Q&A: 'Star Wars Battlefront 2' Story with EA and Lucasfilm

Q&A: 'Star Wars Battlefront 2' Story with EA and Lucasfilm

Can Iden Versio, an Imperial patriot and special forces badass, serve as a credible 'Star Wars' hero? EA

Game director Mark Thompson and Lucasfilm Story Group's Steve Blank on Iden's redemption, writing in the post 'Jedi' era, and what canon means today

Game director Mark Thompson and Lucasfilm Story Group's Steve Blank on Iden's redemption, writing in the post 'Jedi' era, and what canon means today

'Star Wars Battlefront 2' is making a bold move: it's attempting to tell a story that stars an Imperial who isn't wicked, contemptible, or incompetent. EA makes no bones about it: they mean for Iden Versio, Imperial patriot, special forces bad-ass, and Battlefront 2 star, to be a real-deal Star Wars hero that can stand credibly alongside the likes of Leia and Luke. In the debut trailer, we see her in distraught disbelief when the Death Star pops above Endor. We hear her pledge to avenge her Emperor, with steel in her voice. She is, in short, a far cry from the typical Imperial subject, particularly in the first trilogy, who seemed mostly around to bungle orders or shit their pants in Vader's presence. Will she be redeemed? Since Star Wars traffics these days more comfortably in shades of gray (for one example, see rebel operative Cassian Andor's skullduggery in Rogue One), we shouldn't expect such a tidy outcome.

Battlefront 2's game director Mark Thompson and Lucasfilm Story Group's Steve Blank were on hand at Celebration to talk about what it's like to make a post-Jedi Star Wars story in 2017, what it takes to write Luke Skywalker into your game, and what redemption for Iden might look like.

There are a lot of teams involved in creating Battlefront 2. How does that collaboration work?
Mark Thompson, Game Director, Motive: The overall project direction comes from DICE. As much as this is a Motive Game or a Criterion Game, this really is a DICE Game. We're bringing our own studios' workforce and expertise to help them make the gigantic game that Battlefront 2 is. It starts with their overall direction and what they want to achieve.

[Motive's contribution] is about creating a campaign that's true to the Battlefront multiplayer experience. That's why we started to think about the soldier before anything else, because the game is called "Battlefront," and so, if you aren't at the front of the battle at some point, you're doing a disservice to the game. It's self-explanatory, right?

That's where we started with the soldier, and then we looked at the storytelling that was happening in other mediums. After the Disney Lucasfilm acquisition, and the reset of "Expanded Universe" becoming "Legends," and everything else becoming "authentic" – there was a whole range of new stories being developed which, for the first time, you knew they were "authentic" Star Wars stories. We started to read things like The Twilight Company from Battlefront, Claudia Gray's Lost Stars.

Steve Blank, Creative Executive, Lucasfilm: Chuck Wendig's Aftermath.
Mark Thompson: Chuck's Aftermath, and even Greg Rucka's comic Shattered Empire. Seeing these stories being told between the eras, right, because they were all done as a lead up towards The Force Awakens

Steve Blank: "The Journey to The Force Awakens."

Mark Thompson: All these fantastic stories fleshing out the universe, and they all seemed to have their own identity and tone and voice. Both of our writers – Walt Williams and Mitch Dyer – are voracious fans of Star Wars and had already read most of these things I had to play a lot of catch up to [approach] their encyclopedic knowledge of everything that existed. Then we went to Lucasfilm and we presented them a picture around the idea of a soldier story, post-Return of the Jedi, from the Empire's perspective, and we felt like we'd done our homework on the the kinds of stories that they were already telling.

Steve Blank: That's exactly right. From our perspective, they came prepared. They knew the work that we had been doing, and they knew the story seeds that we had started to put out there. They really presented this whole picture of like, "Here's kind of the tale we want to tell. Here's the period we want to span, here's why, here's the perspective we want to have." There's been collaboration ever since, on a very frequent basis.

When you want to tell a story that involves Luke Skywalker, it is a busy day for everyone involved.

There are fans at each of the studios who put their heart into wanting to make this authentic and feel real. Everything that comes our way already has that sheen, from the fan perspective, and then we help do the fine tuning, both with our games production team when it comes to a lot of the day-to-day management – especially the multiplayer space – and then Story Group when it comes to the story details. Sometimes, a Pablo [Hidalgo] or a Leland [Chee] will know minutia that only a Pablo or a Leland could possibly know. That stuff, even from a multiplayer sense, can run past them just for quality check. It's been a true collaborative effort to make it feel "Star Wars" from ground up across every mode, every character, every ability, every weapon, every starship, all of it.

This brings to mind the Imperial Raider starship that's in Battlefront 2. Fantasy Flight Games designed it in collaboration with the Lucasfilm Story Group. There was a need for Imperial craft of that size in the X-Wing Miniatures Game.
Steve Blank: Yeah, a mid-sized cruiser. When we were talking to Mark and the team, we understood the size of Inferno Squad, what they were going to be doing, and the need for them to have a mid-size Imperial Cruiser, and it was Leland [Chee] who was like, "The Raider, Fantasy Flight, we got this. Let's run."

