Star Wars: Battlefront II is one of the biggest expansions of the Star Wars universe since Disney purchased the rights to the franchise from George Lucas — and it is all happening outside of Lucasfilm at publisher Electronic Arts. But while EA has the rights to make Star Wars games for console and PC, that doesn’t mean Lucasfilm doesn’t have a say (it is very involved, actually). The two corporations work together closely on an almost daily basis to maintain canon, approve artwork, and more. For Battlefront II director Mark Thompson, this is a highly collaborative process.
“When we work with Lucasfilm’s story group, they’re all passionate Star Wars fans and storytellers,” he told GamesBeat. “Nobody we work with seems like a license person or a business person or a marketing person. They’re all huge fans of Star Wars, as well as experts in the lore and the IP, and also experts in their own craft.”
Thompson highlighted that craftsmanship as the most important piece of the partnership between Lucasfilm and EA.
“We speak the same language when we talk about building a game and building the story for a game,” said Thompson. “The conversations flow very easily, very naturally. And so, yes, we just approached it as a collaboration. They wanted to collaborate as well. They’re super-enthusiastic about telling this new story, helping bring the campaign together.”
In Battlefront II’s campaign, players take on the role of Imperial special forces operative Iden Versio. She has grown up inside of the Empire, and she sees it as a force for good in the galaxy. But this story is canon, which means that it is just as legitimate in the story as Obi-Wan Kenobi or Han Solo. Throughout development, EA’s DICE and Motive teams had to balance building something new while also fitting into an existing puzzle. Thompson said that was difficult, but this work didn’t hold the game back.
“I think the important thing is that they want every piece of Star Wars storytelling to have its own identity,” he said. “That was, I think, why we had so much creative freedom and so much backing from them. Early on, in the first conversations we had with them, it was about, what is the voice—in all of Star Wars storytelling, what is the voice of Battlefront? Why is it a Star Wars story, in this game? What does it do differently? They want all of these different pieces of Star Wars to be consistent and coherent. But they also want each of these things to have its own voice, to contribute and do something different, to expand the universe.”
I spoke with Star Wars: Battlefront II director Mark Thompson by phone last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Mark Thompson: This collaboration was—if you approach this kind of thing from—if you create an artificial barrier between content creators and rights holders and approvers of content, there’s always going to be friction. What I loved about working with Lucasfilm is they aren’t just the holders of the license. They’re also creative people who are storytellers and game developers. They have a ton of game experience. They know what it takes to ship a game. When we work with Lucasfilm’s story group, they’re all passionate Star Wars fans and storytellers. Nobody we work with seems like a license person or a business person or a marketing person. They’re all huge fans of Star Wars, as well as experts in Star Wars and the lore and the IP, and also experts in their own craft. That’s the important thing.
Everyone over there is a craftsman. We speak the same language when we talk about building a game and building the story for a game. The conversations flow very easily, very naturally. And so, yes, we just approached it as a collaboration. They wanted to collaborate as well. They’re super enthusiastic about telling this new story, helping bring the campaign together.
GamesBeat: Lucasfilm has a vision for Star Wars. How did EA Motive try to fit inside that vision?
Mark Thompson: I think the important thing is that they want every piece of Star Wars storytelling to have its own identity. That was, I think, why we had so much creative freedom and so much backing from them. Early on, in the first conversations we had with them, it was about, what is the voice—in all of Star Wars storytelling, what is the voice of Battlefront? Why is it a Star Wars story, in this game? What does it do differently? How does it expand, rather than just echoing one of the other properties in Star Wars, whether it’s the Marvel comics or other publishing? What’s it doing in terms of Last Jedi and Force Awakens and Episode IX and the spinoff movies like Rogue One and Han Solo? They want all of these different pieces of Star Wars to be consistent and coherent. But they also want each of these things to have its own voice, to contribute and do something different, to expand the universe.
GamesBeat: What are the meetings like with Lucasfilm?
Mark Thompson: I think we engage with them probably every day about something or another. We want it to feel authentic. Star Wars fans know when something doesn’t feel right. We have conversations every day about the sound of blasters, or how energy systems propel a droid. Just the smallest questions. We want to make sure we have the right information so when we’re developing features, it’s based on the kind of movie science of Star Wars. It feels akin to something else inside the universe.
