DICE managed to make a mainstream WWI shooter, but at what cost?
World War I was one of the most horrifying conflicts in human history. The four year war engulfed the globe and caused almost 40 million casualties. It killed 17 million and wounded 20 million more. The Battle of Verdun alone lasted 303 days and killed, on average, 2,000 soldiers a day.
In 1914, European troops went to war with sabers, rifles, and the garish and brightly colored uniforms of the 18th century. In 1918, the soldiers fought in the drab and utilitarian uniforms of modern combat, piloted tanks, manned machine gun embankments, and assaulted the enemy from the sky. All for the first time. The world changed.
On the Western Front, trenches, rain and mud swallowed men whole while fogs of mustard gas rolled through a no-man's land of barbed wire and blood, indiscriminately melting the organs of those it touched. World War I was a nightmare.
On October 21, publisher EA and developer DICE will release Battlefield 1, a big budget video game set in World War I. This is unprecedented. Video games have tackled the war before, but it's usually smaller titles from big studios such as Ubisoft's Valiant Hearts or fringe indie games such as Verdun. Hollywood and video game heavy hitters have long steered clear of The Great War, with its murky origins and horror film setting, and stuck with the comforting simplicity of World War II.
DICE is about to change that, but the question remains, how the hell do you make a great action shooter out of one of the most brutal conflicts in human history? How do you make World War I fun?
"That's a good question," Aleksander Grøndal, Senior Producer at DICE, told me when I asked him. For Grøndal and his team, Battlefield 1 is a Battlefield game first and a World War I game second. "It would be a little bit pretentious of us to claim that we somehow will make World War I fun," he said.
"It's just an interesting era. We're not trying to create a documentary about that era. We're trying to make a game, it's supposed to be fun first so, of course, we're going to take some creative liberties where we can."
DICE released Battlefield 4 in 2013 and knew it needed to do something different. The series started in World War II, but quickly moved to the modern era and aside from odd ducks such as Battlefield: Vietnam and Battlefield 2142, it's stayed there.
"It was pretty clear, for me and for the team, that we really needed to do something different," Grøndal said. They wanted a challenge. "Something that [would cleanse] our palate and [force] us to rethink … what we were doing."
It turned out that DICE had the perfect idea, they'd been working on a World War I set Battlefield game for nine years. "It'd been pitched a few times," Grøndal explained. "It clicked together quite nicely. The more we started looking at the source material and started digging … it has all the components that a Battlefield game needs. It had all the weapons, it had all the locations, it had all the interesting events … and it was unexplored."
Grøndal told me that the the more the team researched the Great War, the more excited they got. How would players use Mark V tanks? Could they recreate the intimate and deadly bi-plane dogfights? What happens when a massive armored train launches artillery shells into the winning team on a Battlefield conquest map?
Grøndal lost himself in the research and while his colleagues built a library of World War I books, he sought something more visual. "I wanted to see the pictures and I wanted to imagine how they'd look with a mobile lens," he told me. "I wanted to start off with all the footage and imagine that footage in our game with a modern take."
He told me the 2014 French documentary Apocalypse: World War I spoke to him. The four hour film chronicles the war through primary sources. A narrator explains the war and reads letters, books and journals from the era while colorized footage from The Great War plays. It's vivid, beautiful and depressing. Like a colorized Ken Burns documentary about violence.
"It was really cool to see that old footage," Grøndal said. He also relied on the book World War I In Colour. "It's quite interesting and it sucks you in because it feels much closer when you see everything in color."
Despite Grøndal's devotion to getting a visual sense of World War I, his favorite resource was entirely auditory. "I would say … the big inspiration for me has been the Dan Carlin series of podcasts."
Carlin's Hardcore History podcast is incredible. The amateur historian weaves together history's most compelling stories into a show that's hard to stop listening to. His World War I series, Blueprint for Armageddon, is engaging and a great place to start for anyone interested in learning more about the war.
The source material doesn't shy away from the wretched horror of World War I. Carlin's Blueprint for Armageddon in particular details grizzly moments of the conflict. It's stuff more suited to a survival horror game than a big budget shooter and Grøndal knows that.
"There's horrors here that we don't necessarily don't want to dive to deep into," he said. So we've picked out some of the youthfulness and the adventurous and the hopefulness of this … and captured more of that spirit in the game."
Think more Lawrence of Arabia and less Johnny Got His Gun. "World War I is a little bit crazy and a little bit over the top. Some crazy things can happen so it goes in line with what Battlefield is all about. It's not super serious. It's a little bit lighter tone."
But the game will make use of the Western Front's most notorious features: trenches and chemical warfare. "There's going to be elements of that treated with a Battlefield flavor," Grøndal explained. "One of the maps which we had in the closed Alpha, St. Quentin's Scar, portions of that map had trenches so it's a huge gameplay element there."
Grøndal also promised more maps would make further use of trenches and mustard gas. "Perhaps not in conquest gameplay mode," he teased. "But in other game modes there will be more use of that. It's definitely represented. But it's only a portion of the game."
"We're learning more towards to the later stages of the war where mechanized warfare was starting to come online."
Shying away from the horrors of The Great War isn't the only ahistorical feature of Battlefield 1. Many of the game's weapons, such as the gas powered Cei-Rigotti rifle, were never officially fielded during the conflict.
"We tried to find the interesting weapons that could have theoretically been used," Grøndal explained. No military officially fielded the strange rifle during the war, but that doesn't mean it wasn't used. It's still a weapon of the era, Grøndal argued.
Besides, it's fun. "As a Battlefield game, it's expected that we provide a broad arsenal of weapon types. So we took some creative liberties with what could have happened," Grøndal told me. "Some people could have had that particular weapon during that time even though it wasn't fielded in the army or was standard issue."
DICE scoured the historical record from the mid 1800s to 1918 to find weapons to fill out the roster. When making a fun game about a terrible war, one design philosophy stood above all else—is it fun? If the possibility is more fun than the history, the possibility won out.
"We allow for vehicles that may not have taken place," Grøndal added. "For instance, there's battles in 1916 that didn't have much tanks or armored cars but we allow that to be a part of our game. We brought that in because we thought that that'd be more fun. We had to take creative liberties both with locations and with time."
That doesn't mean DICE and the team aren't interested in history, just that they're interested in fun first. Grøndal didn't rule out the possibility of game modes with historical restrictions.
"This was a pivotal moment in Western history and if we can encourage people to read up on it, then that's a win in itself."
"You're getting into territory with stuff I really can't talk about right now," he teased when I asked him about a historical mode. "But, I can say that as we release every weapon will be available on every map … but there's more to that that we really can't talk about right now."
The Great War was so odd. It began on horseback and ended with tanks and focusing on the later half of the war allowed Grøndal to stuff in more weapons, mechanics and history. It's even shaped the single player campaign, which he promised will be less linear and more, well, Battlefield.
"We felt like there was a huge opportunity to pull elements that make our multiplayer so successful and bring them to the campaign which means more variety, more agency for the player, more ways for the players to accomplish goals."
He promised the single player maps would be large and open, just like the multiplayer maps, and push players to solve problems their own way. More interesting, the campaign won't have a single protagonist, but will jump between perspectives.
"But what I'm hoping is, by raising awareness of this era, that it's so much more than just the Western Front, and maybe get people excited to read up on it. I think that's a positive. This was a pivotal moment in Western history and if we can encourage people to read up on it, then that's a win in itself."