El33tonline Interview: Battlefield community manager Daniel Matros on the future of Battlefield and DICE philosophiesWritten by: / / No Comments
As visitors to El33tonline will know by now, online gaming is a big part of who we are and gives us a great excuse to hang out and relax with the community while diving into awesome multiplayer matches. The weekly Battlefield Friday sessions, headed up by El33tonline Community Leader Pieter, are when we are all able to play together in Battlefield 3, and these matches have become a regular fixture for many months thanks to Pieter’s diligent running of the events.
So it was with great excitement that El33tonline recently had the opportunity to speak with Daniel Matros, the Global Battlefield Community Manager at DICE, and chat with him about the future of Battlefield and other fascinating topics.
We may have been a bit intimidating as we bounded toward the Swedish developer in a group comprising Mathew Clarke, Pieter de Bruyn (junior), Pieter de Bruyn (senior) and myself, but Matros was cool as ice and began by telling us a bit about his time in South Africa, including his attendance of a show by one of his favourite bands, Die Antwoord:
“It was amazing, they were so good!” Matros exclaimed. “I was standing right in front so I had the stage just a few metres away!”
He had also visited Rosebank in Johannesburg (“wasn’t really my type of place,” he said), and revealed that he might have been able to visit El33tonline’s home city of Durban, but was convinced by EA South Africa that he should go to Cape Town (“Durban! I actually wanted to go to Durban but I’m going to Cape Town instead…”)
After chatting some more about his shenanigans following a 3am block party, adventures at the Johannesburg International Airport, the general friendliness of South Africans and comparing the drastically different weather of our country and Sweden, we got stuck into some great discussion about the future of Battlefield and what Matros plays when he wants to relax, while discussing the philosophies that make DICE such a leading, cutting-edge studio:
So in-game recording in Battlefield 3 ‒ is that going to be implemented on Xbox and PlayStation 3?
We’re not going to release any video recording for PC, Xbox or PS3. It’s a decision we made a while back. We went public with that decision, for Spectator Mode and Battle Recorder, in early to mid-August at gamescom, so that’s when we first put it out there.
It’s just that, we’re focussing on making other things instead ‒ we’re focussing on tweaking the game, grabbing the data and playing around with what we currently have instead of building new features. That’s what we’re doing.
The studio philosophy we have is: All of these things are really cool to have ‒ it’s cool to have a Spectator Mode, it’s cool to have Battle Recorder, it’s cool to have this-and-this-and-this. We as gamers, really love this kind of stuff: but making everything will break the game. That’s the philosophy we have. We have to focus on the core, which is vanilla maps, which is aiming, design, Frostbite, all of that, that’s the core of the game. How teamplay works, how Battlelog connects with the server, that kind of stuff. That’s all the core stuff.
Then we have everything around that, which is features. Customisable unlocks, that kind of stuff. The fact that you can change your load-out in Battlelog ‒ that’s a feature, it’s not a core thing.
So focussing on the core features first ‒ making sure that’s 100 percent ‒ then moving on to the next thing. I think the studios that make everything are the studios that break – that’s what I think it is. As a developer, you always have strong cards ‒ DICE is a technical studio, but we also make games so we’re also a gameplay studio, but as the backbone of the studio, we are a technical studio. Frostbite 2.0 actually came out sooner than it should have because we were really fast with it and we did a good job on it.
So gameplay-wise we’ve been [improving] ever since Battlefield 1942, Battlefield 2, Battlefield 2142, all of that kind of stuff, and playing around with different things. And I think we’re getting to that point where DICE is considered to be a gameplay studio as well. It’s going to take time, though. I mean, you have Activision and you have Call of Duty, which is more of a gameplay studio, it’s not a technical studio first.
So we pride ourselves in our technology, but we’re also always proud of our gameplay, because that’s what you play ‒ you play the game, you don’t play the technology. Otherwise that would just be a sandbox.
So that comes to my question, about dynamic weather in online gaming ‒ is that even possible?
Technically possible, absolutely. You know the earthquake scene from singleplayer? We even managed to put that into a multiplayer map during our playtests, but then: in fact, that’s a good example of ‘wanting to do stuff.’
You say “This is really cool, let’s have it in multiplayer!” Then you put that in multiplayer and during our playtests, we have to think, “OK, how is this going to affect gameplay? How are players going to react to this earthquake? And how is this earthquake going to react to the player’s reaction?” So there’s always a dual mode there. And then say I only have two flags ‒ how am I going to get back through the earthquake? How am I going to get back through a sandstorm if I don’t see anything?
So there always needs to be a level where both sides have the same terms. “Where’s the sandstorm going to hit? Is it going to hit both? Which flags is it going to hit? How’s it going to affect the air? How’s the air going to affect the ground?” So all of these different equations need to be accounted for, and also the gameplay side.
So technically you can do that, but you need a good rig as well. We also need to make sure it’s good, because we can’t put it out there and players say “You guys gave us this, which is awesome, but it’s also s*** at the same time:” We can’t do that!
We’ve come to expect some good drops in Battlefield 3 Premium, but what can we expect from Premium as a whole over all of DICE’s products?