We all want to make sure that everything we create, you could draw a line between something that already exists and this new thing. It feels grounded in Star Wars. There’s a lot of sci-fi, a lot of games that have sci-fi elements, but there is a specific aesthetic and style to Star Wars. It’s difficult to capture that, especially when you want to create new content, like creating a new droid for example. We spent a lot of time with Lucasfilm figuring out the minutiae, what every little light and button and lens on the droid would do. They want to make sure that we’ve done the homework, and they look back through the archives of what exists in Star Wars to make sure this feels legit.
GamesBeat: You have to do a lot to maintain the Star Wars canon, obviously, but Lucasfilm also said that they’re concerned with protecting the integrity of the brand overall. How did the Battlefront II team approach that responsibility?
Mark Thompson: I think we take on the responsibility as lifelong fans of the brand, of the IP. Whenever you get to work with something that has such personal impact, especially from my perspective—it is an honor to get to work on Star Wars. And so I treat it with a lot of respect. It’s just about making sure that we work very closely with Lucasfilm and understand what it is that they’ve done in the past, what it is they’re doing now, and the plans they have for the future. And then figuring out how Battlefront fits into that overall bigger picture, because it is a big picture these days. There’s more to Star Wars than the movies.
GamesBeat: Do you get a long-term view of how Battlefront II fits into canon?
Mark Thompson: I don’t know. The thing is, when we sat down with Lucasfilm, there wasn’t an obligation for us to—in building Battlefront, we looked at Aftermath and we looked Twilight Company and looked at Shattered Empire. These were all comics they released the summer before Force Awakens, when they started to publish new novels in the Star Wars universe. There was no obligation from Lucasfilm. They didn’t give us a reading list and say, hey, you need to study up on these things. But because that was the new canon, we took it upon ourselves to do the homework and see how Lucasfilm were doing extended universe storytelling.
We picked up on a lot of elements and we went to them about suggestions like—we love the messenger droid and the concept of Operation Cinder in terms of what’s happening in the Empire after Return of the Jedi. We said, look, these panels are awesome, can we do something with this character? Can we expand on Operation Cinder? And it went on like that. I think that got us off to a good start with Lucasfilm. They saw that we had read all this stuff and we were bringing ideas to them. None of this stuff was pushed on us, none of the connections were forced. We weren’t told, you have to show this thing and this thing. They were all natural connections. If we were getting close to something that existed, they would say, this seems like a cool opportunity to talk about this character or this event. Whether that was something specific, front and center, or it was incidental dialogue in the background that just a few people would catch.
GamesBeat: Was there ever any tension between EA and Luscasfilm? How did you resolve that?
Mark Thompson: Every part of creativity is messy. There’s no guarantee from past success. When you get passionate people in a room, people are going to have ideas. But it’s always constructive. It’s always toward the same goal. I think what helped us was to get back to the very early discussions about what kind of story we wanted to tell. As soon as we focused down—you can do almost anything in Star Wars, but when we focused down to the idea of telling a soldier’s story, telling something from a very specific perspective—when we hit on the character of Iden Versio, the idea of someone being raised inside this Imperial military family—we wanted to tell a story about what it’s like to be a soldier inside the Empire, and to see the Empire change. As a soldier you take orders and you do what you’re asked to do by the people above. What happens when those orders change? How do you react? That gave a much stronger frame for us to work with. Then the discussions become more focused on the execution of how that works, rather than why we’re doing this.
GamesBeat: What other complications arise when you’re trying to make something as complex as Battlefront II and keep it in the Star Wars canon?
Mark Thompson: One obvious challenge, and this is something we joke about with the staff—they tell us as much as they can about what’s happening in movies or in novels that are in development, but haven’t released yet. Every medium has its own road map, its own timeline about how it’s going to be released. They can give us only so much information. Sometimes we’ll ask them a question or get into a discussion and we’ll notice, in the room—two of the folks from Lucasfilm will give each other a look and say, “Er…no.” And we’ll say, “Okay, we’ll just avoid that then.” “Yeah, that’s good.”
GamesBeat: Do you have a really terrifying NDA over your head at all times?
