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James Salt Battlefield Heroes Interview

[Old Comrade-In-State-(Ask Your Posturing Games Forumite Dad, kids)-Arms Lazarii became a games journalist. And now he's stopped being a games journalist. Now, as he runs off and does something which will probably earn proper money, he finds that he's an interview got left which he did with James Salt, Lead Designer of Battlefield Heroes. He lobs it at us. We print it. Win!

In it Salt talks about the inspirations behind the aesthetics change ("The Team Fortress 2 question"), how the look rejuvenates enthusiasm for the period, the work method and whether he prefers it to Battlefield Bad Compa... Waitasec, Lazarii, that's a bloody console game. You cad.

All starts beneath the cut, after the traditional staring developer eyes.]


Lazarii: What inspired you to go with such a bizarre, new aesthetic for Battlefield?

James Salt: Ah, the Team Fortress 2 question! When we started with this, which wasn’t too long ago – it was like nine months ago – there was one render of The Heavy [from TF2] that was released. And we were like, “Wow, that’s interesting!” But the reason we chose our art style was, it’s more accessible, it’s a fun place to be. We wanted it to be nice, rather than some sort of horrible future. We wanted this nice art style that was a nice place to go hang out for your lunch break, rather than a depressing future like 2142 kind of was. We wanted somewhere that was nice to go to. The other thing is that we wanted a really low system spec, lower than Battlefield 2. We just want to try and get it out there to as many players as possible, as the internet’s connected to everything. And if we can get it to work on your computer, that’s good for us! So, a low system spec works better with a cartoon style. If you look at the Frostbite engine and the high resolution textures over everything, that doesn’t scale down too great. It doesn’t look good on a low-end machine. But with the kind of colours we have for our art style it looks good on low-end machines. And if we didn’t have that cartoon style, then we had a realistic WW2 game, which I think we’re all tired of now.

Lazarii: Does taking WW2 into over-the-top colours and animation give you renewed interest in that period?

James Salt: Yeah. It’s been regurgitated so much recently it’s like, “Oh look… Shermans!” I mean they’re everywhere. But we wanted to sort of loosely base it on that stuff. We looked also games like Advance Wars, which has a similar Sherman [to Heroes ] that all the good guys drive around in. We also looked at Metal Slug, which has a similar basis in that kind of design. We just sort of rolled all that into it and came up with something we think is more interesting than doing it all in the normal style.

Lazarii: So how many variations of look did you go through?

James Salt: Actually, without speaking for our art director Gustav, he basically locked himself in a room and refused to come out until he had come up with an art style. You try to go in and visit and he didn’t want to show anything. All artists tend to do that… “I’m not done yet! It’s not ready!” and he did go through a few evolutions, particularly the soldiers heads. They were all sorts of weird shapes. And now we’ve come to this sort of big square jaw sort of thing for the royal army. On the website, actually, there’s a lot of concept art of a guy who looks a lot like the ones in codename eagle. A guy called red with a kind of big moustache, and so on. And we kind of morphed with that, stuck some more stuff in it. The style is based on lots of things, I believe Gustav said it’s based on buildings in Croatia – the kind of style of them. Lots of different books he’s picked up on muzak, the kind of art style that they used. I think it’s been his dream game… the ability to go completely nuts on this, completely different art style.

Lazarii: When we first saw footage, our immediate thought was that it was a mod. It was just so surprising to see that style.

James Salt: From a gameplay point of view we just stripped out all the stuff we added since 1942 – we felt there were quite a few people who just became disenfranchised to the idea of commanders and squads and more realism and more kind of an arcade sim. You can’t really call Battlefield a sim, but it did get more sim-ish. Then 2142 added even more. And we kind of left some people behind who enjoyed the Wake Island demo, which is still being played – there’s a couple of thousand people on it each day. Before that there was a game called Codename: Eagle which sort of inspired 1942, and it was mostly about messing around in vehicles in a sandbox. That’s what we wanted to go back to.

Lazarii: And where did the idea for third-person come from?

There were a few reasons why we chose to go third-person. When it first came up, our senior producer, he was over at some event thing in the US. And he was like, “I think we should go third-erson” and I said, “You’ve gone mad”. And then I started to kind of think about it. Well, alright, we haven’t tried it and it really should work out, maybe, so lets give it a go. It’s not really third-person in the way that Mario is, where you’re controlling camera-relative. Instead of a gun on the screen it’s a character on the screen, it still sort of feels like first-person. There were two reasons. One, we felt like people that are casual gamers are better at sort of seeing where they are /at/, what’s going on, where they are orientated, in third-person rather than first. Especially if they’re driving and stuff. Something a lot of console games do is, you don’t drive GTA in first-person. So, that was kind of a driving factor for it. And if we wanted the customisations to be a big part of our game, customising your soldier to look cool isn’t really going to work if all you’re seeing is his arm.

Lazarii: How difficult has it actually been holding back on all the ludicrous stuff?

James Salt: As a lead designer I’m kind of that thing that stands in the way of the designers, and they all have these ideas and… to a certain extent you just have to try it, and take it on an idea-by-idea basis. And I was really into the idea of the bathtub thing for a couple of weeks and then went, “Wait a minite! This is insane! It’s Tom and Jerry!” we did a little exercise, trying to figure out well what is it… what is Battlefield: Heroes? It’s more kind of gorillaz’ visual style than it is tom and jerry. It’s more heroic than it is silly. And so we kind of use that as an eraser to cut down the middle of what the deal is. But it is very tricky, at the start of the game, and then as you get into it, you kind of wrap yourself in the world and get a feeling for “that doesn’t work in here. But at the beginning it’s like, everything goes. And I think now we’re getting to a point where we realise what is heroes and what isn’t.

Lazarii: How are you ensuring the next two Battlefield releases remain faithful, and yet different?

James Salt: We looked at some trends, some things that have been going on. So if you look at Star Wars Battlefront – which is very similar to Battlefield – they stayed realistic. Suddenly, out pops LEGO Star Wars and you’re like, “Oh, okay! Cool!” So there was some analysis of that kind of trend. You know, if you bring out Battlefield: Heroes and it’s realistic, how can we come up with even more ways to entice people into what we think is fun gameplay? This was one way we thought would work.

Lazarii: Having worked on both, what do you prefer? Heroes or Bad Company? [Forthcoming Console FPS - Ed]

James Salt: Well, I was actually on Bad Company for a few months as the lead designer. And I was kind of involved in the multiplayer design. I have to say Heroes, I think. I have it in my blood now and I think it’s more fun. I mean, Bad Company, blowing the hell out of a wall is something that takes a little getting used to. You watch people play it new and they’re always heading for the door, or you’re like, “Why are you running down the stairs’? Just put a new hole in the wall”. It’s kind of, you know, you’re used to shooting a wall in a game and the wall kind of goes, “Yeah… and?” Now, you shoot or ride a tank into the building and you go straight through it. Which is awesome.

Lazarii: Finally, one thing that DICE does better than anywhere else…?

James Salt: Multiplayer… online is where it knows what it’s doing the most.

Rossignol wrote about battlefield Heroes here.

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