Star Wars: Squadrons was one of the biggest surprises of EA Play, a standalone dogfighting game that borrows inspirations from the classic TIE Fighter and X-Wing games. It’s coming in at a surprising price point too: the budget-conscious $40. Creative director Ian Frazier says he’s not too concerned with that creating a poor perception of the game, and that it felt right for the singular focus.
“Sure it’s a risk, but ultimately this game is a very focused game, right?” Frazier told GameSpot. “This is not trying to be all things to all people. This is a Star Wars pilot game for people that want to be a pilot in Star Wars. What is the price point to reflect that? And at the same time, we know that a lot of people go, ‘Flight games? I don’t know about that. I’ve never tried that before. Not so sure.’ And my hope is that that price point helps people that normally wouldn’t consider a flight game go, ‘For $40, let me check that out.’ I think it’s something that folks can be encouraged to give it a whirl. I think they can have a good time.”
GameSpot also talked with Frazier about the asymmetric balance of Rebel and Imperial ships, team composition, and how to tell a story from the cockpit of a spaceship. Star Wars: Squadrons is coming to PC, PS4, and Xbox One on October 2. You can read the full interview below.
Can you explain the drift mechanic and power conversion? How are the factions differentiated, and the ships within those factions?
Ian Frazier: Every ship can perform the drift mechanic. The Interceptor [is] generally better for drifting than the Bomber. They can all do it though. It’s a question of how much and how well they can do it. The ships that don’t have shields–the TIE Fighter, Bomber, Interceptor–they have a special mechanic that is unique to them called power conversion.
If your ship has shields, you can put your shields to the front or the back, and balance them. If you’ve got a ship that doesn’t have shields, you can instantly pull all energy from one system as an emergency maneuver–like all out of your lasers, dump it immediately into your engines, or vice versa. And what that lets you do is in the moment say, “You know what, I’m okay not being able to shoot my guns for a while, if I want to be able to immediately boost and get out of here.”
So that’s about balance. Because they don’t have shields, you needed them to have some advantage.
Yeah. There’s a few things we do, because we tried to build the game in a multilayered way. So, the player who’s brand new, who’s probably not using the more advanced stuff, we need to make sure that for them at a baseline, the factions are balanced. For them, the rebel ships generally are more durable, have the shields, and the Imperial ships generally hit harder, and are more maneuverable. That’s your baseline, asymmetric elements. And then, as you get to that higher level where you’re messing with power management, and you’ve got shields in front or back or whatever, yes. Suddenly that power conversion becomes the next tier up of balance element between the two factions.
Support ships seem valuable for Fleet Battles. Are you concerned with players not using them as much in Dogfight matches?
Not really. I was at first, but we’ve added enough utility to them over time. Are you going to have five support ships in a Dogfight? Usually not. There are some interesting strategies with that, for the record, but I think that you’re still going to see a fair amount of use for them in Dogfights. Not as much as a pure helper. In Fleet Battles, [you’re] building a support ship with components that are all about healing and keeping your buddies alive. You’re going to see, I think, less of that kind of build in Dogfight, but there are other builds for support ships that are plenty effective in Dogfight.
Speaking of balance, do you have any concerns about balancing when it comes to joystick versus mouse and keyboard or VR? Are people going to be matched by control schemes?
We do not match to like control schemes by default. Everything is cross-play. So everybody’s connecting with everybody. You can turn off cross-play if you want, and stay with just your platform, but it’s agnostic to input device.
Early on, we were pretty worried about VR versus 2D, and certain advantages or disadvantages happening there. However, that has not really borne itself out in the last couple of years with our testing. We’re going to be doing some more testing between now and launch. We’ll see if there’s issues that we’ve missed, but it doesn’t look like it.
If you’re playing VR, especially for a ship like the A-Wing, that has the big bubble cockpit, you have better situational awareness, which is an advantage. But the downside is that being in VR is closer to being a real pilot. Being a real pilot is hard. You have a lot of instrumentation, and you need to divert your attention to it, versus everything is conveniently inside this box in front of me. It has its own sort of challenges.
And we found that largely those two things balance each other out, but VR is just cool. So, people generally don’t mind that they don’t have an advantage because the immersion is fun. As far as the input devices, no, not really, because the main thing limiting your ship, is the ship. If you’re using a mouse, I can take my mouse and check the DPI through the roof, and then super high sensitivity, but the ship can only turn so fast. So, my input device allowing me to do crazy maneuvers doesn’t mean that the ship suddenly is faster, or can turn better.
You came in at a surprising price point at $40. Do you have any concerns about that impacting people’s perception of the game?
Sure it’s a risk, but ultimately this game is a very focused game, right? This is not trying to be all things to all people. This is a Star Wars pilot game for people that want to be a pilot in Star Wars. What is the price point to reflect that? And at the same time, we know that a lot of people go, “Flight games? I don’t know about that. I’ve never tried that before. Not so sure.” And my hope is that that price point helps people that normally wouldn’t consider a flight game go, “For $40, let me check that out.” I think it’s something that folks can be encouraged to give it a whirl. I think they can have a good time.
Have you collaborated at all with DICE or utilized any of the work that was done on Battlefront?
Well, not as much with DICE. When Battlefront II was built, the team that did the single player story was here at [EA] Motive, so obviously a lot of those people are our team. The team at Criterion did the Starfighter Assault mode. They also did the Rogue One VR mission for Battlefront 1. And so, we consulted with them a few times over the course of development. They had some great feedback for us on the things that worked.