Mark Thompson: Video games have always had long and healthy NDAs. Lucasfilm is pretty much the same.
GamesBeat: What was it like building cinematics in Frostbite for Star Wars? It seems like this is an engine that’s doing a lot better at this sort of thing, when I look at games like FIFA and even Need for Speed. Were you able to tell the story you wanted to tell with the technology you had?
Mark Thompson: Yeah, the technology is pretty strong. We haven’t been held back by what we could achieve. The execution we have in the software is as close to the vision as I could imagine. And the process is, as I’ve seen it unfold with different technology and different engines—Frostbite is great at cinematics. The stuff we do looks fantastic. EA has a very good setup for facial capture and other technology. Working with the actors to get great performances—we worked with a fantastic performance director who has a great naturalistic kind of direction style. He worked really well with the actors. He directed the whole thing almost like theater, theater with a thousand cameras capturing everyone’s micro-movements on very minimalist sets. I’ve seen some minimalist theater, and it’s very much like that.
We get very natural performances, which is important for something that’s going to be realized through this technology. It needs passion and soul and character and humanity behind it, so that when you get to digital back end of making it look realistic and cinematic, all of that stuff comes through.
GamesBeat: Is Iden’s story going to be complete, or should we expect more in updates or a sequel?
Mark Thompson: We’ve announced that there’s going to be a continuation, or some new chapters, of Iden’s story coming, in line with the first season of new content for Battlefront. It’s tied into, or themed around, the Last Jedi. We’ll see more of Iden coming up.
GamesBeat: Was it fun to be able to reserve some space in your development schedule to do something with the movie?
Mark Thompson: It’s obviously very exciting, because started to work on this game after—I mean, Force Awakens was still in theaters, but it was a known quantity when we started to work on the game. It’s super exciting to be working on something related to a movie that, as a fan, I’m looking forward to. That’s the kind of opportunity I don’t think I’ll get many times in the future.
GamesBeat: I’ve only played the first three stages. And my big question is did you talk about putting players into the role of a character who is kill hundreds of Rebels?
Mark Thompson: The important was that it was about—we didn’t want to try and convince people that the Empire was good and the Rebels were bad. That was never the intent, and I hope it doesn’t come through like that as you play. It was really just about showing people a different perspective. That’s what’s powerful about video games. You don’t just see a story from a certain perspective. You have to live it. You physically go through those steps and take those actions and do the things that these people do.
There’s a transformative power in video games that a movie doesn’t have, because in a movie you’re a spectator, less of a participant. We wanted to be able to leverage that and put people into a different set of shoes, let them see this galaxy from a different perspective. Actually have to be a soldier in the Empire. Because we wanted it to be about soldiers responding to the orders they get, as opposed to people who can change the fate of the galaxy—we wanted it to be about this squad and how they react to these bigger situations. And so you see on Endor—that mission is about how Iden reacts to the Death Star’s destruction. She wasn’t tasked to defend it. She wasn’t up there chasing down Lando and the Millennium Falcon. She was on the ground following orders when this thing happens. Then, as the leader of the squad, she has to rally everyone together and try to lead them off the planet and back to safety to find out what’s left of the Empire. And so it’s kind of a story on a personal level, rather than the stories in the movies, which I would say are much more epic in terms of the classic hero’s journey, that mythic storytelling.
GamesBeat: For me, I always viewed the Empire as having this very misogynist hierarchy, where women wouldn’t necessarily get ahead. That’s not based on any direct reading of Star Wars so much as building this fiction in my head. How did you approach the idea of the hierarchy of the Empire, how she got to this point, and why the soldiers around her do respect her so much, even in this organization that’s inherently evil?
Mark Thompson: This is more personal, coming from me rather than anyone else on the dev team, but whenever I’m creating something fictionally, I always think it’s an opportunity not to re-create the things that I don’t like about the real world.
When we talk about things like misogyny, and whether or not a woman would get to this level and earn the respect of special forces soldiers—I just think, in a world of fantasy, we have an incredible opportunity to brush that aside and say, yes, she’s powerful and confident, and she’s here based on merit because she kicks ass and does an incredible job. She does the job she does better than anyone else can. And so there is no bias inside the universe that would keep her away from that position, because that doesn’t need to exist in a fantastic world.