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Interview

Battlefield Portal Is An Exciting First For The Series That Puts The Community In The Driver’s Seat

We chat with Senior Game Designer Rob Donovan about Portal’s huge potential

Announced during the EA Play Live event, Battlefield Portal isn’t just the third mode available in the upcoming Battlefield 2042, it’s a huge new step for the series that gives the players the keys to the kingdom. Portal is set to bring together content from Battlefield 1942, Bad Company 2 and Battlefield 3, allowing the community to smash these eras together like they’re playing with toys out of a toybox.

Thanks to EA, we were lucky enough to have a chat with Rob Donovan, Senior Game Design at Ripple Effect (formerly DICE LA), about the origins of Portal, the creative process behind it and the potential future of the mode itself.

WellPlayed: Where did the idea for Portal begin and how has it evolved over the course of development?

Rob Donovan: So the team at DICE up in Stockholm got together with Ripple Effect, at the time we were DICE LA, and, of course, you know, we wanted to lend a hand, we were excited to help out with their 2042 offering. Even early on, they were really into the idea of multiplayer, we knew before almost anybody else that they were going for this giant 128-player all-out war. Very exciting stuff.

So we heard what they were saying about what they were planning to build and at our studio we’ve got some people who have been developing Battlefield for a long time. I don’t know if you picked up [on this but] Christian was on the original 1942 team. He’s got some war stories about those maps in that game. So we sort of felt like maybe it was time to revisit those things. We’ve got some people from all different spots in the franchise, so we kind of took those ideas and put them together.

At first, it was a little bit nebulous, but we sort of looked at all the past titles and tried to target a handful that we could remaster and reimagine. We also took the 128-player, giant all-out warfare thing and asked ourselves if there was a way we could combine it all together. And that’s kind of where the idea was born. ‘What if the community could decide what era they wanted to play, what control they could have?’

We’ve got a history of community games, but we were thinking, ‘What if we took it way, way further?’ Over the course of the project, we started off knowing that we were going to remaster the classic maps and redo the classic characters and classes and do the hardware and the weapons and the vehicles, but as we got more in development, we started to see the appeal of mixing and matching things that weren’t necessarily the classic things and reproducing that, but coming up with a different idea that players might enjoy and make new game modes. The more we went on, the more it opened up to us the possibilities of asymmetric teams and per-team settings and this logic editor and just making your own Battlefield, your way. And that’s kind of where we are today, we’ve got both the classic stuff and the ability to really do a lot with Battlefield that you could never do before.

WP: Putting the community in the driver’s seat is a huge step for the franchise, one that fans have no doubt been keen on for a while. What are you and the team hoping to see the community create and how would you like to see the platform grow over the next few years?

RD: Well, what we’re hoping is that they’ll surprise us. We’re giving them a lot of tools in the toolbox and there’s a lot of things that we haven’t really mixed and matched the way that you could if you had the stable development environment once we launch and have a lot of time to play with it.

So Justin showed that TDM gun game, it’s a weird game I’ve never played and it’s a little strange, to be honest. But that’s the kind of thing where you start with a backbone of TDM and we’re going to provide that template for players to start from, and then you can build on top of that to what, 50 to 100? What does each team have that the other team doesn’t? Then maybe stack a gun game on top of it and we’ll see. Honestly, a lot of our choices in terms of what we’re going to support from that logic editor (and also from some of the settings) are, ‘What is the maximum you can do with this thing?’ rather than just try and recreate the classic experiences.

I’m trying to remember what we ended up not pursuing some of the classic games. 1942 was a very different game and they had a lot of very sort of specific niche things that we were like, ‘Yeah, let’s not go after that, let’s go after something that’s really going to change the way the game feels.’

Where do I see it going? This studio has a reputation for listening to the community, it has the potential to go in a lot of different directions and we hope that it can be community-driven. That’s certainly where our attitude is. There are so many different parts to this thing and there are so many different things that we can add. Are you interested in vehicles? We can make a lot more vehicle settings, certainly. Are you interested in the TDM, Free-for-All or other things [in] different eras?

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you all the different ideas that you can imagine in year three of Portal, let’s say, but unfortunately, we can’t commit to anything because again, we’re just launching it now, but we’re really excited to see where it goes.

1942’s content will definitely stand out among the other game’s offerings

WP: How did you and the team decide on which maps and weapons to include? What criteria were you looking for?

RD: So it was a combination of our developer preferences. 1942, I think was something that we really wanted to revisit and reimagine and bring to what’s really now a whole new generation. It’s been 20 years or so since that game came out, so there are a lot of people alive today playing Battlefield who weren’t around for it. So that was a definite thing that the dev team was like, ‘we got to do this.’

Also, we’ve got a group at EA that does player engagement data, and that looks at what are some of the things that people really played? What were some of the fan favourites? And we can tell by the data, what the fan favourites are. And then finally, player insights. We asked for that qualitative feedback as well, like, what’s your favourite? And, of course, Caspian Border is an all-time favourite, I don’t think that’s a surprise to share.

It was a combination of all those things and sort of targeting, what were the areas that we wanted to go after? What were the maps that we wanted to go after? Because, unfortunately, you can’t just click a button and remaster a Battlefield map. We have a lot of talented world artists doing really hard work to get those up to this new generation, this 4K stuff.

