There is a kind of magic at the heart of the original Star Wars trilogy that cannot be defined by any one aspect of the films. It doesn’t exist solely in the wonderful musical score, the practical effects and iconic props, or even the beautiful cinematography. Instead, that magic lives in the way all of those elements are woven together, each working in concert to deliver an experience that continues to capture the imaginations of millions of people in the decades since the first movie appeared.
After talking with Niklas Fegraeus, the design director on the upcoming Star Wars Battlefront, I was convinced that his team at DICE possesses a reverence for that magic. The new Battlefront, which launches on November 17th, isn’t just a continuation the excellent legacy of the previous Battlefront games; it’s also an attempt to recapture that same magic that made us all fall in love with Star Wars in the first place. And the developers worked to make it the most authentic Star Wars game to date.
“It was one of those things that we planned from the beginning,” Niklas Fegraeus told me during our interview. “We really want to make this something that can allow people to feel like they’re stepping into this world.”
The team had a staggering task ahead of them: wanting to create a game that drew explicitly from the original films—that felt like a natural extension of them—would require going back and studying every aspect that made the films what they were. They reached out to Lucasfilm. “It was both an exciting and amazing and terrifying experience all at once,” Fegraeus said. “[Lucasfilm] opened up all their archives and gave us all the reference materials that we wanted and needed.”
As part of the process, the team was flown down to Skywalker Ranch, a massive 4700 acre piece of real estate in Marin County, Calif. Of that, only 15 acres is actually developed, including the facilities for Skywalker Sound, a 26 room Inn, and the Lucasfilm Archives, a repository of props and materials used in the production of Lucasfilm classics like Indiana Jones, American Graffiti, and, of course, Star Wars. All of it is closed to the public.
“It is basically a museum,” Fegraeus said. “It’s a place where so much of the props and so much of the original clothing and concepts and paintings are stored. It’s shelves and it’s cabinets and drawers and all kinds of things creating this huge floor of just everything.”
“It was literally like being a kid in a candy store. We were just trying to be professional at first, but that went away after awhile and we just geeked out and starting pointing, laughing, jumping around, and being kids again.”
For anyone who grew up loving Star Wars, the idea of sifting through the carefully preserved artifacts of its legacy would be an overwhelming experience. Fegraeus described his own personal link to the movies, telling me how enchanted he became when his father introduced him to the first film on VHS. Like every other boy captivated by Lucas’ galaxy far, far away, Fegraeus became obsessed. “The world was just consumed by Star Wars, and I was a part of that.”
THE DROIDS YOU’RE LOOKING FOR
Recapturing that fascination meant studying every component of the films that the team could get their hands on. At Skywalker Ranch, they gathered the props and scale models that they planned to use in the game, like Darth Vader’s suit, and captured their own reference materials that they would work with using an elaborate photo scanning process.
“It’s quite an advanced process, actually,” Fegraeus said. “It has multiple steps, but the first and most important step is you take an object and you take pictures all around from as many angles as you can.” Fegraeus described some of the advanced tools, including an apparatus that allowed for smooth and accurate 360 degree rotations around an object. “All those photos then form a matrix of two dimensional info points for special software that can then calculate the shape and surface of the object.” The team made an incredible effort to capture every object that they could, wanting to make everything in Battlefront as faithful to the original movies as possible.
Of course, some concessions did need to be made. During the initial release of footage from the game, fans were quick to point out that characters appeared in costumes that didn’t match the environments in which they fought. Luke Skywalker, for example, was shown fighting in the snowy trenches of Hoth from the opening scene in The Empire Strikes Back wearing the black clothing and wielding the green lightsaber he uses in Return of the Jedi. When I brought the observation up with Fegraeus, he chuckled. “We basically settled quite early to give the heroes their iconic look, that was the vision we set. Of course, some of the characters, they change clothing a lot and some never. We thought that the best thing was to make sure they had their iconic look…like when they were fighting, when they were in battle.”
