Interview: Ian Milham, creative director, Visceral
Arestaurant named Ishimura, a water feature that looks a lot like a Marker: Hardline creative director Ian Milham’s past as art director on horror series Dead Space is hinted at by the profusion of references tucked away in the latest Battlefield. But Visceral is by no means a studio dwelling on its past, as Milham tells us when we talk to him about the process of reshaping a much-loved series into something new. It’s rare to see a studio pick up such an established series and put its own spin on it. How did you approach that challenge? We’re all hardcore Battlefield fans, and have been playing it forever, but to really get fluent in what makes it work, there was no substitute except to help make it. So before we really talked too much about what we wanted to do with it, we had to humble ourselves and helped on one of the expansion packs, spending time learning from DICE. When we started this, DICE was still 18 months out from being done with Battlefield 4, so the target was moving. So the DLC you did for Battlefield 3 was always part of the Hardline plan? Yeah. DICE didn’t have a fifth expansion pack on the schedule for Battlefield 3, but we started one and they added it to give us a way to see if we could get it right. They helped a ton, but the reason there’s a motorcycle in that pack is because we knew we really wanted them in Hardline. DICE has tried motorcycles in the past, but never licked it. So we were like, “Let us take a shot!” You included a tank in the singleplayer campaign; why did you decide to leave it out of multiplayer? It kind of felt like a fun moment in singleplayer, where you don’t need to worry about balance so much, and in that case it specifically serves a nice story point where at the beginning of that level you’ve been humiliated and stripped down by these people, and then by the end of it being this all-powerful, unstoppable tank thing – we liked that. We toyed around with having one show up in multiplayer but it felt like people already have that game – and that game’s great. We would have ended up burning a lot of calories balancing the tank out, and making the maps tank-friendly; if we wanted to do that, we should just make Bad Company 3 or something. The writing in Hardline is enjoyable – did you have Bad Company’s snappy scripting in mind? Well, a little bit. To us it wasn’t so much an influence as it was an example of the fact that Battlefield can stretch. I think people tend to think of Battlefield only as the last couple of iterations, but when you consider the history of it, it’s done all kinds of stuff. Our real inspiration was Elmore Leonard books and the stuff that’s been made from them, like Justified, Out Of Sight and Jackie Brown. What we thought was nice about our opportunity here was that it doesn’t need to be some big world-takeover story. I’m not going to prevent that guy from taking over the world, it’s just he screwed me over and I’m going to get him. Did you toy with idea of having arrested enemies alert others nearby? We did, but it’s really tricky. There was a certain balance we were trying to achieve to allow depth and have something that felt more interesting in terms of tactical variety, but we’re not making Metal Gear Solid. And one of the aspects of a more hardcore stealth game like Splinter Cell is that if you are spotted, or if the stealth breaks down, usually when I play those games I feel like, ‘Uh, I’ve failed.’ And I either let myself get shot until I die or I reload the section because it is just a stealth game. We were trying to add a layer of depth underneath a typical shooter, and I don’t think our audience wants a punishing stealth game. So some of those, like, tier-two stealth mechanics such as moving bodies around and dudes waking up – that’s all great, but it felt like probably a layer beyond what we wanted to do here in terms of what our goals for the game were. It’s funny, because there have been people reacting to the silliness of them having Zs over their heads when you arrest them. And I get that, but at the same time it instantly communicates to people, ‘OK, I don’t need to worry about this guy any more’. Now, as for why he’s asleep? I don’t know. But what other icon could you use that communicates that so clearly? Gadgets like the zipline and grapple hook make navigation easier. Was this a conscious effort to level the playing field for less experienced players? I don’t know if it was necessarily a levelling thing, it just felt to us like we needed some ownable, gamechanging gadgets that felt like they supported the world and involved what we’re trying to do in terms of bringing out strategy and giving people a little more speed. One of the things we were trying to invest in was personality and difference that really did something. It’s not like we’re going to do more stuff than Battlefield 4 – they have so many weapons and so much stuff going on that saying, ‘Now there’s 80 gadgets!’ felt like, ‘Woah, can these possibly be good?’ So we decided to really tune for personality, difference and use. In the end, cops and robbers is a game we played in a backyard when we were eight years old, so we wanted that kind of repeatability and fantasy potential in our stuff.
“Our real inspiration was Elmore Leonard books and the stuff that’s been made from them”