With any sequel comes immense pressure. The need to make it as good, if not better, than what came before. The need to make it bigger, either visually, emotionally, or both. The need to have it build upon its predecessor but also stand strongly on its own. When you’re making a video game sequel and it’s called Star Wars Battlefront II, you definitely feel that pressure. This is the story of how Lucasfilm, EA, DICE, Criterion, and Motive rose to the challenge.
The original current-gen Star Wars Battlefront, a multiplayer action shooter, launched in November of 2015, coinciding with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens soon after. The game received strong reviews and went on to sell millions, marking, along with its film cousin, the start of a new era of productivity for a galaxy far, far away. Thanks to the power of modern consoles like PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, Battlefront featured the most fully-realized take on Star Wars ever seen in a video game. Character models and ships were detailed in ways not previously possible, from scuffs on stormtrooper armor and scratched paint on snowspeeders to the cleft in Mark Hamill’s chin. There were ground battles and aerial combat exercises on planets from the original trilogy, The Force Awakens, and even on Sullust — a world only previously mentioned in The Empire Strikes Back and finally brought to life for the game. (Running side-by-side with an AT-AT on Hoth as it kicks up snow, just one of many great Battlefront moments, was something of a dream come true.) For the developers, however, there was still a feeling of missed opportunities and more work to do — which would ultimately shape Battlefront II.
“We were super proud of Battlefront,” says senior producer Orion Kellogg of the Lucasfilm games team. “It was great to bring the Battlefront franchise back to consoles and in HD. It just looked amazing and it really fulfilled a lot of Star Wars fantasies, but we knew we weren’t done. We knew that it was going to be a multi-game franchise, and we knew we wanted to bring, right off the bat, some of the things that the fans called out as missing from the first one.”
But first, they were determined to address the bantha in the room.
Players were very vocal about a specific feature they wanted in a sequel: a single-player experience. Battlefront 2015 focused on multiplayer, so developing a single-player game from scratch would be a substantial undertaking.
“We were listening to them, and we knew we wanted to bring them a single-player story,” says Kellogg. “Storytelling is vital to Star Wars, and single-player stories are vital to our Star Wars games strategy. That was super, super important to us, and we knew how important it would be to the fans.”
The question was, who would it star? What would the actual story be?
“It came to us as a pitch from Motive Studios, who was making the single-player campaign,” says Steve Blank of the Lucasfilm Story Group. “They said, ‘Hey, we are really interested in a Imperial point of view in general, but one of the times we find really fascinating is the time period spanning between Return of the Jedi through The Force Awakens. It hasn’t been explored a ton yet. We have seen some novels, not a lot of details outside of that. There are these major events, like the destruction of the Death Star II — what would that have looked like from an Imperial point of view? And so, we want to figure out with you guys, can we tell a story there? What does that really look like? And who would those characters be?’ So it became a really collaborative process at that point. We were immediately onboard. We thought that was a really cool idea, something we were happy to explore.”
From there, our Imperial protagonists — you read that right — were born. The game would star an elite Imperial squad, active on Endor during the destruction of the second Death Star. Their leader, and now the character in our hands: a gifted female soldier who was born and raised in the age of the Empire, and a true believer in the Emperor’s stewardship.
“With our writers, Mitch Dyer and Walt Williams, with the Motive team, with the Story Group, with our Lucasfilm games team, we all kind of huddled and said, ‘Who would the right characters be for this? Who’s going to bring us into this story?’” Blank explains. “And that’s how we came up with Commander Iden Versio and Inferno Squad, because we wanted to introduce characters that you immediately believed and felt were loyal to the Empire and were through-and-through Imperials, and would be really affected by what happened.”
“It’s something I’ve always wanted to write, because it’s something Star Wars has always been missing,” says Dyer. “As a Star Wars fan, I’m as obsessed with Darth Vader, Maul, Boba Fett, and other villains in the galaxy as I am with heroes like Leia and Yoda. Star Wars always gives us glimpses into the dark side, and with Battlefront II, we wanted to live in it. What’s it like to be a loyal Imperial soldier, born on an Imperial world, with a military family mentoring you into an elite operative? What challenges does someone like this face within the regime, and what are the personal conflicts that create tension and disagreements within its ranks? Iden Versio was the core of that story — she’s an authority figure who bristles at authority, who breaks rank and protocol in the interest of success and galactic security.”
On the Lucasfilm side, the company made sure that Iden Versio and her squad, including new characters Gideon Hask and Del Meeko, fit within the larger Star Wars narrative. Steve Blank and the Story Group were involved throughout production, even attending shoots. Legendary ILM designer Doug Chiang advised on Inferno Squad’s armor, and Star Wars Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni met with the games team to discuss why the Empire might be using a special forces unit, and how he’d approach using them in story. “It was a total collaborative effort,” Kellogg says.
Bringing Iden Versio to life is actor Janina Gavankar, known for her appearances in True Blood and Arrow. Gavankar both voiced the character and performed the role in a motion-capture suit, embracing the chance to play someone on the other team in the Galactic Civil War.