But Star Wars Battlefront isn’t just a virtual gallery to view all of the objects that DICE went to such lengths to capture. As a video game, special care and attention needs to be placed on how these objects interact—especially when working with the weaponry featured in the game. As a competitive multiplayer experience, a certain degree of balance needs to be maintained in order to keep the game fun for players on both sides of the conflict. “If you look at the blasters that are in Star Wars, they’re not super comparable to real life firearms, but they are very comparable in how they look,” Fegraeus said. “So it was quite a design challenge. How do we make something that feels really, really Star Wars—that feels like a blaster—without it being just a normal rifle.”
In the context of the movies, the inner workings of a blaster rifle wouldn’t be much of a concern unless it somehow played into the plot. For the game, however, a huge deal of consideration was needed in order to figure out the specifics of each weapon. How many shots could a given blaster rifle fire per second? What kind of resource would be expended with each shot? “It was actually quite fun to create that weapon ‘meta’ based on the fantasies we had from the films.” The team was also fortunate enough to be able to consult Lucasfilms regarding certain characteristics and principles of the guns in order to make sure what they were creating was still faithful to the movies.
During the online beta test for Star Wars Battlefront at the beginning of October, which let players get an early look at the game while enabling the developers to stress test the game’s infrastructure, I was impressed not only by the obvious dedication to recreating the look of Star Wars in its vehicles, worlds, and weapons, but also in the special effects. The horizontal and vertical wipes to transition between scenes were warmly familiar, but DICE even went as far as to recreate the sparks that splash outward from laser impacts and other remnants of Star Wars’ pre-computer generated practical effects.
“You can talk about the sounds, you can about the visuals, you can even talk about the effects and Star Wars has something unique in all of those areas,” Fegraeus said. “When we as musicians, artists and effects artists—and so on—get to try and use that reference and then add to it in order to create everything that is needed for the game, it’s really inspiring and quite challenging to get that to work together.”
THE HUM OF NOSTALGIA
But as much as Star Wars is recognizable by its visuals, the sound effects—the hum of a lightsaber or the wail of a TIE fighter engine—are just as capable of evoking that same nostalgia. Fegraeus explained how the process for sound design in Star Wars Battlefront was every bit as methodical as the process of recreating the visuals. “It was very much up to our sound designers and composers to fill in the gaps to create that full ambience that makes those iconic sounds feel like they belong there,” Fegraeus said, “and, at the same time, make all the stuff that we make, both from scratch and modified and so on, in the same vein and work together with the iconic material.”
Yet, as Fegraeus told me, all this time and effort devoted to creating an authentic Star Wars experience is eclipsed by an even greater challenge: “The biggest challenge is actually expectations. We set, internally, an extremely high bar for ourselves simply because of the fact that we love the universe and we want to make it right.”
“Star Wars is so huge and there are so, so many millions of fans out there and they all love it in their own personal way. It is quite daunting to think that we are making something and all these millions of people whose love and passion for this is equal to ours are going to play it and have their own experience,” Fegraeus said. “That is a very daunting task and it can be a scary thought. But at the same time, that’s the magic with it as well. That’s why we want to do it.”
“We’ve all grown up with the franchise,” he continued. “We said to ourselves that we wanted to make it right, to give the [Star Wars] universe and the galaxy the respect it deserves.”
With Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens in theatres on December 18th, a brand new expansion to BioWare’s online role-playing game Star Wars: The Old Republic only weeks old, and Star Wars Battlefront out this week, it’s an amazing time to be a fan. It seems that DICE is working to create one of the most authentic Star Wars video games to date. The sound of blaster fire, the flash of a lightsaber, and John Williams’ incredible musical score—all the pieces are there. All that remains now is waiting to see if DICE can weave all of those elements together to make a game that not only looks and sounds great, but plays great too.
Steven Messner is a freelance writer with a zealous passion for good beer and good video games. He also enjoys taco night, games about space, and forgetting to take out the garbage. You can find his work at GamesRadar, Rock, Paper, Shotgun, and Paste Magazine. Alternatively, you could just add him on Twitter @stevenmessner and say hello. He likes that.
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