Mark Thompson: Because we're a studio full of gamers and game designers, with a heavy crossover with Star Wars fans, one of our designers had that ship on his desk at work. As soon as we got the email we were like, "Nick, do you have the ship?" He ran right over with it.

So why this era of Star Wars? It's obviously one that we're all super interested in, because it's immediately after the movies that we probably care the most about. But it also seems like it could be something of a minefield.
Mark Thompson: Between the original trilogy and the new trilogy, there were stories starting to be published [as fiction], but no "visual" storytelling – there wasn't anything visual or interactive that had been done in that space. That seemed like a good place for us to do something different and break new ground.

Where are your boundaries when it comes to telling stories in that era? Lucasfilm surely has ideas about what should happen to big name characters after Return of the Jedi. It can't be easy to navigate that.
Mark Thompson: When you want to tell a story that involves Luke Skywalker, it is a busy day for everyone involved.

Steve Blank: It's true. We can't go into too many details on that because – like you're obviously aware – that's one of the most things we guard the closest, for exactly that reason: that there's these characters in play, and there's still more to flesh about them, and there's still more to learn about them, and still tales to tell. From day one, this was something that we wanted for the campaign mode – we wanted to intersect with [classic original trilogy] characters. And because of what's been established by the Battlefront brand, [we wanted] the ability to step into the shoes of these characters. Mark puts this well – in Star Wars films, you have a main protagonist, but you get multiple points of view, you get multiple story arcs that you're following throughout each film.

We spend a lot of time, like Mark was alluding to, working out who are the right are characters for this – what makes sense, not just from perspective of who they are, but also from the perspective of it feeling organic to the story. You're following Iden and Inferno Squad for this whole time, and so we didn't want it to be like, "And now off to the right! random thing!" for no reason. It needs to organically fit into what they're doing. That took a lot of work, but I think we ended up in some pretty awesome places, and the ability to play as Luke Skywalker and as Kylo Ren is pretty amazing.

Unless my math is messed up, that would imply that the story spans a pretty significant period of time.
Steve Blank: Like you see in the trailer, it spans the explosion on "Death Star 2" around the end of Return of the Jedi, through to the events of The Force Awakens. We will span those 30 years in Iden's life.

It's a stated goal for Battlefront 2's story to humanize, if not the Empire, then at least a devoted citizen of the Empire. Are you worried about how difficult it could be to redeem Iden, given how unequivocally evil the Empire is?
Mark Thompson: We're not trying to reframe how everyone in this world sees the people in that galaxy. It's just about perspective and understanding – that not everybody in the Empire believes in exactly the same thing. Everyone has their own personal view of what the Empire means, what's right or wrong inside the Galactic Empire, in much the same way that we probably all have a different opinion about the way that democracy works and what its pros and cons are. Those kinds of discussions, those kinds of beliefs – when you start to meet Inferno Squad and you take the helmets off and you see them as people, you start to understand their perspective.

We're not looking for sympathy, but more empathy – understanding their perspective and who they are as people and what drives them and motivates them. Ultimately, we just need to bring people on a journey to the point that they understand why Iden and Inferno Squad make the decisions they do and believe in the things that they do. The example I keep using is that we're not trying to convince our audience that the Death Star was good. Because in much the same way that I don't believe that every stormtrooper, or every single imperial, thinks that Death Star was the right course for the Empire to take. It's an extreme measure.

Rogue One is super interesting in that it's starting to show the gray side. It moves a little away from the black and the white of right and wrong and into the gray space of Saw Gerrera and the Partisans, and even Cassian and some of his early missions before the Galactic Civil War really started. There are some questionable missions!

Steve Blank: He's a dirty operative, he's doing work, getting done what needs to be done from his perspective in order to counter what he sees as this big evil. He's willing to go to to extreme measures.

Earlier, you guys seem to be making a distinction between the terms "authentic" and "canon." What's up with that?
Steve Blank: Well, that's honestly more of a personal thing. I like the word "authenticity" better because it speaks to more than just the actual events. It speaks to the overall feel of the content and the way that we're making it match up. I know "canon" was also used a lot when it came to the Expanded Universe – like, "What is canon? What isn't canon? No, it's not canon." It feels like a very heavy, loaded term, especially when it comes to Star Wars. As we've moved into a new space and are defining new content, I like ["authenticity"] better, because it speaks to more than just the events. It's a broader term that encompasses more of the emotion and the feeling and the space and the environments and the characters – all of these different elements.

Any chance we'll see Gungans in the prequel-era stuff?
Steve Blank: You're not the first person to ask, but we will give the same answer we gave the first one, which is you'll see in due time.

This interview has been edited and condensed.