Premium as a brand? Well you already have systems in other EA games. We have Premium, Need For Speed has its Autolog system which keeps you connected, and then you’ve got EA Sports with the FIFA Ticket, the Madden Ticket the NHL Ticket and all that kind of stuff, so I think there’s a studio-wide push towards something that is not necessarily a subscriber fee, because you don’t pay monthly.
It’s an industry decision, is the way I feel about it. As a studio, we make the game, and I wouldn’t say that we’re terrible at marketing, but: we’re nerds. So that’s the baseline. Then EA does the marketing and they come up with ideas, and we say “Let’s run with it.” We implement these ideas, technically, and even on the business side. I don’t know everything about their business plan, but I do know stuff that we’re doing, which is being effective about the decisions we’re taking. But I do feel it’s an industry-wide decision.
What kind of things would you like to put into Premium in the future to extend the life of the game for many more years?
Probably vanity items. What we’ve seen in any online game, people love to customise their stuff. They customise their gear, their sights, different ammo caps, and everything. They want to customise everything, within reasonable boundaries ‒ you can’t have pink guns because it doesn’t fit the tone of the game, it doesn’t fit with the cammo and that sort of stuff.
So that’s definitely something that could come to Battlefield in the future ‒ more vanity items.
For you personally, what would you rather see in the future: A new Battlefield game, or a new Battlefield: Bad Company game? Would you like to see the Bad Company team coming back with a new story and adventure, or a military-focussed singleplayer game?
That’s difficult. I love the Bad Company series, they were good games, but I love them even more because that’s the first title I worked on ‒ that’s like a sentimental value. But Battlefield 3 is obviously the biggest title I’ve ever worked on, and I’ve had the most fun working on Battlefield 3 because I was never in the studio, I was out travelling all the time around the world.
So I like both games, so I just: I don’t know. It’s very difficult!
Because the fans are baying for another Bad Company game. When people heard about Battlefield 4 they said “That’s really cool: but what about Bad Company?”
I would like to see both actually ‒ that’s like my dying wish to see both.
So what was the first Battlefield game you played?
Battlefield 1942 ‒ the demo!
Everybody played the demo!
I didn’t. I actually started with Bad Company
My dad downloaded the [BF42] demo and I was 15 years old and I started playing it with him. It was really, really cool so I really got stuck. I was a Quake 3 player before. Counter-Strike and Quake 3.
Here’s another question for you ‒ does every game require multiplayer? I’ve seen some games where they just put multiplayer on top.
And conversely, does every game require singleplayer, like Battlefield? People will be playing multiplayer for years to come.
We’ve actually had a lot of people playing singleplayer, I was surprised.
For sure, I’m someone who plays singleplayer first, and then goes on to multiplayer second, but for Battlefield in the future, does it make sense to spend so much money and effort on singleplayer when the game is so focussed on multiplayer?
So when we decided to do singleplayer, co-operative, and multiplayer and Battlelog ‒ four components ‒ it’s a triple-A title, and the market is extremely aggressive towards what we put out there, “What are you giving me?” as a player. So it’s the whole package, as well as trying to make it super cool, that’s key for any game. That’s a base to build off of, so the next game might not have singleplayer, it might not have co-operative, but we still have that base to build off of ‒ we’ve been a triple-A title, and we can keep going triple-A.
Look at Assassin’s Creed for instance ‒ they make a new game every year, and it’s always as good every year: except for on PC where it’s really bad. I’m a PC player, so: they still have the Xbox buttons on the PC [user interface], and it’s like: “What are you doing?” But I get why they do that. When you approach launch, when we were getting ready to launch Battlefield 3, it was really hectic. You work so many hours and you’re so tired and you know that you have to get this game out, because you’ve been working on it for so long.
You don’t do it because it’s a job: well there’s more to it, your state of mind isn’t “I’m going to go to work and I’m going to finish my work.” It’s rather “I’m going to finish the game.” That’s always your state of mind. There’s always ‘the game’ involved. No-one at DICE says “I’ve got this project I’m on,” they say “I’m on the game.”
That’s a detail for something very important at DICE, is that we always want to finish and we always want to pull through, and if we don’t do it for us, we do it for our team members. Having fun is a good way to put a game out. If the process of making a game is really bad and if you’re crunching for months and months, and your employer is treating you badly and you’re not getting paid, or you’re not getting the right bonuses or appreciation, you can see the result in the finished game.
If you have fun in the process, it’s going to shine through. That’s why I think SimCity is so successful and why FIFA is going so well. That’s why Assassin’s Creed is going well (except on PC). I think that’s why they’re doing such a great job, because they’re treating their employees not as employees, but as crew members. Everyone is able to contribute to decisions.
[At DICE], an executive producer like Patrich Bach for instance, has shown vision and he has shown leadership, and he has shown that he understands and gets along with the people, but it doesn’t mean that he’s the ultimate gaming god. Even our vice president doesn’t show that he’s the ultimate gaming god, he might be terrible at games, but he has a vision that we’re so occupied with not seeing that he’s seeing, and we’ve got a vision that he’s occupied with not seeing, so it’s a big trade-off.