“Zero judgment,” Gavankar says of how she views Iden. “Everybody is the hero of their own story.
“And, you know, I don’t see anything wrong with peace and order,” she adds playfully.
Acting in a video game is incredibly demanding. Gavankar had to define the way Iden would speak, her mannerisms, her expressions. How she would walk, how she would run, how she would hold a blaster. All of this would be represented in-game based on her physical performance. She had to work out “harder than ever,” both to look the part and to handle all the gear that the actors had to wear during takes — which Gavankar used to her advantage.
“We have full motion-capture suits, which are stretchy, of course,” she says. “But we also have helmet cameras, and that helmet camera comes with a belt that you wear around your mid-section that has batteries and many packs of things that… I don’t even know what they do. It’s heavy and they tighten it to however tight you want it to be. For me, I just make it as tight as possible to give you the constriction that your [trooper] chest plate would have. So I found little ways to mimic what it would feel like to be in a uniform.”
Gavankar and her fellow Inferno Squad actors also worked with military consultants, advising them on everything from weapons handling to how to react and keep moving after being wounded.
“I’m very grateful for that,” she says. “The first thing we learned to do was to walk the way you would in battle and also to scan the way you would in battle. So the three of us learned how to be a three-pronged machine and how to scan from 10 to two. We learned how to fan perfectly and how to move together as a unit. It was one of the first things we shot and the second that we figured it out we were Inferno Squad. It was a kind of a magical experience.”
“She floored us,” Dyer says of Gavankar. “It was so clear to the entire Motive team that she represented everything we were looking for in our protagonist. Janina was so involved because she was excited, she really cares about games, performance capture, storytelling, and Star Wars. Walt, Janina, and I spent a ton of time talking about Iden, the script, and her ideas — Janina has a lot of ideas, always, and we were always ready to explore and embrace them. One of my favorite moments in the entire game was an on-set idea Janina had, and it’s the kind of thing that’s more genuine than anything I could write.”
StarWars.com had the chance to play through the single-player campaign and found it to be a thrilling Star Wars experience, both in story and gameplay. It’s quickly apparent that creating an Imperial protagonist at this point in the timeline is something of a stroke of brilliance; the Imperials are underdogs after the second Death Star is destroyed, so however you feel about Iden’s loyalties, you are just fighting for your life. (Navigating Endor, with burning AT-ATs and crashed TIEs all around you, is really kind of shocking — like much of the game, it shows what came next after Return of the Jedi, yet in a completely unexpected and exhilarating way.) But it’s also important to note that Iden is no caricature of evil. Minor spoiler warning: She’s a believer in the Empire, yes, but only to a point. Iden’s story has an emotional arc, and it’s wonderful to see and play an active part in. Battlefront II will take you to worlds new and old, reveal bits of Star Wars lore you didn’t expect, surprise you, and challenge you, and we have this new special forces operative to thank. The Force works in mysterious ways.
Welcome to Star Wars, Iden Versio.
“It really just means everything,” Gavankar says of the role. “It is the intersection of everything that I love in this world.”
Upping their game
While the single-player campaign is a significant part of the Battlefront II story, further developing and improving the scope, feel, and multiplayer component of the game was just as crucial.
In many ways, 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront was a big let’s-see-what-we-can-do experiment. It was the first next-gen Star Wars game, and showed just what would be possible with the cutting-edge tools and technology of its time. It also showed how direct access to Lucasfilm could benefit modern Star Wars video games. That partnership continued with Battlefront II, when brainstorming began immediately following the release of the first game.
“The great thing about being a part of the Lucasfilm games team is that we’re here, on-site, and we get exposed to all of these things,” says Kellogg. “Just being in the hallways, getting to go speak with the Story Group all the time, getting to work with Doug Chiang or any of the other creatives here. And we get to share that access with our developers.” That collaboration is realized in weapons, armor, vehicles, and really, anything new and cool that gets absorbed into the game — and especially in content pulled from Star Wars: The Last Jedi. In December, Battlefront II will add the planet Crait — the salt-covered world seen in The Last Jedi trailer as the setting for a major Resistance/First Order clash — as part of all-new, post-launch content coming in the game’s The Last Jedi “Season.” And it’s included largely thanks to early access to the film’s assets and its writer-director and producer.
“We met with Rian Johnson and Ram Bergman to go over the designs for the Crait level,” Kellogg says, “and made sure that we had their buy-in. We wanted to make sure that they understood we would do it justice. Rian played the first Battlefront, and I think was convinced that the graphic fidelity and audio fidelity would absolutely be there. So he trusted us to make a scenario that would put players into the Last Jedi battle fantasy. I think it will feel really true to the movie.”
It’s one example of a major mission for Battlefront II: developers were eager to incorporate more Star Wars locales from across the saga. The prequels are now represented in beautiful renderings. New maps include Naboo, with its stunningly recreated 18th-century-Italian-inspired architecture, the rain-drenched planet of Kamino with its alien half-dome buildings, and, yes, Kashyyyk, a.k.a. the jungle world of the Wookiees.
