, but it wasn't anything we ever talked about.
Crispy Gamer: Will the characters and backgrounds be equally cartoonish?
Salt: The whole world is built around the cartoony feel. It just feels like a warmer, more welcoming place to go. It's not so serious. It's not like going to war-torn Iraq or some post-apocalyptic future. It's a nice place to visit during lunch, when you have five minutes to play.
Crispy Gamer: What would you say were the primary influences on the look?
Salt: There are a series of comic books that we looked at early on. One is called "Commando," which came out in the United Kingdom.
Crispy Gamer: "Commando" as in the Schwarzenegger movie?
Salt: No, no, these are comics from the '50s or '60s, I think. They had a very stylized look about them. We also wanted the game to be playable on PCs that have low system specs, and on those kinds of machines, a cartoon look really works.
Crispy Gamer: Some have said the look is reminiscent of Valve's Team Fortress 2. Was that game an influence on this one's visual style, or maybe just a sign that you were on the right track and that people might dig this look?
Salt: It was more the latter. Right after we started working on the game, but had already considered the cartoony look, Valve released a single screenshot from Team Fortress 2. I think it was of The Heavy. But it confirmed for us that this was the right way to go.
Crispy Gamer: Like you guys, Valve are affiliated with EA. Have they gotten in touch with you via interoffice memo to say, "Cut it out" or "Thanks for the compliment"?
Salt: No, not yet. But maybe I didn't get the memo.
Crispy Gamer: Unlike other games in the series, Heroes only has three classes of characters: the Commando, the Solider, and the Gunner. Is this an indication that you finally accept the fact that no one wants to be a Medic?
Salt: Ha! Yeah, the Medic is a kind of thankless role. Which is why in Heroes we let everyone just heal themselves.
Crispy Gamer: Will the game also feature fewer weapons and vehicles than past installments?
Salt: Compared to other Battlefield games, it will. We have three vehicles per team: planes, tanks and jeeps.
Crispy Gamer: So how many people will the game handle at a time?
Salt: It's set for 16, two teams of eight.
Crispy Gamer: How about maps will be available at launch?
Salt: Two maps, but we'll be adding more. We've got two we're working on now and they'll be out when they're done. We actually have a whole team who'll be working on this game fulltime after it launches. They'll be looking at the forums, and if, for example, the general consensus is that people want a new map, the team will make a new map; if players want us to add helicopters, then the team will make a helicopter.
Crispy Gamer: As you said earlier, the game is free. Can you explain how this will work?
Salt: There are two methods: One is web advertising. There's no in-game advertising, there will just be ads on the menus and the loading screens. The other is micro-transactions. There will be add-ons that players can buy if they want to, but certainly nothing that is required to play the game or that will imbalance the game; we're not going to be selling a special nuke or anything. We have things that will make you look cooler or make you stand out, or convenience items, like experience points.
Crispy Gamer: Okay, so if I understand this, I can buy a hat for my little guy, or I can buy the experience he'd need to go from level 4 to level 5?
Salt: Right. Or you can buy a multiplier that would, say, give you 30 percent more experience points for winning a match.
Crispy Gamer: Gotcha. The game also, I've heard, will feature Achievements like those on the Xbox 360?
Salt: Well, they're similar to Achievements, but they're also like the awards and medals we had in Battlefield 1942. You chose which mission you want to do -- "Kill 10 Snipers," "Run Over Five People," etc. When you complete the mission, you get a little fanfare; then, when you go back to the menu you get your reward, which might be more experience points or an item. It's kind of like how, in an MMO, you go back to the guy who sent you on your quest and he gives you a reward for completing it.
Crispy Gamer: The game is only being done for PCs. Do you think it would work on a console? I mean in terms of gameplay, not the "free" aspect.
Salt: I think so. We'd have to redo some aspects of the game. The basic engine doesn't work on a console, so we'd have to work on that, as well. But in theory, yeah, there's no reason why it wouldn't work. People seem to be playing Team Fortress 2 on consoles a lot.
Crispy Gamer: Finally, though you've said you're going for a more mainstream audience, do you think Heroes will also appeal to hardcore Battlefield players?
Salt: That is going to be interesting to see. There is a lot of depth to the game, but I don't think it will be every Battlefield fan's cup of tea. But as we've gone from Battlefield 1942 to Battlefield II to Battlefield 2142, we've noticed that some fans have fallen away because of the complexity we added in the latter games -- they feel it got a little too serious. We're thinking some of the people who were really into 1942 will be really interested in this game, and we've been seeing forum posts to that effect.