And one of the nice things, when we started this project, we had a prototype running quite early. A big part of how we got the game greenlit, we just had a really fun prototype. We got the game running in VR very quickly as well. And a big part of how we were able to do that, is that Criterion, for Rogue One VR, had already got VR support working in Frostbite. So, because of the groundwork they had already laid, and the experience they had put in, we were able to get that running much faster than we otherwise could have. And I think that opened the door for us early, to support both 2D and VR throughout all of development.
What are the challenges of telling a narrative from the cockpit of a space vehicle?
Well, there’s a lot of challenges, right? The bulk of gameplay, you’re in a spaceship. So, to some extent, the ships are characters. How do you tell a story that connects the player to the character, the flesh and blood characters, in the game. And the droids, which I guess aren’t flesh and blood. How do you connect them to that, when most of the time, that’s not what you’re looking at. What you are looking at are lasers and spaceships and so on. We put a lot of time into our characters in the casting, and the VO, because you’re getting radio in the cockpit a lot.
We have cinematic moments between missions, and we try to lean into the social spaces quite a bit. When you’re between missions, you go back to the flagship of either faction, and you’ve got briefings. And it’s a little bit in the vein of the old school nineties X-Wing and TIE Fighter games, but obviously very modern in presentation. So, you’re getting the layout of what your next mission is, and a little bit of narrative context of why. How does this mission fit into the broader story, or the broader military campaign? And then there’s characters, your squadmates, like the members of your immediate wing, the commanders, and so on, that you can interact with between missions. And a lot of the story elements, the optional story elements, they’re like, “I care about characters. I want to know what they’re up to.” That comes through there. And then, meanwhile, the story at large, is happening through the missions themselves, and of course the cinematics.
In a dual narrative like this, how do you make sure that each side comes away feeling like they had a satisfying conclusion?
It’s a big challenge. When we started off, one of the things we said was: “Okay. Well, given what’s going on in this time period for Star Wars, how do we do exactly that? How do we make sure that these two sides have something interesting going on, and that you feel in the end that both factions that you play have a role to play in the future of Star Wars?” And so, we’ve tried to connect them well into other things and events and characters happening in this time period. I think folks are going to enjoy seeing how we connect into this particular time period, especially because there’s not a ton known about the time period. There’s been a few books, but this time period hasn’t been greatly explored in other materials so far. There’s a rivalry that runs throughout our storyline that helps connect the two factions together, so it doesn’t feel like just two different unrelated stories happening side by side. They’re connected.
Is the story going to continue to develop post-launch, with seasons or live-content?
Nothing to announce beyond launch, really. Our intent is that the story you play feels like a complete story in the box.
What kind of accessibility settings or options are you going to have?
We do have pretty robust accessibility options. Everything from colorblindness to text speech. If you play on the story mode of the campaign, it makes your ship handling way easier, It makes your aim assist way more robust. We’ve done various things like that. The normal difficulty is relatively forgiving, and that story mode is for people that aren’t comfortable at all with this kind of experience, but still want to play the story. So, that’s specifically built for those players. And the ability to play Fleet Battles against AI, either by yourself, even offline, or with buddies, is another way to experience that aspect of the game. Even if you are, for one reason or another, not comfortable playing this competitively online. So, we’ve tried to open up the game more in that way.
In multiplayer, what kind of considerations go into balancing your team composition, versus everyone just doing the thing that they would like to do?
There’s always some of both, right? We’re trying to encourage varied playstyles for people individually, doing the thing that you want to do. We’re also trying to encourage a varied team composition, because if we don’t, then it’s harder to encourage players to work together. It’s always been a goal for us for you to feel like part of the squadron. For you to feel like, “I’m connecting with my buddies and we’re going to work together and do this thing.” Both in single-player, where your buddies are characters, and in multiplayer where they’re actual humans. And so, when you try to encourage that team composition, not just in terms of the ships, but in terms of loadouts of the ships, because of course there’s a lot more breadth of variety once you take that into account. What we tried to do is build it so that a varied composition is the optimal way to play along the default strategy.
When you play Fleet Battles, you’ve got a commander that’s giving you orders and saying, “Now’s the time to attack.” “Now’s the time to defend,” whatever. And as you’re new to the game, or even mid-level, you’re generally wise to listen to the commander and stay with that structure. As you get more experienced with the game, as you get better at approaching capital ships and so on, you start figuring out other ways to do certain objectives or to deal with combat in the mode. And as you do that, the doors start to open more varied compositions. Higher skill players start finding really interesting things that are well beyond the standard composition. We’ve had some games that go all in on ion based strategies, and depending on if your opponent wisely counters that or not, it can be really effective. So, our goal is to have an understood varied composition for base level play, but then as you get deeper into playing, you get deeper into your skillset, [the game] starts to encourage more distinct, varied composition.
So your opponent could head back to a hangar and revise their comp, or is it once you’re set in a match, that’s your build?
So, when you start play, you have a brand new level one player, you have your ships. As you start to level up, you unlock multiple loadouts. You can pre-create different builds. By the time you unlock Fleet Battles, you’ve got at least two of those unlocked. Then as you continue to level up, you unlock more of them. And when you’re in a battle, if you die, or if you fly back into the hanger of your flagship you can change ships or loadouts at that time.
When someone kills you, there’s like a replay of it, so you can see what they did, how they did it, and it shows you their loadout. So, you have that opportunity to go, “Oh, ion beams comp, maybe I should switch to this other hull” or whatever.
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