“Like many other things in the game, selecting the planets we focus on first is an exercise in gameplay needs and visual variety, coupled with what we like to call ‘Star Wars needs,’” says Dennis Brannvall, associate design director at DICE. “Which is, in a nutshell, what are the must-have places to visit from the perspective of a Star Wars fan? While we’re in no danger of running out of potential planets to visit in the future, we feel good about the locations from all three cinematic eras available to players at launch. They make up a varied mix of large, open landscapes on Kashyyyk and Hoth, to tighter close quarters experience such as Death Star II and Starkiller Base, as well as sprawling urban environments such as Theed on Naboo and Mos Eisley on Tatooine.”
To further engross players and transport them into these new worlds and the Star Wars universe as a whole, a new multiplayer mode (among Battlefront II‘s many others) was created: Galactic Assault. In Galactic Assault, there’s always a reason for the battle at hand, always a backstory. On Kamino, the droid army is looking to shut down the cloning facility and end the war. Depending on which side you’re on, those are some high stakes. Kellogg points to that map as a favorite.
“Personally, I’m blown away on Kamino,” says Kellogg. “When I’m fighting through the clone facilities and rain is coming down, and one of the tridents leaps out of the water onto one of the clone facility buildings, I’m like, ‘Did that just happen?’ It’s fantastic.”
Older locations have also benefitted from this more-immersive gameplay. Endor, a longtime favorite that was also featured in the original Battlefront, has been rebuilt for a new experience. “This time, we’re taking you to Endor just after the Battle of Endor and imagining a scenario where the rebels are trying to clean up an Imperial research facility that’s lingering on the planet,” Kellogg says. “They actually steal an AT-AT under the cover of night, and you can just feel what it might be like to attack an Imperial base with their own weaponry. It’s super-awesome, it feels super-different than what we gave you in the first Battlefront.”
Gameplay and controls were also tweaked and upgraded. Dodges and combat rolls are easier and more effective at breaking melee attacks. Starfighter combat got its own multiplayer mode, Starfighter Assault, along with a significant overhaul: players can now pull off maneuvers like Rey’s dizzying spins and turns with the Falcon in The Force Awakens. Plus, Battlefront II has combat in space — a feature lacking in the first Battlefront. “There are actual star wars in our Star Wars game,” Kellogg says jokingly. “And Criterion did a really great job.”
Other special modifications are more subtle, but make a big impact.
“One of the specific things I’m excited about that was kind of a result of working on all this stuff, and getting excited as Star Wars fans ourselves, is the Battle Points system,” says Kellogg. “You can earn points that will let you bring in these special units, and that stuff is really great fantasy fulfillment. So not only can you be one of the lightsaber-wielding heroes, or a blaster-hero like Han or Leia, but you can bring in a super battle droid or a First Order flame trooper. You can come in as an AT-RT or an AT-ST. That just really takes fantasy fulfillment to the max, and that’s what we were trying to do.”
Even the way Jedi and Sith react to being Force pushed has been further perfected, especially important as Battlefront II ups the number of Force-wielders at play.
“This time around, we really wanted everyone involved in an attack, whether you’re the attacker or the victim, to feel awesome,” says Branvall. “To accomplish this, we introduced a system where we turn on ‘ragdoll,’ which is when players lose control of their character and we apply physics to send the character flying, but with the ability to recover from it. So in Battlefront II, Luke Skywalker can run up to Darth Vader and push him using the Force, sending him flying through the air and smashing into a wall, only to recover and get up again. Even as Darth Vader, as the victim of the Force push in this example, you would still feel awesome as you’re sent flying.”
Oddly, we can’t wait to be on the receiving end of that Force attack.
The saga continues
The road to the release of Battlefront II was a long one. There were late nights and many weekends spent in offices around the world. Hard decisions to be made. But there were bright spots, too, for both fans and the game makers, that marked Battlefront II’s progress: Janina Gavankar’s captivating turn as press conference host at EA PLAY, which saw the debut of the game’s first trailer; the beta, giving fans their first steps into Battlefront II’s larger world; and the release of the final launch trailer this month, featuring the most complete look at the game yet (including rebels riding tauntauns mid-battle, which should have everyone very excited). And now, the Battlefront II journey is complete.
“It’s not easy to make a game with three studios in two years,” says Kellogg. “And I think we made a really good one that everyone’s happy with.”
“Developing and producing a video game, or any piece of creative content, is a labor of love,” says Steve Blank. “There are always ups and downs, much laughter and many tears, but everyone involved has invested their energy and chunks of their life into the project because they believe in what they’re working on. I could not be prouder of Battlefront II. A lot of hard work has gone into the creation of this game at Lucasfilm, EA, DICE, Criterion, and Motive, and we all genuinely hope we’ve given fans a game that they will enjoy.”
Star Wars Battlefront II is available now.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content strategist of online, the editor of StarWars.com, and a writer. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.