In terms of which of the weapons, we wanted to do literally all of them. We started at the top of the list, the most important ones, the ones that you remember that we could not do without, the things that everybody knows [from] the games. And we got most of them. I don’t have the list on hand to say which ones we missed but yeah, there’s a ton of hardware in the game, a ton of vehicles. Battlefield 3 [in particular] has got a lot of stuff in it, just a huge amount of stuff. And we’re doing most of that stuff within Battlefield 2042.

WP: As someone who cannot create anything in games to save their soul, I’m really interested in the official experiences. Will there only be a select few on launch or can we expect more to be added over time? 

RD: Yes, absolutely. So we will have control over what are the official experiences. So yes, at launch, we plan to do the 1942 set with both of the 1942 maps, and some settings that make it feel a little bit more like it did. And then a [Bad Company 2] version and Battlefield 3 version. But we’re hoping, very soon after launch, ideally, to do some sort of community spotlight. Maybe if there’s a game mode the community makes, put that in the featured zone and make that front page material that you can expect you’ll get high player counts and lots of people because it’s so prominently displayed. And then, of course, if it turns out that the 1942 mode has been played out and people aren’t into it anymore, we have the capacity and the ability to swap it out with something else or to feature something new. So yes, we fully expect and hope to be able to do that and we have the tools available.

The returning maps aren’t just fan favourites, they’re hall of fame worthy

WP: During the presentation, we were shown what the process was for building a custom experience including tinkering with all of the intricate details. Will there be a simplified editor in-game to allow console players, in particular, to mess around with a few more basic pre-sets and create an experience that way?

RD: I certainly hope that people will be able to use the settings, aside from the logic editor, but all the settings that we have. I think it’s somewhere in the order of 50 individual settings that we have that you can tinker with. Those are fairly simple, they’re on/off switches, they’re sliders, they’re drop-downs.

The power is still there, you can adjust them per team, as Justin showed in that video, and there are a lot of ways that you can change the default experience. I made myself a solo versus AI game where I made the AI pretty weak and I made myself really strong and I was getting one-shot kills all over the place. It did not feel like a Battlefield game really, it felt like some other bizarre mismatch thing.

So there is still a lot of potential to change the way that the game feels, even if you don’t feel like doing that logic editing and I get it, it can be a little bit intimidating and we don’t expect everybody to go through it. We are hoping to accommodate both the people that are willing to get their hands dirty and also the people that don’t really want to do that. They just want to change the way that Battlefield plays. Despite the fact that some people might only say, ‘I hate the sniper rifle, I want to turn it off, nobody can use it in my game’, there’s still also the opportunity to do some pretty wild stuff with just the settings.

WP: Are there any specific requirements that need to be met before a server can be posted? Or can someone go in and intentionally break the experience and upload that?

RD: We hope not, we hope they won’t break the game. I mean, we’re certainly sensitive to it and we’re going to be watching things. If we start to get crashes, we’ll be able to pull the plug on whatever the offending content is. I will say that we do have some basic validation for the logic editor, there will be some basic checks to make sure that you don’t really screw yourself in obvious and easily corrected ways.

But frankly, we have tried, certainly, from a game design perspective, this is my preference, we’ve tried to err on giving the creators as much power as possible and not trying to put too many guardrails on them from the start. It may be that we will have to do that if it gets really out of control, but the risk for us was if we try and put people into too narrow a box and we say, ‘No, you can’t do this, or no, you can’t do that’, without being 100% certain that it’s a bad thing, we might close off avenues of really interesting, weird game modes that we just haven’t thought about yet.

So what we’re trying to do is prevent the really egregious crash bugs, and technical hangs where everybody’s frozen and then the server freezes, but for the most part, we’re taking a hands-off approach and we hope that everything kind of just works. And like I said, if it does go sideways we’ll have to monitor and try and address those as they pop up. We’re trying to do a love letter to the community and slapping their hand and saying ‘No, you can’t do that’ is the opposite of that. So we’ll see what happens.

The logic editor is set to be a game-changer…literally 

WP: I could ask the usual ‘What’s coming in post-launch?’ question, but I feel like I know what the answer would be. Instead, is there anything that you, as a Battlefield player yourself, would like to see added into Portal in the future?

RD: I mean, there are so many different ways we could go. There are so many things that I’ve said during development when it has become clear that we can’t actually support this one thing or this other thing. I’m trying to remember some specific examples that aren’t coming to me right now, but, you know, I’m excited that we’re going to be supporting the Battlefield 2042 season content. I think that’ll add some interesting wrinkles and we get to kind of ride along with whatever they develop. If they have a new Specialist that does some interesting gameplay [for instance]. We’re going to be supporting it in Portal, [so] I’d love to see what kind of new stuff that creates.

Whether it’s just all the new characters running around, ‘Check out the new character, everybody’s the new character’ kind of thing, or if it’s something else. So yeah, I don’t have anything specific in mind, I’m excited about the possibilities. There are so many ways this could go, depending on what the community wants.

WP: I’m incredibly excited to see how everything goes, good luck with the rest of development, and thank you so much for taking the time to have a chat with me today.

RD: Thank you very much. Good to talk to you.

Battlefield 1942 releases on PS5, PS4, Xbox Series X/S, Xbox One and PC on October 28.

Written By

Adam's undying love for all things PlayStation can only be rivalled by his obsession with vacuuming. Whether it's a Dyson or a DualShock in hand you can guarantee he has a passion for it. PSN: TheVacuumVandal XBL: VacuumVandal

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