I just wanted to take a step back and look at your day-to-day tasks, other than travelling around the world. Communicating with people, fans, that kind of thing. Listening to Die Antwoord.
So right now, I’m the global community manager, but because I’m studio-based, that also makes me more of a producer type, so I’m doing more producer stuff right now. So at the moment I’m busy producing stuff for servers, like if we have a patch going out or if we’ve got downtime coming up. There are different teams creating these things. Server updates for instance.
We check with our [quality assurance] department if the build is OK, so what we do is, they make a server patch and send it off to QA, they take a look at it. They test it and test it and test it, 30 or 40 times, and if it comes back negative then we go again. There are one or two things that we could get away with:
It all gets tested, but [certain things] get tested not that often. If you have 30 people in your QA department you’re only able to test that a certain number of times. You have five people dedicated to patches, for instance, the rest are working on other things, and if you roll that [patch] out, in the first hour 24 000 people are testing the same thing.
So the server patch goes to QA, we analyse it, they test it, come back to me, and they say “This and this and this happened, do you want us to redo it?” I take a look at it and if it says 93% accurate, I say “test again.” Build again, test again. That’s why it takes such a long time to get patches out because we want to test everything. And our patches are the biggest patches in the world! 2.7 GB:
And not only in terms of megabyte size, but in terms of features and additions and changes:
And on our back-end there are 400 open items that go together with each other, so we’re bound to mess something up. It’s not good and we have to improve our patching process, at least for PC. Roll it out before or something, because we have to cert stuff for Microsoft and Sony. It’s the certification time that takes a long time, too. Otherwise a patch could be rolled out on consoles within a week, but they need to be certed and tested at Sony and Microsoft, and they come back and say “OK, you can roll this out in: two weeks.”
So that’s what I’m doing today, I’m in more of a producer role, and I’m hoping to move onto [an official] producer role really soon. That’ll be really fun.
And do you have a bit of free time now, or not? I just wanted to ask about what kinds of games you’re playing these days.
League of Legends. And StarCraft II. I play maybe an hour every third day.
Working with Battlefield every day: it’s like, if you work at McDonalds every day, you’re not going to eat at McDonalds every day. If you play the game every day and play it at home: I consider that to be work and I don’t want to work too much overtime! I want to unwind from work as well, there’s so much going on, so I want to unwind. Working from 8am until 7pm, long hours, and then I come home – I want to chill out.
How did you feel that one day when you lost your tags in Battlefield 3?
It was terrible. One tag is OK. Two tags might be OK. But when I see people coming after me systematically, I’m like “For f***’s sakes!” I get really mad, I slam the keyboard and stuff, because everyone wants the DICE dev dogtags: so then I switch out to Syndicate or Mass Effect, and then they get really upset.
In the early days when we tried [the dog tag animations] out, the funny thing is that they used to crash our servers, so if you got knifed it was like “Ha, you didn’t get my tags anyway! Server crash!”
Oliver: What was the initial goal for Battlefield 3, and do you think you’ve achieved that goal? That vision? What about the Battlefield franchise as a whole?
Our first goal with Battlefield 3 was to make it big. How do you make things big? First of all, it’s a triple-A title, huge marketing campaign behind it, but what’s the substance, what does this ‘basket of awesomeness’ contain? What do we have in there?
We have a brand new engine. Brand new animation system. Great sound. Great gameplay. That’s the core. Then we have social integration, and if you look at FIFA and Madden, they all have a ‘social club’ for people. Rockstar did the same thing for LA Noire. So these were our different ingredients for going triple-A.
Then when we went to E3, we won, like, every award at E3, which was insane. Absolutely insane, no game has ever done that. Then we went to gamescom, and I was at gamescom and the judges for the award nominations were playing our game. I was in the room playing against the judges and it was such a cool feeling to actually see them playing the game and having a good time with it. And then they announced that we won Game of the Show.
That was completely unreal for us as a studio ‒ we had never gone that big before. We really stole the show, and that’s when we finally realised that, “Wow, we’re on to something here.” And then at Tokyo Game Show after that, we won the ‘Future Games Award’ for the Frostbite engine, and then in Australia we won the EB Games Award: it was like, awards all over the place! We’ve won three Bafta’s now for Battlefield, too.
That’s still the feeling we have. We don’t have a huge trophy case at DICE, we have a: it looks like a cabinet that we put our stuff in. And we asked the studio GM, “Why don’t we have a huge trophy case and just blast it all over the place?” and he just said “No, no, stay humble.”
So that’s what you have to do, stay humble. Just because we blew up E3 once and gamescom once doesn’t mean we’re going to do it again. If we continue with the same vision, the same strategy, the same types of ingredients and up the notch a little bit, it’s probably not going to work. We have to up the notch a whole lot and raise the bar again.
Thanks to Daniel Matros for his time and chatting to us about all things Battlefield!
Be sure to follow him on Twitter for new Battlefield announcements, but also because he’s such an entertaining tweeter!